It’s easy to forget, given the who’s who list of male stars appearing in The Ides of March – George Clooney, Ryan Gosling and Paul Giamatti – that it’s only Philip Seymour Hoffman who has taken the biggest acting prize in the business: the best actor Oscar for Capote.
Clooney has been nominated for the top prize but his only win came in the supporting actor category for Syriana, and it so happens that both Hoffman and Clooney won their respective Academy Awards in 2006.
Hoffman is the consummate character actor. He inhabits characters to such an extent that it’s difficult to typecast him. The Clooney-directed The Ides of March is set around the Democratic presidential primaries and Hoffman plays Paul Zara, a long-in-the-tooth political campaigner who is overseeing a campaign to get Clooney’s governor Mike Morris elected.
When Zara is kept in the dark about an incident, it enables an idealistic young pretender, played by Gosling, to challenge his authority. Hoffman brings sympathy to the “spin doctor” character – no mean feat in a political climate where the people behind the politicians are often treated with more contempt by the media than the politicians themselves.
With a presidential election coming up for real next year, the 44-year-old actor says of politics: “It’s good to be informed. The older I get, the desire I have to know more and feel a part of it grows and grows.”
Zara is the type of role that the New York-based actor loves to sink his teeth into. “A job like this is the best of both worlds because it’s a very dramatic, character-driven thing, but with an underlying political element. On set we talked about a lot of things, but we didn’t talk about politics.”
Hoffman admits that this even extended to one pivotal scene where the campaign is in crisis and the spin doctor and politician have to meet to discuss the potentially career-ending fallout. The scene takes place in a limousine but Clooney wisely opts to keep the camera outside the car, knowing that anything that he shot would not be as wild as the conversation taking place in the audience’s imagination.
“It’s one of the funniest things that we didn’t discuss anything. George was sick that day,” explains Hoffman, “so I said to him I’m just going to the car. Put the cigarette on the top of the car and just let the camera shoot the ash go down. We knew how important the scene was and George talked about the scene before, but in the car we were just smoking and while the camera was rolling just wondering if the cigarette was going to last.”
The actor is also appearing in the forthcoming Moneyball, a true story of how the Oakland Athletic baseball team turned the form book upside down in 2002 when they started to use statistics rather than the hunches of scouts to employ players. Suddenly, a team with a small budget was able to compete with the New York Yankees and turned the general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, into one of the most highly rated managers in baseball. Moneyball will be screened in the Fairmont’s outdoor 1,200-capacity theatre on October 29.
Hoffman is again playing a character with old school principles. But whereas in The Ides of March that seems almost noble, in Moneyball it’s foolhardy. He has a misplaced faith in the old way and, as the coach of the team, refuses to implement the tactics put forward by Beane.
Yet what Hoffman says attracted him to the project is not the baseball story but the human factor: “I found it inspiring that there is a guy who all of a sudden looks back on his life and becomes obsessed with what came before. You feel like he’s going to Groundhog Day himself until that day is gone and he can enjoy a baseball game and his life again. What’s so hard for the filmmakers is that there is no way you can be clear about that, so Billy Beane can’t just walk into my office and say, ‘Listen, I’m looking back on my life and I need help’. I think whenever we talked about the film, the human side was discussed and I think that is very inspiring.”
It’s all a long way from the early part of Hoffman’s career when he started out with small scene-stealing cameos in movies such as Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski. His breakthrough film was Todd Solondz’s Happiness where he played his most ugly character, unappreciative of others in his life. After winning an Oscar playing the writer Truman Capote, he played the super villain in Mission: Impossible III.
Hoffman also directed and starred in his first film last year, Jack Goes Boating, where he played a limousine driver struggling to find love in New York. The film is based on a play that Hoffman appeared in after his Oscar success.
Perhaps the only unifying factor in his roles is that he likes to play characters on the margins in work that tries to understand the fabric of America. He says: “I think human nature is surprising. People in general are surprising. They are pretty weird, odd and eccentric. I don’t think there is anybody who doesn’t have those qualities in some way. I try to capture that.”