Whether he’s playing a gay boom mic operator in “Boogie Nights” or rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” an evil arms dealer in “Mission: Impossible III” or a priest in hot water in “Doubt,” Philip Seymour Hoffman pretty much always convinces. Yet the New York native actor says there’s not one performance, including his Oscar-winning turn in “Capote,” that wouldn’t strike him as a combination of parts that were OK and “parts that I might loathe.”
“Every film I would watch it would be a roller-coaster ride of emotions,” says Hoffman, 43. “’That was bad!’ Or ‘That’s pretty good.’ Or ‘I remember that being good; now I don’t like it.’”
Clearly the actor’s very familiar with examining his own performances. Something new for Hoffman, who has directed numerous plays including “The Long Red Road” earlier this year at the Goodman Theatre, is directing movies. For the indie drama “Jack Goes Boating,” opening Sept. 24, Hoffman not only reprises the starring role of Jack from the Off Broadway play but takes a shot in the director’s chair as well. That doesn’t get in the way of another credible performance from Hoffman, who turns Jack, a lonely limo driver trying to find the right words to get close to a funeral home employee (Amy Ryan), into a sad but sympathetic guy who needs someone to pull him out of his rut.
At the Elysian Hotel Hoffman talked about the challenge of directing himself, avoiding post-Oscar mistakes and starring with Zac Efron in a musical in which they play each other.
When you were in Chicago directing “The Long Red Road,” what did you like doing when you weren’t working?
God, you know it felt like I was at the Goodman Theatre most of the time. I remember going to Steppenwolf and checking out a show there. I remember the last time I was here I went to Lookingglass. I do try to do that when I’m here is to check out some of the companies because I really enjoy their work. And then just try to get around. I remember when I was here last time I was like, “I want to find a great barbershop ‘cause I know that will force me to go to an area of Chicago I haven’t been to yet.” … It’s a great city, but I was working a lot. I was at the theater six days a week … I think I ate about 10 billion hot dogs at a place [called] Portillo’s. Like A LOT. I ate there way more than I think I should have, but I couldn’t help it.
With mustard or ketchup?
I think both. I don’t know. I just said “With everything.” [Laughs] They had great French fries. Hot dogs are serious here; I love it.
Some people, not me, will boot you out of the city if you put ketchup on a hot dog.
Oh, really. I remember when I first got a hot dog from there, I was like, “That’s a serious hot dog. I don’t want to screw it up.”
You didn’t feel any anger towards you for putting ketchup on?
No, I think I put ketchup on in hiding. Back in my room or something.
How challenging was it to direct an actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Jack Goes Boating”?
[Laughs] He’s a nightmare that guy. Directing yourself isn’t an easy task. I really wouldn’t want to do it again. I guess never say never but … It’s very enjoyable, directing. I think in a certain sense I was very spoiled by the people I had around me. But I really enjoyed the process of directing the film. When I had to act it took away from the enjoyment of having to direct. That’s a whole other ball of wax. You have to stop being a director. You stop thinking that way and you have to start thinking another way. It’s very different. I’d love the opportunity to direct a film where I didn’t have to worry about that.
Jack can’t swim. What’s something many people can do that was never easy for you?
There’s things I never really learned how to do. I never learned how to ice skate, which is crazy ‘cause I grew up in Rochester, New York, which winters are huge there. I remember skating a little bit as a kid but I never really did learn. I never really did learn how to ski. I learned how to snowboard later in life, but I never really learned how to ski.
If we went ice-skating right now, what would it be like?
I’d probably be stumbling around. I remember it was all about the ankles and wobbling and stuff. I learned how to swim at a very young age; I was on the swim team when I was a kid. I was a lifeguard at one point. Swimming’s like essential when you’re on a planet that’s mostly water. You know what I mean? I remember [to] my mom it was a big deal that we learn how to swim at a very young age. There’s something unique to swimming, that somebody who didn’t learn how to swim [is] a very specific person. Because that is something that most people try and learn how to do at least basically.
