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.
I. “IT SCREWED ME UP SO BAD. ALL I COULD THINK ABOUT WAS THIS DAMN BOOK.”
THE BELIEVER: Do you ever look to literature for inspiration when you act?
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: I have, yes. Sometimes because the character I’m playing is right out of a novel, and I’ll look at the novel for help. What happens is that screenplays based on novels will take liberties so the character is not always a direct descendant of the novel. I did that with Ripley [The Talented Mr. Ripley] and Cold Mountain. They’re kind of different characters in the screenplay than in the book, but you have to take both to create the one you’re going to do.
BLVR: What about characters that aren’t adapted from novels? Have you ever looked to a character in fiction you weren’t going to play for inspiration?
PSH: 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.
BLVR: Have you ever taken a book, not a book that the movie is adapted from, but some other book, to read to put you in a certain mood while you’re on set? Like what you were saying you did with the classical music.
PSH: On set I did recently read You Are Not a Stranger Here. I just recommended it to Amy Sedaris. She’s a big reader, too, and she read it and just went bananas for it. The only time I’ll read a book on set is when I know what is being asked of me isn’t difficult or strenuous. I know I’ll have down time to zone out, and I’ll bring a book with me that I know I want to read. It’ll keep me concentrated, so the next time I’m called to set I’ll be focused. But sometimes the job I have asks a lot from me and my energy and concentration and if I divert it, I’ll never get it back. Books are a huge diversion for me.
BLVR: I remember when I first read “Sea Oak.” I was living in Austin, Texas. It came out in the New Yorker, and I knew of Saunders because I’d read his first book. It was this super-beautiful day, and I didn’t have to work that afternoon. I got on my bike and rode up to the library. I was so excited to read the story. I sat outside the library and read it, and when I finished, I walked around the block like four times. Can you remember reading a specific book, other than You Are Not a Stranger Here, while you were working on a movie? Do you mark time with the books you’ve read?
PSH: My first job, Scent of a Woman, I remember taking the bus upstate to where we were shooting and I was reading The Prince of Tides. I was so caught up in that book and when I got off the bus I was beside myself. The book just wrecked me. I was like twenty-four years old. All that stuff with the tiger. People have a lot of opinions about Conroy, but that book is very, very moving. I remember being incredibly upset and moved and I had to go to work in two hours. It screwed me up so bad. All I could think about was this damn book, and I had to play this impressionable kid who could really give a shit about reading books.
BLVR: What other books have affected you like that?
PSH: A Prayer for Owen Meany. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
BLVR: Revolutionary Road is a fantastic book.
PSH: That book put me out for a couple days. I can’t finish that book and then go act in a scene. That’s the last thing I want to do. I want to be alone; I want to be isolated. I want to be by myself. I don’t want to be with other people. I’m a big Richard Yates fan, by the way.
BLVR: I read somewhere that you also like Richard Ford.
PSH: I love Richard Ford. The Sportswriter is one of my favorite books. What he says at the end of The Sportswriter about walking in the veil and how you think that it might not ever get lifted again … I remember when I was doing Long Day’s Journey into Night and Edmund talks about being on the beach in the fog—when I read that in the play, I went right to The Sportswriter and reread that part.
BLVR: I read The Sportswriter when I was twenty-one or -two. I was home from college and I read almost the entire thing sitting on my parents’ front porch in the middle of Illinois. It just slayed me.
PSH: How old are you now?
PSH: Wait about five more years and read it again. I read it when I was thirty, and I’m thirty-six now. I think about that book all the time. As I get older, that book keeps revealing itself.
