He often played creeps, but he rarely played them creepily. His metier was human loneliness — the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do with high-noon heroism and everything to do with everyday empathy — and the necessary curse of human self-knowledge. He held up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves and invited us not only to take a peek but to see someone we recognized. He played frauds who knew they were frauds, schemers who knew they were schemers, closeted men who could only groan with frustrated love, heavy breathers dignified by impeccable manners, and angels who could withstand the worst that life could hand out because they seemed to know the worst was just the beginning. And what united all his roles was the stoic calm he brought to them, the stately concentration that assured us that no matter whom Philip Seymour Hoffman played, Philip Seymour Hoffman himself was protected.
That's what I thought, anyway — in reading the early reports of his death, I was surprised that he'd battled the demon of addiction, because I'd always confused Hoffman's mastery with detachment, and assumed that he had lived by Flaubert's charge to live an orderly life so that he could be violent and original in his work. But I shouldn't have been surprised, and — here's that contradictory and complementary response again — I wasn't. I'd never met Philip Seymour Hoffman, never knew anyone who knew him, never even read a passably revealing magazine profile of him. All I really knew was that he was a character actor who came as close to being a movie star as character actors ever get, and that he played the lead in more Hollywood movies than any other portly, freckly, gingery man in human history. And that, in its way, is all I, or anyone else, needs to know.
FROM HIS FIRST ROLES in movies like "Scent of a Woman," in which he played a villainous prep-school student, to the lovesick Scotty J. in "Boogie Nights," to the passionate and ornery rock critic Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous," Hoffman has imbued all his characters with a combination of the familiar and the unique. It's not easy; it's the sort of acting that requires enormous range, as well as a kind of stubborn determination and a profound lack of vanity. In the theater, Hoffman finds refuge in being part of a community. Theater presents considerable difficulties — Hoffman said his most challenging role for the stage was as Jamie Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" on Broadway ("That nearly killed me"). But when he speaks about his work in films, Hoffman's struggles sound lonelier: his childhood dream was to be on the stage, and the fulfillment of that fantasy seems to mitigate some of the strain Hoffman experiences when he is acting.
"In my mid-20s, an actor told me, 'Acting ain't no puzzle,' " Hoffman said, after returning to his seat. "I thought: 'Ain't no puzzle?!?' You must be bad!" He laughed. "You must bereally bad, because it is a puzzle. Creating anything is hard. It's a cliché thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don't know anything. I mean, I can break something down, but ultimately I don't know anything when I start work on a new movie. You start stabbing out, and you make a mistake, and it's not right, and then you try again and again. The key is you have to commit. And that's hard because you have to find what it is you are committing to."