Whenever someone famous dies, whether it be an actor, filmmaker, musician, whatever, there is an outpouring of grief and sadness and a sense of loss, but I also feel that for journalists and news outlets, it just becomes this feeding frenzy for people to write as much as they possibly can and get as much possible traffic as possible from it. In other words, writing about someone’s death has turned into instant currency, and it’s something that annoys me every time someone dies as much as I understand the necessity of helping pull people together.
The tragic news earlier today that Philip Seymour Hoffman had passed away at the age of 46 from a drug overdose really hit me hard, maybe harder than last year’s deaths of Paul Walker and James Gandolfini, maybe because I had met Hoffman and interviewed him probably nine or ten times over the years. He was an actor I respected and appreciated to the fullest and I’m deeply saddened by the news.
Not many people will realize this, but I tend to write quite a few of the obituaries on ComingSoon.net. I’m not quite sure why I’ve ended up on that beat, but maybe it’s just that I like to try to make obituaries a little more personal. It’s not my favorite thing for obvious reasons, but it does allow me to reflect on the person’s life and work while writing.
Hoffman’s death was shocking and maybe it would have hit me harder if the news hadn’t broken literally ten minutes before I was about to head out the door to grab lunch with a friend, not a care in the world. I knew that I wouldn’t have time to write an official obituary or anything right away, let alone to reflect or mourn, but I did know that I wanted to write something about Hoffman, what he meant to me as an actor and my experiences over the years interviewing him.
Oddly, I still remember exactly where I was when I learned that Heath Ledger had died – I was at the Eccles Theater at Sundance waiting for the start of the premiere of a movie called Sleepwalking, starring Charlize Theron. The news broke, the movie started and I had to turn off my phone and try to concentrate on watching what ended up being a pretty bad movie.
I have a feeling I’ll never forget when and where I was when I learned of Hoffman’s passing. Groundhog Day, 2014. Super Bowl Sunday of all days! And me still in Columbus, Ohio.
But enough about me. This isn’t about me. Let’s get to why I’m writing this
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a New Yorker and I’d often see him around city, but he was also probably one of my favorite actors, going back to Boogie Nights or maybe earlier. Ever since seeing him in that movie, playing the sexually confused Scotty who has such a huge crush on Mark Wahlberg’s character, it was a joy when I would see any movie he was in. Even when he was doing low-brow humor in Ben Stiller’s Along Came Polly, he would still steal every scene, and of course, no one will EVER forget how amazingly he transformed into Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s Capote, for which he won an Oscar.
I honestly can’t think of a single movie or role that wasn’t made better by Hoffman’s presence. He even surprised me in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, easily the biggest movie of his career, with his portrayal of Plutarch Heavensbee, but it’s not the role I personally will remember him for. (That would probably be a tie between The Master, Boogie Nights and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.)
Hoffman was an actor’s actor and I had the opportunity to talk to him a number of times over the years, mostly roundtable interviews with other journalists, but I did get to talk to him solo for his directorial debut Jack Goes Boating, a movie that came out of the LaByrinth Theater Company in the Village with many of the players from their productions reprising roles. You can read that interview here, and it certainly was one of the better chats I had with him.
I never got the impression that Hoffman liked doing interviews, but it seems like something he shares in common with many New York-based actors, especially those who come from out of the world of theater. Talking about their work and how they prepare and get into their roles is really not something they consider part of their jobs. They just want to figure out their characters, learn their lines and do their best to embody their roles, and then move onto the next role. Sam Rockwell is like that, too, as are others such as Joaquin Phoenix. They don’t exactly like talking about themselves with total strangers, and who would blame them?
I remember some interviews with Hoffman that were so awkward and uncomfortable it was obvious he didn’t want to be there – like during the Capote junket where he did most of his interviews with his mouth covered making himself impossible to understand. But then there were movies like “Before the Devil” and Synecdoche, New York where he was really open and passionate about discussing them.
I would never even pretend that I knew Hoffman in any close, personal way although I do have a mutual friend who worked closely with him at the LaByrinth. Hoffman was such a driving force of that theater for so many years that I can’t even imagine what they’re going through right now.
Personally, I wasn’t surprised by the drug use and I’m certainly not going to judge him for it. I always had the impression that Hoffman had some issues, maybe that came with being such an immersive actor and playing such dark roles or having to deal with greater fame and being recognized everywhere he went, which probably got worse when he joined “The Hunger Games.” Again, Hoffman was an actor and I’m sure he’d be fine if he remained doing smaller supporting roles, being able to lose himself in parts and not having to deal with fame and what comes with it. I’m not even sure he’d like all the attention he’s getting now that he’s dead. It actually annoys me a little bit that so much focus is being put on his role “The Hunger Games” movies even if he was so good in “Catching Fire.”
I’m fairly confident that Hoffman’s heart was in the theater and smaller indies and directing again.
The sad thing is that like Gandolfini, like Paul Walker, Hoffman had plans ahead of him. He appeared in two movies that played at Sundance–the Jean Le Caree adaptation A Most Wanted Man and John Slattery’s God’s Pocket– many of the reviews I looked at noted how good Hoffman was in both movies. He had also just signed on to direct Ezekiel Moss, a movie we’ll probably see someday but directed by someone else.
Like I said, Hoffman’s death is a tragedy especially considering how young he was and how much of a future he had and due to the circumstances. It’s an enormous loss and like Gandolfini, like Ledger and others, it’s hard to believe he’s gone and we’ll never see him in any new movies beyond what he already filmed.
I hope you finally found the peace and whatever else you were looking for, Phil. You’ve earned it, but you will be greatly and deeply missed.