I’m still in shock about the sudden and untimely death of
Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s not just that we’ve lost one of the best actors of
our time, or the realization that he leaves behind a partner and three young children.
It’s that a man with such a great gift got caught in the grip of addiction and
let it overtake his life. (Ironically, one of my favorite performances of his
is in the 2003 film Owning Mahowny,
about a man who is addicted—to gambling. I never dreamt that he might have had
a personal connection to the character.)
I’ve been reading the transcript of an interview I did with Hoffman at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2006, right after he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Capote, and there are some passages I want to share with you today.
He spoke about the moment he was overtaken by the magic of theater. “My Mom was a huge theatergoer and a huge moviegoer, too—still is. She took me to the theater for the first time and the play was All My Sons. I was twelve. It’s a great play and at the end of the play the father goes off stage and kills himself. It’s a very sappy, corny memory but I remember thinking I had found something that no one knew about. I just could not get over the fact that these people in front of me were getting me to believe something that was not happening. I matured in that two hours just experiencing that.”
I asked if that inspired him to try out for plays in school but he explained that he was involved in athletics then. “I was a baseball player and I played a little football and I didn’t think I’d ever be an actor. I just thought ‘I’ll be a professional theatergoer,’ you know? To this day, I kind of prefer watching sometime, ‘cause I really do love it…there’s nothing better than that.
“I got injured when I was a sophomore in high school, injured pretty bad, wrestling. My mom said, ‘Well, why don’t you go out for the play?’ I’ve told this story many times. There was this girl who was a senior and she was gonna go out for the play. I remember I was walking down the hall and I had my baseball mitt in my hand, and I think I was contemplating whether to still play baseball. I was walking down the hallway and she was walking the other way. You know, back then two years seems, like, forever, and she seemed older and grander. [I said] ‘Where are you going?’ and she said, ‘Oh, I’m going to try out for the play.’ I kept walking, and I remember putting the glove in my locker… I went and auditioned for the play because she was in there.
“Then I got in a play and I thought I had found—just like when I found sports when I was a young kid, it was the same feeling. I thought I had found something else where I felt like I should be.”
Eventually, during our long conversation, I asked him about the rewards he continued to receive from his chosen profession. He admitted feeling uncomfortable about praise—and awards—and offered this observation.
“I teach acting sometimes—not a lot, but once in a while—and what I really try to say to them, ‘cause I know it’s true, is that if you’re doing a play or you’re shooting a film the way you feel after a performance that night, or a day of work, if you’ve done well, is the best it gets. You don’t need anyone to tell you anything because you did well and that feeling—I always say it’s like when you can go home and fall asleep and wake up well-rested. That’s as good as it gets, because everything else is fleeting…and that feeling stays with you. It’s what keeps you going back to work.”
We’ll always have the work Philip Seymour Hoffman did on film to remind us of his enormous talent. I only wish he had licked his demons so we could have had more.