In image-conscious, ego-driven Hollywood, it’s gratifying to see a guy as average-looking, mild-mannered, and seemingly down-to-earth as Philip Seymour Hoffman make good. It helps that he’s a terrific actor, but mere talent doesn’t always guarantee this much success: Since graduating from the Tisch School Of The Arts in 1989, Hoffman has worked steadily as a stage director and actor, with two Tony nominations to his credit. He entered film with small roles in features including Scent Of A Woman and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, but since his breakthrough role in Anderson’s Boogie Nights, he’s assembled a string of strong, memorable performances in films including Flawless, Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, State And Main, Happiness, Almost Famous, Punch-Drunk Love, and 25th Hour. More recently, he’s tended toward lead or co-lead roles, in Love Liza; Synecdoche, New York; Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead; and The Savages, even playing a smirking action villain in Mission: Impossible III. And in 2006, he won a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Truman Capote in Capote.
Now, Hoffman is breaking into film directing with Jack Goes Boating, a quiet, ruminative story about a lonely New York limo driver who slowly recreates himself in order to connect with love interest Amy Ryan. The film is an adaptation of a play Hoffman starred in Off-Broadway; Hoffman again plays the lead, reuniting with much of the play’s cast. He recently sat down with The A.V. Club in Chicago to talk about his film-directing debut, the advocacy that makes a good actor, and why he’d rather not meet out-of-towners.
The A.V. Club: At what point did you realize you wanted to adapt Jack Goes Boating into a film?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Well, I didn’t really realize that. When we were rehearsing the play, we would talk about its cinematic qualities, just the technical ones, because there are scenes in a pool, and in subway cars, and on lakes, and in snow. The scenes in the play are in all these places, and we had talked about where those places would be in New York. A lot of the story’s about Jack visualizing, seeing things in his head. But I was just doing this play; I had no thought in the world about doing a film. [Playwright] Bob [Glaudini] had written a draft of a screenplay of it at one point while we were doing the play, but I hadn’t read it, because I was doing the play and I didn’t want to be distracted. And then we finished, and Big Beach had seen it, Peter Saraf. Danny Rosett, Chris McGurk at Overture had seen it, and they all thought it would be a good film. Which made sense, because of what we were thinking about the settings. And so we met with them, Cooper’s Town, my production company, and [Jack Goes Boating co-star] John Ortiz, and Bob of Big Beach, and they wanted to make it into a film. And John said, “Why don’t you direct the film?”, because I had directed a lot of plays with the theater company over the year. So I said, “All right, yeah, maybe that’s right.” But it took me a while to think about it. So that’s really how it happened; it wasn’t like I was looking for a film to direct and this was the film. It was more in that moment, going, “Hey, maybe I should be the guy to do this.”
AVC: But had you been thinking about going into film directing at some point?
PH: I think in the back of my mind, because I’d been directing theater for a while, and I acted in film often. People asked me that a lot, and I would be like, “Well, maybe, we’ll have to see.” But I don’t think you really look for a specific thing to do. I think something comes to you, and you realize, “Oh, that’s the thing.” I don’t think you’re like, “God, I want to make a cop movie.” Sometimes you think things like that, but ultimately, what you end up doing is not in your plans, it’s something else, and you have to be open to that.
AVC: Being a film director is so different from being a theater director, in part because you have so much responsibility for exactly where the audience is looking at any given time. Were you conscious of that difference?
PH: Well, in the theater, I think you’re actually more responsible for what is going on onstage as a director than you are in film. Because in film, there’s the director of photography, who truly oversees how it’s being shot and how it’s being lit. The director and the director of photography collaborate on how to do that, so the director has a great influence, but ultimately, the director of photography is overseeing the whole group of people through the whole thing. Then you have the editor, who is also going to be influencing how that story unfolds. Whereas in the theater, you’re overseeing the whole thing. In film, you have to let go sometimes. When you’re editing the film, sometimes you have to take the day off and let the editor work. Because you start to get too subjective, and you need to walk away and let people do what they’re doing and come back in, and then maneuver around again. I actually deferred much more as a film director than as a theater director. I was much more micromanaging in the theater world than I was in the film world, and I think that’s good.
