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An Interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman is an incredibly talented actor who recently became a parent. He also loves to read, and he has filled up all the bookshelves in his New York City apartment and now has to resort to stacking books in the hallway.

He is often reading several books at once, yet he often stops reading them before the end, distracted either by work or an entirely different book.

At the time of our conversation, a week before Thanksgiving, he was reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The O. Henry Prize Stories, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and Adam Haslett’s You Are Not a Stranger Here short story collection.

I suggested to Hoffman that we have a conversation about books, with “Sea Oak” by George Saunders as the starting point. Being an admirer of Saunders’s writing, I was looking forward to introducing him to the author.

The magazine, The Believer, sent Hoffman a copy of Pastoralia, and soon I was invited to his office in Chelsea. The walls were adorned with posters from his previous movies and books filled two shelves.

On the radiator, were pictures of Hoffman with other actors, and oddly enough, one of Anton Chekhov in a trench coat and hat, a gift from Mike Nichols. It was a reminder of his work in the production of The Seagull.

With a gentle and almost drowsy voice that can often drift towards a mumble, Hoffman’s conversations have a cheerful and honest resonance that is only further accentuated by his deep, infectious laugh. On a bright winter day, the interview was conducted in a room where the distant noise of passing vehicles and kids on the school playground could be heard wafting in from the open window.

— Ryan Bartelmay stated

I. “It caused me immense distress. All I could focus on was this particular book.”

When performing, does the BELIEVER ever draw inspiration from literature?

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: Indeed, I have. In certain cases, I have examined novels to inform me on the character I am performing. This is because in scripts derived from novels, the protagonist is usually not a literal replication of their literary counterpart. This was the case when I was portraying both Ripley [ The Talented Mr. Ripley ] and Cold Mountain; while they differ from their respective books, both versions were necessary in order to develop the character I was creating.

Have you ever found yourself looking to a character from fiction, even though you weren’t going to be portraying them, for inspiration?

PSH: It’s virtually unfeasible not to be affected by everything when you’re playing a character. I’m aware this has occurred, but it’s complicated to remember a certain case. This can even happen with music, not the words, but the music itself.

For instance, I recall I was working on a part and I was in Coliseum Books-I love that bookstore. They were playing Vivaldi and I thought “I have to get that. I ought to hear it the next time I read this role.” I never studied the part without having that music playing. That’s what being an actor is. You take all the things that have influenced you and use those to help you be more imaginative or take yourself out of the role.

BLVR: Are there any books you’ve read as a means to get into a certain frame of mind while filming? Like how you stated you did with classical music.

Recently while on set, I read You Are Not a Stranger Here. I suggested the book to Amy Sedaris and she was quite taken with it. When I’m called to set, I usually bring a book that I want to read in order to keep my focus. However, if the job requires a lot of energy and concentration, I know that if I allow myself to be distracted, I won’t be able to get it back. Books can be a big distraction for me, so I have to be careful.

When I lived in Austin, Texas, I had the opportunity to read George Saunders’ “Sea Oak” in the New Yorker. I was so excited that I hopped on my bike and went straight to the library, where I read it outside.

When I was done, I walked around the block four times. Do you remember reading a particular book while you were working on a movie, apart from You Are Not a Stranger Here ? Does the reading of books serve as a way for you to measure time?

When I was twenty-four, I took the bus upstate for my first job, Scent of a Woman. I was engrossed in The Prince of Tides during my journey and when I arrived, it really affected me. People might have their own views on Conroy, but I found the book to be extremely poignant. I was so disturbed and I had to go to work in two hours! It really messed me up, as I had to portray a character who didn’t care much for reading books.

What other works have had an impact on you in that way?

PSH: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road are two books to consider.

BLVR attests that Revolutionary Road is a remarkable book.

PSH: After reading that book, I found myself in a state of exhaustion. It was impossible for me to immediately move on to performing a scene. My desire was to be alone and away from others. I’m an avid admirer of the works of Richard Yates.

BLVR: I came across a piece of information that suggested you had an affinity for Richard Ford.

I’m a great admirer of Richard Ford, particularly The Sportswriter which is one of my favorite books.

