The Select Equity Group Series on Theater
March. 1992. Night. The offices at Circle Repertory Company were empty except for the green room. A few young actors were waiting to audition for a workshop production of Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s Servy-n-Bernice 4Ever. I was directing. My heart sank as each guy read, when some kid walked in who looked totally wrong for the role. Oh God, I thought, I’ll never get this role cast; a strawberry-blond Irish-looking guy reading for the role of a Jewish kid who wants to be black? Seymour Hoffman? “Phil,” Seth said, “Philip.” The guy got the role, the little production rocked, a commercial producer picked up the play, and Phil and I were promptly replaced.
But almost overnight, there he was again in the film Scent of a Woman, then again in Nobody’s Fool, then a couple years later in Boogie Nights, always turning in a unique character performance of tremendous substance, honesty, and audacity. Go Phil! Well: he did. Sometime in the late ’90s after we had seen him in The Big Lebowski, Happiness, and Magnolia, we knew that he was a force, though nobody could have predicted his astonishing turn as Truman Capote. But back in 1992, many of us missed the fact that Phil and John Gould Rubin were a part of the LAByrinth Theater Company early on. Phil and John Ortiz then served as co-artistic directors. LAByrinth is one of New York’s most successful and multicultural theater companies. This spring, they will open Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Little Flower of East Orange, directed by Hoffman. And those of us who were fortunate got to see Phil’s foray into directing Guirgis’ powerful and hilarious plays including Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and Our Lady of 121st Street. Both plays moved off Broadway; Jesus also went to London where it was nominated for an Oliver Award. Clearly, a director had been born. The direction was precise, motivated, daring, and most of all, strikingly alive. His current film performances in The Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, all playing simultaneously in a theater near you, are wildly diverse and downright inspired. What, I thought—being an actor and director myself—is the relationship between these two very different jobs? How does acting affect directing and directing affect acting? How does one articulate the ways in which they compliment each other? I went straight to the source.
June Stein This is one of the last funky places left in the whole Village. You come here a lot? Is this your spot?
Philip Seymour Hoffman Once in a while, yeah.
JS Another good one is Joe’s Diner on the corner of 12th Street and 6th Avenue. They’ve been there forever… Since before I came to New York.
PSH I came here twenty-two years ago.
JS That’s about when I met you. It was like another lifetime.
PSH I was 20… when I met you I was 23?
JS You were young, yeah.
PSH And I’m 40 now.
JS You’re 40?
PSH I’m 40 now.
JS Well, you certainly have the stature of someone who’s been there, done that.
PSH (laughter) Yeah, too much so.
JS But you’ve got the rest of your life to live. That’s a lot of time to kill. I think that might be a Shanley line—
PSH Sounds like something he would say. “You’ve got a lot of time to kill.”
JS So you’re in the middle of shooting Shanley’s Doubt.
PSH Yeah, we’ve just finished our second week. I haven’t shot any of the scenes from the play yet. We haven’t gotten into the meat of the movie, just the new stuff that’s been written for the screen—the school stuff with Father Flynn and the kids.
JS That’s gotta really be a challenge to film. We don’t get to see Father Flynn with the kids in the play and it needs to teeter right on the edge of did he or didn’t he do something inappropriate? We can never be sure.
PSH It’s more Sister Aloysius’s perception of what she sees…we were struggling with this scene yesterday. She says to me, “I saw you grab the boy’s arm, and the boy pulled away.” It’s so tricky because that’s really all it is. That moment is not about what she’s accusing me of. It’s about something else.
JS It’s probably just a very simple moment.
PSH It is, but of course you’re shooting it with a twelve-year-old boy. So we got the holidays, then there’ll be time to focus more on the meaty stuff—
JS And that’s what you’re master of.
PSH Well, yeah. Sometimes. (laughter)
JS You’re also going to be directing the play Little Flower of East Orange by Stephen Adly Guirgis. It’s opening right about the time this interview comes out. I want to ask you about the relationship between acting and directing, knowing that it’s very tricky to articulate what that is. It’s like trying to talk about sex. You can talk about it till you’re blue in the face, but you gotta do it to get it.
PSH I was with a writer the other day, who was saying that you can’t really talk about what you do. I disagree with him. What ultimately happens is something mysterious, that you can’t say. But you can talk about how you approach what that mysterious something is, how you try to get at that thing that you really can’t say.
JS I’ve been mulling over how directing and acting inform each other. How does switching hats affect each art form?
