Tavis remembers the critically acclaimed stage and screen star with highlights from their past conversations.
Philip Seymour Hoffman Tribute
Tavis: The great joy of this program for me personally is getting to talk with remarkable people about their accomplishments, and Philip Seymour Hoffman was someone I always looked forward to having on this stage.
Each of our conversations showed the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his commitment to the art of acting. My first conversation was back in 2004. He had just completed a romantic comedy with Jennifer Aniston called “Along Came Polly” and was getting rave reviews for Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain.”
I spoke with him again a year later about the Oscar buzz for “Capote,” an award, of course, he ultimately won. Then we spoke for the last time about his directorial debut with “Jack Goes Boating,” and why doing good work in movies was so challenging.
We’ll begin tonight with an excerpt from our 2004 conversation about the need for diversity, both behind the camera and on the screen. Hoffman had just started a theater company in New York.
[Begin previously recorded interview]
Tavis: I have had this conversation any number of times with persons who happen to be of color, Black and Brown, Red and Yellow, all kinds of persons over the years I’ve had a chance to talk to about what this business, what Hollywood, radio, television and film, what Hollywood needs to do to open up the doors of opportunity for people of color in front of and behind the camera.
I don’t know that I’ve had that conversation any number of times with folk who happen not to be of color, so tell me your perspective of what you think this business needs to do to really open up to these people that you work with every day in New York City.
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I personally think it’s the writers.
Tavis: The writers.
Hoffman: This isn’t to say blaming the writers. I just know in our company that we have writers who are writing from the company, they’re writing for certain actors. They’re writing for the actors in the company, and so they’re going to be writing for all different types of people.
Hopefully the company’s not going to be made up of the typical actor, just pretty, just good-looking people who can kind of get a lot, or whatever you would see that in a Hollywood movie, or however you perceive that comment.
To really kind of capture and write for actors that will give us a sense of the people that you actually see in your lives walking through in your travels, at the supermarket, at the bank, wherever. People that coexist together in a city or in a community.
So those writers are actually writing for those people, or writing for those actors, therefore, writing for those people. So the characters are going to come out of that and the stories are going to come out of that, and everything’s going to be driven from that context.
So we’ve found in New York that we’ve been able to write some – some writers have been able to write some very vibrant plays based on that theory, and be filled with actors based on that.
It just all kind of – it’s meant to be together, so therefore what comes out of it is something that’s incredibly alive, incredibly fresh, incredibly funny and new and everything that you would want out of theater, and people are coming, of all different types of colors, without that in mind.
You know what I mean; it’s not at the forefront of their mind. They’re coming to see good theater, and the good theater they’re seeing is made up of all different types of people, so
Tavis: With regard to the answer, might part of the answer also be not just to have writers write parts for people of color, but have people of color actually doing the writing?
Hoffman: Well, that’s what I mean in essence. But it doesn’t have to be that way, actually.
Tavis: It should be both, don’t you think?
Hoffman: It should be both, that’s what I’m saying. If all people are encouraged to actually see who they’re coexisting with, or even if they’re not coexisting with other people.
It’s like well, look at the world you’re in. You read the paper and you’ll see that it’s not just made up of maybe your inner circle of white people or whoever you’re hanging out with, but that the world is made up of people – especially America.
It’s just that’s what we are, a melting pot, and encourage people to write the truth about that. It’s a truth about our country, and it should be written about.
Tavis: Tell me the kinds of roles these days that challenge you. You mentioned that “Along Came Polly” was a bit of a stretch for you, something you’d not done before.
Tavis: What kinds of roles are out there that would actually stretch you as an actor right now? Because you seem to have done just about everything.
Hoffman: (Laughs) Yeah, I’m about trying – I want to do new things. I want to – well, because it’s hard to act. First off, I just want to say that. Acting’s difficult for me, at least, and –
Tavis: What makes it tough for you?
Hoffman: Well, I think that you have to be 100 percent – kind of how Anthony picks a film. I think that’s why he’ll commit to 10 months in Romania, as we were talking earlier, to shoot a film, because I think you have to be passionately involved in what you’re doing.
You have to have a personal connection. You have to really want to do it, because if you don’t, investing yourself personally, your thoughts, your emotions, yourself into a part, is something you’re not going to want to do as much.
So that’s really what I’m looking for each time, something I can connect with on that level.
Tavis: Yet you, as Anthony told us earlier this week, are a renaissance sort of guy in that you do some of everything. Is that because you find acting so difficult that you also direct and write and everything else you do?
Hoffman: Well, I think it gives me perspective all in the same thing. If I’m directing actors, I learn about acting that way. If I’m acting, I learn about directing that way. Producing is just something that’s come about because there’s projects I find interesting that I would like to help get done.