II. THE OPTOMETRIST
The plot of “Sea Oak” is basically this: The narrator lives in an apartment complex called Sea Oak with his sister and cousin, who both have babies, and their elderly Aunt Bernie. The narrator works as a waiter at Joysticks, a theme restaurant/male strip club, where all the waiters have penis-covers, and it’s illegal to show the actual penis. By showing the penis, a waiter can make a little extra side money. One day Bernie is scared to death by an intruder. The family buys her a particleboard coffin and buries her in the local cemetery. A couple of days later she comes back to life as an angry virgin—Aunt Bernie lived a pious, dull life and never married. She develops a plan for the family to get out of poverty and to get herself laid. She believes that money will bring her happiness and many, many male admirers. Part One of the plan is for the narrator to show his penis and for the narrator’s sister to get a job while the cousin babysits the kids. After the narrator gets enough money, he will enter community college and study pre-law. The final phase is for the narrator to save up enough penis-showing money to quit his job, move the family out of Sea Oak to a safer apartment complex, and enter law school. The plan is cut short as Bernie literally falls apart over the course of a couple days and ends up a pile of limbs on the living-room floor. She smells pretty horrible, too. In the end, Bernie dies a second time, but before doing so she foretells a horrific event where one of the babies is caught in crossfire and killed.
BLVR: Where did you read “Sea Oak”?
PSH: I read it on my couch at home last night, and I read it on this couch here. I end up doing a lot of reading lying down. When I first read the story, I didn’t know if it was going to get away from me with its queer, odd depiction of life. I didn’t know if it was going to become petty, like Repo Man.You know that movie?
BLVR: [Laughs] Yeah.
PSH: The food’s all generic—it’s oxy-generic. You’re in the world but you’re not really in the world. I liked Repo Man, but you never feel when you’re watching that movie.
BLVR: So you thought it was going to be a depiction of a hyper-exaggerated world?
PSH: Yeah. But what I really liked about the story is that George Saunders was able to take his commentary on society—about the TV shows they were watching and the strip club the narrator is in and the different levels of success and if you’re lowered down you get fired in front of everybody … [laughing] But the whole thing in the end was very moving. Very moving.
BLVR: Who did you picture as the narrator of “Sea Oak”?
PSH: The narrator seems so responsible in his telling of the story that it’s difficult to see him as working in a strip club. He seems to be halfway decent at it; he’s rated “Honey Pie/Adequate.” He’s the most upstanding of the group, but then you picture him at the strip club.You’d think he’d be awful at the strip club. But he’s able to split himself and be a stripper and the responsible one at home.
BLVR: He’s right in the middle at home, too, though. On one side there’s Aunt Bernie the optimist, and the sister and the cousin are morons.
PSH: They’re making up words.
BLVR: There’s that one part where one of them says, “Bernie, you’re always the optometrist,” for optimist.
PSH: [Laughs] That’s right, that’s excellent.
BLVR: He’s in the middle of those two extremes. He’s not optimistic and he’s not a moron either.
PSH: He’s not judging the characters, or the people in the story. In fact, he loves them very much.
BLVR: Do you think the exaggeration allowed George Saunders to get away with sentimentality?
PSH: Yes—and he was allowed to get away with a dead person coming back to life. That was the tool that helped him say the things he wanted to say about their lives. There’s an understanding of how hard it must be for them to change their lives because of where they live. Aunt Bernie comes back from the dead and there she is decaying in front of them saying, “The children will start dying.” And that’s incredibly moving. In areas of the world where there’s that kind of poverty, that kind of hopelessness, the children are the ones that pay the price. I read the other day in the [New York] Post that a little girl got shot in crossfire. I mean, I love it when I read fiction and it immediately makes me think of something that’s happening right now. The story isn’t really that far from reality.
BLVR: What do you make of the element of absurdity that Aunt Bernie comes back from the dead and sits in this chair and literally falls apart while barking out all these orders to “learn how to cook and get a job and show your cock,” and at the end, her head and whole body is in a pile on the floor.
PSH: It’s hysterical.
BLVR: But very sad, too, because she has that realization …
PSH: “Why do some people get everything and I didn’t get anything?”
BLVR: At the end, the narrator can’t answer it—which I find tragic. For me, that’s where the sadness comes in. The unfairness of life.
PSH: But before she says that, she says to the narrator, “Show your cock.” To me that’s powerful. It’s just not her coming back and saying, [in a whiny voice] “I didn’t have anything in my life …” She came back an incredibly active person, saying, “I’m going to tell you what I didn’t have and what I want, but I’m also going to tell you that you guys need to get your shit together.”