PSH They do inform each other. I don’t think any actor can be a director, or any director can be an actor. But I would say that acting helps you become a better director. And directing helps you become a better actor—if you have that visual sense, because as a director you need that sense of design, and of storytelling. You can’t just instruct the actors to act well. You have to create a whole event. But switching hats helps, because as a director you’re able to see yourself objectively through other actors. You watch other actors and you see yourself—
JS You watch other actors and you see yourself.
PSH You really do. You go, Oh, that’s what I do. I do that. Or, I’ve done that. I know where they are. You have a very strong, objective sense of what the actor’s going through, because you’re an actor. You know that they’re subjective, in the moment, and that, up to a certain point, as bright and as talented as they could be, they’re very unaware. When I’m acting, I’m less aware than when I’m standing outside looking at someone acting. It’s like being in a relationship. When you’re in one, at times you need somebody else to tell you what the fuck’s going on, because you can be pretty lost in it. So, yes, my acting informs how I direct and because of it I’m able to instruct actors, support them, give them clues to go on, and lead them down a path that’s fruitful—that can bring harvest.
Actors will get panicked and anxious at times, and you’ll know why, but you also know they don’t need to be, and you can just keep reassuring them saying, “No, it’s okay, you’re still feeling that loss but I’m watching you, and what’s happening is fine. You don’t feel fine, but it is fine. So just trust me right now.” When you push an actor down a certain path, they might feel very uncomfortable for a while, because if you’re doing your job correctly, you’re steering an actor down the path of the written character, down the story. They’re going to find out that the character behaves differently than they do. Very rarely do you play a part that’s just like you.
JS Very rarely. And also, who are you anyway?
PSH Yeah. Who are you anyway? Exactly. Very good point. So things will feel weird and awkward. And that doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it will feel bad. Actors’ first instinct is to make themselves feel comfortable, to do things to make themselves feel like they’re in it, they’re truthful; I’m moving over here and that feels right, blah, blah, blah…. That’s what I do; so when I see another actor doing that, I know it’s not right. I know that that’s something that will die in two days.
JS It’s a security blanket.
PSH They’re not making decisions based on the risk-taking that life asks for every time you wake up in the morning. The minute you walk out the door you’re risking something. It’s like—
JS It’s all risk!
PSH It’s all risk! Living a life is basically about you entering one situation after another that you may or may not want to enter. Everything has stakes, everything has meaning, everything has consequences.
JS What is it that Keats said about making friends with uncertainty?
PSH Anyway, eventually something will settle in or the actor will find something out in the moment and they’ll go, That’s why I didn’t want to explore that, because this is where it gets real uncomfortable.
JS Don’t you have some remarkable stories around that issue? Because of course that’s where they make the breakthrough, the resistance finally falls apart and everything comes alive and—
PSH And then they’ll try to make that comfortable. (laughter)
JS Yes, it’s just like life.
PSH I think that the more talented people are, the more clever that they become about trying to map the story in such a way that they don’t actually have to experience it. They know the little price that will be paid each night they have to do it.
JS There was in article in Dialog, the newsletter of the Philoctetes Center, this fairly esoteric place in New York that hosts fascinating psychological discussions that I’ve been meaning to go to for ten years…. This article centered on mirror neurons. Neuroscientists believe that mirror neurons are responsible for the empathetic response, and are activated in the audience only when an actor is authentically experiencing an emotional state. When the actor’s emotions are real, even on the physiological and neurological level, the audience’s mirror neurons activate in response, and a shared experience occurs.
PSH Yeah. But audiences can be like actors too, in that they also try to feel comfortable. They’ll watch something that’s not authentic, and go with it anyway. They’ll feel just fine with taking something in cerebrally and enjoying that—people don’t want to go through something.
JS This is just a fact of human nature and it crops up in every single Eastern teaching, in every esoteric system.
PSH What’s that?
JS That the machinery of the human being will do anything it can to stay comfortable. It takes a certain amount of consciousness to commit to taking the risk of remaining in an uncomfortable place. I have to remember that Keats quote on negative capability… “When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
PSH That’s about 90 percent of the task.
PSH I think that as an actor, it’s all about the questions you ask yourself.
JS What are some of the questions you ask yourself?