But when climate change turns all the water into ice, everyone will need to know how to ice skate too.
[Laughs] But you can kind of slide across on your shoes. But if you fall in the water …
People talk about what happens to an actor’s career after winning an Oscar. What’s something that came your way that you said, “Oh, that would be my ‘Catwoman.’ I’m staying away from that.”
I try not to think about my career in that serious a way. I try to just kind of go with my gut and try not to do anything that I feel like is not essential. That’s done me well. I’ve been grateful enough to get enough offers from serious enough people that kind of keeps me grounded in how hard this all is and to do it well is not easy.
Can you give an example of a character that you were offered and you weren’t interested in playing?
It’s not usually because of “This is going to be my ‘Catwoman’” or anything, it’s usually I’ll get offered something that I’m just not as interested in. You get offered a part where you’re like, “Wow, 10 years ago I would’ve died to play that part. Now I’m older and I’m not interested.” You just evolve and different things start to interest you.
When I interviewed Zac Efron he wanted an original idea for a musical so I offered him the part of Zac Efron in “The Zac Efron Story.” He said he wanted you to play him. What will you bring to the role, and how do you feel about him playing you in “The Philip Seymour Hoffman Story”?
[Laughs] Um. I don’t want to answer that. [Laughs] I love musicals actually, but the idea of me being in musicals is so frightening to me. I think Zac should rethink that. Maybe we can be in it together and we can play each other. So it will be “The Zac and Phil Story” but we’d play each other and that’s the whole twist. Maybe we should bring that back on Zac and see what he thinks about that.
What tips would you have for him when he played you?
Just say and do a lot of things that are inappropriate. To constantly stick your foot in your mouth.
That’s your M.O.?
[Laughs] No. That would be the most self-effacing thing [I can think of].
What is it like to be ridiculously talented?
Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh … I think talent, and I’m not just saying this, is about putting the work in. So I think there are a lot of people that are [ridiculously] talented. And I mean that. I’ve met a lot of actors and writers who I think are loaded up with talent. And then there’s the people that [never] put a lot of the work in. That separates I think. So I think there’s been times when I’ve put the work in, and that’s when it’s paid off and I think I’ve made the most out of whatever talent I have. And then there’s some times when I haven’t and I’m just one of the guys. It’s amazing how equal everyone becomes when you haven’t put the work in.
Well again, it’s on the day. It’s not the whole film. ‘Cause then you’d just be everyday showing up like a f***ing asshole.
“He’s hungover again.”
Yeah. You have days where you’re like, “God, I didn’t do what I should have done here.” And you’re pretty average.
Philip Seymour Hoffman personality test:
On his iPod now: “I don’t have one with me. I have an iPod at home and it’s kind of an iPod for the family and there’s tons of music on that and there’s nothing specific we’re listening to at the moment. I know that’s very un-2010.”
Drink of choice: Iced lattes
Chicago in five words or less: “I don’t know if I can do it in five words or less. It’s kind of every time I’m here, it’s so powerful and so beautiful when you’re here. I’m always reminded not only that it’s this beautiful city; there’s a power to it. Just aesthetically. It’s utterly unique that way. How San Francisco is, in a totally different way. Or New York is, in a totally different way. It is its own. But there’s a power to it.”
What he’d want to do with unlimited time here: “I’d probably want to do what I’d want to do in any city to be quite honest. I’d want to take in what the city has to offer. And Chicago has a lot to offer in the way of art, in the way of theater and sports. Which are like my three things. That’s why I like this town, so if I had unlimited time and I had nothing to do, it’s like, “Well, let’s go. I want to go look at some art, I want to go to the theater, I want to see whatever team’s playing.” But that’s really in any city I think I would feel that way. I would be like, ‘Here I am, let’s do it.’ But then you have that time and you don’t do that stuff.”
Paul Thomas Anderson: Friend
Truman Capote: Impossible
Tom Cruise: Loyal
Spike Lee: Genius
Todd Solondz: Uncompromising
Joel and Ethan Coen: Fun
Charlie Kaufman: Grateful