BLVR: The showing your cock part is interesting. To me it’s saying that to be successful you have to exploit yourself. The only asset the narrator has is the size of his cock, and she’s telling him to show it to get ahead.
PSH: I didn’t take it as a commentary on how to get ahead. He’s already working there; he’s already made the decision to exploit himself. He’s a smart guy who can eventually go to law school. Here he is not even making enough money to do the next thing he has to do, which is not exploit himself. He doesn’t even have a path to get to the end of the exploitation section of his life. I saw it as her saying that he has to exploit himself in the right way so that he can get the hell out of there and get to law school. I saw that her message was very positive.Yes, it’s an awful situation, but he already chose it.
BLVR: Do you think that the story plays into the American Dream that if you work hard enough you can succeed?
PSH: I didn’t see that, either. I remember Chris Rock did this stand-up routine about this father where the father is like, “I pick the kid up. I pay his bills. I give him food.”And Chris Rock is like, “I hope you do, motherfucker, you’re the father.” That was what I saw her saying. This isn’t working hard so you can own a castle in the hills. She’s saying, “You have a kid and you want that kid to eat well so learn how to cook. Read books that will educate you. Get an education. Get a career. And support yourself. And live in a section of town that isn’t conducive to violence.”
III. “READING HAS DEFINITELY BECOME … IT’S ALMOST LIKE SMOKING.”
PSH: Books … they’re kind of a compulsion for me. To find a great bookstore is a great thing.
BLVR: What kind of bookstores do you like?
PSH: There’s this one called Three Lives. It’s right by where I live in the West Village. I’ve been venturing into it lately. It’s this fantastic bookstore.
BLVR: Is it a used bookstore or a new one?
PSH: It’s a new bookstore, but they have a really great selection of stuff. I like the Strand but I get lost in there. It’s frustrating for me. I end up walking out with like six books under my arm that I know I’m not going to be able to read anytime soon. It’s kind of that fantasy of what life will be like when I get older. All I’ll have time for is reading all the books that I’ve collected through my life. But now it’s just making sure I have them at my disposal. What I end up doing is reading a lot of different books at the same time.
BLVR: When you’re walking around a bookstore are you attracted to the way a book looks? Do you choose books by their covers or by recommendations?
PSH: I usually don’t choose books by their covers. I’ll walk into a bookstore and I’ll let my memory work. I have an awful memory, and I have a great memory. Meaning that, if I’m trying to remember something, I can’t remember it. But my recall is fantastic. Bookstores are perfect for that. The recall will all come back, and I’ll build a reference for myself of things I want to remember. That’s why I end up buying six or seven books at a time.
BLVR: What books have you bought recently?
PSH: I’ve been buying Truman Capote.
BLVR: I read you’re doing a movie about him.
PSH: We’re trying to get it up on its feet. I’ve pretty much bought everything of his now. I’m about halfway through In Cold Blood. And I read “Miriam,” his first short story. And I started reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I read a 700-page biography by Gerald Clark. It’s a pretty great read.
BLVR: What attracted you to do a movie about him?
PSH: A friend of mine had written a script about his writing In Cold Blood. So it pretty much came from there. Not only are the story and script and characters good, but it gave me the opportunity to buy more books.You should see my home. There are like three piles of new books I just bought.
[Hoffman lights a cigarette with a long, thin stainless steel lighter. The lighter looks similar to a magician’s wand but not as long.]
BLVR: That’s a crazy-looking lighter.
PSH: Yeah, I know, I just bought it. I lose lighters all the time, but this can stay here at the office and I can refill it. I needed an ashtray, too. I was in the store and there was an ashtray and there was a lighter and I bought them both.
BLVR: Is that similar to how you buy books?
PSH: No, I think it’s completely different. I wouldn't buy any book. This was the first ashtray I saw so I bought it. I wouldn’t walk into a bookstore and buy the first book I saw.
BLVR: So when you go to a bookstore you spend a couple hours walking around?