AVC: A lot of directors are aggressive micromanagers even in cinematography and editing, though. Do you think your relationship to your DP and other collaborators will change as you get more experience as a director?
PH: Depends on who they are. I know some really talented directors who could definitely shoot and edit their own film, but their DPs and editors are very specific people, and they’re those people because they trust that the conversations they’ve had with them will influence how they go about doing what they’re going to do. But they’re not in there micromanaging everything. They’ve had the conversation, they know what they want, and ultimately it has to be filtered through that director, or else the directors would be doing it themselves. You’d be Steven Soderbergh, shooting your own films.
AVC: You reportedly approached this very much like a theatrical production, rehearsing heavily with the actors and with the camera movements and the technical staff. Did you think of it in the same way as a theatrical production?
PH: Well that’s what they do in films, actually. They don’t do a lot of rehearsal with the actors sometimes, but the DP and the director, after they’ve done all the scouting and they know where they’re going to shoot, they visit that place before you go and shoot, and what that visit entails is not only “How are we going to shoot this?” because those things need to be answered, because there are technical things that need to be dealt with, like “How are we going to get electricity?” Those decisions have to be made before the day comes.
AVC: Sure, but again, some directors are more aggressive than others about planning and advance setup. When we interview actors about their film experiences with specific directors, there’s always a wide gamut between “I showed up on set, and he was ready to shoot, and boom, boom, boom,” vs. “I showed up on the set, and I waited for three hours while they fiddled with lights.”
PH: Yeah, but that’s just about preparation. That’s not about theater, that’s just about preparation.
AVC: Do you prefer acting in films where there’s that kind of rehearsal with the actors beforehand, that kind of preparation?
PH: Again, it depends on the kind of director, the material, and the part, the scene itself. Some things, it’s good to leave up to chance a little bit. But I think when you’re directing something, preparation’s huge. I think the more prepared you are, the more capable you are of dealing with the unknown, to be quite honest. The more open you are to things changing in the moment. The more prepared you are, the more loose you can actually be about how you’re going about doing things.
AVC: You don’t find it limiting if you’ve pinned a scene down by doing it the same way too many times?
PH: But you haven’t—you can’t, because it’s film. You’ve been rehearsing, and the DP might be there, and you might be talking about shots, and you go visit the location before you start shooting, and talk about it, but you haven’t actually done it. That’s the thing about film. No matter how much you prepare, you’re going to show up and do it that day, and only that day. And so it’s never going to be like it was in rehearsal. It’s suddenly different because there’s the camera, the actor comes in, in costume, and sits down, and you’re like, “All right. Actually, you know what, let’s try something new here.” Maybe the actor starts off a little bit rough. I think the more prepared you are, the more ready and willing you are to deal with new things that come along. Because they’re always going to come. It’s inevitable.
AVC: Does that uncertainty ever provoke anxiety? Were you ever worried on the day of a shoot, when it didn’t turn out as exactly as you’d envisioned it?
PH: Well it did provoke anxiety, but it’s problem-solving. Creating something is all about problem-solving. Any kind of creation, it’s like, “Well, how am I going to do that?” And so on the days when we run into “Well, we can’t shoot it that way,” we say, “Well, we have to shoot it, so what are we going to do?” You solve it. You have to solve it, so you do.
AVC: Is it the same with acting, then? Is creating a character also about problem-solving?
PH: Absolutely. It’s all problem-solving. Because that’s what people are doing in their lives. Right now, we’re solving problems, right in this very moment. So as an actor, you’re trying to figure out what problem your character is solving, and how they go about solving it, what are the obstacles in the way of solving it, are they aware that they’re actually trying to solve it? That’s a big thing.
AVC: In the production notes for Jack Goes Boating, you talk about how Jack is a cool guy. That isn’t a description most people who watch Hollywood movies would use for him. But it does very much sound like something an actor would say. Is part of the problem-solving of acting finding the part of a character that’s cool or relatable or interesting?