But it all puts perspective on everything for me, so I get to learn about – because when you’re acting, you’re subjective; when you’re a director, you’re more objective.
You’re kind of watching from the outside and helping others, and therefore I learn my mistakes through others, and also my assets through others.
Tavis: So take me back, because it’s easy now for everybody to say that you’re definitely going to get a nomination. There’s so much Oscar buzz around that. We’ll talk about that in just a second.
But you really didn’t want to do this. (Laughter) You tried to get out of doing this when it came your way the first time.
Hoffman: Well it’s weird, the things that – sometimes there’s things that you don’t want to do and they keep –
Hoffman: – haunting you and following you. Bennett Miller directed this project, who is a friend of mine since I was 16, and Danny Futterman wrote it, and he’s also been a friend of mine since I was 16.
Tavis: The nerve of you to tell your friends no.
Hoffman: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: What kind of friend are you?
Hoffman: Well, I think – and Danny Futterman really was the prodding factor behind all this, because he gave it to Bennett and he basically hounded Bennett for a while till Bennett kind of said yes.
Then they came to me and they, and got me on board by a certain kind of coercion. But even then, we didn’t have money or any backing, and so Bennett and I would openly discuss this sense of – not all the time, but every once in a while we’d hint to each other this denial that we were in about that it will never happen, and maybe it won’t and that’ll be a good thing. You know what I mean? (Laughter)
Because we were pretty scared of it. So when we finally got someone to take the risk with us, I think we both were like, “Oh no, we’ve got to do it.” So yeah, I was pretty scared.
Tavis: What were you struggling with?
Hoffman: It really wasn’t the obvious things I think about, the technicality of playing him or something. I think that challenge was there, and I know I’m bigger than he was and all those things.
I knew I could trim down, I knew I could work on these things and hopefully get there, but I knew it’d be a type. But it was really the way he was, what made him tick.
There’s certain things in just watching him over and over again that I saw that I, me as a, me individually, I was, I think, intimidated by. I think he intimidated me, really.
His confidence, his boldness, the way he was able to say things that I would be afraid to say because they would maybe hurt somebody’s feelings or cross the line. He was able to do that with a certain kind of confidence and intelligence and wit that I was just intimidated by.
I knew that I would have to capture that somehow in order to play him successfully.
Tavis: So in retrospect – you mentioned confidence, wit, intelligence, style. So in retrospect, what do you think now was his enduring legacy about? Of all the folk that movies could be made about –
Hoffman: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: – Capote gets a movie made about him. Why, I guess, is what I’m asking? Why him? Why Capote?
Hoffman: That’s a good question, and I think Danny Futterman answered it pretty well, the screenwriter. Well, do you really want to make a story about, a biopic about this man’s life and just because – there’s a lot of chapters in it that are pretty damn interesting.
But he wanted to look at something that was more about not just Capote, but about the issues and themes that it brought up, which is really journalism, celebrity, ambition.
When you see the carrot at the end of the stick, what do you do to get it? These kinds of things that come up, that come up in the story of Capote writing “In Cold Blood,” and when you see the movie, you’ll see what I’m talking about.
That what he had to do to get this book written, this kind of, this ambition that took over. When he realized that this book could be something great, what happened to him?
When he realized that the adoration and the acclaim that could come his way, what this book could be, and what happened to him. Also looking at the intimacy that is created between a journalist and a subject, and how that is something that might have to be betrayed.
These kinds of issues. So in looking at those things, you’re able to actually uncover who Capote is in there, and I thought that was very smart on Danny’s part.
Tavis: There may be nothing to this question; it wouldn’t be the first time I set myself up that way, but let me ask anyway. It’s hard these days to have a conversation, at least it is for me, about Capote without “Good Night, and Good Luck” coming up in the same conversation.
Hoffman: Sure, yeah.
Tavis: I think it has to do with that journalism thing.
Tavis: Is there something happening in Hollywood now that is, like, making it a propitious time for projects like these, about – and maybe there’s nothing here, as I said a moment ago.
Hoffman: I think there is something there. I would actually say there’s –
Tavis: Yes, there’s something there. (Laughter) It was not a wasted question. All right, go ahead.
Hoffman: Tavis. No, it’s – how I think about it, and this might be an empty answer, is that both films are dealing with a time in our country where there was the beginnings of something that now is reverberating quite loudly in our culture.
When you think about Capote in the – was what he did exploitative of a person’s life or exploitative of these murders? You look at our culture now, you look at celebrity and how it plays out in our culture now, and Capote was one of the great PR men of his time.
