The late actor rarely engaged with the media, but our roving reporter was able to snag his attention to talk about the two films that were to be his last, A Most Wanted Man and God's Pocket.
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30 Jul 2014 - 12:31 PM  UPDATED 6 Aug 2014 - 4:11 PM

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died suddenly of a heroin overdose on February 2 it was devastating for so many people.

It was hugely affecting for people everywhere, because he was so easy to identify with in the wide variety of characters he portrayed. He has been aptly called “Meryl Streep with a beard”.

For Hoffman acting was an intense physical, emotional and intellectual exploration, which according to John Le Carré, the British author who wrote Hoffman’s final role in A Most Wanted Man, helped contribute to his death.

"Philip took vivid stock of everything, all the time,” Le Carré told the New York Times. “It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing. The world was too bright for him to handle... Philip was burning himself out before your eyes. Nobody could live at his pace and stay the course, and in bursts of startling intimacy he needed you to know it.”

In the journalistic setting, Hoffman, who was very much a man of the New York theatre, felt uncomfortable. Monosyllabic answers were de rigueur, as he truly believed the work should speak for itself. How could he describe the strenuous process he put himself through? Nonetheless, this did not stop him from attending film festivals, where he did his best whenever our paths crossed.

"It’s a mystery to me why those were the two movies I would make."

In Cannes Charlie Kaufman’s directing debut, Synecdoche, New York had been a difficult movie for anyone to understand, and Hoffman, (who played a theatre director) didn’t make it any easier. He probably did his best in Berlin when talking up his Oscar-winning performance in Capote, a more straightforward film where he was able to provide a lot of background, and it always helps when an actor knows he’s on a winner.

While I opted to speak with Joaquin Phoenix for The Master in Venice 2012, Hoffman had given a hearty wave and smile from a distance, again knowing his portrayal of a cult leader had been warmly received--he went on to share the festival’s acting prize with Phoenix. At the unwieldy press junket for The Ides of March, also in Venice, Hoffman was clearly not in the mood, and had little to say, even if he’d been so wonderful with Paul Giamatti in the film. Still, he only had a small role. This was not the case this year in Sundance, a festival hosting mainly world premieres and where Hoffman had the undisputed lead in two of them, God’s Pocket and A Most Wanted Man

First off the rank was God’s Pocket. Based on a novel by Pete Dexter (Paris Trout, The Paperboy) the film marks the directing debut of Mad Men’s John Slattery and features Christina Hendricks as Hoffman’s wife. The film was poorly received at the festival and went on to earn only $166.500 during its June US release. So understandably, the Australian distributor, Madman, is sending it direct to DVD here on August 6.

God’s Pocket is a curiosity of sorts. Set in a working class neighbourhood, Hoffman plays a beleaguered man who struggles to dispose of his stepson’s body, after he is supposedly killed in an accident and he struggles to satisfy his wife as well. It’s certainly the only occasion where you will see Hoffman in sexual mode with the Mad Men bombshell and it’s a rare occasion where he got physical with anyone on screen.   

“There’s a little bit of lovemaking between Phil and myself where I’m wearing a little bit of lingerie,” Hendricks cooed on the red carpet before the film’s world premiere. “It was 100-and-something degrees, which added a bit of a sweaty situation, so we had to laugh through it. Phil was such a good sport.”

Hoffman had also been on the Sundance red carpet, a kind of melee that is not for the faint hearted. When a publicist had tried to pull him away from the dreaded print press, I let out an Australian holler, “Hey Phil!” and he ambled over for a chat. He had a huge affection for Australians, and had long been great pals with Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, directing Upton’s Riflemind in 2007 and True West in 2010 for the Sydney Theatre Company. 

“Hey, how are you?” he said emitting a beaming smile, and seeming in a very good mood. (Hoffman was surprisingly personable away from acting.)

“It’s a great story and I don’t know how you’d describe it,” he said of the film, “but I think it’d pretty hard not to relate to. It’s very colourful and the cast John got together to play those characters just knocked it out of the ballpark. Showing up every day to a new great actor coming in was pretty cool.” In terms of his onscreen marriage he added, “It was a very intimate movie where you had to be very vulnerable with each other”. 

The happily married Hendricks recalls how the shoot “was a summer of crying” as the couple’s marriage broke down on screen. “It was very intense to go to that place each and every day. There was one night I came home and I cried even more, because the feeling was still sitting there in my body. It was challenging but certainly interesting as you learn a lot about yourself when you have to force yourself into this.”

Hendricks of course ventured to the kinds of places Hoffman would regularly inhabit. Hoffman must surely have been disappointed by the Sundance reaction to the film, which he had poured himself into. His own movie directing debut, 2010’s Jack Goes Boating, Robert Glaudini’s adapted from his novel, had met with a similar fate, earning $US619,570 worldwide.

A Most Wanted Man, directed by Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) and releasing here via Village Roadshow, is a more commercial movie. It tells the complex tale of the whisky-drinking, chain-smoking German intelligence operative Günther Bachmann, who in his Hamburg anti-terrorist unit is ably assisted by younger agents played by leading German stars Nina Hoss (in her first English-language role) and Daniel Brühl. (In separate interviews both told me they took the supporting parts to work with Hoffman.) The unit is searching for a 26 year-old Chechen, classified by Interpol as an escaped militant jihadist. It had been in Hamburg over a decade earlier that terrorists plotted the 9/11 attacks and the authorities remain on high alert.

In Sundance I asked Hoffman about his two dishevelled characters. “They’re completely different but there’s something similar about the tales and what happens to the men,” he replied. “They both change their lives and walk away at the end. It’s a mystery to me why those were the two movies I would make. Maybe I should walk away.”

While in hindsight we might make more of his comment, at the time it was said with a smile. Certainly Hoffman’s own relationship with Mimi O’Donnell, the mother of his three children, was in tatters, yet he had no intention of giving up his acting vocation and was already discussing another project with Corbijn. Again he went on to tell me how acting is hard work. “For me it’s always hard.”

The following day he ruminated on the same theme when discussing A Most Wanted Man, and certainly his fastidious approach is what impressed the Germans.

“Even if John Le Carré tells a pretty great story, there’s something that has to happen for me to believe in the role,” Hoffman explained. “There are certain things I have to work on. Günther Bachmann is not just German, he’s an international man. He’s a guy who’s been around all walks of life and changes himself when he has to. So I just went from there with the dialect and all those things.” One thing he shared with Bachmann was a love for cigarettes, though he was trying to get off of them. “In the film I was smoking herbal cigarettes that I was smoking all day anyway.”

Corbijn says he “wanted to make a film about issues for today that didn’t have easy answers”. An accomplished photographer before he came to movies, the Dutchman brings his own spare aesthetic to Le Carré’s story.

“I don’t use studios, I work outdoors and I always use walls,” he says. “Walls are my favourites. I always look at the architecture. Hamburg is a really interesting city that is not often used for movies. Wim Wenders’ The American Friend is one of few films shot there [Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen is another]. It’s a great city to work in; there are lot of contrasts. We mainly filmed in the lower class areas; there’s always more texture and of course it was cheaper,” he chuckles. “Otherwise it would have been very expensive since Hamburg is a very wealthy city. It comes naturally to me, finding places and knowing how to use them.”

A Most Wanted Man is in cinemas July 31

God’s Pocket is released on DVD August 6