Philip Seymour Hoffman: Triumph of the Uncommon Man

Hoffman takes on his most challenging role
yet, starring in Todd Louiso’s Love Liza, with
a script by his brother, Gordy.

Intelligent, driven, and unaffected by his success,
Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t look or play the part of the
iconic “movie star.” In interviews, he measures his
words as carefully as he would the emotions of one of his characters.
To hear him tell it, he’s just another New York City artist
making a living at his craft.

To discriminating cineastes, Hoffman’s versatility
has made him one of the big screen’s greatest character actors.
To the casual moviegoer he’s just an interesting, recognizable
performer who keeps showing up in offbeat films, but whose name
they can’t quite remember.

All that is about to change.

In his latest film, Love Liza, Hoffman moves
center stage as Wilson Joel, a man so ravaged by his wife’s
suicide that he begins huffing gasoline fumes in an attempt to escape
the life he previously knew, which is crumbling around him. Already
generating Oscar buzz, the film is a culmination of his past dozen
years of playing supporting parts; his character is a finely polished
coalescence of the “outsider” roles he has honed to
perfection. Though technically not his first starring turn (Hoffman
co-starred with Robert De Niro in Joel Schumacher’s Flawless and played the romantic lead in David Mamet’s ensemble comedy
State and Main), Love Liza marks the first time a project’s
fortunes rest almost solely on his execution.

An extremely challenging character, the role of Wilson
is one that requires a particular type of visceral energy that has
made Hoffman a standout in roles that would be all but forgotten
once they left the frame if left to the devices of a lesser actor.
(Examples include an antagonistic craps player in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, a bisexual porn star groupie in Boogie Nights,
the nurturing but “un-cool” Lester Bangs in Cameron
Crowe’s Almost Famous, a phone sex swindler in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and a high school teacher fantasizing
about a student in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour).

Though extreme characters have been the hallmark of
his career, off-screen there is nothing over-the-top about Philip
Seymour Hoffman. The third of four children (older brother, Gordy,
penned the screenplay for Love Liza), Hoffman was born in
Fairport, NY, a middle-class suburb of Rochester, to a Xerox executive
father and a politically motivated mother who went to law school
in her late 30s and is now a family court judge. Though Hoffman’s
early dramatic interests were sparked by his mother’s frequent
visits to local theater productions, Hoffman was more interested
in sports than line-readings.

A celebrated athlete, he played baseball and football
and wrestled until a neck injury in his sophomore year forced him
to quit. With time on his hands—and a young lady he wanted
to impress—Hoffman tried out for his high school’s production
of The Crucible.

Lust may have led him to the stage, but love has kept
him there. Hoffman graduated from the prestigious drama program
at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1989, and became a fixture
of the NYC theater community soon after.

His first big break came when he was cast in Martin
Brest’s 1992 film Scent of a Woman as the obnoxious
prep school classmate of Chris O’Donnell. Even today, Hoffman’s
George Willis, Jr. character is one of the most memorable aspects
of that film.

In the decade since Scent of a Woman, Hoffman
has raised the art of scene stealing to a new level—and frequency.
Seven years after Scent, Hoffman reprised his George Willis (at
least as an older incarnation) when he took on the role of Freddie
Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley. With just a few minutes
of screen time, Hoffman’s performance arguably outshined all
others in the film—even considering the deserved Oscar nominations
for co-stars Matt Damon and Jude Law.

Love Liza

In the past five years, Hoffman has released an average
of three films per year, at the same time serving as co-artistic
director of New York City’s LAByrinth Theater Group, an organization
for which he has also begun to direct. Seemingly ubiquitous, Hoffman
laughs at the assumption that he is continually in front of the
camera, claiming that “the average working American spends
more time in the office” than he does on a film set, and that
he’s spent up to a year not working in the recent past. Still,
as is the nature of the movie production cycle, it’s only
a matter of months that fans will have to wait for Hoffman’s
next film. With Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love and
Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon just wrapping up their theatrical
runs, Hoffman has another slate of films ready for release.

Currently starring in Todd Louiso’s Love
Liza
and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, Hoffman also has
the title role in Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny which
has its premiere at Sundance. In late 2003, Hoffman will re-team
with his Ripley director, Anthony Minghella, for the eagerly awaited
Cold Mountain.

