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Philip Seymour Hoffman

Lead Actor: 'The Savages/Before the Devil Knows You're Dead'

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who can play a homicidal sociopath (“Mission: Impossible 3”) as convincingly as he does a drag queen (“Flawless”), seemed such a foregone conclusion for lead actor honors two years ago in “Capote” that it was almost too much of a lock.

Something had to go wrong. When it didn’t, surely the next inevitable thing would happen: Hoffman would either become typecast or too expensive. Neither, it seems, has happened.

Hoffman’s versatility trumped the stereotyping card, and he finds himself in three contending films this season, all wildly different, and all talked about as elements in the end-of-year sweepstakes: a supporting role in “Charlie Wilson’s War” and leads in “Savages” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” the latter in which he plays one of his more loathsome characters for veteran director Sidney Lumet. He gives a lot of credit to Lumet, who himself started as an actor in Yiddish theater and whose technique as a director Hoffman responded to.

“I had heard from other people who worked with Sidney about his reputation for extensive rehearsal and the way he used energy — that’s the way I put,” Hoffman says. “It was a very intelligent way. And only someone who thinks like an actor would understand. Other directors don’t work the same way, maybe because they don’t know anything about preparation.”

And on the speed of the characters — their constant pacing and inability to stay still — it all goes back to Lumet’s methodology.

“Once you understand his rhythm, you’re in it,” he says. “It doesn’t seem too crazy; it doesn’t seem too fast. Somehow, you never feel rushed. You know that when you’re here, you’re going to shoot.”

Born in the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Fairport, Hoffman attended the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. His breakthrough film was “Boogie Nights,” and then he came into the broader public’s consciousness with the Oscar win for “Capote.” Also busy onstage, he received Tony nominations for the 2000 revival of Sam Shepherd’s “True West” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (2003).

Stage takes up quite a bit of his time these days. He is co-artistic director of the Labyrinth Theater Co. of New York. His attitude about the differences between legit and screen is essentially that there is no difference.

“As long as it’s genuine,” he says. “There are always going to be people who are going to be made uncomfortable by humanity. They get uncomfortable seeing the real ugly side of people’s emotions. But I don’t believe in that. And I don’t try to differentiate.”

FAST FACTS

Next: In 2008, Hoffman will be co-starring in writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s pic “Synecdoche, New York” as well as the screen version of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” opening next December.

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