He really almost was inventing that form in that time. That he was not only just selling his writing, but he was selling himself as a person. All these things (unintelligible) I think now are kind of everyday events is kind of what circulates around us.
With “Good Night, and Good Luck,” I think it’s kind of obvious what he’s getting at there, and the importance of how it’s playing out today, that is journalism doing, are the journalists doing their job, are they being the other checks and balances in our country that the way that obviously Edward R. Murrow was back then.
So I just think that that’s, that that time really does reverberate to us now in a way that’s specific.
Tavis: So to that point, before I move on and cover some other things I want to talk about, Philip, is there something then that you learned about this dilemma that we have where journalism is concerned that you learned from playing Capote? Something that informed you differently.
Hoffman: I can only talk about it kind of in personal terms, because obviously I’m not a journalist, and obviously it would be hard for me to openly criticize what anybody is particularly doing right now, because I don’t really know what that is about, what they have to do or what goes into it, in a way.
I really had to look at it pertaining to this story. That I know that obviously, that if you want to get the story, if you want to get close to somebody, if you want to find out what is really the truth or what’s really interesting, you have to create a trust between these two things, between the journalist and the subject.
A trust that is deep and profound, I believe, especially in this case with Truman Capote and these killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, that ultimately, you are going to send out into the – you’re going to actually take their lives and send it out for possibly your benefit, and maybe not theirs.
I think that there’s a betrayal that happens there. There’s something that happens there that I think is something that might be a certain – it’s a Faustian type of thing, it might be.
That you’re going to pay a price. Is there a price to be paid for this kind of relationship? I do, I found that fascinating, and I do think for Capote, he paid a huge price for that relationship, and that possibly today, journalists can identify with that, or that’s part of what they do (unintelligible).
Tavis: But one could argue that had he not had the relationship, obviously, he couldn’t have gotten the story in the way that – yeah, that’s the –
Hoffman: Well that’s – yeah, (laughter) we wouldn’t have had this great book if he didn’t do what he did, but ultimately, if you look into the story, watch the film or read about it, you see that it was more than just that.
That he was genuinely attracted to this man. He was genuinely affectionate toward this man, and he’d said he was probably closer to this man than he had been to anyone in his life.
So you think about that, and then you think well, eventually he also had to let him go and die, and almost kind of get out of the way of the process, and almost, deep down inside, maybe be willing it himself for the benefit of having this book come out and what it’s going to give to him. That’s a very tricky area, and I do think it has to do a lot with that relationship.
[End previously recorded interview]
[Begin previously recorded interview]
Tavis: For those who have not seen the play, give me the storyline.
Hoffman: It’s a very simple story, actually. It’s about these two very good friends. There’s two relationships: Two guys, they’re limo drivers together. That’s John, who plays Clyde, and me, I play Jack.
John/Clyde is married to Daphne’s character, Lucy. Daphne works at this job at a funeral home, and there’s a woman that works with her, Connie. Clyde and Lucy set Connie and Jack up. That’s basically the simple premise.
While there’s a parallel tale of this married couple who has put these two together and are helping these two try to get together, you begin to see the cracks in their relationship.
So it’s this very simple tale, but it’s about a very big thing, which is in order for something to be born, something has to die is how I think about it sometimes. That’s not always, but there is something about that that I find to be true. That is, it’s a natural thing. This movie plays around with that idea a little bit.
Tavis: How cool does it feel to direct something these days especially, where it’s a wonderful love story, and yet there are lessons weaved all throughout this, things that we can wrestle with, things that might cause us to re-examine the assumptions we hold, things that might expand our inventory of ideas, and yet you do all that in this wonderfully told story without proselytizing, without being preachy.
Hoffman: Right. Well that’s a really great question, because I think good art, if I could be pretentious enough to say, I think good art deals with the micro to explain the macro. Do you know what I mean? That there’s something in the very small minutia of life that tells us something about the big, big picture that we see every day all over the place, and so I think the more specific and creative and revelatory you are in the micro, the more powerful the macro will be.
That this is the tale which is I need you, you need me, and that’s hard. That’s the tale. (Laughter) But do you know what I mean?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Hoffman: That’s kind of the tale of all issues, and it’s like so what you do is you have these two little middle-age, working-class people. They need each other, and that’s hard. That’s not an easy thing.
But it’s such a simple thing, but it explains a lot of things. So that’s why I like this tale, and Bob Glaudini, the writer, has that kind of mentality as a writer. He’s a wonderfully talented man and all his plays and his screenplays, they all have this sense of something bigger, even though you’re looking at something very simple.
