Finally opening in limited release is “The Savages.” This is the film that I’ve been raving about since I saw it at this year’s Sundance. The movie is about what happens to an estranged brother and sister (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) when they have to start taking care of a parent who can no longer live by themselves. And unlike some films that might try and take a very serious approach to the subject matter, writer/director Tamara Jenkins weaves in humor and manages to make a film that will surprise you in a lot of ways. It’s a great movie and one that’s absolutely worth seeing.
Anyway, to help promote the movie I recently participated in a roundtable interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favorite actors working today. And while I thought he was brilliant in “The Savages,” I just saw his next movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” and he was amazing in that as well. Actors of his caliber don’t come around too often and I’ll admit it was very cool to be able to ask him some questions.
During our interview he spoke about making this film and everything else he has coming up. If you’re a fan of his, you’ll definitely like the interview. As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the MP3 of the interview by clicking here.
Finally, before getting to the interview, here’s the synopsis for the movie and here’s a link to some movie clips in case you missed them:
“The Savages” is an irreverent look at family, love and mortality as seen through the lens of one of modern life’s most bewildering and challenging experiences: when adult siblings find themselves plucked from their everyday, self-centered lives to care for an estranged elderly parent.
The last thing the two Savage siblings ever wanted to do was look back at their difficult family history. Having wriggled their way out from beneath their father’s domineering thumb, they are now firmly cocooned in their own complicated lives. Wendy (Laura Linney) is a struggling East Village playwright, AKA a temp who spends her days applying for grants, stealing office supplies and dating her very married neighbor. Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a neurotic college professor writing books on obscure subjects in Buffalo. Then comes the call that informs them that the father they have long feared and avoided, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), is slowly being consumed by dementia and they are the only ones that can help.
Now, as they put their already arrested lives on hold, Wendy and Jon are forced to live together under one roof for the first time since childhood, rediscovering the eccentricities that drove each other crazy. Faced with complete upheaval and battling over how to handle their father’s final days, they are confronted with what adulthood, family and, most surprisingly, each other are really about.
Question: This seems like this could be a good year for you.
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I hope it’ll be good. The films, I hope they’re good and they get received well. Yeah.
Q: Your performance in this as well as “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” has been praised universally by critics. Can you talk about your performance in this and what led you to this part?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Oh, I just read the script. The script had been given to me a few years ago and then it kind of went away, made it with another company, came back, Laura was with it by that point. I just loved the script. I was always attracted to it. I always wanted to do it. So I was glad it came back around.
Q: Did you find that you and Laura had compatible acting styles?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Yeah, I think we had a very similar work ethic. We just got along real well and worked well together.
Q: How does the family and the aging parent theme resound with you? Have you had a personal experience similar to this film?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I was born from the earth so I don’t know. [Laughs] I’m sorry. I’m really tired, but I was just thinking people have been asking me that question all day and it’s like yeah, yeah. You know what I mean? I have a family. We all have families. It’s impossible to go into a film like this and not think of your family. But it’s not my story. It’s not my life.
Q: Have you ever had any personal experiences in terms of having aging parents?
Philip: I’ve never dealt with that. Both my parents are still alive so I haven’t had to deal with that. But I am of course dealing with aging parents and they’re dealing with aging children and we’re all aging and isn’t that beautiful?
Q: What did you think of the comic undertone in this? It’s a serious subject matter and yet there are some moments of levity. Was that something you liked about the script?
Philip: Yeah. When I read it I didn’t necessarily think oh, it’s got humor in it, that’s a good thing. I didn’t like think that, you know. I thought god, I really like this movie. I love the unique way she’s telling a story that I think we’ve kind of seen before but in a very unique way, in a very honest way. And when you’re doing something like that, what you usually get is humor. Things are pretty funny. Life’s pretty funny when you’re objectively on the outside looking at it. Like if someone was up there looking down on us right now they’d probably have laughed a few times already at our behavior, but inside it we don’t normally know that so often. This film had that opportunity I think.
Q: Do you think you’d be more the hard reality type of person or the hopeful optimist like Laura’s character?
Philip: I think a little bit of both. A little bit of both.
Q: In crafting the scenes, what was the most challenging one that you did where maybe you had brought something to the role and the director wanted you to shift your performance in a different way. Was there anything like that?
Philip: I’m sure that happened. I’m sure it did. We shot like a year and a half ago so I’m trying to call up… Can any of you guys remember what you were doing a year and a half ago? [Laughter] Yeah, I’m sure that always happens. You do something and there’s a slight change. Not a major change, nothing major, nothing like I want to wear a cowboy hat or something.
Q: How was it working with Tamara Jenkins as a director?
Philip: She was very, very passionate and she had been working on this for a long time. She was connected to it in a very deep way and so I knew that I was with somebody who was going to do everything that they could to make sure that it was the best film they could make. That’s what it was like working with her. I had a confidence in her ultimately.
Q: Some actors prefer a long rehearsal process and some want to just shoot it. How are you as an actor?
Philip: It depends on the director you’re working with, the material, how rehearsals are run. Sometimes your rehearsals aren’t as fruitful and sometimes they are depending on how they’re run. So it all depends.
