To call Philip Seymour Hoffman an "actor's actor" seems too much a cliche for the surprising, nuanced work for which he is known. He is a creator of people, three-dimensional figures with faults and foibles that seem all too human.
After his Oscar-winning turn in "Capote," Hoffman has been on a dazzling run of work. In 2007 alone he appeared in "The Savages," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "Charlie Wilson's War," in three roles that couldn't have been more different. Last year he was in the love-it-or-hate-it "Synecdoche, New York" and earned his third Academy Award nomination for John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," as a Bronx priest in the early 1960s who may or may not take his interest in the boys in his parish too far.
Hoffman, 41, is now directing his first feature, an adaptation of the play "Jack Goes Boating," in which he will also appear. He likens directing and acting together as akin to trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time, adding, "It's not something I want to do that often, trust me."
Do you find that acting is tough to talk about? It certainly seems like you know what you're doing, but is it hard to put into words?
I actually like talking about what goes into acting. You can talk about it like you talk about what goes into making art, the creative impulse and all that jazz, which some people don't care to hear, but you can definitely talk about it and it can be interesting. But I think what actually happens in the inner machinations of a person's mind and heart is something you can't ever really describe. You can talk about what goes into trying to create alchemy, but you never will get at it. Ultimately, it's a very personal thing that even the person doesn't understand.
One of the things I found so remarkable about your performance in "Doubt" is the layering of it, so many lines and gestures and moments that seem innocuous in one light, but in the context of the story take on a darker cast. When your character mentions he likes to wear his fingernails long, it's totally innocent but it seems so sinister.
Well, that's a layer pinpointedly placed by the writer. He's putting things on that character, and having things come out of that character that are specific to this, the layering of the character. Basically, I'm asking, is this enough for you to sway your opinion of this man? How I present that as an actor -- I'm playing him, so I want to advocate for him, so what I make up or build or choose about the fact that someone would keep their fingernails long but clean, that's my thing. I have to choose in a way that I think creates the most ambiguity, but the most specificity for me. If you lay too strong an opinion on it, if it's something that's too extreme or too severe in the playing of it, then you're not giving people enough room [to decide for themselves]. So in that part, you had to be sharply specific, there couldn't be anything general, but those choices you make had to live in a certain place.
Are you surprised by how quickly people ask "did he or didn't he," which really steamrolls over the film's deeper ambiguities and issues?
I'm not surprised by it because I think the material brings it out, but I do think that question opens up the other questions. There's no satisfaction in having an opinion about that because you immediately start thinking of the nun saying, "I have such doubts." And then you go, "Well, why is she saying that"? And what does the mother mean by, "As long as somebody is good to my boy"? What does she mean by that? It opens up so many cans of worms in there. So I'm cool with it. You can see the debate going on, and it's a great debate about why people say, do or want certain things and what makes up a person's life -- something that will never really be found out.