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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.

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