PH: Well, that’s not necessarily true; I think that what actors try to do is learn how to advocate for a character. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like them at all. So if I’m playing somebody who isn’t a good person, or their actions are saying something loud and clear about something judgmental or critical of other people, if you’re going to play that person, you have to learn how to advocate for them. That doesn’t necessarily mean you think they’re cool, or you like them. So that’s essential. But Jack, I think there’s a lot to like about Jack, I think Jack’s a good guy. You know what I mean? I don’t think actually I would ever describe him as cool; I don’t know where that came from.
AVC: It’s in the press notes as a quote from you.
PH: I think somebody else probably thinks that about him. But cool is—I try not to sit there when I’m working on a part, or when I’m directing an actor. I try not to get them to think about whether they like their characters, or if they’re good. I try to get them to think about how would they advocate for their position.
AVC: What characters of yours were hardest to advocate for?
PH: I don’t find it hard for characters. I think if you start to look at something from someone else’s perspective, it starts to make sense. But you have to allow yourself to do that. And I think that that’s why some people are actors and some people aren’t. I think the people that are good at it are the people who allow themselves to create empathy for people who they might in life judge very harshly. I think people in life do it too, but some people have a harder time letting go of their judgment. That doesn’t make them a worse or better person. But as an actor, you definitely have to, as you’re playing that part, not worry about how you think about that character, that person. In life, a lot of people might be able to do that intellectually, understand “Well I can see why that person would do that,” but still think “Yeah, but fuck them.”
Do you know what I mean? Actors have to go, “I don’t just have to understand how to think like this person, I actually have to personalize it,” and make it their own somehow, and advocate for the character. And that’s a step that isn’t very comfortable all the time, and isn’t very easy all the time. But that’s that art form, and that’s what they do.
AVC: So why wouldn’t good actors be more sympathetic or empathetic on average with people in real life?
PH: I think people are empathetic or not, but actors understand, “Oh, if I’m going to play that part, I need to figure out a way to advocate for that person. I need to find a way to allow that to happen.” That doesn’t mean that in life they’re not judgmental, maybe colder than most sometimes. I know some really great actors who are pretty judgmental people, pretty critical people. But they’re great actors. When they’re acting, that’s the craft.
AVC: Once you get to a certain point of fame, though, there are so many demands on your time, and so many people who want to use you or suck up to you. Famous people tend to pull away from other people. Does that interfere with the empathy process?
PH: Well, I’m not at that point. I definitely—it’s trickier for me to, in certain circumstances and certain places, to kind of enter into the crowd. But not as much as others. So I still find a way. My life is still very much, I walk out of my building and I go about my day. And so I still have the opportunity to not be cut off. But I know some people where that’s impossible. And I don’t know what you do in that circumstance. But I think it’s a good question, and it’s probably a question they ask themselves a lot, and that they know they have to deal with somehow. And I think the people that are aware of that do find a way. Because it’s essential; it’s essential that you’re in your life with other people, anonymously, somehow. But you’re right; it’s a catch-22 situation. Because the more famous you get, you’re not anonymous anymore, and so to observe life in an anonymous way becomes more and more difficult.
AVC: You have a reputation as being a relatable person who hasn’t let fame get in the way of having a life, approaching strangers, and getting close to people. Is that something you’ve fought to maintain in part so you can continue to understand people?
PH: Well, I do my best not to feed into any aspect of fame when it comes up. If I ever get a sense that if I say this or I do that, it could feed into that dynamic, I stay away from that. I think some people navigate the waters of being very well known very well, actually. But I actually just don’t even want to go there. And I think that has more to do with how I am as a person. I don’t like to be the center of attention; I really don’t think I’m that guy, and when I am, it’s for a reason. And I think part of it is that if you just keep attacking your day like you would no matter what, people start to get used to you. So I might be walking by a lot of people during the day, they’re like, “Oh! That’s Phil Hoffman!” But if they keep seeing me walk by them all the time, they’re like, “Oh, Phil Hoffman.” It stops becoming important. So that’s why if I go to a different city, all of a sudden I’m reminded again. But in New York, or in Chicago, towns I’ve been in or mingled in enough, they see you and there you are, and hopefully you don’t run into the person from out of town. [Laughs.] Who doesn’t know you like that, and is just completely overwhelmed that they’re seeing you.
