Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career — nearly 20 years of extraordinary roles, mixing up the delicate and sensitive with the obsessed and monstrous — is defined as much by himself as those he has chosen to work with. “Collaboration defines your path,” says the 42-year-old actor. “You go where there’s the people who want to work with you; you go where there’s other people that you desire to be with every day; you go where you feel most at home.”
For Hoffman, home has meant a group of consistent creative relationships: Four features with Paul Thomas Anderson; some 15 years with the same Off Broadway theater company, LAByrinth and co-artistic director John Ortiz; one film written by his own brother, Gordy Hoffman — Todd Louiso’s “Love Liza” — and another by an old high school friend — Bennett Miller’s “Capote.”
He has long and lasting relationships, which probably is peculiar in this business,” says Miller, who plans to work with Hoffman again on a film called “Eat the Document.” “But once we started working with each other, the friendship went out the window a little bit, and it became a hardcore professional relationship.”
Hoffman’s dedication to the work has been there early on. While shooting 1998’s “Happiness,” producer Christine Vachon remembers the thesp’s commitment to the schedule, even missing the New York premiere of “Boogie Nights.” “It was clear that he was going places,” recalls Vachon. “I still feel guilty.”
And his portrayals, of course, are legendary — whether those pathetic figures in “Boogie Nights” and “Happiness” or his beguiling and insidious Truman Capote, for which he won the Oscar. “What makes Phil so compelling is that he plays these characters with a total absence of judgment,” says producer Anthony Bregman, who worked with Hoffman on “The Savages” and “Synecdoche, New York.” “He’s a master at internalizing and normalizing character flaws and making us understand and identify with them.”
Hoffman may be an indie-film darling, but he says he’s drawn to “independent-minded people,” no matter the size of the projects. “There’s no wall or scrim or different neighborhood working in Hollywood or independents,” he explains. “There are big-time studio producers who live in the West Village in New York and there are renegade noncommercial, artistic cinema people who live in West Hollywood.”
It’s just the business we live in has to do with economics, and you always have people who are willing to take risks on noncommercial things,” he continues. “For me, the definition of independent cinema is all the people who have wanted to make those films,” citing everyone from the folks at Killer Films (“Happiness”) and United Artists (backers of “Capote”) to Big Beach (producers of his latest, “Jack Goes Boating”) and Joel Schumacher, who gave Hoffman his first lead role in 1999’s “Flawless.” (“He introduced me to Robert De Niro for chrissakes,” Hoffman adds. “Every time I see that guy I wrap my arms around him.”)
Hoffman’s Sundance premiere, “Jack Goes Boating,” based on LAByrinth’s 2007 theater production by Bob Glaudini and the actor’s directorial feature debut, similarly came about as a result of his close associations. “I was definitely not that guy looking for something to direct,” he says. But when Big Beach approached the company about making the play into a film, Hoffman recalls, “I was sitting at a table with John and Bob, like I’ve been doing for the past decade of my life, and John said, ‘Why don’t you direct it?’ I’m like, ‘Then I don’t want to act in it.’ And he said, ‘No, you have to act and direct.’ ” Six months later, after Woody Harrelson was cast and then had to bow out, Hoffman took both the directing reins and also reprised his onstage role as Jack, a Rastafarian-loving limousine driver. “And like everything we’ve done before,” he says, “it wasn’t going to get made unless we just did it.”
It’s that same persistent, never-less-than-surprising approach that applies as much to Hoffman’s career and creative choices as the cinema that he has helped to define — and that he insists, will endure.
People always say the independent film movement is dead, but it’s not,” he emphasizes. “People are still out there making films, and they’re going to find a way to do it no matter what because they have to.”
HOFFMAN’S INDIE SAMPLER
“Synecdoche, New York”
It was an overwhelming experience. It’s about a guy who loses his family, and then you see him get remarried, have another child, leave that marriage, and then watch them all die, and then die himself, and the whole time, strive for something that he never actually gets to. And in the amount of nine weeks, you’re going to bring to life all those events. It was one of the truly great experiences I’ve had, bar none.
The Savages” (2007)
I realized I was a part of bringing to life a very personal part of this filmmaker, and there’s something very special about that, and that’s a huge responsibility and a pretty cool thing.
I don’t think I ever really got Capote. It was a very deep well; it was dark down there, so I was swimming around in it most of the time, and trying my best to express it, but it was hard to put your finger on him. Maybe halfway into the shoot, I eventually felt like I was able to walk onto the set without feeling like I don’t completely suck.
Owning Mahowny” (2003)
It was a great character. He was just such an addict; it was truly a study in addiction.
Love Liza” (2002)
I can honestly say that I put as much into that job as any job I’ve had, and it’s probably the lowest-funded film I’ve ever worked on.
I remember it being a really tough shoot, working 20-hour days. I auditioned for it five times, and (after) getting it I remember thinking I was the luckiest guy around.”