Philip Seymour Hoffman Interview – DOUBT

     December 21, 2008

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Already playing in limited release and expanding on Christmas Day is John Patrick Shanley’s movie “Doubt”. The film stars Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis and it’s based on his play with the same name. Here’s the synopsis:

It’s 1964, St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A vibrant, charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is trying to upend the school’s strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The winds of political change are sweeping through the country, and, indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. But when Sister James (Amy Adams), a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius is galvanized to begin a crusade to both unearth the truth and expunge Flynn from the school. Now, without a shred of proof or evidence except her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn, a battle that threatens to tear apart the Church and school with devastating consequences.

As you might imagine with this cast, the acting is top notch across the board. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of them get Oscar nods.

Anyway, I recently participated in roundtable interviews with most of the cast and the one below is with Philip Seymour Hoffman. During our time with one of the best actors in town, he discussed the making of the movie, working with this talented cast, what he has coming up, and I even asked him if he’d heard the bullshit rumors that he’d been cast in the next “Batman” movie. As a huge fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, it was great to speak with him and I think you’ll like the interview.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here. Again, “Doubt” opens everywhere on Christmas Day.

Question: Texas, huh? (he was wearing a hat with the Texas logo on it)

Philip Seymour Hoffman: I was in Austin.

Is that the whole story?

Philip: That is the whole story. I went to Austin to raise money for their theatre company and to kind go down and create excitement there in the community…what we were doing in New York and they gave me one of these hats.

So you’re not a hook them horns guy?

Philip: No, but the hat’s great.

Austin is a very film oriented town.

Philip: Great town, yeah. Yeah, I know that. Everyone was telling me that when I was there.

So John was telling us that you were hired so you could make Meryl sweat. I was wanting your observation about John’s observation about you.

Philip: I don’t know if that happened…but yeah, it was a great…I think we enjoy acting together, you know? We try to challenge each other-you know-and I really, really do love acting with her.

Do you feel any kind of difference when you’re performing the material of a playwright as opposed to a movie screenwriter?

Philip: No, no. Good writing is good writing.

Had you seen the play and was the screenplay markedly different when you got it compare to…?

Philip: It was markedly different but in what was added kind of-you know-around just the environment and the children and the school and the congregation and the neighborhood…but the play—it was still there. I mean it was a really great adaptation. You didn’t lose the essence of it at all.

We spoke to you—I forget the project—but we spoke to you and you talked to us about how you were getting ready to go do this. You seemed really excited to do the project. Can you talk about-you know-just your experiences on the set and just what it was like working with everyone there?

Philip: Well, I think I’ve known John for 10 years. I’ve know Meryl for 8 or 9 years and this is the 2nd film I’ve done with Amy. I’ve known Viola since my 20’s. So it was incredible. I’ve worked with everybody. I knew. I had a rapport and a good rapport with all of them and so it was…as dramatic as the film is it was great fun that was had, I think. It was very serious-you know-the work was you know, but ultimately the minute we could have fun, we did. We had a lot of laughs and enjoyed each others company.

We heard about the 3 week rehearsal process.

Philip: Yeah.

So what was that experience like and did you discover…did you have a lot of stuff before you arrived at the rehearsal that you thought about the character and did that change during the rehearsal process?

Philip: It depends. I don’t really remember specifically. It always depends. Sometimes you bring in ideas and ideas change. Everything changes, you know what I mean? Everything morphs up until the day sometimes you’re doing it. So that’s what rehearsals about is that exploration and getting to the bottom of things and how you’ll think one day—oh that’s it and then maybe not. So it’s just kind of a process.

We haven’t actually asked this to any of the other stars of the movie, but did you go to Catholic school by any chance?

Philip: No.

Did you have friends?

Philip: I had some friends that did and you know and they told me about it and I just remembered they would wear a tie. I remembered they had to wear a tie and they were kind of the biggest partiers if I remember. You know what I mean? There was a certain kind of….you know? I also remember it was a private school. You had to pay to go.

