Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master

My strongest memory of interviewing Philip Seymour Hoffman about his directorial debut was how little he liked being interviewed. I’d met actors who didn’t love talking about their work but Hoffman was wearing the director’s ball-cap for the first time.  This was a roundtable interview to promote Jack Goes Boating — his first film as a “filmmaker.” And first time directors tend to be chatty and enthusiastic no matter how famous they are. But Hoffman… if he hadn’t looked so utterly disinterested I would have checked  the room to see if I could spot the person aiming the gun at his head forcing him to talk to us.

It was no secret the Oscar winning actor (Capote) — arguably the best American actor of his generation — had his demons. And today (Feb 2, 2014), at the age of 46, his demons killed him. According to the New York Times, “Investigators found a syringe in his left forearm, at least two plastic envelopes with what appeared to be heroin near where his body was found in a bathroom, and five empty plastic envelopes in a trash bin.”

I so wish this had just been another stupid, cruel internet hoax

Here’s the story I wrote about the interview for The Georgia Straight in Vancouver.

Toronto — Sitting at a table in a hotel room with a half dozen journalists, an unshaven Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Doubt) looks about as enthusiastic as most people do when they settle into a dentist’s chair – which is only fitting since getting answers about Jack Goes Boating his first feature in the director’s chair — is about as easy as pulling teeth.

“It’s not something I had pursued,” Hoffman says of directing. “It was something that made itself available.”

Originally written by Robert Glaudini as a stage play Hoffman directed the premiere for his 18-year-old off-Broadway theatre company, LAByrinth, which he runs with actor and coartistic director, John Ortiz (who sat next to him for this interview). Labyrinth began life as a rehearsal group — “Latino Actors Base” – but it soon evolved beyond the Latino community, with Hoffman joining in ’94.

Jack Goes Boating is a dry romantic comedy about two couples whose romances aren’t exactly shipshape. The film stars Hoffman, Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega – all of whom also starred in the stage premiere – alongside Academy Award nominee, Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone and also known for her stints on the HBO series, The Wire and the sitcom, The Office).

Although Ryan wasn’t in the stage premiere she was part of a reading of an early draft of the script. “She was just someone that I wanted, we all wanted,” says Hoffman. “I am so grateful she wanted to do it because I really can’t think of anyone else.  She truly was the person to play that role of Connie.”

So not only were the four leads cast, “way, way, way before we started shooting,” says Hoffman but the first time screen director also had a pretty clear idea of who most of his other players would be long before it was time to start shooting.

Speaking at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, Hoffman explained that when the stage play started attracting interest from a couple of film producers Ortiz urged Hoffman to direct the adaptation himself. “I started seeing it in my head and I thought, “yeah why not, let’s go.” Glaudini then wrote the screenplay — his feature writing debut.  Hoffman felt the switch from stage to screen was no big deal and noted that all sorts of classic film began their lives on stage.  “I was literally like, put the play into a screenplay.” And he did. And then it was like, “okay I’ll start working on it,” says Hoffman. “Movies come from everywhere.  Movies come from books, they come from articles, they come form someone’s head, they come from someone’s idea.”

Asked if anything about film directing surprised him, Hoffman pretty much rolled his eyes at the question. “People ask that question a lot – like “anything surprise you?”  I’m like, “what do you mean like ‘oh my god that happened’ I can’t believe that happened in my life!  This is so surprising!”

“I found a lot of things interesting. But nothing surprised me like. “I didn’t know film happened on your head!” You have to actually bounce on your head when you make a movie. It’s crazy. I’m surprised.”

Not surprisingly, Hoffman took a very theatrical approach to his screen directing debut, making sure he had a lot of rehearsal time to work with his cast/costars. He also shot the movie in a relatively linear fashion.

“What’s so great about directing a film – there’s just so many people along the way who you are working with, and you’re jamming with, and ideas are flowing,” says Hoffman. “You have all these people that you’re having conversations with.  And ideas are coming – like you almost forget where ideas came from in a lot of ways… But the idea of being a leader is that you make the decision eventually.”

Hoffman perked up a bit when he was asked why he’s still passionate about theatre now that he’s a bonafide movie star. “It is kind of like you’re given the hex.  You know, the vampire bit you.  Definitely the people who are in the theatre stay in the theatre because it’s an essential thing to a society and there are people who understand that and I also think that the satisfaction of actually doing it well is great because it’s hard to do… And there’s a ritualistic aspect to it that really is kind of shaman-like eight times a week,” says Hoffman. “There’s something that happens between an audience and an actor and a play and on any given night that is astounding in it’s power.  And when that happens, you’re hooked.”

Hoffman is definitely hooked… Next up for the Oscar winning actor is a trip to Sydney, Australia to direct a stage production of Sam Sheppard’s classic, True West.

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