In Los Angeles shooting a yet-to-be-titled romantic
comedy with Ben Stiller, Hoffman spoke with MM about his star-turn
in Love Liza, how much time he really spends on set and the
ways in which acting can be like golf.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Did your
brother write
Love Liza with you in mind?

Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH): No.
He just wrote the script because he was coming from Chicago and
moving to LA. He just wanted me to read it because he knew I read
a lot of screenplays and could maybe give him some good advice.

MM: Were you worried about the commercial
possibilities of this film when you agreed to do it, or while you
were making it?

PSH: I’ve never really worried about
that before, so no.

MM: When you’re considering roles,
what are the criteria you use to make your decisions?

"It’s easier to accept a person who
looks more attractive, healthier, younger, more vibrant —that’s
the way the world goes. It’s easier to have that person at the
party. But you know, i have a really nice career and I’m not
an unattractive guy…"

PSH: It has nothing to do with commercial appeal;
that’s never in the repertoire or in the list of things I
ask myself. And that’s not for any reason other than just
the fact that it just doesn’t come to my mind; it’s
not an interesting question when you’re deciding whether to
do something. Acting is a very difficult thing to do—for me,
at least. Other people can speak for themselves on that, but I think
it’s very difficult. So when I choose to do something, I know
it’s something I really want to do. Usually it has to do with
the script and the part and all its colors and complexities. If
it’s dealing with something we’ve seen before, it has
to be in a new way. And then there’s the people attached,
obviously, and all those things.

MM: This is one of your first lead roles
where the film rests entirely on your performance. Did you feel
the pressure of that going into the shoot?

PSH: No, it was more that I felt the pressure
of trying to play the part.

MM: Knowing that you’d be included
in almost every frame of the film, did you prepare for the role
in a different way?

PSH: It really has nothing to do with how much
time you’re on camera when you’re preparing for a role.
I had to prepare for the script that Gordy had written. You think
about quantity in the fact that you want to get some sleep, or that
kind of thing, but not in the preparation of a role. Just knowing
that you are going to be shooting every day, you want to be prepared
mentally, but it has nothing to do with working on the role.

MM: We meet your character in Love
Liza at the point where his wife has committed suicide. How
far back do you need to go into the history of a character to find
how to play him? Is it important for you to understand who the character
was before this tragedy?

PSH: Yeah, but that’s all informed usually
in what’s been given to you. And if it hasn’t been,
I don’t spend much time thinking ‘Okay, when he was
10, he went to this grammar school.’ I don’t do that.
I think the history kind of unfolds itself; it makes itself known
to you by working on its present.

MM: Of all the roles you’ve played,
which one is closest to you as a person?

PSH: Everything I play is close to me in its
own way. But I think, character-wise, the role where I just kind
of showed up to work and didn’t do much, is Magnolia. It’s
more just kind of me than anything. Magnolia and Love
Liza
, really. They’re both parts where I didn’t
do anything behaviorally or characteristically; I just kind of left
myself alone.

MM: Is it easier for you to play a part
where you can more naturally relate to the character?

PSH: It’s not about “relating.”
I think I relate, or partly relate, to a lot of the parts I play.
But for those two parts, I didn’t have to do anything technically
to myself: I didn’t really change the way I dress or talk
or move. I just kind of left myself alone for each of those roles.

MM: So many actors don’t want to
see a film after their work on it is done. Is it difficult for you
to watch your own performance?

PSH: No, because it’s my job. I know
there are some actors who don’t want to watch their performances.
But I think watching your performance is part of your job, to see
what worked. Or to see ‘Hey, maybe I didn’t need to
work so hard at that moment. Maybe I could have left that alone.’
There are things that I actually think about when I’m watching
a performance. It’s not like you’re actively doing that,
but it happens.

MM: Do you think that tendency could be
attributed in part to your history as a stage actor, where you get
the chance to constantly fine-tune a performance?

PSH: Maybe. I think it’s more to do with
the fact that I’ve seen myself on film so often now, that
I can consciously look at myself objectively and ask ‘Do I
feel like I’m doing good work or not?’ And that’s
a good thing. I can look and say ‘Hey, you didn’t do
so well there!’ [laughing] And that’s an uncomfortable
moment, but…

MM: Tell me about a particular film where
you had those moments—one where you were able to give yourself
the most constructive criticism.

PSH: I remember when I watched Patch Adams,
thinking I didn’t need to do as much as I did. There have
been things like that, where I could have left a character alone
a little bit more. But then there are all these people who will
say, “No. I liked that you it did like that.” Why I
think it’s healthy [to watch your own performance] is that
you’re able to form your own opinion about your work, as opposed
to what other people are going to tell you. On the other side of
the coin, there may be a role where you think ‘I did really
well.’ Then you might pick up the paper tomorrow and somebody
says you didn’t! You might have personal feelings about being
written about like that, but you can at least say ‘No, my
first impression, Mr. Critic, is that it went well.’ [laughs]
But I’m my own worst critic, anyway.

Hoffman with Minnie Driver in the Sundance
premiere, Owning Mahowny.

MM: Is there any film that you’ve
watched and thought ‘I would do nothing differently,’
or are you constantly finding something?

PSH: No, there’s always a moment or two—something
that other people aren’t going to care about at all—and
that sort of thing. I think if you’re able to objectify yourself
enough while watching yourself, you can use it. It’s kind
of beneficial. Other than that, if there’s another chance
to see it because there’s another premiere or a screening,
I might watch it again. Besides that, I never watch it again, ever.

MM: When you’re working on a performance,
who are you most concerned with satisfying—yourself, the director
or the audience?

PSH: Myself.

MM: If a director tells you ‘“No,
I think you should do it this way,’” will you change
your performance?

PSH: Yes, unless it’s completely ludicrous.
But I’ve had the pleasure of working with some really great
directors.

MM: In virtually every piece ever written
on you, it’s become almost a journalistic crutch to define
you, first and foremost, in terms of your appearance. Is it frustrating
to conduct an interview and talk about your work, then read the
interview and see that it focuses on your physical appearance?

PSH: Well, there are a lot of things that are
frustrating. It’s kind of the scheme of life and you try not
to let it get to you too much! [laughing] It’s not really
frustration, I guess. It’s knowing that people judge or criticize
you, or want to talk about it. It’s easier to accept someone
into the fray that looks more attractive than the other person,
which is kind of the way the world goes! The healthier, younger,
more vibrant you look, the easier it is to have that person at the
party. That’s just kind of the way it is. There are a lot
of exceptions to the rule. But you know I have a really nice career
and I’m not an unattractive guy. But people want to talk about
the fact that I have a little more weight on me, and these kinds
of things.

MM: Has this pervasive attitude ever affected
you in your work in, for example, a film like
State and Main,
where you’re essentially the romantic lead, a part usually
reserved for “the movie star.”

PSH: The movie star… Well, that’s
different. That has nothing to do with looks.

MM: It just seems like every piece that
has been written on you—every interview—sounds exactly
the same.

PSH: You’re absolutely right. And it
would probably make a more interesting story without it, for sure.
It’s easier to get a movie made with someone more well-known.
David Mamet’s film wasn’t a big-budget film and he had
a lot of people in it: Bill Macy, Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker
and on and on. So I think he could afford to cast me in that role.

MM: The other way in which you’re
constantly defined is as a “character actor.” Do you
think it’s a fair assessment of your body of work and the
characters you’ve played to be pigeonholed in that way?”

Roles in Boogie Nights (1997), Happiness (1998), Flawless (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002) have secured Hoffman a reputation as one of the big screen’s
greatest character.

 

PSH: Well, I don’t know. I think “character
actor” is a good thing. They’ve got to feel comfortable
about something—whoever “they” is, whatever that
is out there. Human beings are just like that. They want to understand
it. If they can understand it, that means they have power over it
and can talk about it comfortably. If they don’t, they either
leave it alone… or they go ahead and do it anyway! [laughs]

MM: Is your career right now what you set
out to achieve, or are there certain goals you’re still looking
forward to achieving?