The priests were obviously partiers it looks like from this, but they’re having a grand old time smoking cigars and having a grand old time telling stories and the nuns were like very, very conservative. For this did you talk to some priests or talk to…I don’t know what kind of research you’d do for a priest of 1964 time because they’re probably all long gone by now, but I mean what was your look into the clergy at that time?

Philip: Just I know this priest now and he told me about what was happening to the Catholic church in the 60’s and it was very informative and helpful. And then he just kind of told me…he kind of led me though the business of being a priest. The business around Mass and what they do and what they’re wearing and what it means and everything so it was very helpful. Past that I didn’t go in any deeper than that because the play is not really about the Catholic church so-you know- the venue has to be convincing but ultimately what we’re getting at is something that’s not about the Catholic church. It’s about something else.

Is there a danger for an actor being in scenes that get laughs that are comic scenes and then having to also convince the audience that this is a dramatic situation and a very serious situation once they’re already laughed and then move them back into that again? Is that difficult to do?

Philip: You don’t really think about it. You’re doing it. You’re playing the scene so I don’t know what’s funny sometimes in dramatic scenes and then people will laugh while watching it. So I’m like okay, and then they’re serious again. It just kind of happens based on the scene, you know? But I don’t think I have to make them laugh and then bring them back. That’s self-conscious weirdness, you know, in the way.

When seeing the play, did you realize how funny to an audience, you know, there’s as much humor in the movie…

Philip: Yeah there’s humor…the play is…yeah, I knew there was humor in the play. There’s humor in it. Sister Aloysius’ is humorous…she’s funny. And Father Flynn can be funny, you know. And Sister James kind of innocence. They’re enjoyable characters. They’re entertaining. There’s a certain entertaining quality to them for sure. But it is, yeah. It’s a very strong dramatic piece, so he can’t, of course, give into that and make it a joke so it would be bad.

You had some very good scenes with Meryl back and forth. When you guys were doing those scenes were there a lot of extra people that wanted to watch you guys perform or is it a very closed off set?

Philip: Yeah, it’s only people who were working on the film were there.

I’m just saying like maybe were there like extra crew members that were thinking I want to watch this because really there was a lot…

Philip: I think that’s what they do. You have to understand that crew members make movies so they’re seeing a lot of actors all the time in their career acting. And movie sets are kind of boring. Meaning that yeah, we can be acting a scene and you might want to watch that and it might be exciting, but it’s 12 hours. We’re only doing certain sections of that scene like 4 times in a row, do you know what I mean? And then you’ve got to turn around and see the same thing 4 times in a row. It’s a much different experience, you know?

We heard that he was filming in like a blockway where there’d be one shot and then the reverse. What was that like for you? Are you used to working in that environment?

Philip: Yeah it was…well yeah in a way but it’s different because the scene could be a 9, 10 page, 11 page scenes so you are shooting 1 scene over a 3 day pan and you’re breaking it up because of that. It’s hard to keep that concentration and the focus. Yeah, that was different. Scenes aren’t usually that long in films. It might be like 3 or 4 or 5 pages but never like 10 or 11.

When you do a scene like the one with Sister James and Sister Aloysius in Sister Aloysius office and you and Meryl Streep obviously two really heavy weight actors and you have Amy Adams, who’s not necessarily a newcomer but she’s younger and maybe a little less accomplished and talks about feeling a little intimidated, are you aware of…how do you sort of not stamp her out or make sure she’s able to fight in that context?

Philip: How do I make sure what? Say that again. Stamp who out?

How do you make sure that an actor who might be intimated in the setting like that is able to sort of…

Philip: Amy?


