Philip Seymour Hoffman: behind the spin

A look back at a 2011 interview with the acclaimed actor, who died this week

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: behind the spin
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Following the tragic death of Philip Seymour, a chance to read an interview with the Oscar-winning actor from October 2011

When he was in high school, Philip Seymour Hoffman suffered an injury that was to change his life. Until that point, sport had been his passion and whenever his mother urged him to try acting, he’d scoffed and returned to American football, baseball or wrestling.

“I was like ‘Mom, I love sports, why would I want to do that?’ All the guys I hung out with were jocks. Sport was everything for me. I couldn’t even think about doing anything else.”

Then he picked up a neck injury during wrestling practice and the doctors told him that, for the foreseeable future, contact sports were out of the question. “How did I feel? Pretty fed up,” he smiles. “But you have to do something else to fill your time. And it’s funny how things turn out.”

It certainly is. He signed up to his school’s acting class and gradually it replaced sport as his favourite pastime. “It was a slow burn but I think the lightning bolt moment came when I saw my first adult play, All My Sons (by Arthur Miller). I came away completely bewitched.”

After studying drama at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, he started out in the theatre and when there wasn’t any acting work, he took odd jobs to pay the rent. Then he auditioned for a film, Scent of a Woman.

When he won the part he was stocking shelves in a grocery store. “I’d had spells when I was unemployed and times when I was doing odd jobs, whatever came along, like most actors. And then I got Scent of a Woman and it changed everything and after that it was a different ball game.

“I’d never thought about a film career until then. I thought that if I was lucky I’d get work in the theatre. But suddenly I was a viable film actor and it all followed from that.”

What followed includes an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe for Capote in 2006, two further Academy Award nominations (for Doubt and Charlie Wilson’s War) and recognition that he is one of the best American actors of his generation, thanks to films such as Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski and Magnolia.

Hoffman, 44, is burly – you can see why he would have been a formidable wrestler in his youth – and has a shock of blond hair that he pushes back, away from his glasses, and a fuzz of blond stubble tinged with red.

He’s polite but tired after a round of interviews to publicise his latest movie, The Ides of March (in cinemas from Friday 28 October), a political thriller directed by George Clooney. In it, Hoffman plays a hard-bitten spin doctor doing whatever he can to protect the image of Clooney’s Democratic presidential hopeful. It’s an utterly believable – some might say cynical – exposé of the brutal world of US politics, and Hoffman admits he is disenchanted with the way that contemporary campaigning is obsessed with spin rather than substance.

“I’m interested in politics but I’ve certainly no desire to be a politician,” he says. “What’s going on in the States right now is that a minority of people are controlling the argument and that’s really maddening.

“It’s hard not to be disenchanted because every day we read about how nothing can get done and there’s a lot of stonewalling going on. I think this story will strike a chord with people because they will recognise that there’s a truth to it.”

Politicians are expected to be whiter than white and have every minute detail of their lives scrutinised by the media. A bit like high profile actors, perhaps?

“The less you know about me the more interesting it will be to watch me do what I do,” he says. “So I think that’s a big difference between actors and politicians. Politicians can’t go anywhere without the public having access to where they are, and we should know because they work for us. But you don’t need to know those things about me – you don’t need to know what I make or where I am or who I’m with.”

What we do know is that he lives in New York with his partner, costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, and their three children: son Cooper, eight, and daughters, Tallulah, four, and three-year-old Willa. The second youngest of four children born in upstate New York, Hoffman hasn’t strayed too far from his roots.

“I went to school and college in New York, my family is there, my creative family is there, and it’s home for me. A great day for me is when you don’t have much to do, drop the kids off at school and go and get some coffee with friends.”

But days off must be rare. After The Ides of March and Jack Goes Boating (a quirky story of love and friendship that Hoffman directs and stars in, in cinemas on Friday 4 November), we’ll see him in Moneyball (in cinemas Friday 25 November) playing a baseball manager opposite Brad Pitt. “Well, I love baseball so that was a no-brainer.”

When he received his Oscar, Hoffman made a heartfelt speech and thanked his mother for encouraging his love of the arts – and sport. It’s the closest you’ll see to a public display of emotion from him: he saves all that for his performances.

This interview was frist published in Radio Times magazine in October 2011

Philip Seymour Hoffman dies aged 46


 


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