One of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, 41, won a Best Actor Oscar in 2006 for his role as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s Capote. It’s only as much as he deserved for a 17-year career that has seen him work with some of US cinema’s finest auteurs – from Todd Solondz (Happiness) to David Mamet (State and Main), Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) and Spike Lee (The 25th Hour). Most notably, he has worked with Paul Thomas Anderson four times (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love), though the Rochester-born Hoffman has been in his fair share of mainstream films – from Twister to Along Came Polly and Mission: Impossible 3.
In his latest film, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, from Miramax Films, he plays Father Flynn, a Brooklyn priest who is accused of inappropriate behavior with a pupil by a nun (Meryl Streep) at the Catholic School where they work. The film is something of a reunion for Hoffman, who already worked with Streep on Mike Nichols’ 2001 stage version of Chekhov’s The Seagull. He then went on to star with Amy Adams, who plays good-hearted nun Sister James, in Nichols’ 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War, for which he received the second Oscar nomination of his career. Below he discusses what it was like to reunite with old friends, and how he feels since winning an Oscar turned him into a celebrity.
You’ve worked on stage with Meryl Streep before, on The Seagull. Was this very different?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: It’s different because you’re shooting a film, but I think our enjoyment of working together was similar. I was younger then, and I just met her, so we were getting to know each other. And I’ve known her since then. I’ve worked with her again and seen her outside of that environment, so it was different because we were older, so it was more of a peer situation. Still, it’s Meryl Streep. She’s heading the ship. You get a lot from her. I take her lead. I bring all I bring. She’s going to give me a lot, so I know that. I’m very affected by what she’s doing.
You’ve also worked with Amy Adams before on Charlie Wilson’s War. How is she?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: She opens you up. She makes you true. Amy’s great. I’d work with her in a heartbeat.
Did you find out anything surprising about the priests you met in the course of your research?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Nothing was surprising. I just went to learn about what they do. What things meant. The history in ’64, the changes in the church. They’re people… I didn’t go into it past running mass, and sermons and what they’re wearing and what they’re doing. I didn’t get into it past that, and the history, because there was no need to.
It shows them as quite fun-loving compared to the nuns…
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Well, for that half-hour that they’re eating. People are always like, ‘They’re partying!’ and I’m like, ‘Well, they’re having dinner!’ They could be done in fifteen minutes and all go to bed. I don’t know how much gallivanting they do, after having dinner.
Did you understand their mentality? It’s not like it’s a regular profession…
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Yes, it is. I would disagree with you. I think it’s an incredibly well known, popular profession. Don’t you? The Catholic Church is huge! You know what I’m saying? I think it’s very common. A lot of people are priests. A lot of people have given themselves to the Catholic Church. A lot of people. Millions.
But these people live their job like few others…
Philip Seymour Hoffman: No, but I’m addressing the fact that you said it’s not common. What I find interesting is that it’s not so uncommon. That’s what I find interesting. A lot of people commit themselves to the church. And I can understand that. I think there’s a freedom in not having relationships in your life and not taking vows. You don’t have a lot and it’s just you. There’s a certain freedom to being on your own and not having a lot. I always relate it to being young. When you’re young, and you have no money, there’s a certain freedom. It’s uncomplicated. But you’re also free to have that relationship with God, you’re free to do your studies, you’re free to give over to things. I can understand that. I think anyone can really understand that. I just relate it to being young and not having anything, and that feeling. You don’t have much and you’re struggling. You don’t know what’s going to happen. But there’s a real joy at that time too. A real freedom.
Did any actor or person inspire you for role?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I didn’t have any role model for this.
Are you expecting a reaction from the Catholic Church?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: No-one from the Catholic Church has talked to me about it at all. The play’s been running in this world for over two years. If the Catholic Church had wanted to come down hard on it, they already would’ve. It won a Pulitzer Prize. This play has been at every city in this country for three years. It’s been performed all over the world.
How do you see the word ‘doubt’ in relation to recent US history?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I think the ‘doubt’ was about the fact that if you had doubt about what was happening, about choices that the government was making, at a certain time you were considered unpatriotic. But that’s what you were thought of as. Nothing happened to you. But people were scared, or rather intimidated, to speak out. But that changed a while ago. Probably around 2005 the country started revolting against the war. Definitely there was a majority forming, speaking out. It stopped being that if you had doubt, and were questioning the actions of the government, it was an issue – because people were doing it all the time. It changed about three years ago in my view, where it became the majority and Bush started having a hard time and now is one of the most unpopular presidents that we’ve ever had. So I think that doubt, that questioning something, was an issue for a little while. And people fought against that. There was a revolt against that. They didn’t want to live and feel scared while questioning and doubting what was happening, because they were, and I do think this film does have that issue in a big way. I think that Father Flynn is talking about that at the top, saying, ‘I don’t want you to feel shame for doubting. I actually want you to bring it here. Let’s come together on that topic – that being completely sure about what we believe in or what we think is an impossible thing, really.’ You can only be sure for so long or eventually you’ll start questioning what you’re doing. I think so. I think that’s what he’s saying.
