Crossing the Line: Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967 – 2014

Yesterday, the world of cinema suffered a profound and appalling loss with the death of brilliant moviemaker Philip Seymour Hoffman. To commemorate the passing of this modern screen titan, we’re revisiting two interviews with Hoffman that appeared in MovieMaker‘s pages in 2003 and 2010, along with an introductory note by Dante A. Ciampaglia (who conducted the 2010 interview with Hoffman and his co-star Amy Ryan). In them, as always, he proved himself to be consummately professional, relentlessly honest and very human.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan for MovieMaker ahead of the release of Hoffman’s directorial debut, Jack Goes Boating. That experience has rattled around in my head the last 24 hours as the inconceivable news of Hoffman’s death takes on a greater sense of reality. For some reason I’ll always remember the anecdote Hoffman dropped at the end of the interview.

“Our mutual friend, Bennett Miller, has a saying, about whether ‘somebody is a good hang.’ He always says that. We’ll talk about somebody I don’t know and he’ll say, ‘Oh, they’re a good hang,’ or ‘They’re not a good hang.’ I think that’s important,” Hoffman said. “Amy’s not difficult at all, but there are some actors, people, and directors who can be difficult, including myself at times. But if they’re still a good hang, it’s okay.”

I was introduced to Hoffman in Scent of a Woman. And from that film, through Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous, 25th Hour, Capote, and The Master — he has been a good hang. He challenged us as viewers via his conception of a character (like the charismatic charlatan, Lancaster Dodd, in The Master) or the sinister hedonist, Andy, in the underrated Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). But he never condescended, to the audience or to the material, and demanded we meet the challenge of taking the work as seriously as he did. If you could do that, you were rewarded with a singular, indelible performance that could never be matched or replicated.

I don’t know what Philip Seymour Hoffman was like as a person, beyond being gracious and patient during our interview. But I do know that, on screen, he was peerless. He was the best actor of my generation, hands down, and I always looked forward to hanging out with him, either at the multiplex or in my living room. That’s why for me, a while, both places will feel emptier. – Dante A. Ciampaglia

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Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan Go Boating (originally printed in MovieMaker 88, Summer 2010)

by Dante A. Ciampaglia
Jack Goes Boating

Philip Seymour Hoffman has earned enthusiastic acclaim for his acting work many times over. With Jack Goes Boating, he has announced himself as a formidable movie director, as well.

Hoffman’s feature directorial debut, based on the play by Bob Glaudini and scheduled for a September 17th release, centers on two New York couples, one in its ascendancy—Jack (Hoffman) and Connie (Amy Ryan)—and one in its decline—Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). The positivity of Jack and Connie’s relationship casts a stark light on the fractures in Clyde and Lucy’s, and before long all four characters are mired in the fallout of what Clyde and Lucy pessimistically call the realities of long-term relationships.

It’s the stuff that’s launched countless plays and films, but what separates Jack Goes Boating from the pack is Hoffman’s adroit and assured direction. In the Jack-Connie relationship, for example, Hoffman allows the camera to linger on what he describes as “the innate awkwardness of two people talking.” Like when real relationships are beginning, Jack and Connie have halting conversations while they tiptoe around the big questions. This approach could become ponderous, but under Hoffman’s direction it creates an honest, lived-in portrayal of love in bloom, propelling the film to a lean, filler-free, 90-minute runtime.

Here, old friends Hoffman and Ryan compare notes on the experience of working together on Jack Goes Boating, creating their on-screen relationship and the importance of working with actors who are a “good hang.”

Dante Ciampaglia (MM): You were both in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Capote, but did you have a relationship outside of movies prior to makingJack Goes Boating? And did you draw on any of that for your performances?

Philip Seymour Hoffman (PSH): We met like 10 or 11 years ago. We were on this double-bill of one-act plays that were being done at the Barrow Street Theatre. We weren’t on the same one-act but we were on the same night, so I remember getting to know Amy back then. Then it was just acquaintances and through the business and stuff. But then we started working together again—on Capote and then Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead—and started hanging out more and talking more.

I don’t know if the relationship I have with Amy has anything to do with the relationship with the two characters in the film. What I do know is that whoever was going to play that part, I would need to trust right off that bat. I didn’t want to have to work at that. I didn’t want to have to put my time in and I felt that with Amy. So if anything, that definitely helped and was part of the reason why she’s in it.

Amy Ryan (AR): I feel like we have more of a working friendship and acquaintanceship. It’s not so much that we’re hanging out at restaurants all the time. Phil, you’re one of those people I’ve known for years and I feel I know well, but if I had to write down on paper the amount of social times we’ve been with each other outside of work, there’s very few. But the experiences we’ve had have been very true work; I feel, for me at least, it’s been very rich and intimate… And I think hopefully someday, if we do something else again, we’ll look back and think, ‘Wow, we thought we knew each other on Jack!’

