Philip Seymour Hoffman and the “Searching for the Life of a Salesman”

The New York Times


March 8, 2012

Searching for the Life of a Salesman



BEFORE most performances of the new Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” as other cast members stretch in their dressing rooms, Philip Seymour Hoffman walks onto the stage of the Barrymore Theater and folds his barrel frame into a chair at the Loman family kitchen table. And there he sits for a half-hour or so on the purposely claustrophobic little set, preparing to become Willy Loman, that worn traveling salesman, proud father and husband, who is also the greatest tragic hero that American playwriting has produced. Sometimes Mr. Hoffman sips coffee and pages through the script, mentally tracing Willy’s journey into madness. Sometimes he talks with Linda Emond, the actress playing Willy’s wife, Linda, who also likes to visit the Loman home before curtain. And sometimes, not unlike Willy, he wanders back and forth across his own imagination.

It’s an opportunity for communion with a godlike role by an actor who admits to being superstitious about anything that might cut into the vulnerability and honesty that are essential to creating a great Willy.

No surprise, then, that the work has become all-consuming for Mr. Hoffman, 44. Even after midnight he and Ms. Emond are still comparing notes by text message. He runs lines at home with his young son. Sleep has become fitful, as was clear during a recent lunch interview where he apologetically stifled yawns between bites of a breakfast sandwich.

“It’s hard getting inside this guy for a lot of different reasons,” Mr. Hoffman said. (Not once during the interview did he utter the name Willy.) “It’s like Whac-a-Mole. Certain moments make sense, then they don’t, then others do, then they don’t anymore. All of a sudden you’ve lost what you found — you thought you knew what that moment in a scene was about, and then you don’t anymore. And then you do.”

For Mr. Hoffman there is little reassurance to be drawn from his best actor Oscar in 2006 for “Capote,” or from the years of reviews hailing him as one of the best actors of his generation. He says he wants to feel as human and exposed as possible each time he steps in front of the audience. And the pressure he puts on himself has not eased with the approach of Thursday’s opening night.

“I tell you, it’s not the first thing that you want to do when you wake up in the morning,” Mr. Hoffman said of becoming Willy. “You have to find your way there, every morning, to do that. You have to find the reason why, and you have to find the will to do it, and then you do. And then you’re reminded why you do, because you finish and — whether it went well or not — you hope that some people will find it satisfying and memorable.”

Few actors talk openly about how they get their arms around a character, and Mr. Hoffman had not even ordered his food before he politely rebuffed a discussion of his process. After all, he said, “you’re working and finding the performance until the very last show.” Besides, he said, taking on Willy at this point in his career was not his idea but that of Mike Nichols, who is directing the revival. Mr. Nichols sought him out a couple of years ago, and both said that Mr. Hoffman reacted to the prospect with a mixture of excitement and dread. Young men have played the 60-year-old salesman before; Lee J. Cobb was 37 when he opened on Broadway in 1949 as the original Willy in Arthur Miller’s play, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play. But Mr. Hoffman said he had thought it would be some years before he wanted to tackle the part.

“I don’t know what changed — it was just, you realize, I should do it now,” he said, slowly relaxing into an interview that began with short replies and one-word answers. “I still don’t think it’s a really good time to be doing it. Plays never feel like the right thing to do at the time.” Mr. Hoffman, the father of three young children with the costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, added: “Having kids and things like that — when I’m doing any play, I usually think to myself: ‘Aw, this is not the right time. I shouldn’t be doing it.’ Because right now I have to do the play tonight, but you want to get your sleep, you want to eat, and it really does dictate your life in a very powerful way. Why you do something is always kind of a mystery to me.”

Mr. Nichols, who credits the original Broadway productions of “Salesman” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” for spurring him to work in the theater, said he wanted Mr. Hoffman as his Willy because of his “endlessly curious nature and his determination to figure things out.” Those qualities actually unnerved Mr. Nichols, at first, during rehearsals in 2001 for “The Seagull” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where Mr. Hoffman played the violently depressed playwright Konstantin. “One day he was very loud, one day I couldn’t hear him, one day he wasn’t doing the right blocking,” Mr. Nichols recalled. “I asked what was going on, and Phil said, ‘I have to do all the things I’m not going to ultimately do.’ And indeed he didn’t do them.

