Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman is a slob. His doughy face is adorned with several days’ worth of stubble; his strawberry-blond hair looks like it was styled with an eggbeater. At lunch, he slouches in his seat and shovels fried food into his mouth, which tends to hang open. He’s wearing a garish red-white-and-blue plaid shirt, which hangs ungracefully on his heavyset frame, with a pair of sunglasses dangling from a button by his sternum.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is also, of course, one of the best actors in the world. In dozens of roles, he’s taken that flabby body, that broad face, and that unkempt hair, and transformed himself into a prissy male secretary (The Big Lebowski), a menacing snob (The Talented Mr. Ripley), a drag queen (Flawless), or a self-absorbed former child star (Along Came Polly). It’s not just that Hoffman’s routinely the best thing in bad movies (and many good ones)—it’s that every part he plays, from his smallest cameo to his starring roles, seems vivid and distinct. Asked about this seemingly perpetual well of thespian inspiration, Hoffman says, “I have a lot of fear of acting. I feel like I’m horrible until I actually get it right.”

He gets it right by specializing in outsiders—stalkers, closeted homosexuals, rock critics—and finding the poetry in their lives, without either condescending to them or overdramatizing their pathos (another form of actorly condescension). Now, at thirty-eight, Hoffman is finally having his long-deserved leading-man breakthrough in Capote, playing one of the most famous outsiders of all. Hoffman portrays literary legend Truman Capote during the five years he spent researching and writing In Cold Blood, the groundbreaking 1966 “nonfiction novel” about the brutal murder of a Kansas family. Capote befriends the locals, the police working on the case, and ultimately, the two murderers, but is willing to betray all of them for the sake of his book. Hoffman might not seem like the most logical candidate for the elfin Capote—he had to drop forty pounds to play the part—but by the end of his first scene, it’s tough to imagine anyone else who could play the role.

It’s a highly nuanced performance, full of the tension between Capote’s public faces and his private life, but the cornerstone is that Hoffman captures Capote’s voice: nasal, affected, wheedling. “The first time you hear him, it’s shocking,” Hoffman says. “You’re like, ‘Who is that? Who sounds like that?’ And that’s pertinent to the story, because he’s a fish out of water in Kansas. So it’s not about creating the perfect Capote voice, but I tried to get the essence.”

Months after wrapping the film, Hoffman still has Capote’s voice in his head, against his will. “The idea of doing his voice again makes me crazy,” Hoffman says, trying to talk and laugh at the same time, and almost succeeding.

Capote is directed by Bennett Miller, whose only previous credit was the tour-bus documentary The Cruise. He, Hoffman, and Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman met as teenagers, at a summer-theater program in Saratoga Springs, New York. “I was intrigued that he was instantly, universally liked,” Miller remembers. “Even before I liked him, I noticed that other people did.”

Despite their decades-long friendship, Hoffman was initially reluctant to play Capote. “There’s nothing wrong with taking a risk,” he says, “but I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to take it.” Ultimately, a passionate letter from Futterman convinced him that it was worth taking on a challenge with some old pals. Hoffman signed on as star and executive producer, and then immersed himself in Capote’s writings and interviews. He eventually captured him so totally that he was able to improvise the movie’s literary-party scenes, showing Capote as the reigning bon vivant.

Hoffman and I are having lunch at an Italian restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side. Nobody seems to recognize Hoffman, or even half-recognize him. While most actors like nothing better than bathing in a warm discussion of their craft, when Hoffman is asked about his preparation for Capote, he gets evasive and starts mumbling. “How I made it work is private and it’s not really explainable,” he says. “In a weird way, the process is a mystery. I mean, it’s not voodoo—you have to concentrate and be diligent. I don’t want to mythologize it into something crazy: he’s sleeping in character!” He spears a large chunk of tomato and pops it into his mouth.

Hoffman’s performance already has his name bandied about as the leading contender for the Best Actor Oscar. His friend, director Paul Thomas Anderson, is cheering him on. “My man’s going for the big one!” he says. “It’s great to see Phil in such a crazy space: he’s vulnerable and nervous and satisfied.”

“Life is only as good as the day you do your work well,” Hoffman says. “Money, success, accolades—all that stuff is fleeting. As you get older, you realize that all you have after you do the work is being able to look back on it with satisfaction.”

The whole time the filmmakers were assembling their production, clawing out a budget, and shooting in Manitoba, Canada, they knew they had competition: the Christine Vachon-produced Have You Heard?, another movie about Capote and the Kansas murders starring Sandra Bullock and Gwyneth Paltrow, and the unknown-but-diminutive British actor Toby Jones as Capote. (It’s due to be released in 2006.) “I want to thank Christine Vachon for her audacity,” says Hoffman’s brother, screenwriter Gordy Hoffman. “The competition challenged the athlete in Philip.”

Hoffman was, in fact, a jock in high school—until his sophomore year, when he suffered a neck injury during a wrestling match. Under doctor’s orders, he stopped playing sports. Under the influence of a crush of a high-school actress, he auditioned for The Crucible. His first role: the drunk jailer. Gordy Hoffman remembers, “Philip was a vulnerable, open, heart-on-his-sleeve boy. The emotional vocabulary that he’s able to access today was already there when he was a kid. And he was a gifted athlete, which seems to give him better-than-average control over his instrument, his body.”

