A talk with Philip Seymour Hoffman

Here’s my interview with director/actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who will be the keynote speaker at PlayFest on Saturday April 10. He’ll appear in a Q&A format with Jim Helsinger, artistic director of Orlando Shakespeare Theater, which produces PlayFest.

The story is running in the Orlando Sentinel’s Calendar section Friday April 2.

By Elizabeth Maupin
Special to the Sentinel

Philip Seymour Hoffman may be agreeable in all respects but one: If you suggest, or if he thinks you have suggested, that he lives to make movies.

Sure, he’s won an Oscar. But Hoffman is a theater guy. He spends most of his time working in the theater. Theater is who he is.

“That’s what I do,” he says. “That’s my life. I can’t imagine life without it. I don’t know what it would mean to be someone who just acted in films.”

And it’s theater he’ll be pushing next week when he appears as the keynote speaker at Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays, or PlayFest, a 10-day-long festival of new work for the stage. Hoffman, 42, will appear Saturday night in an Inside the Actors Studio-style question-and-answer session with Jim Helsinger, Orlando Shakespeare’s artistic director, on the Margeson Theater stage.

Those who know him – Helsinger is one – say that Hoffman isn’t interested in the trappings of fame. Still, he’s turning up in Orlando, talking about himself onstage and making the rounds of the obligatory receptions simply to make a case for theater. Just that.

“Some people might court celebrity, but most people don’t,” Hoffman says, his voice unassuming but intense on the phone. “Like anything, it has its pluses and minuses, and this is one of the pluses: It helps to draw attention to the theater. It’s important to focus on the event and not the celebrity. That can be hard sometimes.”

Hoffman may be famous for a long string of movies, from Boogie Nights and The Talented Mr. Ripley in the ‘90s to Capote, Charlie Wilson’s War and Doubt in more recent years. But he’s famous also for being nearly unrecognizable from one role to the next, from the seemingly small, high-voiced, elusive title character in Capote to the big, blunt, hilarious CIA man in Charlie Wilson’s War.

In the theater, he’s known for taking chances. Fifteen years ago he joined a little off-Broadway troupe called LAByrinth Theatre Company and became co-artistic director while the group focused on the work of writers who went on to become celebrated themselves – most notably Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose dramas Jesus Hopped the A Train and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot have been produced by Empty Spaces Theatre Co. in Orlando.

The company, he says, “came out of the idea of actors doing something other than what they normally do.” So Hoffman became a director, and his name has been associated with some of LAByrinth’s best-received work.

“People always assume that, because you’re an actor, that’s what you are,” Hoffman says. “They have a very poor understanding of the business.

“You can’t just keep running all the time. Sometimes you have to do sit-ups. To be as creative and bold as you want to be, you have to develop other ways to do it.”

Hoffman, who grew up in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., began going to serious theater as a pre-teen: He remembers his mother, a family court judge, taking him to see Arthur Miller’s All My Sons when he was 12 or so.

“I kind of fell in love immediately,” he says. “I liked to go to it. I’m still that kind of person. I still like to be in the audience.”

And there was a part of him, he says, “that made me want to be a part of whatever that was.”

He discovered he was good at acting: “You start to see maybe you’ve got something. Maybe you’re in the right place.”

And he liked the people.

“It’s the corniest, sappiest thing, but there really is nothing better than theater people. That’s a huge part of it. The bond you develop with people, working with people, is a real one.”

So Hoffman went to New York University to study theater and graduated in 1989. In 1992 he got his first big break, playing a deceitful preppie in Scent of a Woman. (In between he supported himself with all kinds of jobs – waiting tables, lifeguarding, working as a camp counselor, stocking shelves in a deli. “I was good at things that didn’t have to do with waiting tables,” he says. “It’s one of the most stressful jobs I’ve ever had.”)

Hoffman has been recognized as an actor who can make a classic role his own: He won a Tony nomination for playing James Tyrone Jr., the Jason Robards role, in a Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He got another nomination for playing both roles – switching off every night with John C. Reilly – in Sam Shepard’s contemporary classic True West.

This season in New York he played Iago to his friend John Ortiz’s Othello in Peter Sellars’s modern-day interpretation of Othello (to not-so-friendly reviews).

Most of his work, though, has been developing new plays with LAByrinth, where he and Ortiz were co-artistic directors until last year. (Both are still board members, and Hoffman’s girlfriend Mimi O’Donnell, with whom he has three children, is now one of the three artistic directors.)

Both actors and directors have their roles in new-play development, he says, although those roles vary from play to play.

“It has mostly to do with the playwright who’s in the room. It’s important that the playwright see his or her play. One of the director’s jobs is to make sure that the play is seen clearly. The director’s job is to sell his ideas to the playwright. He can’t be ambiguous. He really needs to have a vision that the playwright can buy into.”

What about the audience? At PlayFest, audience members are encouraged to voice their opinions of the new work they’re seeing, both in written form and in talkbacks. Some playwrights don’t like to pay attention to what audiences have to say. Hoffman says they’re integral.

“It’s very important that an audience is actively thinking and working while they’re watching. To get the most out of it, an audience has to work. To be actually open to what that new thing is going to be … They might be seeing something new, and maybe it’s not wrong; maybe it’s just different. It is an ongoing dialogue with them at the end of the day.”

If he can bring an audience to PlayFest, then he’s done his job. And if he can get them to take one thing away, it’s that live theater “isn’t going away.”

“No matter how technologically advanced we are, no matter how the world changes, theater isn’t going anywhere,” Hoffman says. “There will always be people who want to come into a room and hear a story.

“It’s like food. It’s like your food supply. And it has to be nurtured.”

Selected work of Philip Seymour Hoffman:

Film:

  • Scent of a Woman, 1992
  • Boogie Nights, 1997
  • The Big Lebowski, 1998
  • Happiness, 1998
  • Magnolia, 1999
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999
  • Almost Famous, 2000
  • Red Dragon, 2002
  • Cold Mountain, 2003
  • Capote, 2005 (Oscar)
  • Charlie Wilson’s War, 2007 (Oscar nomination)
  • Synecdoche, New York, 2008
  • Doubt, 2008 (Oscar nomination)
  • Jack Goes Boating, 2010 (actor and director)

Theater:

  • Defying Gravity, off-Broadway, 1997
  • Jesus Hopped the A Train (director), LAByrinth Theatre Company, 2000
  • True West, Broadway, 2000 (Tony nomination)
  • The Seagull, Central Park, 2001
  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Broadway, 2003 (Tony nomination)
  • Our Lady of 121st Street (director), LAByrinth Theatre Company, 2003
  • The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (director), LAByrinth Theatre Company, 2005
  • Jack Goes Boating (actor and director), LAByrinth Theatre Company, 2007
  • The Little Flower of East Orange (director), LAByrinth Theatre Company, 2008
  • Othello, LAByrinth Theatre Company, 2009

PlayFest events:

Keynote:

  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, 7:30 p.m. April 10. Margeson Theater. Tickets $50-$100 general, students $25 with valid ID.

Rolling world-premiere production:

  • Shotgun, by John Biguenet, ongoing through April 11. $20-$38 general, $15-$33 students advance purchase, $14 Wednesday matinees, $10 student rush 30 minutes before curtain. Goldman Theater.

Workshop:

  • Heavier Than, by Steven Christopher Yockey. 7:30 p.m. Friday April 2, 8:30 p.m. Saturday April 3, 3:30 p.m. Saturday April 10, 6 p.m. Sunday April 11. $10. Mandell Studio Theater.

Readings:

  • The Weird Sisters, by Zack Calhoon. 3 p.m. Saturday April 3, 7 p.m. Friday April 9. $5. Studio B.
  • Glassheart, by Reina Hardy. Sponsored by Women Playwrights’ Initiative. 1:30 p.m. Sunday April 4, 8:30 p.m. Sunday April 11. $5. Mandell Studio Theater.
  • Once a Marine, by Kelly Younger. 5:30 p.m. Saturday April 3, noon Sunday April 11. $5. Studio B.
  • Citizen Eve, by Scott Bibb and Jerry Rice. 8 p.m. Sunday April 4, 7:30 p.m. Friday April 9. $5. Mandell Studio Theater.
  • Time in Kafka, by Len Jenkin. 2:30 p.m. Sunday April 4, noon Saturday April 10. $5. Studio B.
  • Vino Veritas, by David MacGregor. Presented by Orlando Theatre Project. 7 p.m. Tuesday April 6, 11:30 a.m. Sunday April 11. $5. Mandell Studio Theater.
  • Daedalus, by David Davalos. Noon Saturday April 3, 2:30 p.m. Sunday April 11.  $5. Studio B.
  • Night Blooms, by Margaret Baldwin. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday April 7, 3 p.m. Saturday April 10. $5. Studio B.
  • The Truth Will Out, by Jordan Seavey. 5 p.m. Sunday April 4, 7:30 p.m. Thursday April 8. $5. Mandell Studio Theater.

Other events:

  • PlayFest Panel: What is the Role of Actor in New Play Development? Noon Sunday April 4. Free. Mandell Studio Theater.
  • Play-in-a-Day. 7 p.m. Monday April 5. $5. Margeson Theater.
  • Seminar: Fringe 101. Noon Saturday April 3. $20. Mandell Studio Theater.

All events are at Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando. Details: 407-447-2700 Ext. 1.

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