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DID YOU READ

Interview: Philip Seymour Hoffman on “Synecdoche, New York”

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10222008_hoffman1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote,” “The Savages,” “Boogie Nights”) is no stranger to mining empathy from the sadness of down-and-out characters, but his latest role sees the Oscar-winning actor wrestling with onscreen angst from the deepest, most depressing of human worries: the finite constraints of creativity, love and mortality, and whether existence itself is at all relevant. Directed by first-timer Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter of such high-brow faves as “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), “Synecdoche, New York” stars Hoffman as Schenectady theater director Caden Cotard, a frazzled man who’s deteriorating physically, artistically, romantically, spiritually, and just about any other way you’ve got. When a prestigious MacArthur grant comes his way, Caden begins to produce his life’s greatest work — a life-size, living theater reproduction of NYC inside a warehouse, a ridiculous feat made metaphysically possible in what’s easily Kaufman’s most ambitious and personal work to date. I chatted with Hoffman over espresso and cigarettes about his neuroses, the future of theater and the doppelgängers he’s met.

If you retired today, people would look back at your career so far as both successful and vital. Do you still worry about anything when you take on a new project?

All the time. It’s creative anxiety — doubt, anxiety about doing it, fears, all those things. It’s never going to go away because all those other [successes] are in the past. So, it’s trying to figure out what I want to do. Do I have anything to say at all? What is it? All that stuff.

Does any of it come from getting praise? For instance, after you win an Oscar, the proverbial bar has been raised in the eyes of audiences and critics. Is that difficult to deal with?

Well, you try. You can’t wipe the slate clean anymore. You can’t be the person that no one’s seen before, which has its benefits. When people don’t know who you are, they’re seeing your work for the first time. But if they’ve seen a lot, getting certain things across is a more difficult. Also, certain things aren’t interesting to you anymore, and you’re trying to find out what is. For instance, being 20 is not interesting to me anymore, because I’m not. You get older and your life changes and that’s really what I mean, very literally.

Are you ever as neurotic as Caden?

10222008_hoffman2.jpgAt times. I’m not as obsessed about my physical health as he is. I think he has a real fear that his maladies will end his life before he’s been able to do something with it. But yeah, I am. Just the pure “Is there something else I’m supposed to be doing? Have I made something of this? Is this what I’m supposed to make up?” All these real existential questions I think people start to struggle with when they’re about halfway through that life.

What was your gut reaction to the “Synecdoche” script? Did you understand it enough in one reading, or did it take a few times through to digest its complexities?

No, that’s normal. I think everyone should leave the film with a lot of questions and opinions. It’s such a Rorschach test for people. You should feel like you’ve been emotionally pulled and pushed in a lot of different ways. It’s a film that you should see a few times, and that’s not a marketing tool; there’s a lot to think about. The more that you take in, the more accessible it becomes. Really, it’s not nearly as twisted up in a knot as it might seem at first glance. That was my experience reading it. It made sense to me, but I had a lot of questions. Some of those I realized weren’t important, ultimately. I was like, “Well, yeah, that’s kind of a red herring I’m hanging my hat on, and I just need to not hang my hat there.” Then the minute I did that, it would just go away.

I’m not fully sure how I feel about the film, except that I’d really like to see it again.

If people watch it more than once, they will have a different experience. Their opinions will vary and change as they watch it. I’ve seen it twice. I saw an early cut, and then at Cannes. It was literally different, between the two screenings. It’s hard to sit and watch it when you’re in the midst of 2,000 other people watching it because you’re in it. It’s just too self-conscious a thing. I always try to watch a film I’ve done at least once by myself, if they will allow me to. I did that with this film the first time, and it was a great experience. There was no one there, so I could take the film in on a pretty deep level.

Kaufman compared the film’s rewatchability to theater, in that he wanted to create a work that was alive and still surprising on multiple viewings. As a stage director and lover, what’s to become of theater now that DVDs are more popular than multiplexes, and videogames do bigger business than film? Is it becoming a niche medium?

10222008_hoffman5.jpgI have to say, I don’t think so. It’s changed a lot since the ’50s and ’60s, but Broadway’s been the way it’s been since I came to New York in the ’80s. There’s not much change there. I actually think theater is thriving and as important as when I first came here 20 years ago. I don’t see it ebbing. It’s been with us for so long: you could literally go back to the Greeks, but you could probably back farther than that. This telling of story is so necessary, and seeing people doing it in front of you is an essential thing — a society coming together to experience something together. I don’t see it going away.

Agreed, but there are certainly more distractions today that don’t require people to leave the house. Do you think it’ll be a challenge to introduce new generations to live theater?

We’ll see. I just don’t think you could get it anywhere else. It can’t be a facsimile. You can’t put it on a videogame. Things evolve, but I think there’s a reaction to everything, and the idea of sitting in a theater for two hours and watching the simplicity of that is something people are going to yearn for. We might go through a long period of time where its [popularity lessens], but I think there will be a reaction to all that technology. Things get simpler and simpler, and therefore actually more complex. There will always be that need to go to a play or see a concert, to actually watch them play live, because that can’t be manipulated. It might change, it might evolve, but I don’t think it’ll become too niche because the business of theater is still everywhere.

Reading some of your quotes about acting, I’m tempted to call you a cynic: “Acting is so difficult for me that, unless the work is of a certain stature in my mind, unless I reach the expectations I have of myself, I’m unhappy.” Or: “Sometimes I’m working on a film and someone will ask me if I’m having fun. And I’m tempted to tell them the truth: No, absolutely not.”

I was younger, but I don’t think it’s quite cynical. It’s the reality. That doesn’t mean it’s not satisfying and something I need to do. That just means it requires a commitment and focus that isn’t necessarily pleasurable. What I think is pleasurable and fun is hanging out with some friends, having a cup of coffee and shootin’ the shit. But this is something else. It’s necessary — as much as it’s necessary to socialize with your friends — to struggle with a piece of work or art, try to get it right, and know you never will. It’s going to be emotionally taxing. To act well isn’t an easy thing. I think it’s difficult, but I don’t mean that to be cynical. I could see how it would come across that way, but it’s not pessimistic; it just is.

I can relate in that context. I don’t really like writing.

Yeah, writers do hate writing. [laughs]

10222008_hoffman4.jpgAside from Toby Jones playing Truman Capote in “Infamous,” do you believe in the existence of doppelgängers?

There just are. [points to the film’s publicist, who has just walked into the room] She’s a doppelgänger, but she doesn’t know it. I told her she looks just like my girlfriend. We’re about to have our third child this weekend, and then when I saw her yesterday, I was just [slack-jawed]. So I think they’re in life, when you meet those people you think you know, but you don’t. I met this other woman yesterday that was interviewing me, and I thought, “She looks like the daughter of one of my friends, this playwright, but they don’t act anything alike.” Like, she’s totally different from that woman, but the minute I saw her, I thought of Lola. You meet somebody, and you feel like you’ve known them for a long time, or you feel like, “Why is this so easy? I don’t even know you, but I feel [comfortable] hanging out with you.”

Have you ever seen yourself walking down the street?

It’s less about looking like me, because you’re so subjective in your life that it’s so hard to know what you actually look like. It’s a very weird thing. Other people do that, and you’re like, “Really? I look like that person?” But I have met people in my life who I think are like me. It’s very rare, but you do find people and for some reason you’re like, “That person’s a lot like me.” That doesn’t mean you’ll get along, but I’ve met a couple people like that.

[Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Synecdoche, New York,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]

“Synecdoche, New York” opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 24th.

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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