He wasn't phony.
Odd thing to say about a consummate actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman. They're masters of deception by job description, and all of that.
As any perceptive person knows, though, the best acting comes from a driving need to discover human truth. That is repeatedly what drove Hoffman, among the finest of his generation.
The actor died at age 46 in his Greenwich Village home Sunday, apparently of a drug overdose.
The father of three was a remarkable stage presence. Meryl Streep, who worked with him in a production of Chekov's “The Seagull” and the film version of “Doubt,” once told me Hoffman was “just a volcano of emotions and contradictory impulses. You never know what's going to swim to the surface, and you have to deal with it.”
Hoffman's widely acknowledged versatility, though, would not have meant as much if it hadn't been accompanied by that mighty capacity he had for making almost every character he played feel like a real person.
That goes for everything . . . no, make that everyone . . . from his goofball tornado chaser in “Twister” to the intellectual theater impresario with the atomizing psyche of “Synecdoche, New York.” The former was superficial comic relief in a ridiculous effects movie, but damn if Hoffman didn't perfectly nail the kind of wonky science nerd we've all come to know since in our increasingly computerized lives. The latter required nothing less than putting a man's entire inner and outward life on screen, and Hoffman did it anything but effortlessly – throughout the interminable “Synecdoche,” he showed the strain, which was exactly what the piece required.
Hoffman secured his place as a major force in independent films when he hooked up with Paul Thomas Anderson in the mid 1990s. “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” marked him as one of those “brave” actors who would do anything – but also showed that he could, which is an entirely different thing. And the more deeply troubled the better, as far as he seemed concerned.
After succinctly evoking a heartbreaking gay crush in “Boogie Nights,” Hoffman seemed stuck for awhile in films that, to put it mildly, emphasized notions of outlaw sexuality (“Happiness,” “Flawless,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”). I once suggested to the actor that he was risking being typecast as a pervert, which – never one to suffer fools – he righteously disputed.
That encounter was a little tense. But when I made a slightly off-color reference to Gwyneth Paltrow, a frequent co-star at the time, it struck his funnybone so hard that the rest of the conversation was punctuated by gales of laughter. It was a real encounter, as all interviews with Hoffman were, and the majority with other actors aren't.
Once he got past the, um, awkward romantic stage, Hoffman registered an increasingly demanding series of emotionally knotty and complexly motivated performances in “State and Main,” “Almost Famous” (as a critic – one of the few to ever get it right), “Love Liza,” “Owning Mahowny,” “Capote” (his Oscar-winner), “The Savages” (my personal favorite of all his film work), “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” (as, among other things, a drug addict), “Doubt” and, for Anderson again, the magisterial L. Ron Hubbard-like figure in “The Master.”
When asked to provide spot-on supporting work, Hoffman was always the embodiment of precision, and gave more than was required in “The Big Lebowski,” “Red Dragon,” “Mission: Impossible III,” “Charlie Wilson's War,” “The Ides of March,” “Moneyball” and the last “Hunger Games” movie, among others.
He always seemed like a real person in even the most fanciful of those movies, sometimes standing out because of that from everything else around him. I suppose it needs to be acknowledged that Hoffman didn't look like a movie star, but rather more as schlubby as you or me (OK, me). But I don't think that was as big a part of his genuineness as might be presumed. Even in a medium like film, where so much emphasis is often put onto appearance, the deepest, most lasting impressions have always been left by those who project something compelling and convincing from inside.
Phil Hoffman did that every time I saw him, whether he was performing or just talking.
I have to admit that he never struck me as someone with a substance problem until I heard about his recent stint in rehab. If the reported cause of his death turns out to be true, however, it makes a kind of sense. Anyone who could reach so far inside the sadness of the soul (Steve Martin just tweeted that Hoffman's Broadway Willy Loman was one for all time) likely needed strong medicine to cope with what he discovered.
That, unfortunately, sounds like a real thing, too.