Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
As an actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman has become a master at putting a lot of feeling into a character without doing much talking. He knows how to be both economical in what he says, and remarkable in how he says it and in rendering the part.
He has employed that strategy effectively this cinematic season, garnering accolades for his cranky whiney work in "The Savages" and nabbing him a Best Supporting Actor nom for his rough-and-tumble CIA agent in "Charlie Wilson's War." And certainly that was the case with his work as the older brother Andy to Ethan Hawke's younger sibling, Hank, in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."
Equally adept in movies and on stage, the 40-year-old actor and theater director was born in Rochester, New York, hit NYC when he went to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, and graduated with a B.F.A. degree in drama in 1989. He made his feature film debut two years later. His breakthrough role in Paul Thomas Anderson's chronicle of LA's porn industry, "Boogie Nights" quickly established him as a mainstay of indie cinema—building up a reputation as one of its ubiquitous character actors by appearing in a host of emerging directors' breakout films. And of course he had the ultimate acting success when he won the Best Lead Actor Academy Award for playing the lead in 2005's "Capote."
For his recent role, Hoffman, like the other cast members, jumped at the chance be in iconic NYC director Sidney Lumet's latest film. The master director has had numerous Oscar noms throughout three decades for such films as "The Verdict, "Prince of the City," "Network, "Dog Day Afternoon," and "12 Angry Men" (Lumet's cinematic debut).
This dark crime story details two brothers who organize a robbery of their parents' jewelry store; the heist goes horribly wrong, cascading down through a series of events that sends them, their father and one brother's wife crashing towards a tragic climax.
Q: You were the first one chosen by producer Michael Cerenzie to be in this film, and then when he sat down with Sidney Lumet, you were his first choice as well. Were you aware of that?
PSH: I had been approached with this script through another director a few years before, but that just didn't happen and I didn't do it. It was somewhat of a different version of this script. Then it came back to me with Sidney [attached] and he changed it a little bit, but not alot, but it's very much the script I
Q: He made you and [Ethan Hawke] brothers, but originally you were just going to be friends.
PSH: They were friends and now they are brothers which is very important. And Sidney said what brother did you want to play? I chose Andy, and then everyone else came on board.
Q: Marisa Tomei [who plays Gina, Andy's wife] spoke about these characters being past their prime--if you took these characters five years forward from this film's timeline, where would you see them?
PSH: Are they past their prime; I don't think they had a prime [laughs]... Actually the question is did I think there was a time when they had options that were real; [did they have] promise? Yes, I think the relationship between Andy and Gina was a good one at one time. They were in love with each other. I think he was a very successful guy. He was moving up in the business world.
Hank was probably very affable and got married and thought he could [make something of himself]. There was that time. I don't think their childhoods were very good; I get a feeling they had good parents who didn't give them much attention. Andy was really the kid they thought wouldn't amount to much of anything so he amounted to everything. I don't know if they had a prime; they had promise that led to a life they did not want to be in anymore and that's where the movie picks
Q: You've played bad guys before that were pretty despicable but Andy doesn't have many saving graces. Was that what appealed to you about this character?
PSH: Well... bad guys? I don't think I play a lot of bad guys.
Q: What about your character in "Mission Impossible 3" [Hoffman played the villain Owen Davian]?
PSH: Well that was "Mission Impossible" but bad guys... I don't know about bad guys..
Q: Okay, then people with questionable morals...
PSH: I think everybody has questionable morals, look at this table. [laughs]
If that's what you are looking at in a film then we have different tastes in movies because I think everyone should be questionable and every character you should play should be questioned; although this character is more extreme than most; this character is not somebody who is redeemable or forgivable by the end at all. But I would not say that these are the characters that I play very often.
Q: Was that appealing?
PSH: The story is appealing. It's an old story, a story that's been around since everything else has existed, the story of Cain and Abel. It's the story of trying to extricate yourself from your family and your family ultimately bringing you down.
What happens at the end of this movie, is something that reverberates through drama forever. That's the one thing that attracted me the most was that last action [at the end of the film.] I thought "God I'll never read a film that has that action in it again." I'll have to go back and read old Greek dramas or Shakespeare to see that action being taken. It's so powerful; so upsetting in such a profound way. It's very gutsy for a film to want to do that.
Q: Did you bring in your own ideas and how much leeway did Sidney give you to develop your character?
