Off the mat, into films

Published Dec. 3, 1999|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

(ran TP, GB editions)

A wrestling injury leads Philip Seymour Hoffman to acting. He's in three holiday movies.

It was a neck injury in high school wrestling that made an actor of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The movie and theater world can thank the guy who put a hammerlock on his sports career. Of course, he would have been just as happy being an athlete, preferably a baseball player.

In fact, he's still nuts about sports, and references to his favorite teams keep volleying into his conversation.

But it's too late for him to turn back now. Like it or not, it looks like Hoffman is going to be a star.

You tell him that, and he shrugs, his ruddy face coloring. "What would be great is if more people would see the movie," he insists.

The man who played the fawning groupie in Boogie Nights, the obscene phone caller in Happiness and Patch's roommate in Patch Adams is actually starring in three movies this holiday season: Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Flawless.

In Flawless, Hoffman portrays a transsexual who is hired by Robert De Niro to give him singing lessons after a stroke has rendered De Niro almost mute.

It's a flamboyant role that Hoffman plays with equal doses of sympathy and sass, a long way from the wrestling mat and the injury that sidelined him.

"I'd only wrestled for three years," he says. "It just made me rethink about sports because I was basically an athlete. Since I was a sophomore in high school that's what I did, and now I wasn't going to."

Hoffman, who grew up in Fairport, N.Y, with one brother and two sisters, doesn't really like to talk about himself. His parents split when he was younger, and though his dad was worried about his career choice, his mother, who reared him, approved.

An uninspired student for most of his school years, he buckled down his junior and senior years because he wanted to attend New York University. He credits some of his teachers there with helping him learn how to act.

Though there's lots of Hollywood buzz about Hoffman, he's unaware of it. "There's some stuff they want me to do I've heard," he nods, "but no, nothing that's changed anything. Hopefully I'll still make the decisions I should make."

"I think I'm pretty down-to-earth but not that stable," he continues. "I think that is more me faking it. I'm a pretty down-to-earth guy and make choices based on that, but other than that, you gotta be stable. You can't lose it."

Hoffman, 32, spent a couple of years in Hollywood at the beginning of his career, surviving on $210 weekly unemployment payments from time to time.

"It was one of the happiest times of my life, though; it wasn't that tough," he says, fingering a bottle of Perrier. "I was free, a kid out of school trying to get acting work, making new friends, hanging out a lot. The world was open to me. There was nothing more exciting than that."

Today he's dressed in a charcoal jacket, a wrinkled white dress shirt (no tie), dark pants and black horn-rimmed glasses that need cleaning.

One of the curious things about Hoffman is how, well, ordinary he looks _ not like a movie actor.

"I don't think I'm that odd looking at all," he says, "not even against the stereotype of the looks (of a) leading man. I think I'm pretty all-American. I got the blue eyes and blond hair. I don't think you can get any more Kansas than with me."

Still, Hoffman has played wildly different characters. In Magnolia, he's an empathetic nurse. In The Talented Mr. Ripley he plays an upper crusty rich guy from the '50s. "Eddie Duchin without the talent," says Hoffman.

"I look at it as the parts I've chosen to play and what I've chosen to put out there. It's just the things I think are worth telling. It's up to everyone else to make the labels . . ."

He says he was shocked when director Joel Schumacher announced he'd been cast opposite De Niro in Flawless.

"I never met Bob De Niro before the read-through. I was scared. I thought, "Does he know that I suck? De Niro hasn't even met me. He knows I suck, right?' That's what you're thinking. Then you show up and you're like, "See, I suck. Are you firing me yet?' That was what it was like. And then I didn't suck anymore."

Hoffman says that feeling was nothing new, he always feels he's inadequate to the task. "Once you figure out that everyone thinks they're a fraud, you're all right."