The idea of being under a veil and feeling like it will never be lifted again that Ford talks about in the end of The Sportswriter really resonated with me. I was reminded of it when I was doing a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, specifically the part when Edmund speaks of standing on the beach in the fog. It made me go back to The Sportswriter and reread that part.

When I was around twenty-one or two, The Sportswriter was the book I read. During a break from college, I recall sitting on my parents’ front porch in Illinois and poring over the entire book. It really had an effect on me.

PSH: What is your current age?

BLVR reported a total of 28.

In five years from now, I suggest rereading PSH. When I was 30, I had read it and now, six years later, it has become a book that I ponder about frequently. As I advance in age, the book continues to show new layers of itself.

2. THE EYE DOCTOR

The duties of an optometrist involve testing and correcting vision issues, as well as identifying any underlying medical conditions.

An eye doctor is responsible for providing vision care to patients, performing examinations and diagnosing eye problems. They may also prescribe corrective lenses such as glasses or contact lenses, and advise on lifestyle changes to improve vision.

The plot of “Sea Oak” revolves around the narrator and his family’s attempt to escape poverty.

The narrator works at a theme restaurant/male strip club, where waiters are not allowed to show their penises, but can make extra money by doing so.

After Aunt Bernie is scared to death by an intruder, the family buys her a particleboard coffin and buries her in the cemetery. When she comes back to life, she is an angry virgin, never having married before. Bernie then devises a plan for the family to get out of their dire situation: the narrator will show his penis and make extra money, his sister will get a job, and his cousin will babysit the kids.

After making enough money, the narrator will enter community college and eventually law school. The plan is cut short when Bernie falls apart and dies a second time, foretelling a tragic event where one of the babies is shot and killed.

BLVR asked what source was used to read the short story “Sea Oak”.

PSH: I perused the text while sprawled out on my own sofa at home, and again while lounging here. I’ve found that lying down is the best way to read. When I first started the story, I wasn’t sure if it would be too strange and unusual, or if it would simply become too trivial, like Repo Man. Are you familiar with that movie?

BLVR gave a laugh in agreement.

PSH: All the food is unoriginal, it’s like a generic version of the real thing. It’s like you’re part of the world, but not really. I did enjoy Repo Man, but I never felt connected to it while watching it.

BLVR asked if the expectation was for the presentation to be an illustration of an overly dramatic universe.

PSH: Indeed, the thing I appreciated about the story was the way in which George Saunders was able to convey a commentary on society throughout–from the television programs that were viewed to the strip club the narrator is in and the distinctions between those who are successful and those who are not, being dismissed publicly if they fail. [ laughing ] All in all, the end was quite emotional. Very moving.

What person did you imagine to be the storyteller of “Sea Oak”?

The narrator’s handling of the story hints at a certain level of responsibility, making it difficult to imagine him working in a strip club. He apparently performs quite adequately, as he is rated “Honey Pie/Adequate”, and is the most respectable among the group. Yet, the idea of him at the strip club still feels peculiar. Even so, the narrator is able to divide himself into two personas – one that works as a stripper and another that is responsible at home.

BLVR: He’s situated in the middle of his home environment, as well. On one side, there’s Aunt Bernie, the eternal optimist, and on the other side, his sister and cousin are less than intelligent.

PSH: They’re concocting terms.

BLVR: One of them had said to Bernie, “You’re always the optimist,” which could also be interpreted as an optometrist.

PSH: [ Amused ] That is correct, that is great.

BLVR: He’s somewhere between the two poles. He’s not overly hopeful nor is he oblivious.

PSH insists that he holds no prejudgements against the people in the narrative; in fact, he has a strong affection for them.

Could the exaggeration George Saunders employed enable him to get away with sentimentality?

PSH: Indeed–and he was given the opportunity to make a dead person come back to life in order to express his ideas about their lives.

This helps to demonstrate how difficult it must be for them to alter their lives due to the environment they are in. Aunt Bernie returns from the dead and is slowly decomposing in front of them when she says, “The children will start dying.” This is profoundly affecting. In regions of the world where there is such destitution and dejection, it is the kids who suffer the consequences. It was just the other day that I read in the [New York] Post about a young girl being shot in crossfire.

When I read fiction, it always makes me think about things that are happening in the present. The narrative is not really distant from reality.

