Philip Seymour Hoffman
Movie Set (sometimes)
Philip Seymour Hoffman is a damned good actor and last year he became a father. He is also a reader, and he has recently exhausted shelving space in his New York City apartment and has resorted to stacking books in his apartment’s hallway. At any one time he is usually reading an absurd amount of books to varying degrees of completion. Like most readers, he has the tendency to stop a book before reaching the last page—sidetracked by work or, more often, another book. When our conversation took place, a week before Thanksgiving, he was in the midst of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Human Stain by Philip Roth, and Adam Haslett’s short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here.
I asked Hoffman if he would be interested in having a conversation with me about books. However, I added a slight wrinkle: Hoffman and I would use the short story “Sea Oak” by George Saunders as a platform from which to launch our discussion. I’ve always been a fan of Saunders’s work, and I’m that type of reader who enjoys pushing favorite writers on fellow readers. The Believer sent Hoffman a copy of Pastoralia, the short-story collection in which “Sea Oak” appears, and in November I was invited to his New York City office, which is in an apartment building in Chelsea. On the walls hang framed posters from Hoffman’s past movies. Books and movie scripts fill two large bookshelves, and on the radiator below the two windows looking out over New York sit framed photographs of Hoffman with other actors. There’s one anachronistic photo, black and white, of Anton Chekhov in a trench coat with an upturned collar and a Bolshevik-looking hat. The photograph was a gift from Mike Nichols, who directed Hoffman in Chekhov’s The Seagull.
Hoffman speaks like the characters he portrays—a gentle sort of sleepy voice that has the tendency to trail off into a near mumble—but he also has this deep infectious laugh that puts you at ease. It’s a jolly, sincere laugh with a tinge of smoker’s throat. The interview took place on a sunny, winter afternoon. From an open window you could hear traffic sounds and children playing in a nearby school playground.
THE BELIEVER: Have you ever looked to a character in fiction you weren’t going to play for inspiration?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: It’s almost impossible not to be influenced by everything when you’re working on a character. I know that’s happened, but it’s hard to think of a specific example. It happens with music sometimes. Not the words from music, but music on its own. I remember one time I was working on a role and I was in Coliseum Books—I love that bookstore. I was in there and they were playing Vivaldi, and I remember hearing it and thinking “I need to get that. I need to listen to that the next time I look at this part.” I would never not work on the part without it playing. That’s what being an actor is. You use everything that’s influenced you to help you get out of yourself or be more creative.
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