Philip Seymour Hoffman: Master of His Craft

While he stayed mum on his personal life, Hoffman had a lot to say about his professional endeavors.

The Associated Press

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s four Oscar nominations and three Tony nominations are a testament to his abilities as an actor. 

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In the wake of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death at 46 years old of apparent drug overdose, there has been an outpouring of beautiful and finely-written tributes to his remarkable career, which won him accolades both on screen and on stage. Much attention has been paid to a 2006 interview he gave to CBS' "60 Minutes" detailing his drug addiction for which he sought treatment for when he was 22 (and again just this past May). He later put his comments in context. But he spoke often – as he was often asked – about many other aspects of his life and his career.

[READ: Hoffman Found Dead at New York Apartment]

Hoffman’s four Oscar nominations and one win, in addition to his three Tony nominations are a testament to his abilities as an actor. But that all starts in his ability to pick parts that allowed him to stand out.

“I never thought I'd play any of the roles I played," Hoffman told E! two weeks ago from the red carpet at Sundance Film Festival. He was there to promote “A Most Wanted Man,” in which he plays a German spy, which he could add to his resume that includes over 50 film roles that range from an iconic American author to a Catholic priest, a rock critic to a campaign manager, a CIA case officer to the leader of a religious cult.

Hoffman was courageous with his career choices, and usually the gamble paid off. Critics would often rave about his performance even in movies they otherwise didn't love. And no role was too small for Hoffman. When reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of “The Big Lebowski” – a Coen brothers film in which Hoffman played a bit role (the titular millionaire’s man servant) among a cast of big names that included Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Julianne Moore – Hoffman explained to the Rolling Stone:

I would still consider that a great job. All the characters in that movie were wonderful, down to the smallest and smallest of characters. They're all wonderful and they all made an impact somewhere in the movie. Those are the best kinds of jobs and they're hard to come by.


Furthermore, Hoffman was reluctant to take on the role that would win him the Academy Award for best lead actor, Truman Capote, in 2005’s “Capote.” 

“I knew that it would be great, but I still took the role kicking and screaming,” he told The New York Times in 2008. Part of the challenge of playing the “In Cold Blood" author was inhabiting a public figure well-known for his physical affectations in a way that didn’t feel like caricature or imitation. It took four and a half months of preparation for Hoffman to nail down Capote’s mannerisms and he rarely broke character throughout the months of shooting.

Hoffman wouldn't shy away from roles that brought with them their own prejudices and stigma – from a Catholic priest at the center of a sex abuse scandal (“Doubt”) to a cult leader loosely inspired by the founder of Scientology (“The Master”) – and in his nuance, his performances challenged audience's assumptions and expectations.

Often a good script would attract Hoffman to a film before anything else; he had not read Capote’s “In Cold Blood” nor Suzanne Collins “Hunger Games” trilogy (he played Plutarch Heavensbee in the second film) before he was first impressed by the scripts of the films inspired by them.

Also a factor when he signed on to a film was who else was working on it which is one of the reasons one of the reasons he said he signed on to John Slattery’s “God’s Pocket,” another upcoming film he was promoting at Sundance. Hoffman helped Bennett Miller, a friend from his teenage years, land his director’s gig on “Doubt” and the two collaborated again in “Moneyball." Hoffman also appeared in five of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s six feature films (“Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “The Master”).

“It's more of a mutual friendship. When we're working together, then the status can change, because he's directing, but there is so much time we spend together where it's just the two of us," Hoffman said of his and Anderson's career together.

But every now and again a project would come along that spoke personally to Hoffman. Of the 2008 film “Synecdoche, New York,” in which he plays a theater director across many stages of life, he said, “I was turning 40, and I had two kids, and I was thinking about this stuff — death and loss — all the time.”

[ALSO: Analyzing Philip Seymour Hoffman's Heroin Addiction]

While most know Hoffman from his many on-screen roles, he ironically didn’t start out wanting to be a film actor.  

“The strange thing is,' he told the Observer in 2006, “I never thought I'd do films. I was studying theater, and my dreams were about riding my bike to the theater on Sunday afternoons to do a play, and they still are.”

As his film career picked up momentum, he continued to keep one foot on stage. He co-founded the Labyrinth Theater Company in 1992 and served as its artistic director. His most recent Broadway turn was the 2012 revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman,” in a starring role the won both crucial and commercial success.

In both mediums he made the jump to direction, directing a number of off-Broadway productions and making his film directorial debut with 2010s “Jack Goes Boating” (which was an adaptation of a play he acted in). Hoffman compared the two experiences speaking to A.V. Club in 2010:

[I]n the theater, I think you’re actually more responsible for what is going on onstage as a director than you are in film. Because in film, there’s the director of photography, who truly oversees how it’s being shot and how it’s being lit. The director and the director of photography collaborate on how to do that, so the director has a great influence, but ultimately, the director of photography is overseeing the whole group of people through the whole thing. Then you have the editor, who is also going to be influencing how that story unfolds. Whereas in the theater, you’re overseeing the whole thing.


Hoffman remained for the most part mum about his private life, where he had three children with his longtime girlfriend Mimi O'Donnell. Like other actors who hold a similar line, Hoffman attributed his silence on personal matters to the respect he had for his family.

However, he also felt that it was important to his abilities as an actor that those details stayed in the background. As he told Las Vegas Weekly in 2005, “I do think it's a courtesy to the audience members for them to go to the theater and know less about the actor and more about the character they're watching. It's just a more pleasurable experience. You can really give in to the film more.”