Philip Seymour Hoffman is a force with no bounds. Through various roles (Boogie Nights, Capote, and even Along Came Polly) he continues to expand his potential as an actor. Now, with his directorial debut, the moody Jack Goes Boating, the Oscar-winner is on double duty with a story that was originally worked on at his own LAByrnith Theater Company in New York City. In the film, Hoffman plays an awkward middle-aged man who meets a unique woman while in the process of trying to change the course of his life. He co-stars with friend and theater company partner John Ortiz, who also helped in executive producing the film. In anticipation for this new film, I talked to Hoffman and Ortiz in a roundtable interview about the project, the ways in which film and theater can compliment each other, and more.
As an actor, how do you like to be handled by a director?
Hoffman: Well, I have been directing in the theater for about thirteen years. I’ve had time to develop how being a director and an actor compliment each other. My mind is interested in directing, and telling stories. Early on, when you’re directing, you start to see yourself in other actors. As an actor you’ve very subjective, it’s hard to be aware of where you are. Sometimes you’re aware of it, but sometimes you’re not. As a director, you’ve got to be objective. You’ve got to take in when people are struggling, “It goes this way and not that way,” and you see yourself. So when I would go back to acting I would have a little more understanding of what certain directors wanted me to do. And I personally, as an actor, don’t want a director to be any certain way. What I do want is for them to be in charge. I like that. And I want them to be honest. And subtle. So how they go about directing is always different. But those few things are important. Sometimes they’ll be like, “Oh, that’s fine.” But I don’t want to feel that. [If you're a director,] don’t be scared to tell me it’s not right, or that you want more. Even if I’m giving off the energy of “Don’t come near me” because I’ve done it enough, please come near me because that is the director’s job, to keep confronting the actor.
How did you bridge the collaborative nature of film with the less collaborative style of filmmaking?
Ortiz: One thing we did was we kept the writer. That was a great collaborative effort. I was involved as well. [Making the movie] wasn’t about “Let’s hire screenwriters from Tulsa, and doctor this up because it needs to be a movie now.” Even though we were mindful that it needed to be different [that the theatrical version] we were also mindful that there was something great going on, with the play and the experience and each other.
How did you use the talent from LAByrinth in Jack Goes Boating?
Ortiz: We took it a step further and made sure that everyone that was a part of the culture of LAByrinth was involved, in however they wanted to be. We had amazing actors with just one line. It’s peppered throughout the film. We had the most amazing lighting designer. He was a grip, because he just wanted to be a part of it. There were all kinds of folks in the crew. It was more than it being a favor or a job, or a step to entering film world. It was about an immersion, which is what we do at LAByrinth. That’s what makes us special, and separates us from your average theater company. It’s not about, “OK, we have to put up this kind of show to sell this amount of tickets,” it’s more about “We don’t know what kind of show we’re doing. But you’re an amazing person with an amazing idea, so let’s make it happen.” That’s what was special, at least for me, about the bridge between film to theater.
Which format do you prefer the film to be viewed as – theatrical or cinematic?
Hoffman: I don’t think the film is very theatrical. I think if you didn’t know it was a play, you wouldn’t think that at all. I challenge that. You think because you know it’s a play, that’s what you project onto it. If you didn’t know it was a play, it wouldn’t even be a thought. You wouldn’t even think that for a second ... you just wouldn’t. There are a lot of films that I see that aren’t plays with long shots that no one talks about, even if it look like a play. There’s one shot that lasts for ten minutes. Like films by Michael Haneke (Funny Games) – his films are incredible. And what’s incredible about his work is that it doesn’t cut for ten minutes, and you’re just watching this scene unfold from faraway.
Are there any rules to doing something that only looks "theatrical?"
Hoffman: I think actually that “theatrical” is a general word. What is theatrical? There are rules to be broken all of the time. There’s only a couple of shots in the film that are purposely set in non-realistically in the apartment. One of them is when they starting doing coke. It opens up where you are seeing the apartment like you’ve never seen the apartment before. You’re seeing Jack in the background, and everything is set just right. And that is like a set. Ultimately, I feel like that as with the theater anything can happen. It’s even happening in theater, where someone says that when a person is acting in a certain way, they’ll say, “They’re trying to make themselves cinematic.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” It’s not cinematic, it’s happening in front of you. I feel like … screw it, man. Both of these mediums should be complimenting and feeding each other. If you want to bring film into theater and theater into film, they should just be up for grabs. Let’s go for it. Let’s not delineate it. Why aren’t we letting these things feed each other? That’s what we tried to do. We tried to take what had been done with the play and put it on film, and not be scared that it was on a stage. Not be scared that it was going into a film, but to let those things move into each other.
Had you two been talking about collaborating on a film for a while? How did this come about?
Ortiz: We tried very hard for a while to not bring film into the company. We got a lot of offers and interest from the film world, for something as simple as a festival to “Let’s work on making a film.” And we [stayed away from film] for a lot of reasons. One, when you’re on a film, it’s really hard to be committed because there’s very little money involved, it’s really hard work, and it takes you out of commission for a long time when you’re working on something. And the nature of LAByrinth is unorthodox. It’s essentially run by the membership, which is over 100 amazing kick-ass actors. That’s around the clock, 24/7. So we needed focus and precise commitment to honor that. And to keep the mission true. And the mission was a lot about process. The minute you bring film into it or some result oriented thing, you’re cutting into the heart of the company. What’s really amazing is that this happened organically. It happened because it needed to happen, because it was in front of us. It just made sense to continue riding the wave of this collaboration. It was right – without compromising the theater. Hopefully it helped. It’s great that we had a lot of people involved, and we were able to keep the cast.
At the beginning there seems to be some focus that [Jack and Clyde’s] jobs as menial and their financial situations. Do you see this as playing into Clyde and Lucy’s frustrations in the movie? Or is that not essential to their characters?
Ortiz: Yeah, that’s a really strong part of Clyde. When I was working on the play, it was on pillar for me to latch onto. Just the economic reality of where they are from, coming from poor working class, and what does it mean to have the pressure of needing to make money, or needing to survive in a city that forces us to either make a lot of money or get the f**k out. Not only was the city telling Clyde that, but his wife was an embodiment of that as well. And [the financial situation] becomes a fork in the relationship between Clyde and his wife. That’s why he’s going to business school. It might be who he is, and he might be capable of it. But he’s doing it because he’s trying to catch up in a way. But the financial problems are real not just in their lives but in other cities.
Does that play a role in Jack’s character at all?
Hoffman: I think that the economic situation they’re in informs people of the time, particularly with the relationship [John] was talking about. I think with Jack it’s more about that it’s hard to change something about your life and keep everything else the same. It’s hard doing something different when everything hasn’t been dealt with. I think you truly do some actual crucial fulfilmment of your personality to change that. The idea of just getting a job takes Jack away from where he’s been. And you know, he might start running a subway car. But it’s the actual changing. It’s the “I need to get out and try to do that, just like I need to walk [Connie] to the car.” I think what’s beautiful about the story is then that a woman is plopped right in front of him, and she talks about her dad in a coma, and he falls in love. It’s what’s unique about this tale. He sees her first time, and they’re in love. The drama isn’t “I don’t know if I like this person,” and being kind of nasty to each other before, “Oh, you’re kind of cute.” Instead, they first see each other and it’s like “Let’s have sex.” But here’s two people that probably don’t have that. It’s about how powerful that is. It’s “I have to see you.” With these people, it’s very powerful. And I think it’s powerful for Clyde to see. But I think the changing of things has to do with Jack changing his life, period. I don’t know if he’ll make more.