PSH: Obviously I can’t control things,
as much as I wish I could. I’ve made the choices I wanted
to make and stick by everything I’ve done, for sure. I’m
very happy about that and proud of the work that’s been done—with
me and with everyone involved. I’m very happy about all of
that. It’s not just acting. I work with this theater company
and I’ve toured plays with them, and I’m going to act
in Long Day’s Journey this spring in New York. There’s
always something else—you don’t really know what it
is. Right now, I don’t have a movie plan after the one I’m
shooting and I don’t know if I’m going to plan one.

MM: Red Dragon and Punch-Drunk Love just wrapped up their theater runs, and now you’ve got 25th
Hour
and Love Liza being released, plus Owning
Mahowny at Sundance and Cold Mountain later in the
year. It seems like you never stop working.

PSH: It’s really not true. It’s
a real weird thing in this business that you start to get judged
for working too much. It’s odd because what’s wrong
with working for a living? [laughing] Also, I don’t have a
lead in about 90 percent of the movies I do, so I don’t have
to spend nearly as much time working as the people who play leads. Punch-Drunk Love, I think I shot that in six days, and
I’m in a movie. It’s the same with Red Dragon:
I worked like six days and I’m in a movie! Really, I did two
films in 12 days in a year. I mean, what am I going to do? ‘Oh,
I can’t do that! That will be my fourth film this year and
people are going to really come down on me.’ You know, it
happens and it’s too bad. Especially if you’re as lucky
as I am. I’m lucky to get the chance to work with these people
on these jobs.

MM: Do you look to follow up certain roles
with a different sort of character? Is it a calculated choice on
your part to go, for example, from
Flawless to Magnolia to The Talented Mr. Ripley to State and Main?
The characters in those films are so strikingly different from one
another.

PSH: Yeah, I really try, as much as I can.
And that’s what’s enticing about these jobs. It’s
enticing to say ‘Wow, I can do that. It’s a part I’ve
never played. It’s just two weeks…’ It’s
kind of enticing. That happened this year, for sure. With Paul’s
movie, Punch-Drunk Love, I’d never played a part
like that. It’s so freeing to know that these guys are making
this movie and you’re just coming in for a week or two and
playing a part you haven’t had a chance to play before. It’s
an opportunity to explore something you haven’t explored in
a safe environment, no pressure. It’s a nice thing.

MM: You seem willing to stop at almost
nothing for your craft, taking on challenging or controversial characters
that other actors might shy away from. Do you have any fears as
an actor?

PSH: Oh yeah, all the time. The fear of not
being good! And the fear of not moving forward in your work, of
not growing; you always want to keep growing.

MM: One of the themes that keeps popping
up in your work is sexuality, or the dealing with sexual taboos.
Do you think the fearlessness you display in your work makes you
a first choice for parts like the ones you played in films like
Flawless, Happiness, Boogie Nights and 25th Hour?

PSH: Well, I think that the sexual taboo aspect
is really such a small part of what I’ve done. It’s
maybe like four or five roles, and I think 25th Hour is really
more taboo than any of them. The other ones I just think are people
dealing with their own sexuality, which is a story and a character.
It’s probably the biggest part of human nature… one
of the biggest stories in a human being’s life.

MM: But we deny it…

PSH: And we talk about it in a much more romantic
way than it usually is. It’s because of just these four or
five roles that people become really interested in that [aspect
of my work]. People want to talk about those roles because it’s
a disturbing little place that everybody knows. There are different
themes that I look to explore, and that’s just one theme.
If you look at Scent of a Woman or The Talented Mr.
Ripley
, these are characters that are incredibly arrogant.
Then there are the caretakers, like in Almost Famous or Magnolia. I like to think about things in thematic ways
and cover all those things. But it is pretty much a fact that people
always want to hone in on the sexual dysfunction.

MM: It’s one of our obsessions.

PSH: I think it is, and I think that’s
okay. But I think it’s just another role. I’m just as
drawn to those roles as I am to the other roles.

MM: What has been your biggest challenge
as an actor, or the role that challenged you the most?

PSH: That’s a hard question to answer.
It’s more like you have challenging days. Some days are really
challenging for reasons you never thought they’d be before
you got there. Some scenes are harder than you think and some scenes
are easier than you think. It’s hard to grasp.

MM: Do you still get intimidated by some
of the actors you’re working with?

