Philip Seymour Hoffman makes the world his stageThe actor may have three films due to open, but the theater keeps him grounded.
Source: Los Angeles Times
PHILIP Seymour Hoffman looks more like the rumpled New York theater director that he is than the Oscar-winning star he's been playing for the last year and a half. He's dressed in dark, nondescript clothes, his red hair is wild, his face is unshaven, and those eyes that modulate so precisely from role to role are clear. You wouldn't know he was famous at all, were it not for the fact that he's in a midtown hotel room decorated with posters from his new film, or that an assistant sits down a few feet away after fetching him a pack of Camel Lights.
He's often the best thing in bad films ("Along Came Polly," "Red Dragon") or a small, integral part of wonderful films ("Almost Famous," "Happiness," "Boogie Nights"). In his body of work, which includes winning the best actor Oscar for 2005's "Capote," he's pulled off the clever trick of becoming a leading actor with the versatility of a character actor.
This year, he stars in three upcoming films. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (which opens in limited release Friday and Nov. 2 in Los Angeles) is the 44th film by Sidney Lumet, an entertaining but relentlessly downbeat affair concerning two brothers who conspire to rob their parents' jewelry store. Next month he's featured with Laura Linney in Tamara Jenkins' affecting "The Savages," an equally downbeat story about siblings dealing with their father's dementia. And on Christmas Day comes "Charlie Wilson's War," alongside fellow Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
He's also stayed very close to the New York theater world, acting as a co-artistic director with the LAByrinth Theater Company. While he's promoting the Lumet movie, his LAByrinth colleagues are downtown at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street, rehearsing a play. "It's opening night there tonight, and I'm going down there later," he says. "We're opening 'A View From 151st Street.' It's like our office out there, where we do a lot of our chatting and smoking." It's clear, as he puts a cigarette out in a half-empty Styrofoam cup of cold coffee, where he'd rather be right now.
HE runs in a pretty small theater world. Part of what attracted him to the political drama "Charlie Wilson's War" was the fact that it was written by Aaron Sorkin ("The script reads like a play.") and directed by Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Silkwood"), who so memorably directed Hoffman in a Central Park production of "The Seagull" in 2001.
In "Devil," he stars with Marisa Tomei and Ethan Hawke. One of the more compelling performances in "Devil" is by Brian F. O'Byrne in a small role as an Irish thug. O'Byrne was nominated for a Tony for his lead role in the Broadway production of "Doubt," which is the next film role Hoffman will be taking. "Well, that is the best cameo in the film," Hoffman says about O'Byrne in "Devil." (It's the kind of cameo Hoffman would have taken just a few years ago.) "Me, Ethan, Marisa, Michael Shannon and Brian, we've all been banging around New York for years now and we've all kind of known each other a long time. But I will call Brian up and ask him about that part."
Two scenes in "Devil" are particularly affecting, both with Hoffman and Tomei's onscreen marriage disintegrating. ("Sidney and I thought about those scenes in exactly the same way, without saying a word, which is a very good sign," Hoffman says.) Six years ago, Hoffman and Tomei were onstage together in "The 24-Hour Plays," where he also played a bully quietly imploding. "That was a play where I don't think he was a bully on the page," he remembers, "but I had forgotten all of my lines and I just pulled out every trick in the book. I had the first line and then I didn't remember anything so I just tried to be as entertaining as possible."
Like Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, Hoffman has emerged as a successful film actor who stays closely grounded to the theater. But how does the enormity of a project such as "Mission Impossible III" or "Charlie Wilson's War" compare with arranging a reading for an audience of a few dozen people? "It seems helpful and right," he says. "I'm not trying to do anything different from one environment to the next. What I'm trying to do on set with 'Charlie Wilson's War' is the same thing I'm trying to do in the theater: trying to work well, trying to make something work. And that's exactly the same thing we're trying to do at the Public. As long as you can keep that in perspective, that's really all it is."
The focus with Hoffman is all about the work, but he is instantly identifiable as a New Yorker. He grew up in upstate New York and still recalls his mother, whom he paid tribute to when he won his Oscar, bringing him downtown to study at NYU. He tried living in L.A. for a couple of years, going on auditions and taking acting classes. He remembers driving up Nichols Canyon once with a friend with some cheese and crackers on the armrest. Leaning down to take a bite, "we sideswiped this brick wall badly and scratched up the car pretty good, and bricks were flying into the road and my friend said, 'You almost killed us for some cheese and crackers.' " Shortly after, he moved back to New York for good.
IN person, Hoffman smiles more than you might expect, given the seriousness of his roles and the acclaim he's received. He also laughs at himself a disarming amount, especially when he tells one story about an early role in 1995's "Twister" when he accidentally put on a few pounds due to excitement over craft services (if you look closely, you can actually see him gaining weight from one scene to the next). "I did gain about 20 pounds in that movie," he recalls. "I'd sleep all morning and wake up and have a big lunch and shoot a scene and then have a few hot dogs. The continuity on that is awful because my body weight changed so drastically. I gain weight pretty easily," he says, shrugging.
And you do see Hoffman all over downtown New York, shuffling along, usually alone or with his family in tow, between Washington Square Park and the Public Theater. He's a familiar sight in the neighborhood and, for an actor of his stature, surprisingly accessible. "It's my home!" he says, a little more spirited. "I can't change that, I have to live where I live. If I had to start changing what I do, I would have to move, because otherwise what's the point? The point of living in the Village is to walk out and get your coffee and sit on a stoop. The beauty of living here is being out amongst people doing what you do. And I'm still able to do that pretty much."
He has a method to his celebrity: "If you go west of 7th Avenue, that's where the paparazzi are, but the minute you go east they don't follow you anymore." Hoffman turned 40 this summer, and the future is looking particularly bright. In the last few months, he's wrapped production on screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, "Synecdoche, New York," and directed a play in Australia and is now preparing to film "Doubt," alongside Meryl Streep, after which he'll direct a play in New York. "I really don't see me leaving New York to work unless I absolutely have to, because my kids are so young."
It's when he's asked about Charlie Kaufman, though, that he really perks up. In the film, due out next year, Hoffman plays . . . a rumpled New York theater director attempting to build an exact scale replica of New York City.
"Kaufman is terrific," he says immediately. "He's just so bright and one of the most deep, deep feeling and thinking people you'll ever meet. That was hard material, incredibly complex." He stops himself for a moment. "I'm trying not to be overly effusive but I can't say enough. I adore him and I'm so glad he asked me to do it. That was one of those things, where you just say, thank God he asked me to do it!"