Philip Seymour Hoffman probably wouldn’t want to be described as a character actor anymore. But for me, this is my favorite kind of actor: all those guys who appeared in supporting roles in Preston Sturges movies (e.g. William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Franklin Pangborn), all those Italian-Americans used by Coppola, Scorsese,Lumet, and David Chase (e.g. John Cazale, David Proval, Vincent Curatola), all those doughy, waddly guys who pull their big weight in small roles (e.g. Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, Kenneth McMillan). At the time of this article, four years before Capote, Hoffman was in transition from beloved character actor to alternative male lead.
Around my house, we had a special word—well, it was my brother’s special word—for an actor who steals a scene, or even an entire movie, with a great performance in a smallish role. Such an actor was called a Moe—for making the MOst of his MOment. The archetypal Moe was a decrepit old codger who turns up in one scene of the 1987 film Barfly. He’s shuffling down a littered street, apparently at death’s door, when the Mickey Rourke character asks him to light the Faye Dunaway character’s cigarette. Momentarily buoyed by having a purpose in life, the codger brightens and revives as he proffers the light, tremulously addressing Dunaway as “my lady”—only to return immediately thereafter to stricken despair as he shuffles out of the frame. It’s a throwaway moment but a magnificent one, a seriocomic gin-mill playlet enacted by an anonymous geezer giving his all. Recently, my brother looked this guy up on the Internet Movie Database and discovered his name to be Fritz Feld. He is credited as “Bum.” He was 87 at the time, performing in the third-to-last film of a 131-movie career during which he seldom rose above the level of bit player. To this day, my brother longs to hold a Moe Awards ceremony at which statuettes in the image of Fritz Feld (as Bum) would be conferred on those actors who, in his words, “nail their bit so decisively as to create a permanent movie memory.” Bronson Pinchot would win a Moe for his fey art-gallery employee in Beverly Hills Cop. Benicio Del Toro would get a Moe for his wigged-out, offed-inthe-first-reel hoodlum in The Usual Suspects. Judi Dench would get a Moe for her brief appearance as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, a more proportionately appropriate award than the Oscar she actually won. Further Moes would go to Christopher Walken for playing Diane Keaton’s tightly wound brother in Annie Hall, to Mason Gamble for playing Jason Schwartzman’s half-pint sidekick in Rushmore and to whoever played the barkeep in My Darling Clementine, who, when asked, “You ever been in love?” by an anguished Henry Fonda, responds, “No. I been a bartender all my life.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor we’ve come to celebrate, has reached a point in his career where he need no longer accept roles small enough for Moe qualification. But his reputation has been forged of Moe-worthy moments, of virtuosic little turns in movies he wasn’t technically the star of. Time and again in the late ’90s, we emerged from the Bijou or the Octoplex marveling over yet another terrific performance by that guy, the seemingly ubiquitous character actor with the straw-colored hair, florid complexion, heavy build and wet, crumpled voice. We may not have registered his name, but his work always made an impression, whether he was the sad-sack porn-movie crewman who lusted after Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, the officious majordomo to the titular gazillionaire of The Big Lebowski, Patch’s exasperated med-school roommate in Patch Adams, the Mark David Chapman–ish obscene phone caller in Happiness, the bullying blue blood who tormented Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley or the saintly home-care provider to Jason Robards’s dying TV producer in Magnolia. It really wasn’t until late last year—when Flawless, in which Hoffman had his first bona fide lead, opened within weeks of Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley—that the name became a Name and that guy became Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor: a Moe no mo’.
Now the parts are getting bigger and the assignments more high-profile. In Joel Schumacher’s Flawless, Hoffman daredevilishly took on the role of an unlovable drag queen who gives singing lessons to a cop recovering from a stroke (a cop played by Robert De Niro, no less). In David Mamet’s State and Main, out this month, he’s the romantic lead, a hapless screenwriter on a cursed production who finds solace in the arms of a small-town shopkeeper (played by Rebecca Pidgeon, Mrs. Mamet). For a change of pace, he’s also the narrator-host of Last Party 2000, Donovan Leitch’s documentary about the recent presidential campaign, which will be released to coincide with the inauguration. And he’ll be in almost every scene of the picture he’s about to begin work on, Love, Liza, a small film written by his older brother, Gordy, that’s being made in large part because the producers were able, in the parlance of the industry, to “get Phil Hoffman attached.”