Tavis: Notwithstanding the fact that you chose this one to be your, as we said earlier, your directorial debut, your production company has now done two films.
Tavis: Not a bad way to start.
Hoffman: No, it’s good. It was good.
Tavis: (Laughter) Not a bad way to start at all.
Hoffman: Downhill. (Laughter)
Tavis: “Capote” – not at all – “Capote,” and now this. So what’s your process for figuring out what works for you as a producer?
Hoffman: We like to develop material and work with them and be creative in the growth of a project, and that’s something I think we get the most satisfaction out of. The hard part is what’s going to go.
What’s the thing that somebody’s going to pay to have us make? That’s the route. These have been the two pictures we’ve been involved with that that’s happened to, and now because of our history we’re getting closer on more things.
But we just spend a lot of time working with writers. We really enjoy that, having a relationship with writers, developing material and getting a director, actors, that we have kind of that family kind of as a group we’re going to do it together mentality in a project. Then the tough part is – so what actually goes has very little to do with us sometimes.
Tavis: To your point now, Philip, how tortured a process is that in today’s Hollywood?
Hoffman: Tortured. (Laughter) Good word, man. The world is changing in that business – in a lot of places, but in that business. People aren’t going to throw the kind of money at certain projects that I think they used to, to put it bluntly. People aren’t going to throw the kind of money at certain people that they used to.
The offers that come in, whether they are an offer to an actor to be in something or an offer to produce a film are not what they were, and that’s the struggle, because it’s happened quite quickly, in the past few years, to be honest. It’s happened slowly, but in the past few years, something more drastic has happened.
So it is a torturous process, because there is a lot of fear and anxiety about committing to things that are the art film, I think, with anything less than a very, very low budget.
But I do believe, though – this is where I think there’s a silver lining to this – I do think everyone wants to do it, though. I do feel like all the people I meet, all the people I’m in discussions with, if I’m working with somebody, I sense the same energy that everybody is suffering from the same predicament. No one doesn’t want to make something.
Tavis: You happen to wear both hats here. If it’s frustrating for a producer or a director to be tortured, back to our word of the day, to be tortured in that way by the process, how does an artist navigate that journey?
Hoffman: Well, artists – that’s why artists drive everyone crazy, because artists don’t think about that stuff. (Laughter) That’s why you hear me talk about it, and it’s even hard for me to get at. But I think you know what I’ve been saying. But as an artist myself, yeah, you don’t think about that stuff.
You see what you want to do, and why aren’t they helping me. (Laughter) You know what I mean? I’m sure (unintelligible) her own way. It’s just they have that kind – so that’s – it’s more of a torturous thing for them, in a way, I feel, because they’re the ones that might – we don’t want this to happen, but they’re the ones that might throw in the towel, and you don’t want the artist to throw in the towel, of course.
But they’re the ones that are – they want what they need to make what they have to make, because the desire to have to make it is so strong. Because that’s the kind of artist, that they want to, they are obsessed with actually putting their creation out to the world, and they want someone to help them do that.
In a lot of cases, it’s not there. I’ve seen a lot of friends who have a lot of great projects, whether it’s a script or a play or whatever, and it is a great project and they have great people involved, and they can’t make it.
These are people that 10 years ago could have. It’s not that they won’t, ultimately, or won’t get there, but it’s a lot harder –
Tavis: See, I’m listening to you intently and I’m trying to figure out – you’re making me feel schizophrenic here. (Laughter) What I mean by that is you suggested earlier in this conversation that you’re hopeful that on the other side we’re going to come out of this and that the business will start to reflect – I’m paraphrasing here – some of the values in its choices that you’ve been promulgating in this conversation.
But at the same time you have friends, and you know the struggle yourself, in getting this stuff done. So I’m trying to juxtapose – are you following me here?
Hoffman: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I’m trying to juxtapose those two things. I guess the ultimate question, given the tension here, is what makes you so hopeful.
Hoffman: I’m not saying there’s no struggle and we aren’t going through a harder time, but I feel like the need to want to create and make something is stronger than the difficulties we’re going through. That’s all I’m saying. And that either it’s going to come out in a different way or it’s going to come out the other side and we’ll see better times. But I just don’t think people are going to give up or stop making movies.
[End previously recorded interview]
Tavis: You can see from those conversations both his optimism and his self-doubt. Perhaps that dichotomy contributed to his brilliance as an actor. Those of us who knew him only from performances will miss Hoffman’s artistry.
Those of us who had the chance to know him personally will miss his humanity and his generosity. He leaves behind three young children and a legacy of superb performances, and sadly, the message, yet again, that drug addiction is a terrible illness that continues to claim too many productive lives
That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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