PSH Probably all artists do this whether they’re conscious of it or not. You’re trying to ask the appropriate questions that can very well start with, Why am I here? Who am I to this person? Long Day’s Journey Into Night is always a good example. About Jamie Tyrone, the first question is: Why is he at the house? Why is he still coming to this summer home? Why does he want to hang out with his mom who always lets him down? Why doesn’t he just drink himself to death? Why doesn’t he just bunk up at some shitty place in Manhattan? Why does he want to hang out with his dad? It makes him miserable. Why is he here?
JS Why is he there?
PSH That’s a huge question. So that’s what you do as an actor. You start there. More often than not, as a director, I find that the actors will not ask questions. They’ll make assumptions and judgments.
JS Why is that? What was your training?
PSH I studied at Circle in the Square with Alan Langdon, Terry Hayden, Jackie Brooks, and this guy Tony Greco. They were all really good teachers but in different ways, so I learned a lot of different things.
JS What technique did they teach?
PSH It was an amalgamation, really. Alan drilled in me the idea that everything has stakes. You can’t approach something and not understand, especially if it’s written on the page, that someone wrote it, and that there’s action, and you can put words to actions and—
JS In other words, action meaning the “active verb”? For example: What do I want to do to that person? I want to impress them, or I want to punish them in this little section. What we call “beat.” Or, What do I want to get from that person? I want to get laid or I want to get sympathy or I want to get the suitcase of money… Do you break things down into beats and actions?
PSH I’ll still do that now, yes. I’ll always sit there and think, What’s the word?
JS What is the word? It’s not enough to feel it. You have to be able to articulate it if you’re directing.
PSH Sometimes, when you try to think about the word—the active verb—it can begin the conversation. Tony was really great about stressing that acting is hard work, and that the real work is asking the tough questions: Okay. Why am I, at the age of thirty-three, coming home to this house with my mother and father and brother? Why am I still doing that?
JS What is that bridge? How do you get to something that is not you? How do you make it your own so deeply and authentically, that you can do a role like Capote or any number of the audacious roles you’ve done? How can a director help someone do that? Is that even possible?
PSH I think it is. The more you get to know an actor, the more likely it is that you can reach a point where you are able to say, “In this moment I think you would feel much better doing this. But this guy does that. Do you see the difference?” The big thing I learned from Tony is how to look at acting as an art form. It is an art form, not just literal representations. You’re really creating something. You’re using your imagination, looking at life—your life, other people’s lives—and exploring them in such a way that you get a sense of things.
JS You must have had an interesting experience teaching up at Columbia’s Film School for a semester. It’s pretty challenging, isn’t it?
PSH It’s pretty great, yeah.
JS How are we ever going to get you back, as soon as you have lots of time on your hands?
PSH I gotta get a semester off. (laughter)
JS After my students really understand what an action is—the action verb—I try to get them to think metaphorically. For instance, What I want to do to this person is to put them through a sheet of glass. Or, I want to throw this person into a dungeon. Or, I want to take this person and make them my teddy bear. Those metaphors have great resonance, but you have to be able to use words precisely, effectively, like a poet. I know just from working with you and from seeing your work, that acting for you is an experience of transformation, and I don’t mean transforming into a character. I mean it almost on a spiritual level. There’s a falling away of the rest of the world; a deep habitation of the present
PSH You try. Yeah, you do—you try.
JS I’m starving.
PSH Yeah, let’s order something real quick. Where’s the guy? He just completely blew me off.
JS Yeah, they were so hostile—
PSH (To a busboy) Excuse me, can we get a waiter please?
JS You probably don’t remember auditioning for me, but I remember the room—
PSH I think I remember it too.
JS You do? Because you really wanted the role.
PSH (laughter) I did.
JS Seth said to me, “Oh, I’m really interested in this kid.” And I thought, “Okay, but….”
PSH Michael Imperioli was sitting across the lobby from me.
JS Michael Imperioli auditioned for the role and didn’t get it! He was crushed because he really wanted that role. He was so much more “right for it.” I remember thinking, “Well, I’m crazy not to cast Michael, he’s really great, but this kid, Phil, just blew me totally out of the water.” But I was talking about transformation. Have you had an alternate but similar experience when directing? It’s such a different discipline. Directing is so objective and acting is so subjective.
PSH There is something that I normally do that I picked up from Mike Nichols and other directors who I’ve worked with in the theater. It’s the idea of the anecdotal story. You can tell stories, and be very pointed about what part in the play they relate to. Or tell stories and not really inform the actors of their significance. You might not even know. I always tell actors that if something comes up and they have a story to tell about what we’ve been talking about or working on, then they should tell it.
