Two thirtysomething actors. One is tallish and skinny as a rail, one is short and plump. One now gets showy starring roles and has developed and directed his own movie; the other is probably the most in-demand character actor of his generation.
But Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman have almost everything else in common. Neither is anyone's idea of a major pretty boy. Both are often the best things, by far, about the movies they're in. Both seem to be able to play absolutely anything on a movie screen. And both make audiences sit up straight and take notice whenever they walk into a scene or a camera falls on their faces.
To anyone who really loves movies, both are among the very few unquestioned heroes of movies in this era. What they have from real movie lovers is far better than fame.
We won't be seeing Edward Norton in a movie for awhile. But Philip Seymour Hoffman, 32, is very much in season this fall. He plays the late, great self-annihilating, word-splattering rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's widely adored "Almost Famous," the film whose partisans think defines their lives. And when David Mamet's "State and Main" is released later in the fall, Hoffman will be the very heart and soul of the film as a sensitive screenwriter who is constantly asked to rescue a film that is repeatedly being endangered by a starring actor's chronically swollen libido.
Hoffman is actually just a functioning actor in "Almost Famous," for a change. But think of the Philip Seymour Hoffman portrait gallery on screen in the last few years: perhaps the definitive self-satisfied upper-class twit in American movies in Anthony Minghella's "The Talented Mr. Ripley"; the sensitive male nurse who unites a family in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia"; the committed female impersonator in Joel Schumacher's "Flawless" and the tormented, sweaty obscene phone caller in Todd Solonz's repellent "Happiness."
He is, it turns out, a sometime jock from Fairport, and was turned on, as a kid, by the virulent theater scene in Rochester -- the GeVa Theater in particular. His mother, Marilyn Hoffman O'Connor, is a prominent Rochester attorney and is currently running for family court judge.
I met and talked to him at the Toronto Film Festival. In jeans, baseball cap and a couple of day's growth of reddish beard, he's that rare actor who can make a habitually rumpled journalist feel like a fashion plate. He is, not at all surprisingly, a man of sensitivity, intelligence and good humor. His old high-school buddies in Fairport must be proud to have grown up with him.
A conversation with one of the best actors in current movies:
Q: That guy in "Ripley," I think, is the truest upper class twit in all of American movies. Where did he come from? You must have observed some of this close up.
A: There's a bunch of stuff I can't really remember because it was a while ago. . . . The way he behaves is from people I knew (of) but didn't know -- people like George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Peter Duchin, people that were of that time. I tried to listen to them and how they speak and how they behaved. . . .They don't really exist anymore.
I never went to prep school or anything like that. My experience with the upper classes was through college, you know?
Q: You're not a scene stealer exactly. But your history is often to be the most memorable thing in a lot of movies you've made. Sometimes in some pretty heavy company. This is a tough question -- are other actors ever wary of you because of that? Do they ever see you coming?
A: I don't know. I hope not. My aim is never to take focus (from them). My aim is to try to be as interesting as I can be. To try to be as true as I can be. No one's ever come up to me and said, "Hey man, don't (expletive) step on my line." There's been a couple of actors in my career that I've dealt with that have become kind of weird with me. But I don't really know what that's about. I don't know that I can sit back and say that what I did had anything to do with it.
That's the nature of the actor in general. The actor is always paranoid about whether it's his last job. Will he ever be hired again? Most actors think they suck.
Q: How exactly do other actors "get weird" with you?
A: Every actor has dealt with it actually. . . . Eventually you're going to run into another actor who is worried about whether they're coming across well. Usually what happens is that an actor will be working on a part and they don't think they're doing a good job. I've experienced this. When you start feeling you're not doing a good job it's hard to say to yourself "I suck right now." Sometimes it can become very misdirected. You start looking for blame outside yourself. And so actors will start to point at other actors and say, "You're (expletive) stepping on my line" or this, that or the other thing. Usually all those types of fights are about the insecurity of the actor.
Q: One would think the bigger the actor, the less insecure he is and the less trouble, therefore, he's going to have with you. Is that the case?
A: No matter how successful you get, you're still going to feel that way if you have any care in what you do. It's inevitable. The art of acting is an exposing art. Most actors aren't really that comfortable being themselves in front of the camera, actually. Their work is about creating other characters. If you sat down and thought about it, you probably wouldn't do it anymore.
Q: Have you read Lester Bangs at all? "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung?"
A: Yeah. It's really, really good. There are some pieces in that book that are outstanding. That helped me a lot with that guy.
