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Philip Seymour Hoffman On Acting: An 'Exhausting' And 'Satisfying' Art

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It's easy to lose yourself in Philip Seymour Hoffman masterful portrayals, but those performances were anything but effortless.

"Like any job," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2008, it could be exhausting. In our day to day lives, "we're not too introspective," he said. "We don't walk around our lives just constantly trying to delve into the understanding of ourselves unless you're in therapy or something. But that's what actors do, you know? We really explore ourselves and other people."

Hoffman was found dead on Sunday in his Manhattan apartment. He was 46.

His range as an actor is exemplified by his performances in two films directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. In Anderson's 1997 film Boogie Nights, set in the world of the low budget porn film industry, Hoffman played a member of the film crew who was insecure, uncomfortable in his body and closeted. In Anderson's 2012 film The Master, Hoffman played the narcissistic founder and leader of a cult group who had a gift for manipulating his followers into believing his far-fetched claims.

"There is just nothing he can't do," Anderson told Gross in 2012, "... Growing up, all I wanted to do was make films. ... Never in my fantasy did I see anybody that looked like Phil Hoffman being a part of that picture. But here we are, and somewhere along the way I found this actor who I just think can do anything. He's capable of so much that you can throw anything at him."

Fresh Air remembers Hoffman with two interviews from 1999 and 2008.


Interview Highlights

On where "Seymour" came from

I wish it was more romantic or special or obnoxious, but it's not. ... When I started off, there was another Philip Hoffman, spelled exactly like me, who was successful in musical theater, always on Broadway. And at that time, the union asked you to change your name. And so I thought, well, I'll put my middle initial in, you know? And that wasn't enough. ... What happened is that you end up getting each other's checks and stuff, like, things get messed up. ... They really want everyone's name to be completely different so there is no mess up. ... So, I was like, well, you know, that was my grandfather's name. So, I'll put that in there and go from there.

On playing Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, a man who is emotionally much younger than he appears

I just had a strong feeling that this character, who is my age ... basically he was 13, so I did a lot of literal expressions of that. ... I basically wore a wardrobe of a 13-year-old.

... You know, how does a guy who's really affected, doesn't know he's gay, from the Valley, talk? ... I just came up with it. ... I just had a lot of different voices in my head, and I kind of meshed them all together and came up with this voice. And it seemed right, and it informed how I moved my body.

And then I just do all the internal work which I always do, which is, you know, what's it like ... to obsess about somebody, you know, what's it like to want somebody so bad? What's it like to go through the day and not be able to think about anything else but this one person? ... You just go from there and see what happens.

I'm proud of the choices we made there, and [director] Paul [Thomas Anderson] was really helpful the whole way through. He was cautious at first when I brought in what I did, and then we just nurtured it together, and we both remember after shooting it and seeing it, I remember going to him and saying, "Thank you for letting me do what I did. And I think we did right by this part you wrote."

On whether the priest he played in Doubt was a predator or mentor

I get that question a lot, and it's odd because I have never gotten that question about any other part I've played. ... People somehow think I'm an audience member when actually, no, I played the guy. So, I have to have filled in his history, but that history is mine and I would never share it because it will just so destroy the experience of the movie-goer. But yes, I do have to fill that history in, in the way that I feel is ... most compelling. ... I have to know because I'm playing the man.

On channeling Truman Capote's voice and physicality in Capote

I just got all the tapes I could, the audio tapes, video tapes, and I just started training in a way, to get as close as I could a sense of his behavior. ... All you have to do is really get close enough. ...

[When there's] true acting going on, then [the audience] will give over — you know what I mean? Because they want to give over because what they're watching is true. The impersonation is really not interesting anymore. It's really about your belief in the circumstances of this character and what they're going through and that you buy that story in that character's journey as long as what you're doing is honest. And so ... that was just me doing the best I could to facilitate that transfer of belief, that leap of faith, for everybody in the audience.

On the similarities between sports and theater

I don't understand people who are actors who don't love sports. I think it's the same thing. ... What it takes to be a great athlete is the same thing that it takes to be great actor, I think — that kind of concentration, that kind of privacy in public and that kind of unselfconscious kind of experience are very similar, and that kind of pressure of the people watching, and finding privacy.

On being around alcohol after being in rehab

People who don't have a problem with alcohol don't have a problem with alcohol. You know, they have their couple of glasses of wine and they go on their way. You know what I mean? And that's just the way it is. I am just not one of those people. So, it's — you know, a couple of glasses of wine is not interesting to me at all. You know what I mean? ... It's not a great pleasure for me to have a couple of glasses of wine. That just — that's kind of annoying ... Do you know what I mean? Like, why aren't you having the whole bottle? ... That's much more pleasurable. So, to somebody who doesn't understand that, they just don't understand it.

On how acting can be exhausting

I think that the amount of concentration — sometimes the amount of personal exploration — it takes to do something well, can be not pleasant ... like hard work is. That doesn't mean that you don't want to do it, or that you don't love it, or that it's not ultimately satisfying. You know that old cliché; ... nothing's worth it unless it's [a] hard to do kind of thing. I wear that on my sleeve sometimes when I'm working. ... There's always something about that job that's exhausting, and that's what's exhausting about acting, is the level concentration over very long period of time.

If there's something emotional about what you're doing that day, you're carrying that emotion on one level or another for a long period of time ... it can be burdensome. But it's part of the work, and you're trying to create something artful out of it. And so, it's not therapy. So, you're not there to be in therapy; you're there to take, you know, what you know and the experiences and behavior and emotional life of yourself and others and try to make something artful out of it. But the carrying of that around and the focusing of that can be, it can be tough.

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