Wednesday 17 January 2018

Seymour Hoffman on politics, directing and why he feels lucky

James Mottram

A scorching day in Venice, and Philip Seymour Hoffman really isn't in the mood. Sitting in an airless room in the Excelsior Hotel, dressed in a sweat-soaked black polo shirt, at one point he mocks falling asleep. He taps a bottle top on the table incessantly. He asks me about the films I've seen at the festival (which opened with the George Clooney-directed The Ides of March, in which he stars). And he insults my battered tape recorder. "This is crazy, it's 1959, this thing." Anything to avoid answering questions.

When I try to pin him down on The Master, the forthcoming film from Paul Thomas Anderson, in which he plays a man who starts a religion in post-WWII America, he makes a weird mumbling sound. I let it slide, but return later on, asking why he won't talk about it. "It's way too early," he says, testily. "It's just finished shooting. What it will be is something I don't want to talk about, because I really don't know where it's going ... I know you have a position where you're trying to find out stuff, but sometimes, people need that privacy in order to get done what needs to get done."

While it's tempting to read too much into the zeal with which he portrayed the sleazy tabloid reporter in Hannibal Lecter yarn Red Dragon, Hoffman has never been at ease with the press. He may be a father-of-three, living with costume-designer Mimi O'Donnell in New York, but his private life is just that.

Having previously been in rehab for drink and drugs when he was 22, I can still picture the incredulous look he gave one reporter, during interviews for Punch-Drunk Love, when they goaded him to take a risk and reveal something personal. "Risk something?" he spat back. "I risk something all the time. You should know that by now."

That cannot be denied. Ever since he slimed his way on to the scene, playing a series of sad-sack characters in films such as Happiness, Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski, Hoffman, now 44, has proved himself an actor who gambles more than most. He clearly finds the process of banging the Hollywood drum tiresome, perhaps because -- despite the odd blockbuster, from Twister to Mission: Impossible 3 -- he's not an A-list star. His gait is shambling, his belly is oversized and his beard a mix of ginger and grey.

What he does have -- aside from the Oscar he won for playing Truman Capote -- is the admiration of his peers. "I have huge respect for him," says Paul Giamatti, no slouch himself., "I think he's an amazing actor." Hoffman and Giamatti play rival campaign managers for two Democratic presidential hopefuls in The Ides of March.

Adapted from the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, it's a vicious study of political dirty tricks, seen through the eyes of Ryan Gosling's rising press secretary, who works alongside Hoffman's Paul Zara, a veteran of the circuit and now running the show for suave Governor Mike Morris (Clooney).

"I think he believes very strongly in his candidate," he says of Zara. "The people I've met that are campaign managers, they believe in those guys. They have to. It's like 24/7. What they have to do is so incredibly difficult, it taxes them in a way that I can't even imagine. They have to believe in them somehow, or else they are completely empty, vapid people. And that's impossible, because they are way too intelligent and way too driven. It doesn't mean they're not showmen, it doesn't mean they don't take advantage, it doesn't mean they don't lie, but I do think that they think that they're right."

Like Clooney, Hoffman has a thirst for politics. He voted for radical candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential elections, and even fronted a documentary, Last Party 2000, filmed over the last six months of the campaign at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. We start talking about the hoopla generated in an election year in America. "There's more attention put on it because it's a longer process," he says. With the celebrity backers and televised debates, it feels like showbiz, I venture. "Well, that's the media," he replies, filled with a sudden bile.

His own upbringing was liberal. Born in Fairport, New York, after his parents divorced, he was raised by his mother, a lawyer with staunch feminist views. He spent much of his teenage years battling against her "because my image of being a man was a deformed one". Yet it was she who first took him to the theatre -- to see a production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons -- inspiring an interest in acting that ultimately took him to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. It even took the place of his first love, wrestling, which he was forced to quit after he sustained a neck injury.

While there were early film roles -- opposite Al Pacino in 1992's mawkish Scent of a Woman -- theatre was Hoffman's mainstay. For 10 years, he was co-artistic director for the off-Broadway company, LAByrinth, featuring in numerous plays, including the 2007 production of Jack Goes Boating, which he has now turned into a film, his directorial debut. Taken from the play by Bob Glaudini, it's an intimate chamber piece in which Hoffman plays Jack, a shy limo-driver who strikes up a relationship with Connie (Amy Ryan), a mortuary worker.

"I really think the film looks at the classic story of two people meeting each other and falling in love in a way that hasn't been seen or -- at least felt -- before," he claims.

If that's pushing it, Hoffman's Jack will be familiar to fans -- even if seeing him behind the camera won't be. "I've been directing in the theatre for a long time, so I understand the job of directing. I wasn't nervous. I had strong ideas about how it could be adapted and what I could make better."

His third new project sees him play a baseball coach in Moneyball, which co-stars Brad Pitt as a manager who schemes to assemble a winning team "with the least amount of money and least amount of talent". Hoffman calls it a character study and "definitely not a popcorny movie". Given it's directed by his old friend Bennett Miller -- who guided Hoffman to Oscar glory on Capote -- that's quite possible. Still, it's rare to see him in a studio movie. "I'm sure that people in the big corporations that run Hollywood don't know quite what to do with someone like me," he says, "but that's okay."

He's also planning another reunion, this time with legendary director Mike Nichols (after their 2001 collaboration on a production of Chekhov's The Seagull), for a new Broadway version of Miller's Death of a Salesman. Hoffman as Willy Loman -- maybe reminding him of his father, who worked for Xerox -- is a delicious thought.

However prickly he can be as a person, there's no denying his magnetism on stage or screen. Do directors come to him all the time? "Sometimes. Not now. Bunch of crap coming my way!" he laughs, before sentiment washes over him. "Actually, I'm the luckiest guy in the world." I think he's being sincere.

The Ides of March opens on October 28. Jack Goes Boating is released on November 5. Moneyball opens on November 25

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