Philip Seymour Hoffman looks more like the rumpled New York theater director that he is than the Oscar-winning star he's been playing for the last year and a half. He's dressed in dark, nondescript clothes, his red hair is wild, his face is unshaven, and those eyes that modulate so precisely from role to role are clear. You wouldn't know he was famous at all, were it not for the fact that he's in a midtown hotel room decorated with posters from his new film, or that an assistant sits down a few feet away after fetching him a pack of Camel Lights.
He's often the best thing in bad films (Along Came Polly, Red Dragon) or a small, integral part of wonderful films (Almost Famous, Happiness, Boogie Nights). In his body of work, which includes winning the best actor Oscar for 2005's Capote, he's pulled off the clever trick of becoming a leading actor with the versatility of a character actor.
This year, he stars in three coming films. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (which opens today in Baltimore) is the 44th film by Sidney Lumet, an entertaining but relentlessly downbeat affair concerning two brothers who conspire to rob their parents' jewelry store. Next month he's featured with Laura Linney in Tamara Jenkins' affecting The Savages, an equally downbeat story about siblings dealing with their father's dementia. And on Christmas Day comes Charlie Wilson's War, alongside fellow Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
He's also stayed very close to the New York theater world, acting as a co-artistic director with the LAByrinth Theater Company.
He runs in a pretty small theater world. Part of what attracted him to the political drama Charlie Wilson's War was the fact that it was written by Aaron Sorkin ("The script reads like a play.") and directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Silkwood), who so memorably directed Hoffman in a Central Park production of The Seagull in 2001.
In Devil, he stars with Marisa Tomei and Ethan Hawke. Two scenes in Devil are particularly affecting, both with Hoffman and Tomei's onscreen marriage disintegrating. ("Sidney and I thought about those scenes in exactly the same way, without saying a word, which is a very good sign," Hoffman says.) Six years ago, Hoffman and Tomei were onstage together in The 24-Hour Plays, where he also played a bully quietly imploding. "That was a play where I don't think he was a bully on the page," he remembers, "but I had forgotten all of my lines and I just pulled out every trick in the book. I had the first line and then I didn't remember anything so I just tried to be as entertaining as possible."
Like Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, Hoffman has emerged as a successful film actor who stays closely grounded to the theater. But how does the enormity of a project such as Mission Impossible III or Charlie Wilson's War compare with arranging a reading for an audience of a few dozen people? "It seems helpful and right," he says. "I'm not trying to do anything different from one environment to the next. What I'm trying to do on set with Charlie Wilson's War is the same thing I'm trying to do in the theater: trying to work well, trying to make something work. And that's exactly the same thing we're trying to do at the Public. As long as you can keep that in perspective, that's really all it is."
In person, Hoffman smiles more than you might expect, given the seriousness of his roles and the acclaim he's received. He also laughs at himself a disarming amount, especially when he tells one story about an early role in 1995's Twister when he accidentally put on a few pounds due to excitement over craft services (if you look closely, you can actually see him gaining weight from one scene to the next). "I did gain about 20 pounds in that movie," he recalls. "I'd sleep all morning and wake up and have a big lunch and shoot a scene and then have a few hot dogs. The continuity on that is awful because my body weight changed so drastically. I gain weight pretty easily," he says, shrugging.
And you do see Hoffman all over downtown New York, shuffling along, usually alone or with his family in tow, between Washington Square Park and the Public Theater. He's a familiar sight in the neighborhood and, for an actor of his stature, surprisingly accessible. "It's my home!" he says. "I can't change that, I have to live where I live. If I had to start changing what I do, I would have to move, because otherwise what's the point?
"The point of living in the Village is to walk out and get your coffee and sit on a stoop. The beauty of living here is being out amongst people doing what you do. And I'm still able to do that pretty much."
William Georgiades writes for the Los Angeles Times.