An Artist At Work

The death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman sent shock waves across the entertainment industry. Those ripples touch me too. Everyone is talking about how he lost his battle with the demon of addiction. I don’t think how someone dies should define them. So, I want to focus on his work ethic, and why I recognized him as an “actor’s actor.” I only met Hoffman through his work. I followed his career as one actor who respects the work of another.

I spent six years in the professional acting company at Arena Stage in Washington DC. It was a critical part of my professional development. It was where I learned what it means to be an artist at work.

Commitment – On a professional stage you work six days a week – eight shows a week. In any given show you may have to learn lines, dances, songs, and stage combat. If you are new – like I was in the first few years – you also have to learn those for one or more of the other lead actors, too, in case one of them gets sick. Commitment, focus, strong work ethic, and self-directed learning are crucial workplace skills if you want to be hired for the next show. I did it on stage in DC; Hoffman did it again and again to critical acclaim on Broadway.

Core Empathy – Finding the core of a character goes far beyond learning your lines. The art is in how you portray a complex human being with a heart, spiritual beliefs, vulnerability, complexity, strengths, dreams, and frustrations just by using those lines. How do you show your character’s truths through interactions with other characters, while allowing space for their truths to shine through? And how do you make the work so seamlessly simple that people forget they are watching a play or a movie, and begin to live the journey with you? No one did that better than Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

He has been described by some as a character actor – that usually means an actor with a unique look who is chosen for smaller roles. That would be in contrast to the leading man – usually known as the handsome hero type. But there are some actors, who, by the force of their talent and the scope of their roles, begin to transcend those stereotypes. In my view, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was an artist who pushed the boundaries of those perceptions.

He’s been called an actor’s actor not because he could play an everyman – (like Tom Hanks); Hoffman had a gift, a genius, to become any man completely. Some of those were a hospice attendant, a gay lovesick porn film crew member, an award winning writer, a charlatan spiritual leader, a doubted priest, a blue-collar thief, a hot-tempered career spy, to name a few. His unique talent gave him the ability to carry a movie – as he did in his role as Truman Capote.

Hoffman had the rare ability to shed light on aspects of the human condition that many actors – and many people – shy away from. He fearlessly went where other artists hesitate, or flatly refuse to go. He even bravely spoke of his challenges with addiction early in his career. That was risky considering how his brand could have been tarnished by negative press. It could have caused other artists to avoid working with him. That did not happen for Hoffman. His courage and honesty were respected. His work ethic and brilliant output spoke for themselves. “Let the work I do speak for me,” could have been his mantra.

His death was a shock. His loss will be huge for the industry. He was one of those actors who made everybody bring their best game. In fact, he was the type of team member every team needs. He was about the work first. He inspired by example. He challenged others through his commitment. He was humble, private, and respected. And he was also a complicated and flawed human being, just trying to make it in the world, too.

In my small acting universe, Hoffman was an actor’s actor – someone you can always learn from.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman will be missed by many, and I am one of them. His work as an artist deserves that we tell the whole story, not just the end.

Photo Credit: Georges Biard, WikiMedia Commons

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