BLVR: How do you interpret the ridiculousness of Aunt Bernie returning from the dead, sitting in a chair and literally crumbling to pieces as she is giving commands such as “learn how to cook and get a job and show your cock,” and in the end, her head and entire form are all on the floor.

PSH’s reaction was hysterical.

BLVR: Although it was a bit sad, the realization that she had was clear…

PSH wondered why some individuals seemed to have it all while they themselves had nothing.

BLVR: Ultimately, the narrator is unable to give an explanation, which I find to be very sorrowful. This situation demonstrates the tragedy of life and its unfairness.

PSH: But before she says that, she commands the narrator, “Display your penis.” This holds considerable strength. She did not return simply whining, [ in a whiny voice ] “I did not have anything in my life …” Rather, she arrived back as an incredibly active individual, saying, “I’m going to inform you what I lacked and what I need, but I’m also going to tell you that all of you require to get your act together.”

BLVR: It is intriguing that the protagonist is encouraged to demonstrate his genitalia. It appears to suggest that to be successful one must take advantage of themselves. The only thing the narrator has to his name is the dimensions of his private parts, and he is instructed to flaunt it in order to progress.

PSH: I didn’t view it as a lesson on how to make it in life. He has already chosen to exploit himself for his current position. He is intelligent enough to go to law school, but doesn’t have the money to do so. Thereby, he is stuck in this exploitative position with no way out. I interpreted her message as a positive one. Even though the situation is unfavorable, he still has the choice to make the best of it and eventually get to law school.

Does the story reflect the popular notion of the American Dream that success can be attained through hard work?

PSH: I don’t recall that, either. However, I do remember the stand-up routine by Chris Rock about a father whose only contribution was picking up his kid, paying bills, and providing food. Chris Rock’s remark was along the lines of, “You’d better do that, you’re the father!” This is what I imagine she was saying: it’s not all about working hard to be able to purchase a fancy castle in the hills. She was implying that being a parent means having to learn how to cook and educate yourself, to get a job and support yourself, and to live in a place free from violence.

III. PERUSING HAS INDEED BECOME A NORM … IT’S SIMILAR TO SMOKING.

I’m kind of a book-aholic; finding a wonderful bookstore is an amazing occurrence.

BLVR: What type of bookstores capture your interest?

PSH: I recently discovered a great bookstore that is located near my residence in the West Village. It’s called Three Lives and I’ve been visiting it quite often.

BLVR: Is this an establishment that sells second-hand books or is it a store with newly-published titles?

PSH: This new bookstore has quite an impressive selection of books, but I find myself entranced by the Strand and struggling to find my way out. When this happens, I often end up walking out with a lot of books that I know I won’t have time to read. It’s like a dream of my future, when I will have all the time to read all the books I collected over the years. At the moment, however, my solution is to read multiple books at the same time.

When browsing in a bookstore, do you find yourself drawn in by the appearance of a book? Is your selection of books based on the cover or are you following advice from others?

PSH: Usually when I enter a bookshop, I let my memory do the work. Although I have a notoriously bad memory, my recall is remarkable. It helps me construct a mental catalogue of books I would like to retain in my memory. That is why I often purchase multiple books at one time.

BLVR: What new titles have you added to your library recently?

I’ve been collecting books by Truman Capote as of late.

I heard you’re creating a film about the subject.

PSH: We’re aiming to get it going. I have practically acquired all of his material now. I’ve read about half of In Cold Blood, and I started with “Miriam,” his initial short story. Additionally, I’ve gone through the 700-page biography by Gerald Clark titled Breakfast at Tiffany ‘s, which is a really enjoyable read.

BLVR: What drew you to the concept of creating a film about this person?

PSH: A pal of mine penned a script concerning his composition In Cold Blood. So that’s where it originated from. Not only was the story, script, and characters great, but it also offered me the chance to purchase more books. If you visited my home, you’d notice three heaps of freshly acquired books.

Hoffman ignites his cigarette with a stainless steel lighter that resembles a magician’s wand, albeit shorter in length.

BLVR: That lighter looks wild!

I recently purchased a lighter and an ashtray, because I’m often misplacing my lighters. This one can stay in the office, and I can refill it when it runs out. I saw both items together in the store, so I decided to get them both.