PSH: Exactly. When you work together you’re put in a position of having to deal with each other and you can’t ignore each other. So you do get to know people in the work environment in short periods of time that in normal life might take longer, and that creates a unique relationship. Because you’re not in your own lives hanging out all the time but, like Amy said, you do have kind of intense little get-togethers when you’re working. I think the essence of that did help us trust each other when we were shooting.

AR:
 I think of this flash of a moment when we were in Winnipeg doing camera tests for Capote. I saw you down the hall and I had just arrived the night before, so it was the first I’d said hello to you, and you were in your costume and hair as Truman and I said ‘Hey Phil, how ya doin’?’ You go, “Good… Yeah, it’s a scary one.” And then you were called away. And I just thought, ‘Oh wow.’

Then, the next moment, I’m sitting in the scene with you and I thought, ‘I have the front row seat to this incredible performance…’ It’s those miniscule moments… You could have completely just shot the shit with me like, “Hey, how was your flight? When did you get in?” But it was just this full, open-hearted moment when you said, ‘I don’t know about this one.’ (laughs) It’s those flash moments that maintain that bond, at least for me.

PSH: Absolutely.

AR: It’s the same with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; you were rehearsing with Sidney [Lumet] for two weeks in that intimate setting and I’m so glad you took that technique to Jack Goes Boating, which was key.

PSH: In the work environment, you’re kind of exposed. So these people that you don’t hang out with a lot in your life but you do hang out with in the work environment, you do see them in a much more revealing, exposed way. So you can go a year or two without seeing each other and when you see each other again it’s as if you saw each other yesterday. It’s because you both know a little bit of something about each other that you wouldn’t normally.

AR: That’s something I’ve always been curious about, because you and John Ortiz are so close. In scenes when you’re directing him in Jack Goes Boating, how much of your personal relationship was ever used as a tool? And I don’t mean in any manipulative way, because I’m sure you could take short cuts with him in some way. Did you find that you had a different approach with John because you do know him so well?

PSH: Not very often, but every once in a while, I’ll go over and say something to him that has to do with something that only we would know. But what’s great about John in that circumstance, because I’ve directed John a handful of times… when I put on that directing cap, John understands the difference between when we’re working together as director/actor and when we’re not. When we’re working as director/actor, John lets me direct. He becomes the actor and I become the director and it’s a really amazing thing… and it is a rare thing. With John it’s probably because we’re so close and have known each other so long. But also I think it’s because our relationship, from the beginning—from our first meeting—has been forged through creating work. That’s what we do together. I don’t know if I have that relationship with anyone else that way. It’s very unique with him. So we just kind of let it happen; we try not to get in the way of it.

MM: Were there any surprises you learned about each other on this movie?

PSH: No, I didn’t learn anything new. I was so happy to be reminded that Amy is exactly who I thought she was, which is a thoughtful, talented, serious actress who also likes to have a good time—and that’s essential. (laughs) Those are the qualities. So I guess you get surprised by the thing you assume, but a lot of times you get disappointed and that’s life. You disappoint yourself all the time. I felt that more about myself while shooting, if anything. But with Amy? No.

AR: I’ve seen your work as a director before in terms of theater, and I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I was in good hands. I never doubted it. “What was Phil like as a director?” That to me would never be a thought… You’re creating a beautiful film from a beautiful script. Why wouldn’t anybody want to be there with bells on? I think with your passion for your work, it’s impossible not to be affected and encouraged by that. When I see your films and know nothing about the project that you’re working on, I just go as a moviegoer and pay my $10.

MM: There was very little artifice between the characters and their relationship in the movie. How did you work together to make each other’s relationship so real?

PSH: That’s a really good question, because I don’t think that’s something you can work on. I think that, if I’m honest, other than the rehearsal that we did and the debate and ongoing discussion, there’s also an aspect that I’ve kind of left alone… which is the innate awkwardness of two people talking… (laughs) like right now.

I think truly communicating with another person is difficult and I think a lot of our personalities and behaviors are made up of ways to deal with that. Either to make it look like it’s not difficult or to make it look comfortable or savvy or coy or whatever we do. I think that with Connie and Jack, neither of them are really good at covering up what’s going on and they’re a bit transparent as people in general. I remember saying, ‘Leave it alone’ sometimes when we were working on those scenes to let any awkwardness or uncomfortability or anything that was happening just happen. Don’t try to do anything about it.