This is the 33-year-old Hoffman’s initiation into the brotherhood of alternative-male stardom, where Kevin Spacey, John Malkovich and William H. Macy ply their trade. (Even his most recent small role—a relatively brief appearance as the rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous—seemed less a Moescapade than an abbreviated star turn, like Burt Lancaster’s in Field of Dreams.) Like Spacey, Malkovich and Macy, Hoffman is a guy who came up through the ranks pegged as a character actor, neither glandular nor vacant enough to be a traditional male lead, but who commanded increasing amounts of camera time through sheer irresistibility—you simply like the movie more when he’s on-screen. The Talented Mr. Ripley, to cite an acute example of this phenomenon, springs to life when Hoffman speeds into it in his little coupe—addressing Tom Ripley as “Tommeee! Tommeee!” in a contemptuous Locust Valley lockjaw—but goes all diffuse once he meets his violent end. And like the great serial Moes of the past—Akim Tamiroff, Eugene Pallette, John Cazale—Hoffman has a gift for infusing all his characters, even the unsavory ones, with a certain lovability. Different people I know have likened seeing him crop up in a movie to discovering a prize in a box of cereal, receiving a bonus or bumping unexpectedly into an old friend. Donovan Leitch says he’d never met Hoffman before the Last Party 2000 project and pursued him “because I just kind of liked him—it was just something I felt deeply from watching his movies.”
“People love you,” I tell Hoffman when we meet. “You’re a beloved person.”
He blushes. At least he appears to—it’s hard to tell, given his coloring. “Well…no,” he stammer-demurs. “And…it’s good. Yeah, I like that.” He pauses to regain his syntactical footing. “I have to say: I think people are really genuine. And, really, I’m extraordinarily flattered every day that I meet someone who…feels that way?” (The last three words loft up into the interrogative, as if he’s not entirely convinced of what he’s saying.) “Hopefully, it’s a response to the fact that I’ve tried to, you know—and I mean this—I try to really respect the people I play. I try to, like, not judge them. I try to give them as much humanity as possible. Even if they’re not good people. And hopefully that’s working—and I think that is what’s working—and people are thankful for that.”
We’re in a restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, where Hoffman has lived the past several years. In person he’s a resolutely ordinary presence—janitorial, almost. For starters, he’s “Phil” colloquially; there was already a Philip Hoffman registered with the Screen Actors Guild when he came along (“I’ve actually met him—he does musical theater and stuff ”), so he was fated to be known forevermore by all three of his names, a grandiose formulation for someone so unassuming.
At the time of our meeting, he has at least a week’s worth of beard growth and is layered in the drab utility wear of someone making oil deliveries on a cold morning in his native Rochester, New York. You have to squint real hard to recognize the movie actor underneath all that visual interference—there’s also a pair of McGeorge Bundy glasses to get past—and Hoffman likes it that way. He’s still unused to people recognizing him and doesn’t particularly relish the experience. “It is shocking,” he says. “How do they know who you are? I’ll have to catch up to myself, I guess, in the fact that a lot of work has been out in the past couple of years that I’ve been in.”
But it isn’t just a matter of quantity—there have been periods in the careers of Michael Caine and Brian Dennehy when accepting movie work was almost a mad compulsion—but the fact that so many of Hoffman’s roles have come in…films of significance. This is a man who, in the space of three years, has acted in the service of the Coen brothers, Anthony Minghella, Todd Solondz and, most notably, Paul Thomas Anderson, the young visionary behind Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Anderson, clearly a Moe enthusiast himself, has a penchant for giving large parts to terrific actors who don’t conform to the conventional notion of a Hollywood lead: the chubby Hoffman, he perpetually addled-looking Macy, the boyo-faced John C. Reilly, the puffy-eyed Philip Baker Hall (and, well, the perfectly lovely Julianne Moore). In so doing, he has built up a crack repertory company that’s currently without equal in film—the Pacino–DeNiro–Duvall-Keitel-Cazale axis of the New New New Wave. When Hoffman and Reilly were tapped to star in last spring’s Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s True West, it was an act of recognition, an anointment: Here they are, ladies and gentlemen, two of America’s finest young actors—the exact phrase used, in fact, by New York Times critic Ben Brantley in his ecstatic review of the production.
