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Philip Seymour Hoffman: 'Just another actor'

New film, 'Love Liza,' at Sundance

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman's latest film is "Love Liza," showing at Sundance.  

By Anne Hubbell
Special to CNN

PARK CITY, Utah (CNN) -- Philip Seymour Hoffman's first trip to the Sundance Film Festival was partly a family matter.

The film he stars in, "Love Liza" -- directed by Todd Louiso, who played the shy, nerdy clerk in "High Fidelity" -- was written by Hoffman's brother, Gordy. The film concerns a man struggling to cope with the aftermath of his wife's suicide.

But Hoffman is no stranger to movie audiences -- even if his character-actor looks prompt people to think, "Hey, isn't that ...?" without coming up with his name.

Among his film credits are 2000's "Almost Famous," as Lester Bangs; 1999's "Magnolia," as male nurse Phil Parma; 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," as Freddie Miles; and 1997's "Boogie Nights," as Scotty.

He is also a noted stage actor and director, and co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theatre Company in downtown Manhattan.

CNN caught up with him at Sundance and asked him about "Love Liza," his stage work, and his active career.

CNN: Why were you were interested in bringing in your fellow actor, Todd Louiso, to direct?

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HOFFMAN: I thought Todd would be good to direct. I did "Scent of a Woman" with Todd and we lived together for a couple of years. ... I like working with actors as directors. I've never had a bad experience.

CNN: You have directed a few plays. How does directing compare to acting?

HOFFMAN: It is a joy. When I'm acting, I'm very self involved -- I have to be. But with directing, you show up to help. As an actor, you're helping people when you act with them, but you are worried about creating your own reality. As a director, you're freed up to aid and help other people. You're using another part of your brain. You get rejuvenated to go back to acting. It's great to go back and forth.

I'll probably direct a film some day. But it is an extraordinary difficult thing. It takes up a year of your life. I'm used to doing five or six projects. I'm sure one day I'll come across something and I'll think that's the story I've got to do."

CNN: "Love Liza" deals with death and one man's personal reaction to it. Why do you think grief is such a difficult emotion for most Americans?

HOFFMAN: What I like about the story is that everyone deals with death differently. ... Somebody dies and nobody knows what to do. People do stupid things. That is what this movie is about.

Hoffman in Love Liza
Hoffman portrays a man who loses his wife to suicide in "Love Liza," written by his brother.  

My character is a very nice man, a Gen-X guy on his way to adulthood. After the death of his wife, he can't get back to normal. People are always expected to get back to normal after something like this happens, and he can't. It's about a guy who subconsciously destroys whatever his life was about before this happened in order to create a new one. It's not an uplifting story, but it's an honest, true option.

I think there are probably some people who responded to September 11 like this guy does to his wife's death. ... You kept hearing that fast food consumption went up. Lots of people started eating every greasy, fatty thing they could. People were drinking like fiends. In my neighborhood in the West Village, the restaurants were empty, but the bars were packed to the door.

CNN: Your character, Wilson, develops a gas huffing problem. How did you prepare for those scenes?

HOFFMAN: I had a relationship with other drugs I had done in my past. I had an idea of what it might do, things I had heard about what it does to you. But I never tried it.

CNN: Among other accolades, you're regularly called one of the greatest actors of your generation.

HOFFMAN: Sometimes I am a bit overwhelmed by the attention. A lot of people say really nice things, and I appreciate it. But what helps me stay grounded, though I know it sounds righteous, is the theater company. I have many days and many hours that my life is just about getting something good up on the stage or looking for a good film to do.

Hoffman as Lester Bangs
Hoffman starred as rock writer Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous."  

I've been blessed to work with some great older actors like Paul Newman and Robert De Niro. [And] each time I go to work with someone who I have revered I get nervous. I think they are going to be a certain way, but really what they are is just another actor, a brilliant actor, but just as worried about doing good work, just as worried about their talent, insecure. That has really taught me a big lesson that no matter what people say about you, remember that you are just another actor and you can suck as much as the next guy.

CNN: You have become the thinking film fan's sex symbol. I found one Web site devoted almost entirely to your hairstyles.

HOFFMAN: Really? Bring it on! [laughing] Sometimes I get worried that my face will end up on some naked guy's body! It's so crazy.




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