BLVR: Does the same process apply when you purchase books?

PSH: In my opinion, it’s a totally different story. I never would purchase any kind of book. This was the initial ashtray I noticed, so I decided to purchase it. I wouldn’t go into a book store and purchase the initial book I saw.

BLVR: Do you usually spend some time strolling around a bookstore when you visit one?

PSH: That is what I was just trying to explain. A bookstore is a valuable source of reference for what I’ve read. As I cannot remember all the authors I want to read or what I have been told to read, I will go to a bookstore and spend some time browsing. Then I remember things like Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past being discussed in Capote’s biography, because his last book, Answered Prayers, was intended to be his version of Proust’s work. So, when I saw Proust’s name, I recalled the conversation and bought the first section.

Do you have a long history of being an avid reader?

When I was younger, I was not at all inclined to sitting inside reading. All that changed in my sophomore year of high school when I took a class called “The Novel”. We read classic works such as The Stranger and The Great Train Robbery. In high school, learning is viewed as either good or bad, depending on whether one remembers it or not. The interpretation of what one has learned is never really encouraged. This course was different in that regard. It was a great experience that taught me how to read, form opinions, and personalize what I’ve read. It was a pleasure to do so. I am forever grateful to the teacher, although I cannot remember the name. Reading has become almost like a habit to me.

BLVR: Do you have a penchant for lighting up?

When it comes to reading and smoking, they can both be seen as a pleasurable task, not a requirement. It can be a way to make one think and enjoy the activity.

IV. “MEETING RICHARD YATES IS ALMOST LIKE MEETING JESUS CHRIST.”

PSH: Books have been my lifeblood. I’ve always had a special relationship with writers, and I don’t think I have that same relationship with other artists. I remember auditioning for The Cider House Rules, and even then I knew John Irving was a great guy. When I got around to reading A Prayer for Owen Meany and I saw him at an awards event, I was ecstatic.

BLVR: Struggling to find the right words.

PSH: It was irrationally exciting. Likely, I’d react similarly if I were to come face to face with Richard Ford, or if Richard Yates were still alive. The same applied to Philip Roth.

Do you consider that the approach to performing and penning have any similarities?

PSH: Writers might express confusion on how to act, but I understand that this is a common experience among artists. I believe that writing is a combination of skill, imagination, and taking risks with yourself; it is essential to be sincere and truthful as well.

BLVR: Isn’t performing what acting is all about?

PSH: To me, this is what art is. The creation process is distinct from the art itself, but the act of personalizing, exploring and then allowing others to view it is a form of bravery. I can only imagine how writers must feel when someone says to them, “I just read your book.”

It’s a very fragile situation. It’s not the straightforward question of “Did you like it or not?” that matters, but instead it’s about “Do you like me or not?” Whenever you create some amazing artwork, you are exposing a part of yourself. Just like Richard Yates, Jesus Christ, and that book, you almost don’t want to meet him. I was so invested in the characters that it felt as if they really existed. I just kept thinking to myself, “Poor April Wheeler,” for days afterwards.

BLVR: His worth has not been fully appreciated. His works preceded those of Richard Ford and Raymond Carver, and one can easily detect the impact his writings had on them. Unfortunately, much of the recognition went to the latter two, leaving him behind in the shadows.

PSH: It is not easy to comprehend his writings. Easter Parade , with the way it commences…

BLVR has not yet perused Easter Parade.

PSH: If you’re looking for something to read, Easter Parade is a great choice. It begins by introducing two characters whose lives are far from ideal, and then proceeds to explain why. It’s a brutally honest work that doesn’t try to entertain; the author is simply trying to get his point across.

BLVR stated that Saunders is attempting to both amuse and express something meaningful or evoke an emotion.

PSH: That is absolutely great.

BLVR: It is certainly a difficult task.

PSH: This is no easy feat. I found myself chuckling a few times while reading it, but nothing in the text was intended to be taken lightly. If a book is truly great, it will remain as such forever. People will eventually recognize it as something extraordinary.

BLVR: Revolutionary Road is a book that is incredibly destructive yet also encouraging.

One shouldn’t sit and ponder, “How can I live my life without contributing something.” Instead, strive to live a life that leaves a legacy.

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