Philip Seymour Hoffman: on Performance and Resistance

NPR’s program Fresh Air with Terry Gross recently put together a great tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman, a collection of highlights from past interviews. I highly recommend listening to it here. Below is a selection from one of the interviews that is insightful and thought provoking. A phenomenon that I’ve been reflecting on lately is ‘performance’. Does it entail a deceit or is it existential irony? Does it conceal meaning with the spectacle of its surface appearance, or does the actor reveal a deeper meaning or hidden truth by embodying it in performance? Reading and interpreting a performance is one thing. What about being the one who performs? To this question, Hoffman sheds some light.

GROSS: The late Anthony Minghella directed you in a couple of films.


GROSS: “Cold Mountain” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” And he was quoted in an article as saying this about you: Philip is an extraordinary actor, cursed sometimes by his own gnawing intelligence, his own discomfort with acting. Does that sound right to you? That you have, like – your intelligence is, like, sometimes a curse? And that you’re uncomfortable sometimes with acting?


HOFFMAN: Ah, I miss him.

GROSS: I bet you do. Yeah.

HOFFMAN: I really do. Um, wow. You took me by surprise with that. Um, you know, I think I am as intelligent as the next guy. I think that the amount of concentration, sometimes the amount of personal exploration it takes to do something well, can be not pleasant, you know, like hard work is. That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to do it or that you don’t love it or that it’s not ultimately satisfying. You know that old cliche, you know, nothing’s worth it unless it’s hard to do kind of thing. I wear that on my sleeve sometimes when I’m working.

And I think that because I trusted Anthony so much and I think – you know, and he got to know me, you know, like all really, really, fine directors do; they allow you to be who you are. The best and the worst of you is allowed to show up at work, and they are OK with that because they know that the actor needs an environment of trust, and he was one of those people. So he gets to know me probably better than some people that might have known me longer. So he’s probably referring to that, and he’s a very intelligent man and obviously very insightful, and he’s right. You know, I think I do wear that discomfort of sometimes the process, that the creative process of something, and how sometimes it’s not pleasant on my sleeve. And I think that’s what’s he’s talking about.

GROSS: What is that discomfort with?

HOFFMAN: When you’re shooting a film, the day can be 10, 12 hours long, usually. And you have to stay in a certain place through that time because you’re, at any moment, you’ll be called to do what you do. And you’ve done a lot of work and prepared a lot of things, and the level of concentration it takes to kind of keep those plates in the air is – it can be – that’s what’s tiring about the job. Like any job, everything has – there’s always something about that job that’s exhausting, and that’s what’s exhausting about acting, is the level of concentration over a very long period of time.

And if there’s something emotional about what you’re doing that day, you’re carrying that emotion on one level or another for a long period of time. If you think about life, first off, we don’t want to – we’re not too introspective. We don’t walk around our lives just constantly trying to delve into the understanding of ourselves unless you’re in therapy or something. And – but that’s what actors do, you know? We really explore ourselves and other people and all that stuff.

And if you’re carrying that around and the emotional life of that around over a period of time, it can be burdensome. But it’s part of the work, and you’re trying to create something artful out of it. And so, it’s not therapy. So, you’re not there to be in thera – you’re there to take, you know, what you know and the experiences and behavior and emotional life of yourself and others and try to make something artful out of it. But the carrying of that around and the focusing of that can be, it can be tough.

[ … ]

HOFFMAN: No. No, I think they’re the same. The same – what it takes to be a great athlete is the same thing that it takes to be a great actor, I think. That kind of concentration and that kind of privacy in public and that kind of unselfconscious kind of experience are very similar, and that kind of pressure of the people watching and finding privacy in front of – and all that stuff. So, you know, I find it very similar.

. . .

Certain actors and actresses are examples of lived bodily extremes insofar as the extent to which they are able to fully and publicly embody other identities is also the extent to which they’re at tension with their own private identity and corporeality. There’s a certain fluidity to their identities that withstand the petrifying imposition of cultural norms and expectations that enables them to mime, subvert, destroy and re-create our preconceived illusions of what constitutes normative experience. The private/public distinction here does not apply, for the performer’s connection to the body is never severed by a prevailing symbolic order or dominant form of language; it is on the strength of private tension with the body that what is reformulated as public is not mere spectacle, but truth. True in the sense that it resists that which is an illusion, that which is assumed as normative; it resists being assimilated and reduced into a singular interpretation. It resists objectification. True in the sense that it is not truth in presence; but in its absence of absolute meaning, compels one to suspend any definitive judgement, and to continue seeking, to continue querying, to continue queering. The performance calls into question the autonomy of one’s existence by calling one to respond to its undeniable presence in absence. Indeed, this call is an invitation of hospitality; we are invited to the performance and to see and respond for ourselves. Quite the gift. Standing before us as an irreducible Other, the performance calls us to query the possibility of other worlds, other scenes…an Others’ language, which communicates: things could be otherwise.

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