Philip Seymour Hoffman says, "I respond to what he does -- I always… (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)
NEW YORK — Casting Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Lancaster Dodd in "The Master" was surely a no-brainer for director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has been friends with the Oscar-winning actor for 17 years and has cast him in five of his films (including a small role in Anderson's debut feature, "Hard Eight"). And Hoffman himself is effusive when talking about his good friend, who hired him for the first time in 10 years for "The Master."
"We met when I was like, 25," says Hoffman. "We talked a lot and became fast friends, and we've been friends ever since. I like what he does: He talks about bigger things without putting his finger on it. He's probably not even fully aware always of what he's talking about, but he's willing to go there anyway. I respond to what he does — I always have."
Which explains in part why their first professional reunion since 2002's "Punch Drunk Love" is such a triumph: Not only was it created by two men who are longtime friends and understand one another's methods, it happens to be about two men who are friends and who understand each other all too well. As Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic writer turned leader of a self-enlightenment group, Hoffman bounces off the equally charismatic but frenetic Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) for more than two hours, exploring the boundaries of a platonic love affair between two guys who just can't make it work.
OSCAR WATCH: 'The Master'
"It's a really ballsy movie, and very moving," says Hoffman. Quell and Dodd, he says, "are incredibly dynamic people, but not all that likable in many ways. And two straight men who love each other, quite desperately — you don't see that dynamic, that extreme — that exposed, that vulnerable. I don't know if you can get much more close or intimate or vulnerable with two men without it being another kind of relationship, which it's not."
"The Master" isn't easy viewing; it's not always clear where the story is going or how it got there. Viewers tend to love it or loathe it. But it creates a deeply felt sense of character and relationships thanks to Hoffman's and Phoenix's performances. Where Quell rages and breaks things, Dodd uses patience and quiet to assert his authority.
"I didn't do that to appear as the opposite of Freddie," explains Hoffman. "I wasn't a big pause-taker. But yeah, [Dodd's] a still guy. He has to come in a room and grab 'em and hold the room. He can't be all over the place; he's focused. So I was trying to focus Freddie in our scenes."
That meant a certain level of trust had to develop between the actors, who hadn't worked together before. Hoffman has nothing but praise for Phoenix, though it's easy to infer that working with the eccentric actor might have been exhausting at times. "Joaquin and I had a really good rapport. He's a very engaging actor, incredibly honest and fully there, which made my job easier. He's just so full and inventive."
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As for the early buzz that "The Master" was really some kind of riff on Scientology, Hoffman insists that's not the case — and anyone who still thinks that when the credits are rolling should give it another look. "It's not an exposé on Scientology," Hoffman says. "It's something more interesting. This was a venue [Anderson] was using to get at a bigger story — and that distanced a lot of people. Is it possible to be well? What is getting well? Who is well? What is sanity? Can you exist in the same world with someone you love that much? The movie isn't there to answer these questions; it's there to bring them up."
The next question is whether Hoffman's "Master" will touch Oscar voters. It's the first time he's been nominated for an appearance in one of Anderson's films (he's also appeared in "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia"), and whether he wins for supporting actor or not, that fact puts a new spin on their 17-year friendship.
"Just working with him is a highlight," says Hoffman. "I've never done a film with him where it's not a special event. This was a really fun role to play, and I don't always have fun acting."
Yet most of the time he clearly does, and he says that the fact that he has a career in this business is one of the biggest surprises of all. "It's amazing that this is my life as an actor. Twenty years ago, I would never have said this would be my life. I don't think anyone would. I'm a very lucky man."
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