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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.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.