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Sunday 20 October 2019

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Benefit Of Doubt

That Philip Seymour Hoffman is a born actor -- one of the screen's finest -- might explain his discomfort with the real world, writes our LA correspondent Patricia Danaher

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip seymour hoffman is not much of a chatterbox. On the contrary, it's clear that interviews for him are torture and he finds it tough to talk about the skill in which he has few equals.

So, here we are with an hour to fill and he's struggling to tell me about Doubt, the movie of the play in which he plays a Catholic priest suspected of child abuse.

With multiple awards and nominations for the very broad selection of roles he's played and made very much his own in films from Capote to Boogie Nights, it's crystal clear that what Seymour Hoffman has to say is nearly all up there on the screen. In fact, for all the success he's had and for which he's grateful, what he misses the most is his anonymity.

"Before you lose your anonymity, you don't think about it," he drawls in that cigarette-and-coffee-coated voice. "I always think your anonymity is like having a left arm -- you don't think about it, it's just there. You walk around private in public. No one knows who you are unless they actually know you. So when that starts to change, it's a huge shift because it is unnatural."

Hoffman has often been described as the artist's artist, one not afraid to play difficult, even wretched characters. A long-standing and widely admired stage actor and director in his home city of New York, he has never shirked roles which show him as physically unattractive and emotionally exposed.

After celebrated performances in State and Main, Happiness, The Big Lebowski, and The Talented Mr Ripley, Hoffman has always reverted to the stage, acting and directing in the company he co-founded, LABrynth. It's almost as though theatre grounds him again in pure acting, in a way that film can never.

Before signing on to work on the Golden Globe nominated Doubt, he and Meryl Streep had starred together in New York in a production of Chekhov's The Seagull. In the movie, which is based on John Patrick Shanley's award-winning play, the two are formidable opponents, Streep as a terrifying Mother Superior who accuses Hoffman's character, Father Flynn, of sexual abuse. The combination of these two talents is explosive. "Meryl gives you more than most. She's incredibly alive in the moment and she has a great imagination and a great humanity about her."

Although Hoffman was more likely to become a jock than an artist, he says he has always taken great pleasure in language and the sound of words.

He excelled in wrestling and baseball, while his older brother was making little Super-8 films. A neck injury while wrestling forced him to give up the sport and head instead for the school theatre.

Hoffman's talent as an actor shone through from the outset and, while he was still in high school, he landed a professional role in a production of Death of a Salesman in which he played Willy Loman.

With his anti-leading man looks and physique, he has never stopped working in theatre, TV and film.

"A lot of people describe me as chubby, which seems so easy, so first choice. How about dense? I'm a thick kind of guy. But I'm never described in attractive ways. I'm waiting for somebody to say I'm at least cute, but nobody has."

He says this in his tired, slightly resigned tone, but it really doesn't feel like he's really all that bothered. The father of two young boys, he has been involved with Mimi O'Donnell, an Irish American costume designer, since the two worked together on a play he directed in 1999.

"When I start to look into my past, Irish is the strongest part of me, although I'm a bit of a mutt with a mixed heritage. My mother was very aware of her Irish heritage and that's partly contributed to my love of language and literature. I loved being on stage with Brian Dennehy in Long Day's Journey Into Night. I was thrilled when he and Vanessa Redgrave won Tonys for it."

And playing a Catholic priest who's accused of child molestation in Doubt?

"The priest I play is also a basketball coach and he was very like a coach I had, although I didn't go to a Catholic school. I've seen priests interact with each other all my life and they don't act too differently among themselves. I've seen 'em joke around and take the Lord's name in vain and laugh about it. I've seen them be quite serious and passionate about what they do and you can see that they believe in it and I came to the conclusion that they're a lot like us, but they happen to be priests, so I try not to judge them."

Doubt is a riveting and risky topic to explore socially and politically, but the writing is so fine that it's more about human fallibility and how suspicion can destroy someone's reputation, whether they are guilty or not.

"Meryl's character, who's doing the doubting and the accusing, admits that she has committed a mortal sin and that's so brilliant, how that is written. Some of what is so fantastic in this film is what's not written."

Given that Hoffman has so little to prove as an actor at this point in his career, is doubt something with which he's still afflicted?

"If you're honest, I think you're sure and then you're not sure about all sorts of things, but that's what life's like. Being confident is about the moment.

"You can be incredibly insecure one moment and confident the next, it doesn't matter if it's 20 years ago or now. I walk into every situation with a certain level of fear or confidence, based on the day. It's not a constant, but it's something that changes."

As the interview comes to an end, Hoffman palpably relaxes, apologising for not being more at ease, then slips quickly through the hotel to go out the front to smoke. How much easier life would be, you feel, if all he had to do were act. HQ

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