I didn’t love interviewing Philip Seymour Hoffman, though I did it three or four times over the years. He didn’t love being interviewed. The process was invasive; it irritated him, and he was frank about that. It was a price he paid to keep making art. But on Sunday afternoon, when I heard he’d died – at age 46, on a bathroom floor in Greenwich Village, leaving behind a partner of 15 years, the costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, and three children under the age of 11 – I felt like I’d lost someone I knew.
I think a lot of people felt like that, because of the kind of actor Hoffman was. He was never one of those golden gods lolling atop the Hollywood hills, untouchable. He was irascibly, undeniably human. He didn’t play characters the average audience member would idolize. He gravitated toward the opposite – the guys no one wanted to be. Even when he played successes, such as the writer Truman Capote in Capote, which earned him the best actor Oscar in 2005 (he was nominated three more times, all for best supporting actor), Hoffman never flinched from showing the flaws and insecurities we share but don’t want to admit to.
Scrolling through my archive of interviews, I’m struck by how often Hoffman’s name comes up, as the consummate actor’s actor, the guy every peer admired and every director wanted to work with. Amy Ryan, who costarred in Hoffman’s feature directorial debut, 2010’s Jack Goes Boating (he also directed a ton of theatre), said that she watched Hoffman’s performances with awe. “His characters are always doing three things at once,” she said. “As an actor, I’m always thinking, ‘How does he do that?!’ When I worked with him, he gave me those answers, with energy and passion. It’s about asking yourself the right questions. ‘Yes, your character is shy. But she doesn’t want to show that. So she overcompensates by talking too much. But she’s not good at overcompensating.’ He’s constantly pushing you to put all that in.”
Writer/director John Patrick Shanley cast Hoffman in his film Doubt, as a priest accused of sexual misconduct by a nun played by Meryl Streep, “because I think he’s the smartest guy who chose to be an actor that I’ve ever met,” Shanley told me. “I knew that Phil would make Meryl sweat. I didn’t know what he’d do with the part, and I knew Meryl wouldn’t either. I could never specifically describe in advance what he was going to do, ever. But once he did it, it seemed inevitable. There’s nothing crude about his renderings; they’re very, very fine.”
Hoffman made the smallest roles come vividly alive. In 2011’s Moneyball, for example, he is specifically one individual baseball coach, pushed to adopt a strategy he doesn’t believe in; and at the same time, he is every person who’s ever been forced by a boss to do something stupid. He’ll do it, he doesn’t like it, he knows better than everyone else, he’s irked that his opinion isn’t respected – and he conveys all that without uttering a word, in the very pause he takes before speaking.
I saw that combination in his personality, too. In our first interview, around the time of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Hoffman admitted he was ticked that he still had to audition for films. He wasn’t a movie star like Ben Affleck, he said. But he’d created characters of enough variety – a gambling addict in Hard Eight, a gay cameraman in Boogie Nights, an obscene phone caller in Happiness, a compassionate nurse in Magnolia – that anyone who really looked could see what he was capable of. He didn’t have to prove himself any more.
Except to himself, of course. That never stopped. Hoffman believed that acting is an art form, and he practised it as such. His approach to his art was never easy, said writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, his most frequent collaborator (they made five films together, including Boogie Nights and The Master): “It’s powerful, but always elusive. It’s the kind of thing that, as soon as you think you know what you want, or you’re getting good at it, it will teach you differently. That’s what keeps me coming back to it, and the same goes for Phil.”
The last time I interviewed Hoffman was at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, where we talked about his film Synecdoche, New York. He played a theatre director named Caden for whom everything was a struggle – life, love, work – but who was committed, however fruitlessly, to trying to create a lasting piece of art. Reading again the things Hoffman said about Caden, my skin went cold at how personal and prescient they now seem.
“There are a lot of moments of him being involved in work or being titillated, but what you’re really seeing is that, for him, it’s more struggle than not,” Hoffman said. “There are more things happening to him that cause frustration or pain than happiness. He’s obsessed that he’s getting older, and that life is past him. I think that plagues everybody. We’re all going to die, so if it doesn’t plague you in some way, then you’re kind of in denial.”
He laughed, the freest laugh I ever heard from him. Life without denial is “pretty tough,” he continued. “But he’s an artist. He’s trying to look that full in the face. Be brutally honest. Not be in denial.”
Here Hoffman stopped talking about his character, and talked about himself. “Do you have kids?” he asked me. “I do. Kids make it all different. The love you have for your kid is so overwhelming. Even if you feel great, obsessive passion, it’s not as strong as what you feel for your child.”
He acknowledged that his life was “a lot easier than most. I’ve been given a lot more than most,” he said. “More than anyone deserves. But I’m able to be honest about this: I don’t think anybody is happy more than they’re not. There are people who tell me they are, but it’s a lie. I don’t think that means that you’re having a miserable day. I think you’re simply in your life. You’re irritated that the elevator door is not opening fast enough, or you’re in a long line. Or all of a sudden you’re really satisfied because there is no line. You’re just having experiences, going from one to the next.
“But I do think there are people who are unhappy a lot. Whose lives are harder for them, more of a struggle,” he went on. “Like I said, I’m more than grateful with what I’ve been given. It would be awfully self-centered if I was still unsatisfied. The things I dreamt of doing as an actor, I’ve done. Now it’s about, what do I want to do next? What do I want to say? Or do I want to do it at all? Acting keeps asking you to delve, concentrate, focus. When it does that it’s satisfying, even when it’s hard.”
In one of my favourite of his indelible smaller roles, in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Hoffman played journalist Lester Bangs. Advising a younger colleague on how to tell a complicated story, Bangs says, “Be honest, and unmerciful.” That’s how Hoffman treated his characters. That was his great gift to us.
We’ll never know exactly what happened in that Greenwich Village bathroom on Sunday. But I know two things: Hoffman’s pain was honest. His luck was unmerciful.