interview BILL POWERS
polaroids SAM TAYLOR WOOD
With an instinct for the right role and the talent to play it, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, has gone from strength to strength, picking up an Oscar for Capote on the way. Concurrently starring in Mike Nichol’s new film, Charlie Wilson’s War and Bennett Miller’s Eat the Document, Hoffman continues to push the envelope of the seventh art.
Sixteen years before Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor, he and I met in New York City. I was waiting tables at a supper club near Times Square. Phil had a day job at a delicatessen on Second Avenue, but caught a break and landed a small part in Scent of a Woman, his first taste of Hollywood. He remembers looking at a wall calendar with his boss at the deli and marking down the day he’d be returning to work. Now here we are, something like forty movies later.
BILL POWERS — Does your present reality sync up with the vision you had of your future?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — I don’t think I had a plan of what I wanted to become. It was more like: Can I actually do this? Success means you’re working and people want to work with you. Fame, celebrity, money: that’s all there, but that’s not what success is.
BILL POWERS — In the same way that power corrupts, so can success. How do you avoid its many pitfalls?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — Everything is relative to a person’s life. Whether I’m happy or not doesn’t really depend on how successful I am. It depends on other things, the same as it always did. I have satisfaction in my career. I have gratitude. But my career isn’t the sole thing that makes me happy. Understanding this has helped me keep the pitfalls of success at bay.
BILL POWERS — Tell me about shooting Charlie Wilson’s War, the Mike Nichols movie, about how America funded the Afghan insurgency’s war against Russia. Did you learn anything from the CIA consultants on the project that the public may not be aware of?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — The guy who was on the set, Milt Brearden, is a writer now. He was a CIA station chief in Afghanistan in the eighties, toward the end of the war, and was good friends with Gus Avrakotos, who I play in the film. Being in the CIA in those days was totally different because there was the Soviet Union to fight against. He had the idea that they were doing something good, on the right side, and being patriotic, but not in the way that patriotism is looked at now.
BILL POWERS — People thought that Iraq is this generation’s Vietnam, but maybe our Afghanistan is a better comparison.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — I think it does compare. It was a bit of payback on our part. The Russians were very involved in Vietnam, feeding money and support to the North Vietnamese. So the idea of bleeding the Russians they same way they bled us in Vietnam was part of the driving force. But I don’t think that Charlie Wilson or Gus or Milt saw it that way. They actually wanted to win the war. They weren’t in it just to bleed the Russians, and have them spend years there slowly dying. But because we didn’t fund the Afghans heavily enough to win the war, it did become more of a bleeding campaign. These men fought the war covertly, believing the Afghans had a chance win — to fight the Russians in way that would push them back. Ultimately the Russians retreated after suffering something like 15,000 casualties and having a lot of very expensive merchandise destroyed — especially helicopters, which the Afghans had been unable to shoot down until the Americans got involved. The film shows how we upped our involvement from just bleeding the Russians to actually supporting the jihad.
BILL POWERS — Do you think these guys had any idea they were creating a monster?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — My character brings up that point near the end of the film. We’ve come to the point where the Russians are retreating: what do we do now? We’re presented with a situation that could be tricky for us if we don’t stay and rebuild the country in a way that insures its stability. Of course, we didn’t do that. That’s what people look back at to trace the cause of what’s happening now. I think people in the region are mostly pissed off about how we just upped and left. That’s why people are saying that we can’t leave Iraq now, and maybe there is an argument to be made there.
BILL POWERS — Some would argue that we shouldn’t leave until we can establish permanent bases.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — There was a time when Americans said they would do certain things, and then didn’t. We helped someone defeat our enemy and then we left. That’s really the complexity, and the gray area of Charlie Wilson’s War. You’re seeing this unfold, and it’s part of the drastic change that ultimately leads to the wall coming down in Berlin.
BILL POWERS — You mean because some historians argue that their defeat in Afghanistan was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — Absolutely. It was a major contributing factor.
BILL POWERS — And from there you wonder if the mess in Iraq could turn out to be the start of the American Empire’s decline?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — That’s the fear. Will this happen to us now in the Middle East? In Iraq? In Iran, maybe? Will this diminish America’s power in the world? We could find ourselves in a tough spot.
BILL POWERS — Is it possible for movies with a social conscience, like Charlie Wilson’s War and Syriana, to shake the American people from their complacency? No matter how strong the call to arms, can you really rouse the public into action?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — I don’t know what that action would be. I think the people took action in the last election, and it was pretty potent. The administration’s rating in the polls is incredibly low, and has been for some time now. The problem is that we put this administration in power, and it’s still in power. That’s why you have politicians like Chuck Hagel using the word “impeachment” and the press talking about it. But we as a people can’t make that decision. Instead, we’ve voted in a congress and a senate that are tilting towards impeachment. Other than that, I can’t think of any action, besides protest, that would have an impact. Recently there was a march on the anniversary of the start of the war. Things like that are happening all the time. Ultimately, though, you have to put the people who will make those changes in power.
