Philip Seymour Hoffman was not an easy interview. He could be brusque or uninterested. He was not the kind of star who tries to bond with journalists. But a few years ago I caught a glimpse of who Hoffman was not as an actor but as a man, and a bit of advice he gave me changed my life.
At the Sundance Film Festival in 2007, my wife, Jill, and I were invited to a dinner for Tamara Jenkins’ drama The Savages, starring Hoffman and Laura Linney. We were seated across from Hoffman, and had been warned that he was not the schmoozing type and probably wouldn’t stay long.
Hoffman arrived and, true to form, was slow to warm up. But it turned out that while he wasn’t into talking about himself or movies, he loved talking about novels and stories: We discussed John Updike, Philip Roth, and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, and soon we were getting comfortable with each other. The conversation shifted to family. Hoffman and his longtime partner, Mimi O’Donnell, had a toddler son at the time — they would go on to have two more children — and my wife and I were then thinking about having children ourselves. O’Donnell wasn’t there, but we asked him how they managed. Hoffman asked how long we’d been married, and when we said five years, he was mystified, and blunt: “Well, what are you waiting for?”
We hemmed and hawed. Kids are expensive, we both work long hours, we live far from any family… We were worried about getting in over our heads. We were worried about not having the time to be good parents. Hoffman made a face you’ve seen on film many times — squinting his eyes, and turning his mouth down as if he had tasted something bitter or had just jammed a toe against the baseboard. “No … no,” I remember him saying. “You don’t ‘make time’ to be a mom and dad. When you have a kid, you figure out how to make time for work and all the other stuff. All the priorities you have now totally shift, whether you want them to or not.”
He was adamant on this point. I’ve since heard from some who’ve worked closely with him that this was standard Hoffman behavior. He could be standoffish when it came to discussing his work, but when it came to talking about your personal life, he got very engaged. He was much more interested in your dramas. That night, he advocated parenthood with the same zeal with which he’d recommended those novels he liked. “Don’t worry about it. Just do it,” he said. “Trust me.”
A few months later, I ran into Hoffman again, backstage at the Academy Awards. He had won the Oscar for Best Actor the previous year for Capote, and so was back to present the award for Best Actress. (It would end up in the hands of Helen Mirren for The Queen.)
I was working for USA Today then and stood on the grimy, windy loading dock behind the Oscar theater, on my cell phone calling in pieces of my story to editors at the home office during commercial breaks in the show. I was alone, save for Hoffman. His hair was in blond dread-like cornrows for a play that would later be adapted for his film directing debut, Jack Goes Boating, and he was smoking a cigarette and reading over a tattered piece of paper — rehearsing for his presentation speech. When I got off the phone, I noticed he was staring at me with a squinted eye. He pointed at me with the two fingers holding the cigarette. “You …” he said in that gravelly croak. “I know you.”
I reminded him of our Sundance dinner, and he nodded, closing his eyes, “Right, right, right … Yeah, okay, I remember. So … ?”
So … I wasn’t sure what he meant.
Hoffman opened his arms expectantly. “So, your wife and you — you’ve made a decision about the kid?”
I sucked air through my teeth; my shoulders bunched up around my ears. Inside, the Oscar telecast was resuming. “We’re just not sure. Are we going to stay in L.A.? If we had a kid, should she stay in her job — or should I stay in mine?” Again, I said we both work such long hours that I was worried about not having time to be a good parent.
Hoffman waved his cigarette around like incense dispelling evil spirits. “No,” he said. “No, no, no. I told you — I told you. You can’t think like that. If you keep worrying and over-thinking, you’ll talk yourself out of it. Just do it. I promise. You’ll adapt, because you have to.” And then, the sentence that has stuck with me: “Your priorities will clarify.”
This was a bizarre encounter, but it actually helped nudge us into a decision. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out something that you already know is true. He had no stake in it. He was just telling us what he knew.
Over the years, our paths crossed in various subsequent interviews, but Hoffman didn’t seem to remember these conversations, and I never brought them up. But two weeks ago, at Sundance again, I saw him sitting alone in the EW studio, waiting to have his portrait taken with the cast of the film God’s Pocket. I introduced myself, told him I’d be conducting the video interview with the cast (included above.) Then, to break the ice, I said: “You probably aren’t going to remember this, but you once gave me a very good piece of advice …”
He looked a little uncertain, but as I retold the story, he began nodding, then smiling. “Right,” he said. “Okay, yeah.” He opened his arms in that same expectant gesture. “So … ?”
I pulled out my iPhone and showed him a picture of my wife, our 4-year-old daughter, and our 10-month-old son. His smile matched theirs. He grabbed me around the shoulders and shook me, still studying the phone: “I was right, right? I’ve got three of my own now.”
I have to admit, Hoffman didn’t look well during his time at Sundance, just weeks before he died. He was quiet and morose, he looked disheveled and more than a bit lost. Now we know he was. But when he said that, “I’ve got three of my own now,” he was radiating pride.
The actor was a common sight around his Greenwich Village neighborhood, often pushing a stroller, devoted to those kids he talked about with such adoration. No one should doubt that. Hoffman clearly had his demons, and his apparent overdose shows he lost his battle with them. Sometimes they’re so powerful, they steal that clarity he talked about. But no one who knows or loves an addict would claim they don’t feel tremendous love back; often the only people addicts shun in that regard are themselves.
Hoffman’s children may someday hear the sad details of how his life ended. What they should also know is that fatherhood was a role he loved so much, he wanted everyone he met to play it too.