I considered it a big insult about six months ago, when driving my nephew home from school—we passed one of the Hollywood tour buses in our neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills and we could hear the tour guy on the microphone saying, “Oh look, it’s Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman!”
We looked over, and the entire tour bus was pointing at me. And, taking pictures. I raised my hand up and lowered the shades and sped away, hearing, “Obviously, he doesn’t want us to see him.”
I had to explain to my 12-year-old nephew who “PSH” was, and tell him that it would be a long time before he could see any of his movies. I told him that I met and wrote about “Phil” (that and “PSH” are what his friends called him), and I was surprised, insulted and outraged that I was confused for being him.
“He’s kind of chubby, and plays a lot of losers in the movies,” I explained to my nephew. (Why couldn’t the tour guide have confused me for Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio?)
Long before anyone ever heard of Philip Seymour Hoffman—long before he ever even thought of playing a gay icon that would earn him an Oscar, I got to talk to PSH about playing the bisexual character Scotty as the sound operator in “Boogie Nights.” I had known a lot of the real-life porn people that director Paul Thomas Anderson modeled his characters after, including Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler.
“Sure, I think Scotty was bi, he was totally in love with Dirk,” Hoffman told me. “I don’t think he was conscious of it, because he probably loved women all his life, and he was around the sexiest girls in the world, but then Dirk came along, and wow, who wouldn’t be in love with Marky Mark Wahlberg? I wanted to kiss him on the lips!”
Scotty’s desperate unrequited love is painful to watch and at one point he awkwardly begs to kiss Dirk. PSH confessed that he loved making Wahlberg uncomfortable during the scene.
That was in 1996, and I’d interview the actor privately, at roundtables and at parties for years later, until his surprising death on Sunday (Feb. 1.)
He played the loser journalist in “Almost Famous,” the priest accused of molestation in “Doubt,” the concerned friend trying to bring Tom Cruise’s character together with his dying dad in “Magnolia.” He wasn’t afraid of playing more gay roles, or throwing some subtle bisexual content in all of his roles even if it wasn’t scripted.
He played the sympathetic flamboyant drag queen in “Flawless” and the best friend to Jude Law’s character Dickie in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
“When Matt Damon’s character (Ripley) came around, Freddie (Miles, Hoffman’s character) just couldn’t handle it, because he was so in love with Dickie, and he could never hide his jealousy,” Hoffman told me, assessing his character a few years later. "He knew Dickie was engaged, he knew he could never have him, but he didn't want Ripley to have him."
I interviewed PSH for his little movies, such as “State and Main” and “Hard Eight” where he played small, but pivotal roles and was always memorable, whether he played a villain like in “Mission Impossible 3” or the well-meaning disc jockey in “Pirate Radio,” or a sleazy tabloid reporter in “Red Dragon” who dies one of the most brutal on-screen deaths ever recorded (burnt alive). I even argued with him about this very frustrating movie “Synecdoche, New York” that he starred in which I to date never understood in any way, shape or form.
Even fellow actor Ewan McGregor fell in love with PSH, telling a magazine in 2010: “I'd like to be Philip Seymour Hoffman's boyfriend. I think we'd make a good couple. We'd look good, we'd look slightly odd and we'd go to interesting parties and people would be interested in us. I don't know him, but I'd like to be his boyfriend." (Both men are heterosexual.)
But then, came “Capote” and we were doing lots of interviews just after it was first screed at the Toronto Film Festival. Catherine Keener told me a great story about she and him “bonding” together by going on a train ride in Canada and not being sure where they were heading. I saw him at a party at Sotto Sotto where he was ducking out for a cigarette, and he said, “You want to talk to someone else in there, right?” He pointed behind the window to where Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Robin Wright Penn and Danny Aiello were gathered.
“No, I want to talk to you, you’re going to win a lot of awards for ‘Capote’” I gushed. He sort of blushed an aw-shucks grin and told me more details about the train ride with Catherine Keener and how it really helped them play Truman and Harper in the film.
I asked if he thought that Truman Capote loved the accused killer Perry when he was researching “In Cold Blood” and PSH said, “Of course. I think he was obsessed, I think he was fascinated, I think it was the beginning of the end. He saw Perry Smith and he was like ‘Oh my God, who is that? I need that, I want that, I want to eat that.’”
I was backstage when he walked into the press room carrying his Best Actor Academy Award. He greeted me, and a few of the other press guys he recognized, and he told me “This is like a big auction, you want to buy this Oscar for $10,000?” (The back-and-forth is in the official Academy Awards transcripts.)
Hoffman was asked about how Harry Hamlin complained that his career took a downturn after portraying a gay character in “Making Love.” PSH resented that he was taking the role to be part of some sort of gay chic trend in Hollywood.
“I played maybe three or four roles of men that are gay or one role of a man who is transsexual,” he said. “I've never really thought about it that way. It's the person you're playing. I don't know how to answer that question. If you're playing the role just because of their sexual preference and that's why you want to play it, I think that's not a good idea. And it's got to be about the person. If that person has sexual preference of straight or gay or any other, it's the heart you're getting at, the soul you're getting at and if the heart and the soul are singing in the part and in the film, it works. And I think that's what happened this year.”
Hoffman has had two daughters and a son with his costume designer partner (not married) Mimi O’Donnell. I never had the indication that he suffered from any addiction, nor would I ever have that kind of personal interaction with him. He always seemed together. He always seemed like a nice guy.
This afternoon, on my way to drive up in the Hollywood Hills to get home to watch the Super Bowl, I passed two tour buses. I didn’t put my hand up to hide, nor did I put the shade down to hide.
Now I wished—at least for one last time—that they’d confuse me for being that wonderfully talented Philip Seymour Hoffman once again. It will never happen.