BILL POWERS — Going back to my original question, does a movie like Charlie Wilson’s War raise awareness in any meaningful way?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — I think this film contains information people haven’t been presented with before — in depth, anyway. They might have heard about it. I think the film can help educate people. But since Clinton left office there’s been a pretty vocal attack against Hollywood from the media. The media would probably say the opposite, but that’s what I’ve seen. There’s more cynicism now about the possibility of a Hollywood movie saying anything meaningful about politics or the state of the world. What do they know living in their big houses in Beverly Hills?
BILL POWERS — Why do our projections of the future tend to be slanted towards the post-apocalyptic? Think of Blade Runner or Children of Men. Have we lost our optimism?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — Most movies end with the notion that life will be good, but if it’s not sci-fi we don’t recognize it as “the future.” The norm is stories where things work out. Yes, we will struggle, but we’ll come out the other side. When someone tries to broaden the scope and encompass where the whole world is going, it can be dark. The idea that the world is going to hell in a hand basket has a lot of drama.
BILL POWERS — I saw Last Party 2000, the documentary you narrated about the 2000 elections, and I know you are very politically minded. Can you tell me about the time you met George Bush?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — I’ve been to the Kennedy Center Honors twice. Once when Clinton was in office, and once under Bush, a few years before the war started. It’s odd: you create an image of people based on what you see and what you hear about them. When you meet someone in person, it’s never exactly how you thought it would be. Who they are as people sometimes has nothing to do with their politics. Cheney was disarmingly nice. At the White House they had the Christmas tree up, and you’re brought in and have your picture taken with the President and the First Lady. Obviously it was my choice to go. So my girlfriend Mimi and I went in. I shook hands with Cheney and Rumsfeld and Bush, all three of them, in the same night. They announced our names off a card. Bush picks my middle name out, and says, “Seymour!” But he wasn’t condescending or belittling about it. I got the sense that he just wanted to be personal, person-to-person, like, I know I’m the president and you’re just a citizen. I’ll call you Seymour and you’ll probably laugh and we’ll shake hands. And that’s what happened. It was all so brief.
BILL POWERS — Recently your production company optioned the rights to Eat the Document, which was a finalist for a National Book Award last year. How did that come about?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — My old manager Davian has a sister who lives in upstate New York, outside of Woodstock, close to where the author of the book, Dana Spiotta, has a restaurant with her husband. Which is how Davian got close to the book. Then we all read it. The director of Capote, Bennett Miller, is going to direct it.
BILL POWERS — Eat the Document is a novel about radicals in the seventies who are forced to go underground, but when they assimilate back into the culture they lose their grip on the idealism that motivated them in the first place.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — They were part of a Weathermen-type movement. They blow up these houses in Malibu and people die, so they have to go underground. The book goes back and forth between the seventies and the late nineties. It describes what a female member of the group had to do in order not to be found out. I don’t think you can really judge whether they lost their feelings about their politics. What you see is how some people can live in the world and not actually be in it, because they can’t be themselves. That’s what was so fantastic about the story. These people were activists in an extreme way, and now no one knows who they are because they use assumed names. Not even the woman’s teenage son really knows who she is. They’re able to look at the world in an objective way because nothing is true to them. The book is about juxtaposing their time as young people with that of youth of today, and seeing the difference. The dynamic is endlessly fascinating. There was a time when you could live off the grid. But today, the minute anything is shown as radical, it’s commercialized. It’s almost impossible to live as part of a counter-culture now, because today counter culture is a TV show. It’s something made to be sold. Even groups who don’t like Starbucks still want those nifty sneakers. That’s part of our culture today.
BILL POWERS — In the play, “Jack Goes Boating,” that you just performed in at The Public Theater, the character you played is on such an emotional rollercoaster. Has it gotten easier to do that over the years? Has becoming a father made you more vulnerable as an actor?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — It’s never easy, especially with a play that you’re doing eight times a week. But on different nights there are different levels of emotion you can generate. Sometimes less emotion can be just as powerful. I find it tougher the older I get. Not because it’s harder to access, but when you’re younger it’s more of a challenge to see if you can bring it out in yourself. More than anything, the older you get, the more you want to leave yourself alone. When you’re young, you drink, you smoke, you take the world in, and you over-indulge because you can. The older you get, the less interesting that is. You develop an instinct to leave yourself alone.