Hoffman considers the True West experience, more than any movie, the highlight of his career so far. In the early months of 2000, New York City was papered with posters of Hoffman and Reilly looking out at the world cavalierly, as if saying, “We rule, it’s our time, and you will no doubt emerge from the theater gobsmacked at what we’ve done.” Actually, says Hoffman, “we both had moments [in rehearsal] of being very scared about ‘Well, this could blow up in our faces.’ ” True West is a tricky play—“a big algebra puzzle,” in Hoffman’s words—about two brothers, a successful, seemingly normal screenwriter and a ne’er-do-well drifter, who square off to the point of near fratricide when they’re left alone together for a few days in their mother’s house. In the wrong hands, the show can very easily degenerate into shouty histrionics, but the result of the Hoffman-Reilly version was beyond bravura—not only did they carry it off; they switched roles every few nights, taking turns playing Austin, the screenwriter, and Lee, the drifter.
HE IS AN ACTORLY, theaterly, workshoppy kind of actor, Hoffman. He majored in drama at New York University, participating in its Tisch School of the Arts theater program, and thereafter built up his résumé in regional productions, finding a mentor in Austin Pendleton, the actor-director known for his involvement in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company and his aching portrayals of forlorn dweebs in such pictures as The Muppet Movie and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge.
“In the spring of 1989, I was conducting auditions for the Williamstown Theater Festival,” says Pendleton. “Phil came in, straight out of college, and he was just exceptionally far along in his work. Some people you take credit for discovering, but Phil—anyone in the room would have hired him.” Pendleton gave him parts in productions of Henry IV and King Lear. More theater work followed, and in 1992 Hoffman won a small part in the Al Pacino movie Scent of a Woman, which led to small roles in Nobody’s Fool (1994) and Twister (1996). The rest, as they say, is Moe-story.
Currently, Hoffman is the co–artistic director of a small company in New York, the Chelsea-based LAByrinth Theater Company, and recently directed a play for it, Jesus Hopped the A Train. He professes to be “more comfortable in the theater than I am on films.” Which is fine—it’s what makes him, and theater-trained guys like Spacey, Malkovich and Macy, so utterly resourceful and nuance-attuned in their film work. But in Hoffman’s case, it also lends him a theater person’s seminarian gravity. Smiling and affable he may be, but he’s not a barrel of chuckles to talk to—not a quip-tastic anecdotalist like Ben Affleck nor a Tarantinoid spewer of big ideas. He tends more toward actor chat, that studied language of “choices” and “motivation” and “preparation”—the kind of stuff you hear stars yammering on about to that bearded man with the inky dye job on Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio.
When I comment that it must have been fun to play all the roles he’s played, the kooks and oddballs and victims, Hoffman seems mildly peeved, as if fun is too trivial a term for the work for which he has sacrificed his blood and sweat. “We want you to have fun,” he says. “I would not say that working hard as an actor is necessarily fun all the time. Especially, like, during that play. It’s not pleasant to have John Reilly fucking holding a beer and screaming right into your ear that you’re a fucking asshole and a loser.”
“Phil’s a sweet fellow, but he’s a pretty sensitive guy—it’s very easy to hurt his feelings,” says Bill Macy. Macy, who rates the Hoffman-Reilly True West as “up there in my top ten theatrical experiences,” has costarred with Hoffman in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and State and Main. “We have a long-standing argument,” he says. “Phil does research and all this emotional preparation for his parts. I say all that stuff is poppycock. He says, ‘C’mon, Bill, you must do some preparation.’ I don’t. I think acting is fun. It’s a gas. That’s what I bust his chops about.”
But Gordy Hoffman, Phil’s screenwriter brother, is more simpatico with his sibling’s outlook. A sometime actor-director, with a theater company of his own in Los Angeles, Gordy holds that “acting’s the hardest thing—it’s like digging ditches” and declares that True West was as harrowing for him as it was for his brother. “You see a sibling going through something so believable and you feel a degree of trauma,” he says. “My little brother in pain, suffering. Boy, that shit’s hard to watch!”
