In the summer of 2001, some five weeks before the World Trade Center towers toppled and Manhattan became a still life, Central Park's Delacorte Theater was hosting yet another season of Shakespeare in the Park. This year in particular was especially remarkable because, with a possible Screen Actors Guild strike looming over the film industry, some of Hollywood's biggest names had headed to the Big Apple to appear on Broadway and in the Delacorte's free outdoor presentation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, starring — deep breath — Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden, John Goodman and the star of The Savages, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The Seagull's is arguably the greatest cast ever assembled on a theatrical stage, and the production did not disappoint. This writer, still living in Detroit at that time, had flown to New York for the show and, afterward, had the chance to meet Hoffman, not yet an Oscar winner. He was generous with his time, touched by the effort put into catching his performance (including a 15-hour stint sleeping on Central Park West to get tickets), and, since then, we've crossed paths four or five times.
Life has changed for Hoffman in the past six years, certainly, and one gauge of that is his patience with the press when talking about his work. With success, Hoffman experiences a level of scrutiny — for example, about his craft — that, it's safe to say, doesn't appeal to him. This shows up in his interviews, like the one he recently endured while pimping The Savages, the film written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills). In it, Hoffman and Laura Linney play self-centered siblings forced to deal with the declining health of their bastard father by admitting him to a nursing home.
"I was born from the earth," Hoffman intones, when asked if he had any particular family history that informed his performance. You know, like ailing parents. Realizing he's being an ass, though, he corrects himself. "No, I'm sorry. I'm tired. People have been asking that question all day. It's like, yeah, I have a family. We all have families. It's impossible to go into a film like this and not think of your family. But it's not my story, it's not my life."
The roundtable environment of press days is distasteful, especially to Hoffman. It's not a favorite of most filmmakers, in fact; six to 12 faces staring back at you, barraging you with questions, some as inane as what your plans for the holiday are. Who would enjoy this? Well, besides the effusive Quentin Tarantino, no one. Anyway, on this specific day, sitting in a Beverly Hills Four Seasons suite, Hoffman, looking disheveled as he always does when going casual, has reached his limit when it comes to lame questions like, Are you dealing with aging parents, too? "Of course I'm dealing with aging parents, and they're dealing with aging children," he responds. "We're all aging. Isn't that beautiful?"
Though these responses are oozing with good-natured sarcasm, he stays calm and unruffled so that, even though he's talking down to you, you don't feel that way until after. Don't take this the wrong way; it sounds like Hoffman is a dick of the highest degree, but that's not the case. He just doesn't enjoy asinine questions, which, unfortunately for him, are pretty much what roundtable interviews are all about. Remember that question about what his holiday plans are? That wasn't an exaggeration.
Getting back to the The Savages; Jenkins' script had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years by the time Hoffman came aboard. It was a personal passion-project for the director, and Hoffman had been in love with the script since he first read it. Hoffman plays an emotionally stunted professor who struggles with caring for a parent who never loved him.
"It's a story we might have seen before told in a very unique way, a very honest way," Hoffman says.
Hoffman, who won an Oscar in 2006 for his performance in Capote, has been able to build a successful career as a character actor in both low-budget fare like The Savages and Capote, a brilliant star-lifting turn in Boogie Nights and such mindless big-budget fun as Along Came Polly and Mission: Impossible 3. Only a few months ago, for example, he appeared in Sidney Lumet's tiny Before the Devil Knows You're Dead alongside Ethan Hawke, while this Christmas he stars opposite Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War (Nichols, by the way, directed The Seagull too; the two have been friends ever since).
Hoffman works religiously it seems, throwing himself into roles with an intensity that has earned him the title of his generation's best actor more than a few times, but he insists that, despite the rollercoaster nature of it all, his process keeps his sanity safe.
"I leave them behind immediately, but it's hard to get the motor running again," he says of his varied characters. "But once I've done something, I'm done, you know. It's like it didn't happen in my mind. To get the motor started again, though, that's tough because your mind and body are, 'Errr, don't work a lot. Take a break.'"
Though apparently not fond of discussing his "process," but cognizant of the fact moviegoers like to hear about it, Hoffman explains, "You look at what's similar between you and the character, and what is dissimilar," as if that clarifies everything. "There's a lot of this character that's similar to me," he continues, referencing his role in The Savages. "No transformation had to happen."
Considering how murky Hoffman's answers can be, it's not exactly far-fetched to press him about his acting style, but all he can say is, "Styles are weird things. You have a style. A style is a person's personality, you know what I mean?"
It's remarkable that, some 20 minutes into this conversation, Hoffman's said nothing substantial in response to our battery of questions. Clever guy. There's time for one more, specifically about what's up next for him. The answer: Doubt.
Another journalist in the room asks, "What's Doubt?"
At this point, it's not unreasonable for Hoffman to react with a bit of smugness, if only because one would expect a journalist to actually research the subject they're interviewing. But, hey, that's not always the case.
"Doubt?" Hoffman asks, surprised. "You know Doubt, right? It was a play on Broadway for two years. Won the Pulitzer. Sorry, I just thought you'd know about it."
It's hard not to feel bad for the guy as he leaves the room, but it's also impossible not to want to grab him, shake him and say, "Open up, reveal the stuff of your genius!"
Six years ago, he might have.
The Savages opens Christmas Day.Cole Haddon is film writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]