The Talented Mister Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman may be an unassuming looking man, but as Anthony Quinn discovered, he is an actor to be reckoned with
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The Independent Online

Philip Seymour Hoffman: you might have heard the name, you probably know the face. He's the kind of actor who sneaks into your consciousness. I first spotted him as a member of the tornado-chasing team in Jan De Bont's ridiculous Twister (1996), but it was as the gay gofer yearning for Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights (1997) that he commanded the attention. Then he started stealing shows on a pretty regular basis; as the cringing assistant in The Big Lebowski, the lonely crank-caller in Todd Solondz's stupendous Happiness, an incomparable Ivy League brute in The Talented Mr Ripley. He even emerged with honour from the ghastly Robin Williams' sobfest Patch Adams.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: you might have heard the name, you probably know the face. He's the kind of actor who sneaks into your consciousness. I first spotted him as a member of the tornado-chasing team in Jan De Bont's ridiculous Twister (1996), but it was as the gay gofer yearning for Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights (1997) that he commanded the attention. Then he started stealing shows on a pretty regular basis; as the cringing assistant in The Big Lebowski, the lonely crank-caller in Todd Solondz's stupendous Happiness, an incomparable Ivy League brute in The Talented Mr Ripley. He even emerged with honour from the ghastly Robin Williams' sobfest Patch Adams.

So it's a bit of a treat to be having lunch with America's most interesting actor on this drizzly Saturday afternoon, even if the interview isn't panning out quite as I would like. For one thing, Hoffman seems a little tired, having stepped off a plane only yesterday in order to promote Joel Schumacher's comedy thriller Flawless (released next week), in which plays a drag queen who gives singing lessons to Robert De Niro's homophobic stroke victim. For another, he seems a little bored by my questions, restricting himself in the first fifteen minutes to a "Yeah, great" or an "Uh-huh" or a "No, not really", though it may simply have been that he was more interested in chowing down the club sandwich parked chunkily before him. "No thanks, I'm set," he replies to a waitress who asks him if he needs anything else. He's a less pudgy figure than his screen persona would suggest, while the geeky designer spectacles, ginger stubble and dark suit bear the modest aura of a man who would prefer not to be noticed.

He was born in Rochester, NY, "kind of a jock town", where he grew up as a keen sportsman. He played baseball and football for a couple of years ("but didn't much like getting hit"), though it was an injury sustained in wrestling that finally did for him. So he turned to his high school theatre, and decided that the stage might be his natural home. He studied acting at NYU, and having paid his dues in provincial theatre, got his major break in the Al Pacino movie Scent of a Woman in 1992. The work continued off and on until Paul Thomas Anderson cast him in his first movie Hard Eight in 1996, and a great actor-director collaboration was born. Anderson wrote the part of Scotty J for him in Boogie Nights, and then another as a gentle health-care worker who effects a reconciliation between Tom Cruise and his estranged father in the brilliant, rambling Magnolia.

Hoffman isn't one for grandiloquent theories about acting, but it's clear that he is very particular about his craft. "I like to be involved with movies that have a vision, that have a person who's steering the ship. Things that look like everyone's doing it because it's a job, they're not interesting to me." Was Patch Adams a job? "Yeah, it was kind of a money job, but more important, it was a great opportunity to work with Robin Williams." Excuse me? Is he a fan? Hoffman marks the incredulous note in my question. "Robin Williams has got to be one of the most incredible minds I've ever met. He's extraordinary - extraordinary. His sense of imagination is wider than anyone's I've ever known, his mind moves faster than a normal human mind."

So why does he make such terrible movies? "Well, that's your opinion, but don't think he's made such terrible movies. I liked Good Will Hunting, I thought Good Morning, Vietnam was pretty good, The World According to Garp is one of my favourite movies."

Well, I did ask, and now that Hoffman is objecting to my slight, I feel obliged to trot out my riff on Robin Williams: that the one-time madcap comic genius has turned into the clown prince of mawkishness, a pathos chaser and a sanctimonious ham. Hoffman is not impressed: "Yeah, but people love, love, love to feel that way about somebody, the way you feel about him - you enjoy it. It's great to make judgments on someone based on their career choices, I've done the same thing. But I've had the luxury and the luck to meet a lot of these people, and those judgments usually turn out to be wrong. With Robin Williams, I'd show up every day on the Patch Adams set and meet him in make-up while he was reading his paper - and I realised I'd be looking forward to talking with him. I knew I could rib him on something and he'd get it immediately, he'd laugh - he has this vibrancy not many people have. He's... unique!"

Feeling vaguely chastened, I decide to move on. In an admiring profile of the actor, David Thomson wrote: "I have a hunch that Philip Seymour Hoffman could last as long as Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet - and change the way we think about guys". I quote this to Hoffman, who responds very graciously: "I'm glad somebody thinks that, it's what you hope for - that people watch movies and think 'I haven't seen that before, or I have seen that before and I'm glad to be seeing it again'.''

Thomson touches on something vital about Hoffman's appeal: he's a stirring example of a breed that seemed to be dying, the character actor. I'd previously thought this might mean the kiss of death for him as a lead, yet advance word about his role in the new David Mamet film State and Maine happily argues otherwise: he's the lead, and a romantic one at that. "Yes, but he's also a character," Hoffman reflects. "Every part you play is a character - I think almost everyone's odd. A lot of who I am is in this part, there's a certain fearful, bumbling quality about this guy that I see in myself." He then slightly revises this: "I'm more forthright than this character. Like our conversation about Robin Williams, he couldn't have done that."

What you might also call Hoffman right now is busy. He's back to New York tomorrow to start rehearsals for a new play, Jesus Up The A-Train, for his own Labyrinth Theatre Company. In January he's doing a film called Love Liza, that his brother, Gordy, has written. Then it's another supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson's new picture, followed by a summer doing The Seagull in Central Park. British audiences can look forward more immediately to his terrific cameo as the journalist Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. "I do love to work," he admits. Does he have a private life? "Not much, right now. It's like, wherever I can get it." As we say our goodbyes, Hoffman charmingly offers an apology about the Robin Williams thing, which makes me feel bad about bringing up the subject in the first place. I wish I'd just quoted his character's wonderful line from Happiness on hearing his neighbour confess that she's just killed the doorman in their building: "Well... we all have our pluses and minuses." And left it at that.

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