'I'm okay with not being handsome' Hoffman
Published 02/11/2011 | 09:45
One of Hollywood's undisputed acting greats, Philip Seymour Hoffman on the difficulties of directing yourself as his first feature film is released
Despite a powerful on-screen presence and 53 film roles under his belt, in real life some people might have trouble placing Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Physically he's a big, solid man and frankly looks a bit of a mess. Unshaven, with his dirty blonde hair dishevelled, and dressed in cords and an old checked shirt, he doesn't even take his coat or scarf off for the duration of the interview.
Yet, in his typically cryptic, thoughtful fashion, while reflecting on his drama course at New York University, the 44-year-old says he regards himself a vain man.
"I know I wasn't as handsome as some of the other guys but I was OK with that," he says in a listless, raspy growl.
"Vanity is something that will only get in the way of doing your best work. But ultimately, if you're truly vain, you care more about your work than how you look in your work - so I actually consider myself a pretty vain guy."
Phillip Seymour Hoffman has a habit of imbuing film projects, both obscure and mainstream, with success. Box office smashes include Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, The Talented Mr Ripley and Almost Famous.
A fine character actor, his performances are always mesmeric and yet Hoffman didn't receive industry recognition until 2006, when he won a Golden Globe, Bafta and Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote.
"I don't see the vast difference between my life before and after [the Oscar]," muses the actor.
"I've been able to support myself as an actor since my twenties, so I consider myself incredibly lucky. What I've been given is an abundance of riches and I felt that way before I won the Oscar."
Ever busy, Hoffman is currently starring as a campaign manager opposite George Clooney in the political thriller The Ides Of March, is about to release his feature film directorial debut Jack Goes Boating, and at the end of the month appears alongside Brad Pitt in the baseball drama Moneyball.
The late Anthony Minghella, who directed him in Cold Mountain, once said: "Philip struggles for every moment in a film, overthinks, overanalyses, wrestles with the scene. It's a bracing collaboration for the director but also a marvellous, rewarding one."
In light of that, you do wonder how Hoffman, a man who revels in the minutiae, coped as both the director and lead actor in Jack Goes Boating.
"I didn't like directing myself," he says. "I like someone else telling me I'm not good, challenging me and putting a good, strong firm hand out there for me to take. Knowing I was the only one I could turn to was uncomfortable."
To help him cope, he'd take time out from the set. "I'd walk off, go in a room, do my acting prep and come back and be the actor.
"And that really took a shift of concentration and focus that was kind of immense."
Laughing quietly, he adds: "It's a small movie with four main characters and in a lot of scenes there are just two actors, so you're half the acting.
"That was tricky because no one should be thinking about themselves that much through any given day. It's just not healthy."
Jack Goes Boating is an unusual tale of love, friendship and betrayal that centres on three relationships: a marriage that's reaching its end, a blossoming romance and a friendship between the two male characters.
The film actually started life as a play, produced by LAByrinth Theater Company, the creative home of Hoffman and his co-star John Ortiz, both of whom are former artistic directors.
In 2007, the play became an acclaimed off-Broadway production starring Hoffman, Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Beth Cole, who is replaced by Amy Ryan in the film.
"I think Amy came into it thinking, 'Oh God, these guys will know what they're doing because they did the play'. But when we started doing the film, we had to re-do it all, re-find everything and actually make the stakes a bit higher and everything a bit deeper," explains Hoffman.
He plays Jack, a lonely limo driver in search of a soulmate. "Jack is a guy who probably had a few relationships in his life, but nothing really substantial," says Hoffman who in real life has three children, Cooper, eight, Tallulah, four, and Willa, three, with his partner Mimi O'Donnell.
"Fear has dictated his comings and goings during the first half of his life. He's not stunted or anything, it's all fear."
A situation that will resonate with many people, he believes. "He and Connie (Ryan) are just two people that kind of let life go by without taking the risk and that happens to people all the time," he says.
"The exact same thing happens with Clyde (Ortiz) and Lucy (Rubin-Vega). They probably got together in their twenties and their marriage went bad pretty soon but the days just go by.
"I always say either something's going to happen or nothing's going to happen and if nothing happens then something really happens."
Although Hoffman has been directing theatre productions for more than 10 years, he wasn't looking to helm a movie project. The opportunity arose when someone suggested turning the play into a movie and Ortiz threw his name into the ring.
Hoffman explains: "I started getting ideas for the story and thought, 'Well I guess this makes sense, this feels right'.
"I trusted I would have a voice, and kept myself open and humble to learning whatever came my way from the people I was working with."
As exhausting as he found the process, it hasn't put Hoffman off directing another feature film - though you sense the man is an actor at heart.
"When I was studying theatre, my dreams were about riding my bike to the theatre on Sunday afternoons to do a play, and they still are," he says.
And he's serious about his life's vocation. "Actors are responsible to the people we play," he says. "I don't label or judge my characters. I just play them as honest and expressively as I can in the hope that people who ordinarily turn their heads in disgust might think: 'What I thought I'd feel about that guy, I don't totally feel right now'."
And if anyone's capable of challenging our preconceptions and judgments, it's the strangely charismatic and compelling Hoffman.
EXTRA TIME - PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN
:: He was born on July 23, 1967 in Fairport, New York.
:: At the age of 22 he went through rehab and hasn't drunk since.
:: He met his partner Mimi, a costume designer, in 1999 while they were working in the play In Arabia We'd All Be Kings.
:: A former lifeguard, he had to pretend he couldn't swim in Jack Goes Boating.
:: Hoffman said he "knew rejection" before his awards haul for Capote in 2005.
:: Jack Goes Boating is released in cinemas on Friday, November 4 and The Ides Of March is out now