PSH: I think that you’re intimidated
at first. But once you start acting you quickly realize that they’re
just actors—they’re great actors—but they’re
just actors. They’re doing their work and they have the same
insecurities as you; they have the same worries you do. Once you
understand that, you kind of get down to it.

MM: Is it different when you’re acting
opposite someone on film versus the stage, in front of a live audience,
where it’s a much more visceral experience?

PSH: It’s just a different reality. In
a film, it’s sort of private. You can kind of screw up and
go back. In a theater piece, if you’re doing a play with Meryl
Streep, you can’t screw up and go back. We have to really
have a trust that ‘We’re going to see it through until
the end, no matter what happens.’
In both realities, you’re trying to act well and still trying
to give to that actor and trying to receive whatever they’re
giving you.

MM: Is your preparation for a theater role
different from a film role?

PSH: You know, I think the working part is
different. Not so much because of what goes into a theater and film
project, but they’re different, they just are. Because of
the nature of a play, you’re going to have four or five weeks
of rehearsal. You’re going to have this time to work on a
role with the people you’re doing it with and the space that
you’re doing it in. Then when you’re performing it,
you’re preparing it the whole time because you have to redo
it every night. In a film, it’s so much different. You just
show up with as much preparation as possible.

MM: You’ve been directing theater
for a few years now. Do you have any desire to direct a film?

“I like to think about things in thematic
ways and cover all those things. But it is pretty much a fact
that people always want to hone in on the sexual dysfunction.”

PSH: I’m not so sure. Maybe I will someday,
but I don’t know when that will be.

MM: What is the most satisfying part of
being an actor, or the one aspect that will keep you doing this
for the forseeable future?

PSH: The work. Oh, that sounds so pretentious!
[laughing] I was watching Daniel Day-Lewis on Charlie Rose the other
night and he asked him “You only do a movie every 10 billion
years. Why is that?” He talked about how one of the more pleasurable
parts of acting is the exploration, the discovery—the educational
part of working on a part and seeing it come together in a certain
way. That is the most pleasurable part of it. Then, if you actually
do bring it to some type of life and someone says “Wow, you
brought this character from the page to life,” it’s
satisfying knowing that you’ve done that.

MM: But, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis’
dedication is now the subject of tabloids and/or Hollywood gossip
columns.

PSH: I know. He’s probably over in Ireland
or wherever he is saying “Oy vay!” He’s just giving
himself plenty of time to prepare for a part so that he can do the
best job he can. It’s something that is not part of our world:
working long, hard and preparing; taking as much time as possible.
And when you get there, really getting into this person and being
this person… He’s not crazy; he’s just a man doing
his job.

MM: What’s the most frustrating part
of being an actor?

PSH: It’s something that is never easy
to do—never! It just isn’t. It’s like golf…
No matter how well you thought you played yesterday, you can really
suck today!

MM: I know that I’m catching you
at the end of a week full of interviews. What is the one question
that you’ve never been asked in an interview that you’re
always hoping someone will bring up?

PSH: I don’t know… I think maybe
talking about what it would be like to do something else, like “What
else would you be interested in and why?”

MM: Okay, so what else would you be interested
in, and why?

PSH: I’m interested in a lot of things.
I’d be interested in having the time to see a lot of art that
I never get to see. I live in New York City, where I have the opportunity
to see great art every day, and I never get a chance to do that.
I would just like to go to a different museum every day and see
different pieces of art. I’d like to go to an opera. I’ve
never even been to an opera. I’d like to go to an opera for
the first time and, maybe if I didn’t actually like it, to
go again until I do. I’d like to take a class at The New School.
There’s so much stuff of so much interest. I’d love
to just sit around in an artistic setting, where it’s not
my art form, and talk to people who do it. I’d like to get
the focus off of what I do and find out about other people. Those
kinds of things are interesting to me.

There’s this thing that I read in the Times yesterday, that they’re opening a 37th Street Art Project
or something like that. Dance, theater, music, design, lighting—all
this stuff—and combining it into one arts center. Merce Cunningham
is getting involved, and Pedro Almodovar. All these people are going
to start this center, combining all these art forms. To have something
like that that actually works and functions… Something like
that gets me crazy excited. MM