Q: I want to talk about the writer you play in Mamet's "State and Main." One of your specialties in the movies so far is playing the guy whose inner life is greater than his outer affect. What kind of kid were you in Rochester? Nerd? Jock? Hero?
A: I was a lot of different things. I was picked on. I was an introvert. I was an extrovert. I played a lot of sports. I started in theater when I was young. I was somebody that hung out with many different groups.
Q: How old were you when you got into theater?
A: I started doing theater in high school. But I started thinking seriously about acting when I was 17. But I didn't start doing it professionally until I was 22 or 23.
Q: What turned you on about acting?
A: I used to go to the theater all the time. My mom used to take me to theater constantly when I was in junior high school. I loved it. I really did. I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. But never thought I'd ever do it.
Q: Do you remember some of the performances that turned you on?
A: Sure. I remember "All My Sons." "Quilters." "Alms for the Middle Class."
Q: Any actors in particular?
A: Robert Downey Jr. was in "Alms for the Middle Class." I remember that. He must have been a teenager. It was kind of a thriving little scene in Rochester at the time.
Q: Have you ever run into Robert Downey Jr. and said, "Hey man, I saw you . . .?"
A: (Interrupts) I never met him but I'm friends with his father. I worked with him, reading a screenplay that he's writing. I hope to meet Robert Downey Jr.
Q: When I told my daughter you were from Rochester, she said you can always tell a guy raised on Western New York cuisine. She lives in L.A., the health food center of the universe.
A: (Big booming laugh). Actually it's the fat food center of the universe.
Q: Seriously, though, is there anything about you that is Rochester and is going to stay that way in perpetuity?
A: Absolutely. I'm a big sports fan. You can't live in Fairport, New York, without coming out of there with some sort of sports identity. I grew up in a basic white middle class suburban rural upbringing. That was the first 17 years of my life. Everything since then has been the opposite almost. I'm colored by both those worlds. No matter what. Because of Fairport, I might challenge things the way I might not do if I'd stayed in one place.
Q: Why would growing up that way make you challenge things more?
A: I experienced a world very different from the liberal arts scene in New York City. I went to Fairport High School, for God's sake. Football games were the most important event. My best friend was one of the best football players in the state. My best friend wasn't the guy who was the lead in "Hamlet." You know what I mean? My friends were the guys who were these athletes -- or these potheads. Now I live in a world that is about very liberal-minded, very artistic, multicultural, multireligious, multi-ethnic people. That's my life now.
Q: How are you now inclined to challenge all that?
A: I know both worlds. I take things from both.
Q: You're what everyone has always called a character actor. Do you yearn to star in things?
A: No, I don't yearn to star in things at all. I yearn to play good parts in good films.
Q: You're doing that.
A: Good parts in good films is where it's at.
Q: Tell me about the differences for an actor working with David Mamet and Cameron Crowe.
A: Huge differences. The only similarity is that they both write their own films. They're just completely different people. David is a very cerebral type of guy. He's always got a lot going on. He's very thoughtful, smart, focused. Cameron is smart but he's like grateful 2 4/7 -- you know what I mean? Not that David isn't. It's just that Cameron is kind of a soft man. I mean that in a good way. David is kind of a firmer guy. I mean that in a good way, too.
Q: I put you in the same class as Edward Norton among current actors. I don't know if anyone else does. You both leap out when you're onscreen. Norton has gone on to develop and then direct a film he starred in ("Keeping the Faith.") Do you want to do that?
A: Never. I hope I never direct a film. I'll probably renege on that 10 years from now. I have no interest directing a film right now. I have no business directing a movie right now. I know nothing about telling a story with a camera. The minute I start to act as if I do, find me and slap me -- unless it's 20 years from now and I've learned enough.
Q: Who's the most imposing actor you've shared a screen with so far? Who's shown you something?
A: De Niro, definitely (in "Flawless").
Q: Anybody else?
A: Definitely. Jason Robards (in "Magnolia"). Al Pacino (in "Scent of a Woman"). Always for the same reason, too. Those people I'm mentioning are people who know how to go with the flow of actors in front of a camera better than anybody. They know how to create a reality, to go with it. To feel through it and let things happen. It's really something to watch. . . . The people I'm describing to you are great risk-takers and listeners. Robert DeNiro has got to be one of the great listeners in acting. When you are acting with that guy, he's listening. When he's acting with you, you are listening to that guy because how he's acting is making you listen.
In general, that's the thing that impresses me. That's the thing that always makes me better.