The Hoffman brothers and their two sisters grew up in a Rochester suburb, in a family that Phil says would have been “upper-middle-class if my parents had stayed together. But they got divorced, so it became basically middle-class.” The children lived with their mother, who is a lawyer. (Their father is retired from Xerox, one of the region’s major employers along with Eastman Kodak, though Phil isn’t quite sure what his dad did: “Something spooky or something. He traveled a lot. Basically dealt with upgrading systems all over the country when computers started, in the ’70s and ’80s. Old-school-meetsnew-school–type stuff.”) “Phil was a jock,” says Gordy. “Most of his identity was attached to athletics. He’s a natural athlete.” Phil insists he was “not the type with a varsity jacket and a cheerleader on my arm,” but he played three sports a year until his sophomore year in high school, when a neck injury incurred during a wrestling match forced him, under doctor’s orders, to quit sports. With time on his hands, he decided to try acting—with the added motivation that a girl he had a crush on was in the school play.
As Gordy Hoffman sees it, his brother’s athletic background, his innate physicality, has lent him an advantage most actors don’t have. Gordy cites a scene in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, a relentlessly acrid yarn about inwardly roiled suburbanites, in which Hoffman’s loser character sits in a diner booth while his date, a correspondingly hefty loserette played by Camryn Manheim, recounts a preposterous tale of how she was sexually assaulted by her doorman, whom she proceeded to murder, dismember, freeze and methodically dispose of, bit by inconspicuous bit. “That’s almost an impossible speech to react to,” says Gordy. “And yet he reacts with no English at all—just mumbles, shifts and shrugs. That is celluloid friggin’ gold.”
Hoffman’s reactions are equally evocative in the advance footage I’ve seen of Last Party 2000. Whereas Robert Downey Jr., the narrator of the previous Last Party documentary, filmed in 1992, was all puckishness and winks at the viewer, Hoffman trundles through the political theater as an earnest naïf, growing ever more queasy as the vacuity of Campaign 2000 sinks in. When he takes in George W. Bush’s empty oratory at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, his mouth falls open in wonderment/shock, and he looks uncannily like Scotty, his character in Boogie Nights, in the scene in which he watches Dirk Diggler, his idol, throw a coke-fueled shit fit that derails his career.
The mouth-open thing is, Hoffman admits, a trait he shares with his characters. “That’s how I am,” he says. “When I was doing David Mamet’s movie, he had to keep telling me to keep my mouth closed. I told him, ‘That’s what happens to me.’ This friend of mine does this imitation of me where he opens his mouth and his tongue hangs out. When I’m intently listening to someone, I start turning into this, you know, Labrador retriever or something.”
But generally Hoffman resists any conflation of his characters and himself. I get the sense, in fact, that his occasional tetchiness springs from his reputation as a character guy, that he thinks there’s a public supposition that character actors don’t have to work hard at inhabiting their characters. You know—they can simply revel in their untucked, overweight characterliness and just be. This very subject comes up when, in passing, I mention that my all-time favorite character actor is the late John Cazale, best known as Fredo in the first two Godfather movies. “You watch him in Dog Day Afternoon, and you think, Oh, that must be just him being him,” Hoffman says. “And then in The Deer Hunter, he’s totally different! You know, it’s work. You have to respect that.”
He’s pretty strict about this, even in situations where the Phil-being-Phil theory would flatter him. Paul Thomas Anderson, in a gesture of uncommon warmth, wrote Hoffman’s Magnolia part especially for him, even naming the character Phil to emphasize how closely he identified the part with the actor. Magnolia is Anderson’s big, sad “Eleanor Rigby” riff on all the lonely people in the San Fernando Valley, and Phil Parma, male nurse, is the only person in the movie who is utterly at peace with himself—a kindly, empathetic man of tender gestures, such as mouthing a kshhht sound as he pantomimes lighting the cigarette of his terminal patient (who’s too out of it to notice he’s not really smoking) and going to extraordinary lengths to track down the dying man’s estranged son for a deathbed rapproche rapprochement. But Hoffman, while “honored” by what Anderson wrote, insists, “That’s not me. Not by a long shot. I’m not nearly as good as Phil Parma.”
I’m in no position to judge that assessment. But giving us what he’s given so far—making the MOst of his Moment time and again, movie after movie—is, in a funny way, a moral act, a Phil Parma–like display of generosity. Certainly, it’s what explains Hoffman’s belovedness. “I’ve been with celebrities who get recognized before,” says Donovan Leitch, “but Phil really touches people on a deeper level.”
Love and ubiquity: the way of the serial Moe. There’s a telling moment in Last Party 2000 when Ralph Reed, of all people, eagerly shakes Hoffman’s hand. “Oh, I’m a big fan of yours!” Reed exclaims. “Are you the actor that’s been in, uh—you were in, uh—I mean, you’ve been in everything!”