Philip Seymour Hoffman called me just before dinner on the last day of October last year. I remember the time because I was in Whole Foods grabbing groceries for my family when my phone rang, displaying a New York City area code. I answered the call in the produce aisle.
“Is this Nell? This is Philip Seymour Hoffman.”
“I know. I recognize your voice.”
Anyone would. It’s a wonderful voice—low, soothing, and a bit weary that particular night. The call wasn’t scheduled but it wasn’t completely unexpected. I was working on a profile of Amy Adams for this magazine and had requested interviews of several co-stars. Hoffman was at the top of the list, since the two had worked together three times, in Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War, and The Master.
It’s notoriously difficult to get actors to go on record speaking about other actors. Such requests are usually met with terse replies from publicists explaining that their clients are on set and too busy to reply. Hoffman certainly had that excuse, but he’d dialed me directly. He began by apologizing for calling so late, but, he explained, he’d just gotten home from set. I told him it was fine and stalled as I fished for a pen in my purse.
“So…where are you?
“New York, just got back from Atlanta.” [He was in production on The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.]
Ah! I found a pen, but I needed paper. I ran to the bulk food aisle and grabbed one of those white bags meant for dried mangoes. I sat down on the floor and thanked him for calling. Hoffman said he was happy to talk about Amy. “I love acting with her,” he said. Later in the interview, he explained it even more succinctly: “We’re friends. We’ve talked a lot. ”
For about five minutes, he spoke of his admiration for Adams’s talent, generosity and work ethic. I scribbled furiously to keep up. Sometimes actors recite stories by rote, but every sentence Hoffman said was thoughtful. He spoke of how he believed people often misunderstood Amy. How in reality she was harder to pin down than she might seem. How she purposely kept a little mystery about herself. “And for an actor that’s good,” he said. “More should do it.”
We talked about The Master, and I was already on my second bulk-foods bag when the ink in my pen stopped flowing—the wax from the outside of the bag had gummed up the ball point. I was struck with panic. I didn’t want to bust myself for being in a supermarket so as soon as he took a pause, I stalled again.
“So did you ever sing with her?”
O.K, it was a dumb question, but I used the time to run over to the cashier area.
“Uh, no. We never sang together. I sing in The Master, but she leaves,” Hoffman said. “She’s a good singer, though.”
“Yeah. Singing factors into a lot of her movies,” I said, while gesticulating to a cashier that I needed to borrow a pen. Then I grabbed a brown paper bag—no wax—and sat down in the vitamin section.
“Can we talk about Doubt?” I asked.
“What about it?” Hoffman said.
I told him that Adams had said working with him and Meryl Streep was intimidating, and that, in rehearsals, she felt so outmaneuvered. She described the scene where Sister James (Adams) accuses Father Flynn (Hoffman) in front of Sister Aloysius (Streep): “Their intelligence, their insight, their experience … they were better than me in every way you could imagine. And I knew that,” she said.
I relayed how Adams felt herself going into “panic mode,” but Hoffman saw it differently. “What she’s admitting to is her humility,” he explained. “She’s not there yet, and Meryl and I are there, emotions spilling out all over the place, and she really stressed about that. So she’s thinking, ‘I’m not doing so well and—’”
And then the call failed. He was gone. I hit redial and got his voicemail. I dragged myself off the Whole Foods aisle floor and consoled myself that he’d already given me a lot of good quotes. I asked the cashier if I could keep the pen (in case he called back), and finished my shopping.
On the drive home, my phone rang again. It was Hoffman. I pulled over to the curb.
“Sorry. I forgot to charge my phone,” he said.
“I’m so glad you called back,” I said and reached for the pen and bag. “You were talking about Doubt and Amy struggling to find her way?”
“Right. “ He launched back in. “Look, we shot that scene until it was just right. The speech just spilled out. It’s not like other films, the writing is so much bigger. You can’t naturalize it. It’s real real drama. You have to fill it. It’s scary. And what she’s telling you is it took her a while to get there … and she did. And all the most gifted people I know do that.”
And then he paused before offering this conclusion to the story: “Great talent admits shortcomings.”
It was an amazing turn that only an actor as brilliant as Philip Seymour Hoffman could make. He took Adams’s admission of panic and turned it into a sign of humility and then into a sign of greatness. Like Father Flynn, he was able to convince me that what someone believed was actually the opposite.
Our call wrapped up soon after. I went home, put my groceries away, and rethought my entire approach to the profile based on the insights that Hoffman had given me.
When I heard about his death yesterday, his phrase came back to me: “Great talent admits shortcomings.” He’d spoken openly about the drug use of his youth and the habit that came back. He was truly a great talent. He was also a good and generous friend.
Because the profile was about Adams, it didn’t include the fond words she spoke of Hoffman during our interview. I went back and looked at the transcript and his name came up several times. At one point, I’d asked Adams about all the powerful actors she’s worked with in her career—some more than once—and she said: “I really love working with powerful men because I feel challenged and transported by their performance. And it allows me to create a reality in which I can get lost. Because I’m not method, so I kind of flip on and off. So when you’re working with someone who’s so present, it becomes like breathing. You don’t have to find your character. It exists through the relationship with the characters you’re working with. It’s a beautiful thing. Working with Joaquin [Phoenix] and Philip Seymour Hoffman is like that.”
I thought of the tired actor who worked all day on set and then reached out to a reporter not once, but twice, to support his friend. At the end of the call, he asked, “Did you get what you need?” At the time, I said yes. But now, we would all answer no.