Have you wanted to become an actor since you were little?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: No, no, no. Probably when I was in my mid to late teens. I’d been going to the theatre since I was 10 or 12. I always loved the theatre. I got into plays in high school and then I ended up going to college for it. So it was around then that I thought it was something I wanted to do.
You were a wrestler in high school, right?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: In high school – but I injured my neck, so that’s when I auditioned for my play.
These days, you’re also a theatre director with the LAByrinth Company in New York. What is your goal with them?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: We do new plays in our company so we have writers in the company that write for the actors in the company. We’ve been producing new work for the last fourteen years. So hopefully we’re creating some writers that people will use in the future. That’s our goal.
You recently had a play, Riflemind, that you directed close early in London. Were you disappointed?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: The audience response was pretty good. We weren’t getting enough of an audience at a certain point, because the reviews were pretty tough. But that happens. That’s the theatre. That’s the business I’m in.
Are you considering directing a movie?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe. Yeah. We’ll see. It’s not completely solidified yet. But there’s something I’d like to do. I don’t want to make directing film my day job by any means. But it’s something I would like to try in my life, and try to do and hopefully do well.
What has been the impact of the Oscar you won for Capote?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: You lose your anonymity more. Really, that’s the biggest impact. You become more known. And being more known does affect the business. The more people know who you are people are going to have more confidence in putting money behind a film you’re in. So that does take place. But other than that, that’s it. Other than that, you’re basically doing what you’re doing. I haven’t changed my way of life at all, or anything weird like that. I haven’t made any decisions differently based on that. I just try to be grateful for what it has offered.
So you have bought a private island yet?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Wouldn’t that be nice? Hard to run though!
Was there any negative aspect to the Oscar?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: It’s not the negative aspect to the Oscar. Take the Oscar out of it. The Oscar is something that happens in your life. And you’re grateful for it. I really mean that. You’re grateful for anything that comes into your life that can open more doors. But, no, when you become more well-known you lose your anonymity more, and there’s positives and negatives to that.
How do you react to that?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: It depends. There’s times when you’re having a conversation with your five year-old son, and someone interrupts that without saying ‘excuse me,’ and then you say, ‘I can’t talk,’ and they get mad at you. There are moments like that. They happen. But they’re rare. Well, not really rare but in the lower percentage. The majority of people are quite respectful. But people lose their sense of pride. It’s a weird thing. The positives outweigh the negatives. People are very appreciative. People like to go to movies and the theatre, and they do appreciate it if they like what you did.
Are you surprised that you have become more famous? How did it happen?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Life happens. And there you are. You do start to audition for films and you do get that job. And then you think, ‘OK, I’ll make a movie once in a while and do my theatre thing.’ All of a sudden you’re 29 and somebody stares at you in a restaurant and you think they don’t like you or they want to fight you or you know them and you forgot their name. Then you realize they saw your movie and they know you. And that’s shocking. It’s like losing your left arm. You don’t understand that. You walk along life anonymous and then suddenly you’re not anonymous. It just happens because you’re following the work. But you don’t think you’re going to be a famous person. You think you might make a movie, you might do some plays but you don’t ever think you’ll be famous.
Really? Is that true?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: No. It’s funny. I was reading William Goldman’s book [Hype and Glory] – it’s about when he was on the jury in Cannes and on the jury at the American beauty pageant. Really great. He’s a wonderful writer. Very funny. But he said this thing about when actors become actors they know what they’re getting into. I read that and thought, ‘Oh God, that’s so not true!’ It’s just categorically false. Yeah, I’m sure there’s a group of actors that do know, that want to be in the movies, and want to be movie stars. But there’s a whole bunch of us that got into acting because we went to our regional theatres and saw All My Sons. Or wanted to do Off-Broadway and ride a bike to the theatre. That’s what I thought was going to be my life. I had no idea I was going to be on a screen.
You’re coming up in Richard Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked. How was that experience?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: He’s a wonderful guy. I really like him a lot actually. I hope we stay friends. He’s a really great ‘hang.’ That’s what I say when it’s somebody you can hang with easily. I really can just sit and talk with him for hours. And there was a lot of stuff filming on a boat, in the middle of the ocean. We were off Weymouth. We got out about a mile or two. It’s a great group. I play an American DJ.
Do your children want to become actors?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: They’re too young to know.
So now you’re a movie star, father and theatre director, do you find you have no spare time?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: That movie star part! It’s so funny. I just can’t keep up with the movie star part! Yeah, but you must relate. I’m 41 now. It seems like there’s not enough time. It is hard to juggle and hard to find time but I don’t think that’s unique to me. You’ve accumulated what you’ve been striving for, and you get to certain point and you have a life. I do think that’s common. Being famous makes no difference. Everyone has that experience.
Interview By: Emma Loggins