“Phil searches for his performances, and like all great actors how he does it is completely mysterious to me.”

It was another Miller classic, a production of “All My Sons” staged near his hometown, Fairport, N.Y., that inspired a 12-year-old Mr. Hoffman to become an actor. After a wrestling injury curtailed his sports career at Fairport High School, he auditioned for a student production of “MASH” and won the role of Radar. He stole so many scenes that his director, Marjory Marshall, cast him next in the smaller role of the drunken jailer in Miller’s “Crucible.” Even there he stood out, radiating pathos in every droop and slurred word, Ms. Marshall said recently.

“He could hold the stage, and he was so truthful,” she said.

For years the English department’s chairwoman had been pressing Ms. Marshall to stage “Salesman” for all the juniors reading the play. “I always said no because there was never a high school boy who could play Willy Loman,” Ms. Marshall said. “And then there was Phil.”

And so, as a high school senior in the fall of 1984, Mr. Hoffman played Willy for the first time.

“We had 700 11th graders at one performance, and I was nervous, because juniors can be so unruly,” said Ms. Marshall, who now teaches at Monroe Community College in nearby Rochester. “But from the moment he ambled out onstage, with the salesman’s two sample suitcases, muttering, ‘boy, oh boy,’ the audience was silent.” He received a long standing ovation.

That star turn was among the topics that Mr. Hoffman declined to discuss over lunch. It is not that he felt psyched out by the part, he said. Being younger than Willy does not trouble him, nor has his professional success made it hard to connect with the character’s troubles. And he and his own father get along just fine, thank you, unlike Willy’s strained relationship with his two sons, Biff (played by Andrew Garfield of “The Social Network”) and Happy (Finn Wittrock). He also said he was not daunted by Brian Dennehy’s performance as Willy in the last Broadway revival of the play in 1999 (which won him a Tony), or Dustin Hoffman’s in 1984 or George C. Scott’s in 1975. And the idea of revisiting his high school Willy — or analyzing the current one — seemed to risk messing with his hold on the character.

“You go into any role asking a question, accumulating half-answers, partial answers, full answers, and then different questions come to you — and through it all you have got to trust your instincts, which is a private process,” he said. Referring to Willy, but also to his previous Broadway outings in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Sam Shepard’s “True West,” he added, “A performance is a living thing, so pinning it down is kind of impossible.”

Ms. Emond, who was a passing acquaintance of Mr. Hoffman before “Salesman,” said he was a vivid personality during rehearsals. “He brought in this seriousness of purpose every day, but he has this switch, and becomes suddenly 8 years old, totally grinning.”

Mr. Nichols recalled bringing in a football one day for a scene, and Mr. Hoffman was soon throwing spirals with Mr. Garfield and Mr. Wittrock while they held scripts. Mr. Garfield too said he was struck that Mr. Hoffman could be a confident risk taker in one moment — “He feels that rehearsing is a very ugly process, where there should be a lot of play” — and then “the cutest human being a minute later, childlike and adorable, like a 7-month-old puppy.”

Mr. Garfield, who is poised to become a major star in the superhero film “The Amazing Spider-Man” this summer, said he has grown close to Mr. Hoffman out of admiration. He particularly respects Mr. Hoffman’s choices of emotionally intense and vanity-free roles in movies like “Scent of a Woman,” “Boogie Nights,” “Doubt” and the recent Oscar-nominated “Moneyball.”

“It’s very difficult to find your own unique path in an industry of seduction and paychecks and franchises and having options to sell your soul, but here is a man who has followed his true self, and you can feel it in the choices that he has makes,” Mr. Garfield said. “He doesn’t compromise. He’s told me, ‘Whatever you dig, whatever you respect, chase that, and if it happens to make you a bunch of money, that’s fine, and if it doesn’t, that’s also fine.’

“And it’s what this play is about — knowing that what you are is enough.”

Mr. Hoffman might not say it, but he would probably agree.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 12th, 2012 and is filed under Food for Thought. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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