PSH: That’s what I was just explaining. A bookstore is a great reference for what I’ve taken in. I can’t always remember the writers I want to read or what I’ve been told to read, but when I go to a bookstore I’ll spend my time looking around and then I’ll remember things like Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past was brought up in Capote’s biography because his last book, Answered Prayers, was going to be his equivalent of Remembrances of Things Past. So when I saw Proust, I remembered that, and bought the first section.
BLVR: Have you always been a reader?
PSH: When I was younger, I was much more interested in being outside and being with other people. The idea of sitting inside reading wasn’t very attractive to me. Then, my sophomore year of high school, I took this class called “The Novel,” and we read really great stuff like The Stranger and The Great Train Robbery. You know in high school there’s this weird thing that learning is treated as a good or bad thing.You either remember what you learned and you’re good or you don’t and you’re bad. The actual interpretation of what you’ve learned is never encouraged at that age. This was the first time in a class that this happened. It opened up a whole thing for me—reading and having an opinion, deciphering, identifying, and personalizing what you’ve read was pleasurable. It was a great course. I wish I could remember the name of the woman who taught it because it’s led to who I am now. Reading has definitely become … it’s almost like smoking.
BLVR: Like smoking?
PSH: When you read, you think, and when you smoke, you think. It’s a pleasurable thing, and not a duty.
IV. “RICHARD YATES, JESUS CHRIST, YOU ALMOST DON’T WANT TO MEET HIM.”
PSH: I think part of why I have so many books around me and why I read every day is because I mythologize the writer. I don’t do that with any other artists. I remember I met John Irving before I read any of his books. I auditioned for The Cider House Rules, which eventually got made eight years later. I thought, “Oh, this is a nice guy.” Then I went on to read A Prayer for Owen Meany and I met him again a bunch of years later at some award-type thing. I was beside myself.
PSH: It was ridiculous. I think I’d be the same way if I met Richard Ford or if Richard Yates were alive. Or Philip Roth.
BLVR: Do you think the processes of acting and writing are similar?
PSH: I’m sure writers would say, “I don’t know how the hell you act.” I know that’s how artists are with each other. Ultimately, I think writing is a mixture of craft, inspiration, and being incredibly, courageously explorative with yourself—and being brutally honest, too.
BLVR: Isn’t that what acting is?
PSH: Yeah, that’s what I think art is. The craft is different art to art, but the brave personalization, the brave exploration—not brave in the literal sense but brave in the “all right, I’m going to do this, I’m going to allow myself to go there, allow myself to look at it, not only look at it but ask questions about it, and then I’m going to allow myself to actually let someone else see it.” I can’t imagine how a writer must feel when someone walks into the room and says, “I just read your book.”
It’s a very vulnerable position to be in. Not the literalness of “Did you like it or not?” but really what that is about is “Do you like me or not?” If you do any great art you’re somehow exposing a part of you. Like Richard Yates, Jesus Christ, that book, you almost don’t want to meet him. I kept feeling for the characters as if they existed. I kept saying, “Poor April. Poor April Wheeler,” for days afterwards.
BLVR: He’s really underappreciated. He was right before Richard Ford and Raymond Carver, and you can see the influence he had on those guys. They got all the acclaim and he sort of got left in the dust.
PSH: His books are hard to read. Easter Parade, the way it starts off …
BLVR: I haven’t read Easter Parade.
PSH: You gotta read Easter Parade. It basically starts off saying here are these two characters and their lives are miserable and I’m going to tell you why. It’s uncompromising. He’s not interested in entertaining you at all. He’s just trying to get at it.
BLVR: I think Saunders is interested in entertaining you as well as trying to say something or be emotional.
PSH: Which is pretty terrific.
BLVR: And hard to do.
PSH: Very hard to do. I laughed while reading it, quite a few times, but there was nothing flip about what he was trying to get at. If you read a great book, it’s a book that will always be. In time people will go, “Oh my God, people can create something amazing.”
BLVR: You take a book like Revolutionary Road. It’s so devastating yet also inspiring.
PSH: Don’t you sit there and think, “Fuck, I can’t live my life and not be a part of something.” You want to live your life and leave something behind.
Illustration by Charles Burns
What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor