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Public and private views of Philip Seymour Hoffman


This article was published February 7, 2014 at 1:52 a.m.

Six years ago, Philip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for a supporting actor Academy Award for Charlie Wilson’s War. He attended the nominees luncheon, a swank gathering at the Beverly Hilton, whose dress code is just one notch below that of the attire seen on the red carpet for the actual Oscars.

But Hoffman, a consummate actor known for an unkempt look off-screen, wore a suit so rumpled it looked like he had slept in it. And smack in the middle of his dress shirt was a giant stain - and that was before he took a bite to eat.

Fast-forward to last month’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where Hoffman was promoting two of his new films, A Most Wanted Man and God’s Pocket. Since news of Hoffman’s shocking death broke Sunday, a number of those who attended the festival commented on how disheveled the actor had looked at Sundance.

Given that the 46-year-old Hoffman died Sunday of an apparent heroin overdose, it’s not surprising that people were trying to discern from his outward physical look what might have been happening in his private life. But that kind of morbid tea-leaf reading fails to recognize that the veteran actor was always much more interested in his craft than his appearance.

Although Hoffman excelled at playing characters whose emotional lives often were in disarray, he kept his personal turmoil largely guarded. He admitted past struggles with sobriety, but people who had recently worked with him said they had seen no indication that he had fallen off the wagon.

His death remains under investigation. The New York medical examiner was scheduled to perform an autopsy on Hoffman on Monday, but did not say when the findings would be released.

The release dates for the film adaptation of the John le Carre spy thriller A Most Wanted Man and the crime drama God’s Pocket have not been set. Hoffman also leaves behind the next two Hunger Games movies, even though he hadn’t yet completed all his scenes for the final Hunger Games sequel. Hoffman was set to star in the Showtime series Happyish, having shot the pilot but no other episodes. The fate of the series remains uncertain.

In many ways, A Most Wanted Man exemplified Hoffman’s ability to disappear into a role even if he made no changes to his physical form - he wasn’t inclined to the radical body transformations that won acclaim for such actors as Christian Bale in American Hustle, Matthew McConaughey in The Dallas Buyers Club or Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

Instead, Hoffman’s production diet was preparation and research, perfecting a German accent to play the chain-smoking, alcoholic Hamburg intelligence operative in A Most Wanted Man.

Hoffman was willing to meet with Le Carre, even when the actor thought he had bungled a scene. A more cautious performer would have retreated to his trailer rather than face the legendary author.

“I remember the day he was on set and I was intimidated and I was scared,” Hoffman said at Sundance. “And I remember it was a really tough day of shooting too. And I remember after the day he came to me. When I really thought I’d screwed the pooch. And I was really tired. And he came right up to me and he was so supportive immediately. Like he knew exactly where I was and he knew exactly what to say.”

Anton Corbijn, the film’s director, said this after his leading man was found dead: “He was not only the most gifted actor I ever worked with (and judging by the legacy he leaves behind I am certain I share this with most if not all directors who were fortunate enough to work with him), he had also become an incredibly inspiring and supportive friend.”

In the hours after Hoffman’s death, many of his collaborators described him as an unparalleled chameleon, but few explained his immersive process, the results of which often surprised his casts and filmmakers.

Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed the 2000 film Almost Famous, recalled how he initially imagined one scene with Hoffman, who was playing the rock journalist Lester Bangs, unfolding in a very different way than what his actor delivered.

“My original take on this scene was a loud, late night pronouncement from Lester Bangs. A call to arms. In Phil’s hands it became something different. A scene about quiet truths shared between two guys, both at the crossroads, both hurting, and both up too late. It became the soul of the movie,” Crowe wrote.

“In between takes, Hoffman spoke to no one. He listened only to his headset, only to the words of Lester himself. (His Walkman was filled with rare Lester interviews.) When the scene was over, I realized that Hoffman had pulled off a magic trick. He’d leapt over the words and the script, and gone hunting for the soul and compassion of the private Lester, the one only a few of us had ever met. Suddenly the portrait was complete.

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 02/07/2014

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