AVC: Did winning an Oscar change that radically? Did it make you more recognizable, or make it harder for you to move around?
PH: Well, not harder to move, but I think you do become more recognizable. I think that’s the biggest thing. Because during the process of that kind of awards season, a lot of people see your face over a long period of time all the time, and you become saturated, and then you become more recognizable. But then that comes and goes with what you’re doing in your career. And then you start to grow older, and you start to look different, and you’re doing different things. And people relate to you with what they’re seeing at that time. I’m just shocked—all of a sudden I realize, “Oh, Happiness is on cable,” because all these people are like, “Oh, I just saw you!” And I’m like, “Oh, they recognize me because everyone’s watching that film on HBO right now.” That’s kind of the most enjoyable aspect of being somebody whose art form is kind of to be seen. The different films that people bring up. I enjoy that, because it is wildly different. It’s never just one thing.
AVC: Is there any project you’re particularly glad to hear people bring up?
PH: What I like is when you run into a person you might make an assumption about, and then they tell you which film of yours they like, and you’re like, “Oh really? Wow!” That’s a moment that’s very pleasurable. You meet someone and you think they’re just going to bring up Mission Impossible III, and they talk about Owning Mahowny. That’s satisfying, because then you’re affirmed about films you make that you might be proud of, that you think people aren’t seeing, or that a certain kind of people aren’t seeing. And it turns out that they are. It does have impact, and it does have this effect, it does live on. In those moments, I get affirmed, in those moments, it isn’t… These things don’t go out into the abyss of darkness, never to be seen again.
AVC: Your roles are different in specific parameters, but your character in, say, Owning Mahowny, or Synecdoche, New York, or Jack Goes Boating, among others—they’re all sad, troubled, awkward men trying to find their way in life. Do you worry about typecasting? Particularly about typecasting yourself, by putting yourself in a familiar role?
PH: Well, then I have Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, and Flawless, and The Savages, and I could go on and on about the parts that aren’t those guys. I think that people relate to sad people, is what I think. I really do. I think people don’t want to relate to the guy in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. But I think actually, I’ve played more parts that aren’t those guys than those guys. I think they sit with people. Those characters are meditative. They offer something to people that I think is essential. Whereas the guy I play in Mission Impossible III, it’s like, I don’t want to run into that guy. It isn’t meditative. It’s a different thing those characters do.
AVC: When you played Truman Capote for Capote, you talked about how you had to stay in that character as much as possible over the weeks of shooting, because if you let it go, you had trouble getting it back. Have you experienced that with other roles?
PH: The character in Flawless was like that too. Those two characters stand out the most, because vocally and physically, they were wildly different from how I physically am and vocally am. It wasn’t a Method-y or psychological thing at all; it was purely athletic. It was purely physical. It was just that it was work to behave like that, and then to infuse it with all the emotional and logical work I was doing. So the minute I would let myself not be like that, it was very hard to pick it back up. And I relate it to sports, because if you’re a runner and you’re running, and you’re 30 minutes into your run, and you know you want to do an hour, that if all of a sudden you’re like, “I gotta…” or you have to go to the bathroom, or something, you realize you can’t stop, because you wont start again. So that’s what it was like. The minute I put it down at the end of the day, it was done, and I didn’t want to see it again until the next morning.
AVC: Was there any problem like that here, with switching back and forth between acting and directing?
PH: There was, because this character is a distinct character, and I had to be somebody who’s incredibly vulnerable and unsure and full of doubt and all these things were happening, where as a director, I wasn’t that way. So it was difficult. I had of kind to get my shit together and focus.