PSH: We developed him together. He thinks like an actor--well, obviously he thinks like a director first--but he also has a head like an actor. He's very good with the questions he asks.
His questions are very intelligent and sharp so he's helping you. He's asking the right questions... if he's sees you're confused he knows what to say to get you on right page; any notes or questions coming from him you can decipher them quickly.
Q: Did you work extensively on Andy's back story?
PSH: Only to the extent that I needed to. There was only a few things I needed to think about. What was Gina and Andy's relationship like before? How long had they been together? [I figured] they had been together for a while... probably since their early or mid '20s. I always had this idea that she worked for him; she was a secretary in his office and they started to have an affair--it was kind of a hot affair. It had lot of risk to it and it led toward a real love affair and was serious but also very exciting and a very satisfying one when they were young.
The other thing was his relationship to his family. Obviously he was a dark horse as a kid, they did not think that he would amount to anything but he did. So you have to see that his feelings about his brother, sister, mother, and father were much more complicated than Hank's.
Q: How was it working with a great actor like Albert Finney [who worked with Lumet before in "Murder On The Orient Express"]--what did he bring onto the set?
PSH: Albert Finney--what did he bring to the set with Sidney?
Q: Or in the collaboration with Sidney?
PSH: He was very relaxed with the whole idea of how quick Sidney worked. And he trusted that. He works very fast so he said "Oh yeah, that's what he does so don't worry about that." For us it was very quick. We had to let go of that, and trust that what you did was going to be good enough.
Q: What do you think about how important awards are—they obviously help that movie ["Capote"] especially when you are the producer on it; do you still feel that you want the movies to be seen?
PSH: Yeah, of course you want your movies to be seen.
Q: But how important are awards?
PSH: They are important to an extent; I think that a lot of movies that don't win awards get seen by a lot of people. So it depends on the film. I hope this film gets seen by a lot of people however that is helped, whether it wins awards or not, hope people will see it. This is a film that's not been out there for a while and is not out there now.
Q: What do you count as turning points in your career, a lucky break that took your life in a different direction, that changed your life?
PSH: I've had a lot people give me breaks. [When I did] "Scent of a Woman" I was 24; I auditioned for it six times and getting it. I remember working with Paul Thomas Anderson for the first time. I remember Joel Schumacher hired me to play opposite Robert De Niro in "Flawless" when I was not even 30. Those were all huge breaks. I remember doing "True West" on Broadway. Those were all opportunities that came along. Thank God I said yes to them. What makes all the difference is that I said "yes" at the time.
Q: Was there ever a question at the time?
PSH: Yeah, there was a lot of fear; it was a lot of responsibility.
Q: How do you balance the film career with your work in theater?
PSH: I just do what do when it has to be done if that makes sense. It's like there are plays I want act in, then it's a play I want to act in it so I say this is when i am available so if we can do it then and if it works out but if not you hopefully can find time. You do a film if you can do it. You still accept projects as they come and hopefully you can find time.
That's really what it is about. It's not about, "I'll do three pictures then a play..." and then sit there in apartment waiting; you can't say "I'll be doing three pictures..." except there are no pictures to do. So the idea is that you still accept the jobs [as they come]. I have a theater company [The Labryinth Theater Company] and everyday I deal with the company.
Q: You are doing a film ["Synecdoche, New York"] with Charlie Kaufman ["Being John Malkovich," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Adaptation"] and he hasn't done a movie in several years--he's directing too. The person you play is a...
PSH: A theater director...
Q: Is Kaufman as eccentric as a director as he is as a writer?
PSH: He's very bright guy, a very deep feeling guy, we finished shooting that a few months ago.
Q: I guess you don't have consult with anyone for theater director job [Phil laughs]--was it like playing yourself or unplaying yourself--how did you negotiate that?
PSH: Whew... I am playing someone else but there are aspects of it that I understand from myself. Yeah it's about a guy, directing theater who has kids, has been married a couple of times and that about as interesting as it sounds when I am talking about it [laughs]. But it's one best scripts I've read.
Q: Do you have a desire to do comedy?
PSH: Yeah, I think I do comedy all time. I try not [to]... I haven't ended up in a lot of just comedies ["The Savages" is a dark dra-medy co-starring Laura Linney; the two are siblings grappling with a dying octogenarian parent]. There's a lot of comedy in the things I do. But I liked "Along Came Polly." [Doing that] was a lot of fun.
© Brad Balfour 2007