JS I wish some director had asked me to tell a story. Or let me.
PSH It gets the actors thinking the way you want them to, What is that like? What is that? For instance, grabbing the boy’s arm and his pulling away.
JS Why does he do it? What’s a story that you’re using for Doubt?
PSH After like a whole day of rehearsing I remember going to Shanley and going, “You know when you grab a kid, and the kid pulls away, and you know it was inappropriate, or you know that the kid trumps you, and….” And I couldn’t put it into words. And then I’m remembering when I was nineteen years old, I was a camp counselor, and we were out on a lake, and the kids were swimming. There was a shallow area and a deeper area. I was joking around with this one kid, and I’d completely forgotten the swimming level that he was at. I picked him up and I threw him in the deeper area and he started to drown.
JS Oh my God!
PSH Of course I jumped in the water, picked him up and walked him out. And I’m telling this to Shanley going, What is that? I don’t know why I’m thinking that story, but I am. It’s not literal because I have an opinion about this boy in Doubt that might not be positive, and I did like this boy at the camp a lot. It was just a mistake. I know that that story comes from him because it’s that moment of transgression that comes over you as an adult with a child, What the hell did I just do? It’s a completely different instance with the priest and the boy in the film, but the camp story allows me to go, Ahhhhh!
JS There’s an emotional, non-linear logic in the association of a story.
PSH Stories help. If I was directing that moment in a play, and I said to the actor, “Why is it that when you grab the boy’s arm, he pulls it away? Why do you say that line that’s joking at the boy’s expense? Why would you make that comment?” I would add, “I remember when I was a counselor, and I had this kid….” The minute an actor hears that story he or she will see—
JS The “ah-ha” moment.
PSH They’ll start thinking on a personal, risky—
JS And creative and imaginative—
PSH Yes, and non-literal level.
JS And, of course, the all-time master of stories is John Patrick Shanley.
PSH Yeah, he’s amazing and so is Mike Nichols. In the work environment he does that better than anyone—his sense of storytelling, of anecdote, of my life, of our lives. He’ll be like, “Let’s talk about, what is this thing called life? How does this pertain to this thing we’re doing? How does life inform art?”
JS You think they’re gonna let us order something?
PSH (To passing waiter) Excuse me. I’d love to order.
JS We just want a couple cheeseburgers—
PSH Can I have a cheeseburger please? Well-done french fries.
JS Oh, that’s it, yeah. Well-done french fries. (To waiter) I’ll have a cheeseburger also, with lettuce and tomato.
PSH Thank you.
JS So, as a director, how—where do you get off? It’s not the same as an actor. Acting is a high.
PSH You don’t get off, actually. Meaning, as a director, you get to a point in which you see a few scenes come together and the life starts to happen: that’s a real buzz. Then you’ll see everything come to life in a run-through in the rehearsal hall. And then one of the previews will click and that’s very satisfying. Ultimately, you know the play so well by that point, that the littlest thing drives you nuts. And that’s when you must leave the theater, leave that play, and never come back. (laughter)
JS I was once at a preview of a show I’d directed at The Magic, and I had a disaster on my hands. I was taking notes and I just started writing: “You’re fired. You’re fired,” over and over. That’s when I learned you have to leave at a certain point.
PSH Your job is done. Or understand that the next part of your job is not to let these actors see your face for another six weeks. They will get better because you won’t be there. It’s a very hard moment to go through because some of them are happy you’re gone, some of them feel abandoned. You know, all the familial things come into play. You don’t get to have the thing the actor has, those three or four shows a week that work and where the actor is able to say, “I did my job. I did it well.” And then there are three or four shows a run where you go, “That’s why I’m in this. Just to have that one.”
JS And that’s what keeps you coming back, like a drug.
PSH But those happen very rarely. Yeah, the run of a play is a very humiliating experience. No matter how successful the play is.
JS It’s humbling.
PSH It’s humbling beyond humbling.
JS Most people don’t understand what a huge risk it is to go out there—if you’re going out there for real. One of my favorite theater performances ever was when I saw you in Jack Goes Boating. I rarely see a performance in the theater that I deeply admire. That was one. Something happened in your performance that really only happens in the theater.
PSH You’re absolutely right. What do you think happens only in theater?
