Masks of a star who prefers to stay in character
Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman has chosen a quirky domestic drama for his debut as a film director. He explains more to Tony Earnshaw.
PHILIP Seymour Hoffman recalls that he hasn’t had a non-acting job since he served food in a delicatessen before being cast in Scent of a Woman, with Al Pacino, in 1992.
Twenty years is a long time in an actor’s career, and Hoffman hasn’t let the grass grow under his feet. Landing the Pacino film was the breakthrough he needed; after that he never looked back. For 20 years it’s been acting. Only acting.
Hoffman is the antithesis of contemporaries on the star circuit. In truth he’s an antistar, preferring the relative anonymity of the character actor.
Thus when he ambles in for his interview, he is sporting a heavy beard, pullover and jeans. No diva antics here, just a regular guy who takes the job seriously.
The 44-year-old New Yorker has been the actor of choice for a string of A-list directors from Paul Thomas Anderson via the Coen Brothers to the late Sidney Lumet. Most recently George Clooney signed him as one of the stalwart politicos at the heart of The Ides of March.
He can play comedy, high drama, and intimate theatre pieces like his directorial debut on film, Jack Goes Boating. He can also act most of his contemporaries off the screen with quietly powerful performances like that in Capote, as Truman Capote, which won him the Oscar as best actor in 2006.
A glimpse at Hoffman’s CV is evidence of his versatility. Look, there’s the effectsdriven disaster flick Twister. And The Talented Mr Ripley. And the Hannibal Lecter prequel Red Dragon. And The Big Lebowski. And let’s not forget Magnolia, Almost Famous, and Doubt. It’s a mouth-watering line-up.
I ask this most unlikely star whether winning the Academy Award led directly to more clout – to the freedom to select better roles, to work with whom, and when, he wanted, and to direct personal projects such as Jack Goes Boating. Hoffman’s face crinkles into a semi-frown.
“It was never in my mind to do it as a movie,” he says in that trademark slow drawl. “Someone saw the play we did and came to us and said, ‘We’d like to make it into a movie’.
“Then it was our decision whether we’d take their offer on. So I wasn’t in search of a movie to direct.
“I was a director in the theatre, that’s what happened. I’ve no idea [whether the Oscar had an effect]. I am a celebrity but I don’t have the celebrity that some people have. But, sure, it helped in some ways. The cachet goes up.”
Hoffman considers himself primarily a theatre actor. Since the age of 22 he has been active on the boards; movies have always appeared to be a lucrative sideline.
He has picked up Tony Award nominations for Sam Shepard’s True West and Eugene O’neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. He was a member of New York’s Labyrinth Theater Company for which he acted and directed. Jack Goes Boating was one such project.
Hoffman is keen to focus attention on his fellow stars in the film, two of whom reprise their parts from the stage. John Ortiz plays Clyde and Daphne Rubin-vega plays Lucy.
The fourth role of Connie is taken by Amy Ryan. And the film? It’s the story of two couples; one headed for disaster, the other headed for... who knows?
“John and I have worked together as producers, I’ve directed him, we’ve acted together, we’re artistic partners and have been for 20 years.
“Someone asked me, ‘What’s it like being the boss?’ and actually having someone let me be the boss is really the question because that’s what it is. With John and I it’s this handing off of responsibility and we do it very well.
“The give and take was full of trust and therefore difficult. The way we challenge each other is pretty straight up, you know?
“That’s a great environment to be in – you don’t have to be scared that someone’s going to be mad at you because you want more. We had a great history, so we were able to go through that.”
I suggest that the Oscar and all it represents have given Hoffman freedom to do modest, intimate dramas like Jack Goes Boating. He frowns again.
“I don’t really see the vast difference between my life before that and after. I was given more than most before I won, and I still am. I consider
FLOATING ALONG: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jack and Amy Ryan as Connie in Jack Goes Boating, Hoffman’s debut as a film director.
DESTINATIONS: Amy Ryan in a story of two couples; one headed for disaster, the other for... who knows?
ON SCREEN: Hoffman considers himself primarily a theatre actor, films have always been a lucrative sideline in his career.