Philip grew up in Fairport, a suburb of Rochester in upstate New York. He was the second of four children; his parents divorced when he was nine. His father worked for Xerox, while his mother went back to school, and at age 37, got her law degree. She became active in local Democratic politics, going so far as to build a porch in the backyard so politicians could give speeches there. She’s now a family court judge. When Hoffman talks with her about judgments she’s made, he’s always amazed by the disparity between local pundits’ comments and the actual decision-making process—one seems to have nothing to do with the other. “It’s kind of eye-popping,” he says. “You’re just so used to being an observer of other people’s information.”

Experienced observers of Hoffman can argue over whether his profoundly awkward stalker in Happiness was a greater artistic achievement than his unhappily smitten sound man in Boogie Nights. A big slice of the general public, however, knows Hoffman from just one film: the Ben Stiller/Jennifer Aniston comedy Along Came Polly, where he played Sandy Lyle, the former child star who hires a documentary film crew to follow him around, plays awful but arrogant basketball, and hastily leaves a party because he “sharted” (“I tried to fart and a little shit came out… let’s go”). Says Miller, “When somebody comes up and says ‘You’re the sharted guy!’ with great enthusiasm—the notion that he’d like to hear that is, I would say, a big misconception. He likes to be appreciated, but he’s uncomfortable being celebrated. He doesn’t want to lose the ability to take the subway.”

Some have suggested that Sandy Lyle’s egomania—in a community-theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar, he insists on playing both Jesus and Judas—is an exaggerated version of Hoffman himself. Asked if he’s easy to work with, Hoffman says, “No.” Then he thinks some more. “No and yes. I mean, I wouldn’t say no, but I wouldn’t say yes. I guess it’s in the middle.”

He says that he has a hard time working on movies where people put an emphasis on being pleasant and polite. “The people I work with the best are the people who don’t fear a good debate, or an argument. If the environment has challenge and confrontation, some very exciting stuff can happen. And if you squelch that, everyone’s going to show up and try to be the nicest guy possible instead of actually trying to do the work.”

Hoffman takes another big forkful of chicken. “I’m not going to leave the set until it’s been done right,” he says. “I can promise directors, ‘I won’t want to leave until you leave. In fact, you’ll probably want to leave long before I will.'”

Paul Thomas Anderson thinks highly enough of Hoffman that he’s included him in all four films that he’s directed. “Phil really holds his ground,” Anderson says. “He wants to figure it out for himself. I’ve learned to stay out of his way, so when I do say something, it has some weight.” In Magnolia, Anderson wrote a part specifically for Hoffman: Phil Parma, the devoted nurse caring for Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) as he dies of cancer. The name “Phil Parma” has always seemed like a barbed compliment: the first name is Hoffman’s own, but the last name is closely associated with ham.

Told this, Anderson laughs uproariously. “I never thought of that!” he says. “Parma is a town near Cleveland.” Then he reflects. “But there’s no shortage of ham in Phil. Can we make that stick somehow?”

Hoffman’s currently filming Mission Impossible 3, in which he plays the bad guy (his second movie with Tom Cruise, after Magnolia). He’s not sure what he’ll be doing after that; he’s discussed a film of Macbeth, but Lady Macbeth remains uncast. He says he’d be happy to just sit around. “I think people think I work a lot harder than I actually do,” he says.

He spends a lot of time doing plays—his True West with John C. Reilly was a highlight of the 2000 theatrical season, and he’s also an artistic director of the LABrynth Theater Company. He was directing a show there when he met his girlfriend, costume designer Mimi O’Donnell. (Yes, he’s fully aware of the irony of his slovenly self being partnered with somebody so clothes-conscious.) “I was never a Casanova,” Hoffman says gently. “It’s good to know you’re waking up with someone.” The couple have a two-year-old son, Cooper.

We leave the restaurant and walk towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Hoffman dons a Dodgers cap and quickly sucks down the Camel Light he’s been thinking about the whole time we ate. He talks comfortably about how he’d love to shoot craps with Senator John McCain, how photographer Richard Avedon would come to see the same play a dozen times, and when he gets starstruck. Although Hoffman was awed when he first met Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep, he’s generally more impressed by athletes like Reggie Jackson and novelists like Richard Ford.

Hoffman takes his work extremely seriously. He might be completely overbearing, if not for the fact that he doesn’t seem to take himself seriously at all. When I mention the possibility of his writing an autobiography, he snorts, and launches into a breathless self-parody in the cadence of an overexcited newsreel narrator. “And then came Boogie Nights! It was so exciting. We were young, it was summer in southern California. Ah, Heather Graham. Everyone was beautiful and loving it—there were whores and cokes everywhere.”

Hoffman returns to his normal voice. “It would be unbearable. I’d just have to make fun of myself.” He keeps walking down the sidewalk, with a loping stride, grinning at the implausibility of playing the role of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Article by Gavin Edwards. Originally published in Rolling Stone 985 (October 20, 2005), in a substantially shorter version.