Philip: No, she says that. That’s baloney. Everyone’s scared. Everyone’s worrying about if they’re going to do well or not, you know? Everybody. Meryl, me, Viola, Amy. I know what she means, but she’s been around. I did Charlie Wilson’s War with her and she hung out with Tom Hanks. She’s being directed by Mike Nichols. You know what, she’s got great humility and that’s really what it is. I think she’s very honest about where she’s been and where she is now, you know and the tenuousness of that and being appreciative and grateful. And I think that’s her way of showing that. I think that she’s just as scared as anybody. I would at least say I’m just as scared as she is in those moments, you know, wanting to do well.

What does this process mean to you? The talking about the work.

Philip: I think it’s kind of boring. No, I do in a way. I do in a way because I like to talk about it sometimes so I’ve taught before and there’s certain things that are exciting about you know just sort of creating things and how do you do that? But ultimately it’s just if you’re not an actor, the watching, the being the fan is what’s fun.

Is it a process you would even think about if you didn’t have to give some sort of interview to discuss it?

Philip: Acting?


Philip: Yeah, because I’m an actor so I do think about it but discussing it is like discussing dreaming or something.

We’re also in a period right now where it’s Oscar season – award season – so you’re probably going to be talking about this quite a bit, not just today. I mean, some of these movies you come and you do the interviews and you’re done and you move on. But this one you may be end up talking about for the next couple of months.

Philip: Maybe.

Yeah, maybe. I don’t want to jinx anything. But you’ve been through this process before, is there a way do deal with campaign season? Or how do you deal with campaign season?

Philip: I think you just keep going on with your life and you do what you do. I have things I need to be doing. I just had a 3rd kid like 4 weeks ago so I know I’m going to…I have work coming up. I know I’m going to have things I need to do. And so that’s what I’m thinking about. So if any of that stuff comes into play, I’ll answer that when I get to it. Do you know what I mean? Because I don’t know how I’ll deal with that at all actually at this juncture at all.

You’re the opening night of Sundance is a film…

Philip: Max, yeah.

I wanted to know…it’s a claymation film. When did you find out you were going to be the voice of the opening night Sundance film and could you talk a little bit about the process of working on a claymation movie?

Philip: Well I did none of the claymation myself. I didn’t do the movie at all. It’s really funny. I literally went in for a day and did the voice for the character. It took a day. And the directors and producers were all in Australia on Skype and I was in London. It’s a very odd thing because you do the voice, you know, you have a great day experience and you’ve talked with them before and you’ve read it. You’ve seen snippets of it so you have a relationship with it but then you have that day and you literally do the voice for the whole movie. And I’d done another day where I’d done some work but we basically redid all that and this one day we really went for it. But he’s really…I’m excited to see it. I’m really very distant from it I have to say. I’m like wow, I heard the info and I’m like I can’t wait to see this movie. So it’s pretty cool.

In ways it’s ironic that we always talk to all these actors who are in you know Pixar and all these movies and they for weeks and months on end they like have to go in and record and again, and you did it for 2 days and it’s the opening night at Sundance. Were you surprised…?

Philip: Well, I think that’s the way they do it. That’s the way…for this film, these guys, this is what they do. I don’t think they wanted to keep rehashing it and trying to…they were very clear. They were like we really kind of want…they knew from the first couple times, they didn’t get it that something was wrong probably. So I think they were really about getting the spontaneous first, you know? They really wanted that. So I think they’re happy with it because I haven’t heard back from them. I have heard back from them thanking me and everything but I haven’t heard anything else. And now I know that it’s opening so I was happy to hear that.

Did you see your character that you were going to be before you actually…

Philip: Yeah, yeah. I saw little snippets while it was shooting.

Viola was talking about in her point of view right now that just getting a job is a thrill for her. You’ve long passed that and now you look at scripts, probably a lot of scripts, what’s the tough part for you, now, in terms of making the choices and finding the scripts and feeling that that works for you as who you are now?