Q: Is there one message you would like people to get out of it? After seeing it, did you see anything differently?
Philip: I don’t have a specific thing I want anyone to get out of anything I do. I think hopefully that the film is done well. There’s a lot of things that you could respond to that could push your buttons and being people, we usually all of us have different things that will affect us more than others. This film has a lot of different things that could affect you. Some are going to be affected by putting the father in the home, some are going to be affected by the estrangement, and some are going to be affected by the ultimate knowledge that he was somebody who probably abused the son, and some will be affected by the sibling rivalry that comes up. There’s a lot of things that I think are going to… there are many multi-faceted things and I just hope they key into something.
Q: Did you relate to the way your character decided to send his girlfriend back to Poland? That seemed an extreme thing for him to do.
Philip: Well it’s also an extreme thing for him to marry her. That just proves my point, meaning that’s the thing that you responded to. But there are other people that would go ‘Well of course he would do that.’ He’s got to marry her in order for her to stay in the country. It’s a very extreme action to take. That’s what’s great about the part is that everything he says and does actually has a lot of logic to it and a lot of practicality to it. I didn’t disagree with him. But what makes him so interesting is that it’s obviously based on the fact that affection is not something…..affection overwhelms him. And she obviously loves him very much and that really, really overwhelms him and makes him very upset. He doesn’t know what that means. Because anybody, and I think that’s the father, because the first 13, 14 years of his life the person who was supposed to do that to him didn’t so…and that’s really a richness of the screenplay that he really without anyone saying anything literally to you about what happened here, it’s pretty clear by the end why and how he became the man he is and how she became the woman she is.
Q: Is that why he cries when she makes him eggs?
Philip: Yeah, because it’s a very loving gesture I think.
Q: That was a great scene.
Philip: Yeah, it’s a nice piece of work, of storytelling.
Q: When you’re reading a script, how quickly do you know ‘I have to play this part’? Are you just a few pages in sometimes or do you have to finish it off and then ..?
Philip: Not a few pages in. Because the scripts that you read, in the first 10 pages you go, ‘Wow that’s really good’ and then by page 50 you’re like ‘Whooaaa. Wait. Nope.’ That happens. So it’s good to read the whole thing. That’s a plus. That’s a good thing to do. And then even then you might know you want to play it but the older you get, there’s a lot of things that go into the decisions you make.
Q: Have you ever said yes to a project without having read the script just because of the director?
Philip: Yeah. A couple times. Like with Paul (Newman?) I probably did that.
Q: Does that usually work out?
Philip: Yeah, it works out. Yeah. I’m telling you about times when I did that obviously because it didn’t matter if it did or didn’t. I did it because I obviously think the person is extraordinarily talented and I’m also friends with them or something. But if I don’t know, even if the person is really talented but I don’t know them at all, I would never do that. It’s the idea of knowing somebody mixed with their talent. When you’re really close with somebody and they’re talented and they say, “Would you do this film with me?,” you go “Yeah. Why would I not do that with you? Of course I would.” But that’s the only time I would ever do that.
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Q: Is that what you did with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” because of Sidney Lumet or did you read that script and say this is something I really want to do?
Philip: Well I had read the script a few years before Sidney was attached to it. I read it when it was attached to somebody else. That didn’t happen back then. I didn’t say I’d do it back then either but it also… So when Sidney approached me with it, I met with him and talked with him and he had ideas about it. I thought yeah. It was just one of those things where you’re like yeah. Like I said, the script was very appealing and it’s got these parts. It’s a pretty great script to read. But all of a sudden there I was going [clicks his tongue]… a lot of pieces being put together and thinking, “Yeah, I think I want to do this.” Of course he had a lot to do with that.
Q: You actually shot some of the scenes in real working retirement homes. Did you talk with any of the patients there? Were they aware who you were?
Philip: Sometimes. Yeah. We talked to them but not about the film. We just talked to them. I didn’t ignore them. Don’t talk to the old people. No, of course not. We would be hanging out and they’d be sitting there. If they said hi, I’d say hi and we chatted but we were working too so…
Q: Did any of the caregivers or workers give you any insight into your character or how your character should react?
Philip: No, because why would they? They don’t really know that? Why would they know how this character who has never been in a [retirement] home would react? That wouldn’t be any knowledge they would have. That would be knowledge no one would have because the person’s never been there and the person doesn’t exist. That’s my knowledge, that’s the thing I have to do.
Q: You’re also in a small independent movie coming out near Christmas, something with Tom Hanks?
Philip: Yes, “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
Q: Could you talk a little about that experience and working on that project.
Philip: It's great. They're great. Mike Nichols I've known for about seven years. He's a very good friend.
Q: Since The Seagull?
Philip: Seagull. Tom is everything that you would think he is truly. He's a mensch and he was also producer on the film. He's a wonderful actor and he really created a very wonderful environment to work in. Most of my scenes are with him. We hit it off. I really can't say enough about everyone who was involved on that film. It was a really good environment.
Q: What initially made that a project you had to be part of?
