The Guest Room

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Personal Remembrance

He was a brilliant actor who never understood his own worth.

By Jennifer Drapkin

When I interviewed Philip Seymour Hoffman eight years ago, Capote was about to be released in theaters. We first met for lunch at an Italian restaurant in the Village near where he lived, and as an icebreaker, I handed him a book of Richard Avedon photographs from an exhibit at the Met in 2002. Richard Avedon had photographed Capote, and I thought we might talk about the portrait.

Little did I know that Hoffman was a huge Richard Avedon fan and had gone to the opening of the exhibit. He leafed through the book with the eagerness of a 10-year-old boy looking at baseball cards. He told me about the time he went to Avedon’s house for dinner to talk about Capote, a story he hoped to share with his son someday (I hope he got the chance to.) Avedon showed him his negatives and contact sheets and told him about his falling out with Capote; they had once been close friends, but Capote thought that Avedon’s portrait of him was so unflattering that he never forgave him for displaying it.

After about half an hour, I was beginning to get scared that Hoffman would never give me back my Richard Avedon book, so I reached across the table and gently took it out of his hands. He looked at me the way you look at a waiter who takes away your plate of food before you’ve finished eating—“Hey, I wasn’t finished with that…”

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Philip Seymour Hoffman loved talking about art—and acting and theater and writing, and the importance of authenticity, and the nature of subjectivity, and the responsibility of the artist—and it was incredibly fun to talk to him about those things.

However, he hated talking about himself. Humble to a fault, he was the exact opposite of an egotistical actor. When he did open up about himself, he never said much of anything good; he told me, “I am only as good as I was yesterday when it comes to my career,” and the entire time he made Capote, he felt “aware of how big a flop it could become.” The idea of success didn’t make him feel safe either: “The more attention a person receives because of who they are and what they become, the more precarious their position in the world becomes.” He felt tremendous pressure to live up to other people’s expectations of him, and his expectations of himself.

Like so many people with substance abuse problems, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a perfectionist who never really understood his own worth, and I don’t just mean his value as an actor—I mean his value as a human being. He was a lovely person to be around. I didn’t know him long, but I bet he had no idea how nice it was to sit down and have a conversation with him, or talk to him on the phone. I bet he had no idea how much his family and friends loved him. In the years that have passed, I’ve often thought to myself that if I ever saw him again, I should thank him, but I was never sure why exactly. I guess I’d like to say to him, “Thank you for hanging out with me, Phil. I wish it could have been for longer.”

 

Jennifer Drapkin is a writer and editor, and a former intern at PT, who is earning a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia University.

 

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