Philip: It’s just time, you know? It’s just time. There’s things you want to do and there’s people you want to be with and priorities change and all that. That’s the challenge. Time. Because you can’t free yourself up to think seriously about all the things you would like to do knowing that there’s not enough time. You know what I mean? I think that’s just everybody’s issue as they get older. I think anybody who’s entering into middle age understands that. You know you start to go God it’s just weird how it doesn’t seem to be enough time anymore. Why does this feel that way, you know? It’s kind of what Synecdoche is about, you know? And it’s like why am I starting to panic about all that. So I would say that would really…because I’ve been grateful to be given many opportunities to work with great people and great material and so that hasn’t been a problem, you know? It might become again but it hasn’t now. So now it’s a time issue.

I was going to ask about working with Charlie Kauffman and was it what you expected and could you talk a little bit about making that film?

Philip: It was everything and more, really, to be honest. He’s really…he is that fascinating and great mind to work with and I loved hanging out. I loved talking with him about things and I really do enjoy talking with him about things and about anything. I enjoy being entertained by him. He’s a very funny guy. I like hanging out with him and bunch of other people and we’re all hanging out. It’s just very entertaining. It’s a lot of fun. And he’s a serious guy about what he does. And I like that. I think you should be serious about what you do because this is it. This is the only life you’ve got. And some people are like oh, take it easy. Don’t be so…. Well, why? Why would I not want to be serious, you know? So I think he’s pretty amazing.

I just wonder if Kauffman…how he’d be a film scheduler and do the schedules?

Philip: In a film there a lot of people scheduling, you know.

Talking about it?

Philip: Yeah, yeah. But I also think he’s…

The Commander?

Philip: Yeah, yeah. He’s not a mess. He’s an incredibly adult mature guy, you know what I mean? He’s on top of things.

To go back to Father Flynn, without saying which it was, did you have to decide for yourself whether he was innocent or guilty?

Philip: Well if I didn’t have to think about that I wouldn’t be playing the guy. So I would have been like the guy at the supermarket. Do you know what I mean? So, that question doesn’t make any sense to me. I think your question is really trying to get me to say…and because if it isn’t the question itself is inane, because I’m playing the part so of course I have to think about all those things.

Well, Brian O’Byrne said that John Patrick Shanley wouldn’t tell him until the run was over.

Philip: Well, because Shanley was saying you can make up your own mind. Make up your own mind. Me, it’s not even make up your mind about this. You’re feeling his life because it could be anything and it really could be anything and that’s the truth. It could be anything. So it’s like he was probably saying to Brian that it could whatever you want it to be. But I do think that that question…you understand what I mean? I’m playing a part. Of course I have to think about that stuff, so the question is really trying to get something out of me that you just won’t and I’ll just say that again. Good try. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Come on, come on.

The writing that you see makes people think, I mean not just in this one because obviously the audience is supposed to fill in the blanks for themselves but I mean, when you read work to do does it help you make a choice to do something because it is one of those that isn’t all spelled out for the audience? Do you like that there are ambiguities like for example like Charlie Kauffman’s work. People interpret it there own ways. Do you like works that make people think about things?

Philip: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, of course. Of course. It’s really hard to watch things and then not think about anything afterwards. The older you get you just say oh, it’s nothing. I have nothing. Even something that’s really entertaining, you know? But so yeah, it’s not to say that everything I do has that. You hope for it. Even in the…and I’m all for things that are entertaining. Really I love it, I love it, I love it. Going to see something where I will laugh or I will whatever. But usually it’s something that’s really funny but you’re still thinking why the hell was that so funny? It does give you something to think about but there’s a lot of stuff out there.

One last thing? Did you ever hear the rumor of them wanting you to be the Riddler in the next Batman movie? It was all over the net.

Philip: The Riddler? Well, God he just changed it.


Philip: You just changed it.

But you know what I mean.

Philip: Yeah, for months. No, it’s not true and there’s no truth to it at all. I don’t even know if I’ve met the director of the…Chris Nolan.

I was just curious if you’d actually heard it.

Philip: No. I have heard it many, many, many times and I’m still like…

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