Philip: I don't know. Mike Nichols calls you and he's like, "Do you want to be in my movie?" You're like, "Maybe, Mike, maybe. Let me see, look at my schedule, I'll let you know." Like I said, I know him, he called me, he's like, "I really want you to do this." We have a relationship where I could have said no, sure, and been fine. We are friends in that way but I knew the book. I had read that book. Somebody had mentioned that book to me when I was doing Long Day's Journey Into Night and said, "God, there's this part in it if they ever make a movie of it." So it was funny that he was calling me saying, "There's this part in this book." I thought that was a bit serendipitous. Aaron Sorkin wrote it and he's a pretty fun writer.
Q: How do your and Tom Hanks' acting styles mesh?
Philip: I mean, style is a weird thing. Style is- - you have a style. A style is a person's personality. They act well and they have their own personal way of going about doing that. But he's got a great way with people and he's wonderful to work with. He really is wonderful to work with.
Q: How difficult is it to shift from characters? Can you leave them behind right away?
Philip: I'm able to leave them behind immediately. Sometimes it's hard to get the motor running again. But once I'm done with something, I'm done. It's as if it didn't happen in my mind in a way. But to get the motor started again is actually tough when you're working a lot. Kind of your body and mind is like, "Don't work. Take a break." But you have to get it, we all know that. It's just life.
Q: Does that affect your willingness to take on work?
Philip: It can be. It can be one of the things that goes into.
Q: When you're not working, what do you like to do?
Philip: God, my spare time really is about hanging out with my kids right now. If I have spare time, a good chunk of that spare time is going to be thinking about how to hang out with them and how to try to do nothing.
Q: How has the WGA strike affected your future projects?
Philip: Well, I know there were projects that needed to be settled before a certain date, not my settlement but I knew writers had to get their scripts in and all that happened. I know there's some of that material, some of those scripts have shown interest in me being in them but they haven't gone far enough to where I am. I know that's part of what's going on. I think ultimately for someone like me, once the strike goes on for a long time is when I'm going to see- - because after this next job that I have, if the strike keeps going on, there's not going to be any more jobs to have. I have a job now in the future that I have that I'm going to do but after that, if the strike's still happening, there might not be a job to be had That being said, right now the strike is affecting a lot of people immediately. But ultimately, if it goes on for a long time, it's going to affect all of it. We're all going to be out of a job. Everyone in this room is going to be looking for a way how to- - it's going to affect a lot of people, all of us.
Q: What is the project you have?
Philip: Doubt, the film of Doubt.
Q: Talk about the role?
Philip: Doubt? You guys know Doubt. It was a play on Broadway for like two years. It's a pretty famous play. It won the Pulitzer. Put me in there. "Phil said it's about a priest." It's about a priest who's being accused, a priest in the '60s in the Bronx, the nuns, superior nun accusing this priest at this school of sexual misconduct with a boy. He's being accused of it. That's all.
Q: You play the nun?
Philip: I play the traffic cop that lets the kids go across the street.
Q: Any thanksgiving traditions you'll be celebrating?
Philip: We're just trying to figure out what to do. It's a weird thing because I'm pretty busy. We've been moving around so much and trying to find a way to make as less amount of hectic energy as possible. So I don't know what we're going to do. We're trying to figure out what the hell to do that.
Q: Are you going to teach your kids about theater or acting?
Philip: My girlfriend's a costume designer in the theater. They're around it. My daughter's one so she's just, you know. She's the master of her own universe really. She is her own theater but my son comes with us to the theater. They're all going to be introduced to it just by the life that they're in. I don't think either of them are going to need any kind of classes or us literally teaching them. They're going to see it right in front of their eyes. They already have. They already see it.
Q: How much did you have to transform yourself for this role?
Philip: Well, when you look at roles, you're like, "What's similar between you and the character and what's not? What's dissimilar?" The things that you don't understand, the things that are dissimilar, you try to use your imagination. I have siblings, I have a relationship with a father. It's all there and all stuff to call upon. There are aspects of him. He's a very intellectual guy. I think I am to a point but not like him. Like the way he talks, there's a certain distancing quality he has, somewhat of a scholarly, kind of professorial guy but not much. There's more context, relationships, all that stuff that I had to really think.
Q: Is there a role you haven't gotten to play?
Q: Do you like switching between Hollywood and indies?
Philip: They're all a machine. It's all a big machine. Isn't it depressing? I'm exaggerating the point but I also mean that in a way meaning that whether you're working in an independent film world or the big budget film world, all the same problems arise. All the same stuff happens. One you don't have as much money, as much time and just not as many frills or whatever extras. Craft service might not be as good but ultimately, you're under the gun like anything. There's something that needs to be made, needs to be made in a certain amount of time and somebody spent a lot of money.
Q: Was the Capote awards circuit a fun experience? Did it affect your outlook on movies you take?
Philip: No, it didn't affect my outlook on movies that I take. Was it fun? At times. It's a very stressful thing. I think that probably is a very stressful thing but we had fun sometimes. I'm obviously grateful. There's no doubt about that. It's not a bad thing.
Q: Where do you keep the Oscar?
(Philip pretends to pull it out of his jacket)