Interview: Philip Seymour Hoffman

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 anti-star, preferring the relative anonymity of the character actor.

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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 effects-driven 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 myself incredibly lucky, and I mean that.

“Out of all the actors I know what I’ve been given is an abundance of riches. I felt that way before I won the Oscar. I’ve been able to support myself as an actor since my late 20s. Trust me, a lot don’t have that. So it’s hard for me to discern.”

Hoffman will be seen next on British screens in the baseball movie Moneyball alongside Brad Pitt and he recently teamed up with George Clooney on The Ides of March.

The film was Clooney’s fourth as director and Hoffman has some interesting observations on that peculiar breed, actors who also direct.

“Sometimes actors direct and people think it’s about ego or hubris or something. I don’t think it is at all,” he says with genuine passion.

“I think that sometimes you’re an actor and you find out you’re a director, too. It’s something you wanna do. A lot of people assume that actors want to direct but that’s actually not true. Most of them don’t have any desire to do that.

“So I think the people that do, like George and myself, it’s because it’s something we’ve thought about for a while.

“But directing myself is not something I like. I like someone else out there telling me that I’m not good, and challenging me.

“I had to walk off and then come back and be the actor. That really took a shift of concentration and focus that was kind of immense. I remember those moments. I won’t do it again in that capacity, I have to say.”

Jack Goes Boating (15) is on limited release. There are performances this week at the Sheffield Showroom. 0114 275 7727, www.showroomworkstation.org.uk

Philip Seymour Hoffman on...

Becoming a dad: “When you have a child, as anyone knows who has them, that’s basically all you want to talk about.”

His appearance: “The foibles of my body are pretty much out there in the work I do.”

Fame: “Sometimes I am uncomfortable with the level of fame I’ve got. It all depends on the day and what’s going on. I don’t desire any more fame. I don’t need it.”

His attitude to work: “I work constantly, but I work at a lot of different things. You know, I run a theatre company in New York, I direct plays, act in plays, in movies, so I try to keep it eclectic.”