Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this month of a heroin overdose. Many critics have said that he was perhaps the greatest actor of his generation and one of the greatest who ever lived. What made Hoffman so beloved by so many was his mixture of pure skill, drive to work, and humility. The ambition of his acting and his ability to rise to any occasion allowed him to become famous but also are evidence of his ability to submerge himself deep into a role. It was his honesty in his many performances that set them apart and made them memorable.
Hoffman was able to totally inhabit characters, to bring them to life in such a vivid and totally realized way that we forgot who we were watching, a skill that few of his more famous co-stars were ever quite able to achieve. He has often been referred to as a ‘character actor,’ an American term of art meaning an actor who does small bit parts but makes those characters three-dimensional and real.
Some of his best performances on screen (Capote, Happiness, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Master, Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War, Almost Famous, and many more) and in theater (Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Othello and more) demonstrate his great ability brining his characters to life. He appeared in over 60 films and numerous stage productions. He also directed a film and several theatrical productions.
He never understood why he was designated the character actor label. Maybe it was because he didn’t look like a traditional star, messy-haired, overweight, and usually in frumpy casual clothes. Appearance was never very important to him. He just wanted to act, plain and simple.
Hoffman often noted that one of his greatest motivators was fear. He said that acting was ‘a lot of terror,’ but that it was also a thrill. When playing characters such as Iago from Othello or Willy Loman from Death of A Salesmen, roles that were each very demanding, he realized he needed to let go of the final outcome, to embrace the fear and ride it out. He would often work himself into a state of distress and said that when he wasn’t doing a good job he was an extremely unpleasant person to be around. At the same time he knew that on days when he did do well that it couldn’t get any better.
During the years Hoffman was sober, work became his drug. He even called it an opiate. Like many actors, his approach to acting in films and in theater was vastly different. Since theater relies on a constant level of performance and since each performance is a test unto itself, Hoffman knew he needed to always be on his toes. All that mattered was what was happening right then. Past successes or failures were irrelevant. For this reason, he found theater very difficult and often struggled with it.
Trust was very important to Hoffman. He believed that it was crucial to work in conjunction with other actors and the director in order to create a performance that added to the overall ensemble. For him, you needed to be giving. You needed to create a bond between yourself, your fellow actors, and the audience. He felt very lucky that he was able to work on his various projects because it allowed him the chance to work with talented people. He liked it when his fellow actors gave him a kind of acceptance and support which allowed him to act from the place of openness that was most beneficial to the performance.
Preparation was hugely important to Hoffman’s process and was often unrelenting. He went to a place where he could feel as vulnerable as possible to allow the character to come out of that openness. Expunging as much of one’s own baggage as possible was very important. As he put it, “You don’t want to dirty the waters too much with your own crap.” Nonetheless, it is impossible to be a totally empty vessel. One cannot totally avoid one’s self showing up in the work, both the best and the worst qualities.
Hoffman’s approach to creating characters involved delving deep inside them trying to find what he called their ‘engine, or their prime motivation. Figuring out what drove them emotionally and what their motivations were allowed all the other elements of their personality to fall into place. He knew that he couldn’t always find the engine but he was constantly searching for it.
Hoffman used himself as a means of comparison with the character. He thought about similarities and differences from himself, how he and the character would react differently in different situations because of their particular drives. He might imitate the character to a certain extent, Truman Capote for instance, but imitation was the least important part of the performance. Motivation was the foundation with which he built the character from the ground up.
He never cared about making a character likable because it was untruthful. Instead, it was important to create an honest portrayal, to feel the person depicted as three-dimensional and fully realized. Even if we could not identify with them we could at least understand them and imagine them to be real. We all are complicated and that complexity was what made Hoffman’s acting seem so honest.
He wanted to create risks for himself and give himself the room to accept failure if it came. This extended to his overall life. He stated that he always had to give up plans, that life was too unpredictable for that kind of thinking. He often worried that his career was going to be over soon, that he was a fraud.
Hoffman’s own self-doubt was often a problem but he tried to use it to his advantage, incorporating it into his acting with the same searching quality he gave to his preparation. He realized that in life you can’t control things, no matter how hard you try. Therefore, he wanted to work in an out of control state that had a structure around it. You could push the performance in pretty much any direction but at the same time you needed a basic plan which you could follow.
His performances were organic and often ignored the conventions of film acting. He would often play away from the camera when acting, not worrying about finding the light or making his marks. He was able to use his extreme sensitivity to tune his performance to just the right note at any moment in a scene.
His advice to young actors was to act, wherever and whenever possible. Go on auditions constantly. Accept anything that is thrown at you. When you act, act as well as you can because then the impression you give will be unforgettable. He said that you needed to be focused and strong-willed. Actors should pursue difficulty. The easy path is not worth following.
Hoffman’s greatest gift was his ability to give us a huge quantity of work to enjoy of the best quality he could. He proved that it was possible to not sacrifice one for the other. His death is a tragic loss. He could have contributed so much more amazing work to the history of film and theater. Despite his obvious weaknesses as a person, Hoffman showed an incredible work ethic and proved what someone who totally devotes themselves to their craft can do. For that reason, he is an extremely creative and skilled individual who other creative people should seek to emulate.