JS I think when theater really soars, an energy exchange takes place between the actor and the audience. It accomplishes what ritual accomplishes in a living religion; it’s as though the molecular structure of the air is altered, and a less dense, charged, fluid substance is exchanged between the actors and audience for the duration of the performance. The event of theater reminds me of sand painting; a ritual intended to lead to a higher consciousness. These monks spend huge amounts of time making these elaborate, amazing mandalas in the sand by the sea. And the ocean washes them away.
PSH In Jack Goes Boating, there were a handful of shows where I felt like there was something inspirational happening among the actors onstage.
JS And maybe I saw that night.
PSH But this is the point: maybe not.
JS Oh, that’s interesting.
PSH That’s why the director has to walk away, because the director’s experience is not the real experience. Everyone else is watching thinking, “This is really good,” but you, as the director, are thinking, “That sucked,” because you’ve lost it. You are the most subjective person in the room. You have no objectivity. You have to take a couple of weeks off and then come back to watch it without telling anyone, and you will see it with different eyes. A director’s job is to get the actor in a place where hopefully they’re in the ballpark. And if you’ve done your job correctly, and gotten the actor to ask those questions, and get that personal, and understand what’s different about him or her and the character, and fill the whole thing out, and attack it from moment to moment—without need for result—and they move through the play with that kind of vulnerability, they might not feel like they nailed it on a given night, but I can guarantee you that the people watching it for the first time will feel they’ve experienced a special performance.
JS Tell me about Little Flower. It’s the fifth Stephen Adly Guirgis play that you’ve directed.
PSH I love working with Stephen. He’s one of our great playwrights, and I don’t say that lightly. His voice is unique.
JS He’s an original. What in particular about this play draws you?
PSH Well at the end of the day, all his plays do. Have for years. This is a play about a woman at the end of her life, in a hospital room, flashing back on her life. Her nostalgia brings up fantasy: visions of things, people, and situations that aren’t real. They are mixed with real nostalgia for what her life was. This all takes place in the hospital. And then there’s a whole other parallel story of her son and how he got to be in prison.
JS Is there any particular way that you prepare to start working as a director?
PSH With Stephen it’s more about the playwright/director relationship. We talk about what I’m seeing in the play and how that bounces off him. Is it bouncing off correctly? Am I seeing something that’s touching on something he feels about the play? What am I saying with this play? And that might not have anything to do with what he was thinking, or anything to do with his relationship to an older woman dying…but he’ll go, “Oh, I see. Oh yeah, no actually that’s good.” So ultimately the playwright and the director going into rehearsal are enmeshed on a personal level about what the play means to them. It’s a very satisfying relationship; you can actually bond over the personal connection to something. Theirs, as playwrights, and yours, since you’ve gotten inside the play. And then you just start sharing this with these actors who are going to do the same thing.
JS You love theater, don’t you?
PSH Oh, it’s the best.
JS Say why.
PSH If you’ve had an experience in the theater, you know something happened in that theater that immediately fused everyone, that enlightened and opened everyone to that beautiful moment of, God, life is so fucking gorgeous! Like when you’re reading a great novel, and you’re like, life is so beautiful right now.
JS Right now! And that doesn’t mean you’re always happy, that doesn’t mean love—
PSH It just means life. It’s a turn-on.
JS It’s such a turn-on.
PSH Everything else is fucking kind of boring! (laughter)
JS Yeah, I was jotting down questions to ask you and one said, “What do you like to do when you’re not working?” And then I thought, “Who cares?"
PSH Who cares?
JS I have something for you. I wanted to give you something but what am I gonna do, buy you a box of chocolates? So here are two of my favorite poems, “The Snowman” by Wallace Stevens, and “San Sepolcro” by Jorie Graham. The unadorned apprehension of the present in your acting called to mind “The Snowman.” And Graham’s poem is about transcendence and risk, another aspect of all your work.
PSH Oh, I love poems.
JS And then one I wrote which was published in the Bellevue Literary Review, which is, you know…
PSH I’m sure the best of all three.
JS It came from a thing I had for John Shanley a million years ago.
PSH So you guys had a thing?
JS Well, um…I wish I could turn this tape off.
PSH Turn it off.
—June Stein is a director, actress, and poet. She has directed premiere productions for the Vineyard Theatre, Circle Repertory Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and the Magic Theatre. She has appeared in films directed by Tim Robbins, Sidney Lumet, Bette Gordon, and John Turturro, and is on the faculty of Columbia University’s Graduate Film School.