AR: I remember rehearsing that hospital scene and not quite understanding it. I remember looking over and thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t understand what’s going on with Jack and what’s happening with Connie’s emotions.’ Phil, as a director and an actor, is comfortable with a pause and letting that air be there and not cutting away to 1,000 different reaction shots and letting that sit in the air between them. I think that’s where the truth lies.

PSH: I think Bob Glaudini, the writer, who I’ve known for a while… I think that’s in the writing. I realize every time I keep reading it or working it out, I think, ‘God, the writing is asking you to not get out of how uncomfortable the situation is.’ It actually goes forthright through it and right into it. (laughs)

AR: (laughs) It really is the most fun route, as difficult as it may be.

MM: Does being an actor make you a better director, in general?

PSH: To be honest, I think being a director makes me a better actor more than the other way around. I think that since I’ve started directing, I’ve definitely learned more about myself watching other actors than I did before, because being an actor is a highly subjective position. You really do need somebody outside to watch but, as an actor, sometimes you think you know better. I know I’m like that.

When I started directing I realized that a lot of times I don’t know better and I need to listen. I need to trust and collaborate. I have a lot of habits and ways that weren’t helping me and I didn’t understand that until I saw it in other actors.

I think I’m still trying to grow as a director each time I direct… I think now that I’ve directed one film, and if I get a chance to do it again, I know each film will be different and have a little difficulty, but acting is the hard job on the day. To be vulnerable and open in front of a bunch of people all day long is not an easy thing. Being an actor has helped me with that aspect of it.

AR: I think the beauty of being directed by an actor is a shared language. Not that directors don’t have that but, as Phil said, like knowing what an actor goes through to get to a place and to be open and exposed—or just to try and be willing to fail—is a scary place to go. But there’s no alternative, really. Actually, the alternative is mediocrity and that’s worse. But you still need a nudge. You need someone to catch you.

What Phil brought as a director and experience that I’ve never really had before is a multi-layering, because I know Phil understands well how human behavior works… I feel like Phil gave the whole roadmap. You can see all the different avenues to get to this place, which I think makes it more interesting to watch. Phil has the patience and the passion to find that nuance.

MM: Is there anything that came up during the shooting that you wanted to ask each other about but didn’t get around to that we can talk about now?

PSH: We’ve been asked that question before. It’s a good question because I think I am surprised a lot of the time when I work with people, because you have an assumption about them which is usually wrong. It’s just kind of how life is. It’s usually wrong in the positive way, meaning you learn a lot about somebody in a very positive way.

AR: I’m deathly afraid of people who don’t take it seriously, but I’m afraid in tandem of people who take themselves too seriously. We have to laugh at ourselves from time to time, or I don’t know how we really get through this. I think we had a tremendous amount of belly laughs and that helps any situation, especially if it’s late at night in the freezing cold on location. You’re also so happy to be there. Maybe you’d want to get into your bed at this point and stop putting those little hot pockets under your neck or pants pockets or anywhere else you might find a place for them, but being around Phil is a reminder of how rich and great life is. Why not grab it?

To me, that was the experience of Jack Goes Boating. This company, this experience, this role—they don’t come around often. I remember saying ‘yes’ to this script right away, and not knowing how in the hell to start working on Connie. I didn’t know who she was for a very long time. Even in scenes while we were shooting, I wasn’t quite sure where we were going. But with Phil’s encouragement it was like, “Let it be. Let the awkwardness be there and she shall come to us.”

PSH: Our mutual friend, [Capote director] Bennett Miller, has a saying, if “somebody is a good hang.” He always says that. We’ll talk about somebody I don’t know and he’ll say, “Oh, they’re a good hang,” or “They’re not a good hang.” I think that’s important. Amy’s not difficult at all but there are some actors, people and directors who can be difficult, including myself at times. But if they’re still a good hang, it’s okay.

You have to be willing to sit with somebody. Filming is a lot about hanging out. And if you have an issue with that, it’s going to be an problem. When Amy’s talking about being cold, we always harp on this one scene because it was so fucking cold. (laughs) The scene where we had that first kiss outside. I mean, literally, it was zero or something—it was freezing. There were times where I just couldn’t sit outside anymore because I was directing and I’d go sit in the car. We’d all be sitting in the car and you have to be able to do that. You have to be able to sit in a car where nothing is said for 10 minutes and the heater is on and then someone cracks a joke or someone says, “When is this going to be over?” MM

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Phillip Seymour Hoffman: Triumph of the Uncommon Man (originally printed as the cover story of MovieMaker 49, Winter 2003)

by Jennifer Wood

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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 escapethe 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.

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?

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.

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?

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 foreseeable 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

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