BILL POWERS — Your girlfriend — the mother of your two children — is a costume designer. But, you aren’t really a fashion guy.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — Mimi likes to be fashionable when we go out, and I like that about her. I don’t want her to dress like me. It wouldn’t be attractive to me. She’s beautiful, and has a great talent for fashion. My mind is elsewhere. It’s too exhausting for me to think about that stuff. I save that part of my brain for other things.
BILL POWERS — You became friendly with Richard Avedon, and had dinner with him while working on Capote, as a sort of a research meeting — because he photographed the In Cold Blood killers. Then, a few weeks later he died.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — I met him when I was doing “The Seagull,” in 2001. He came to the play a bunch of times. Mike Nichols directed it. Then he started coming to the shows I directed with Stephen Adly Guirgis. He took our photo together for The New Yorker and brought the prints to the theater for us. I got to know him a little bit, and was fond of him. He heard about Capote early on, and invited me to get together and talk about it, which is when I remembered he was there. I went over to his house, which was an apartment over his studio, and he made me dinner. I was there for about three hours. He showed me all the photos he took of Capote, and told me all about their relationship, and how it changed over the years. It was very helpful talking to him. I’ve been lucky enough to befriend guys like that from the generation before me. I can look to them and learn from their experiences. I met Arthur Miller at the opening of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and that was a real treat. But rarer have been the occasions when I was able to spend real time with someone, to take it in, and learn something. When Avedon passed away, I just thought how grateful I was that I’d had that dinner with him. He was a special guy, and I think he lived the life he wanted to live.
BILL POWERS — You’ve been working on The Savages, which is about two siblings who are forced to take care of their distant father. I think it was the first movie you did after winning the Oscar. What drew you to this film?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — It was the script. It’s not so much the themes that got me going, but something in the storytelling, and how the characters were written. There was something unique and true about it, and somehow touching. It wasn’t the thematic elements of the brother and sister and the estranged father, but how Tamara Jenkins actually wrote it.
BILL POWERS — Your performance of a drag queen opposite Robert De Niro in Flawless was the furthest out on a limb I’d seen you go, up until then. Looking back, were you anxious about doing it?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — No, because that character was truly on the fringe of the fringe. He’s a transsexual, and you can’t get much further outside the box than that in our society. But at that time in my life, it was like, yeah, let’s do it! I didn’t have any fear about how I would be seen, or how extreme it might appear. You kind of get that out of your system, though. I wouldn’t want to do that now. It wouldn’t interest me.
BILL POWERS — You learned how to play craps on the set of Hard Eight, P. T. Anderson’s first film, and then later on, you did a movie about a chronic gambler, Owning Mahowny. What is your personal relationship to gambling?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — Gambling was the one addiction that never really got me. It’s something I like to do now and then, but I seem to be able to walk away. I understand the titillation, and I like it. But to really get the highs you have to risk so much, and losing tons of money at a casino doesn’t really interest me. The thing that I responded to about Owning Mahowny was how Dan Mahowny’s heart and mind could be so divorced from one another. You want to know how someone can exist in such an extreme state of denial. Plus, most gamblers in films have a certain sex appeal, but this guy was so unassuming.
BILL POWERS — You’re trying to drop 30 pounds for an upcoming role, right?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — I just have to lose some weight. I’m kind of a big guy, and naturally carry weight on me. It’s hard for me to stay thin-thin. But I’m not starving myself. I’m not juicing it for two months. In the next film I’m doing I have to age, and that’s easier to do if my face is thinner. It’s almost like a technical thing.
BILL POWERS — Your mother is a family court judge. What effect did that have on your growing up?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — Well, she’s only been a judge for the last seven years. She went to law school when I was a kid and became a lawyer when she was forty. She was a public defender for a while, and later on a clerk at the circuit court. My mom’s job was almost beside the point, though. She’s always been a political person. When I was younger I didn’t want to be like that, because my mom was. But when I got into my twenties I started having long talks with her and reading the papers. My mom is great to talk to because she has very strong views, and can back them up. In Rochester, where I grew up, she has a pretty high profile. She’s had cases that have gone national. She’ll call me and say, “I’m just letting you know that my face is going to be on Bill O’Reilly’s show tonight. I just wanted to warn you.” She doesn’t ever say that I’m her son, which is great, because that’s how it should be. We don’t have the same last name, so if she doesn’t mention me, they don’t even think about it. It’s funny to me. I love it.
BILL POWERS — Do you think we still need role models as we get older?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN — Yes, I do. All the time. You want to know how the people who came before you maneuvered through their lives and careers — like Paul Newman, who I’ve known for a while. I admire how he treats people, and how he’s dealt with his life. I look at the choices he made and what he stayed true to. The less anonymous you are, the harder it can be to find role models, especially when you’re hitting forty. But, it’s not so much about their specific words of wisdom. It’s more about the privilege of watching them.
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