It's never easy to follow in giant footsteps, but when Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly were signed to play both lead roles in repertory in a revival of True West at Broadway's Circle in the Square, they had to live in the shadow of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise's legendary performances more than a decade earlier -- captured for all time on video, no less. However, reviews -- from the New York Times and other major dailies -- were so laudatory for the new duo, you'd think it was a piece of cake. That is, until Hoffman and Reilly left the show in July, and the replacement actors were greeted with scathing reviews and plummeting box office grosses. No question, Hoffman's growing rep as a film actor added to the sense of event surrounding True West. He's been amassing character roles in such disparate films as "Boogie Nights," "Flawless," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Magnolia," while still keeping his hand in the theatre, be it acting in New York Theatre Workshop's Shopping and Fucking and the Public Theater's The Skriker, or directing Stephen Adly Guirgis' In Arabia We'd All Be Kings for the LAByrinth Theatre Company, where Hoffman serves as co-artistic director. In fact, one reason Hoffman chose not to stay on in True West was because he had another directing assignment with LAByrinth: Jesus Hopped the A Train, running July 18-Aug. 12 at Center Stage. We caught up with Hoffman in the middle of the show's workshop run.
Playbill On-Line: How's Jesus doing? Any talk of an extension or commercial move?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: The show's going great, and the run is nearly sold out, but we can't extend. LAByrinth and The Developing Artists -- which does shows with actors in their late teens and early twenties -- are all part of one thing working out of Center Stage. They've got a show booked as soon as we're done, so we can't run past August 12. We're looking for a theatre to do A Train this fall, but we're not sure if it's right. It's the one on Bleecker Street where they did Bombitty of Errors. It would also mean losing an actress, because she has a TV commitment. Plus we're still working on the play. Stephen and I are trying to keep the focus on that, and thinking about a move at this point can be distracting. The ending needs work, and there are places we can cut and rearrange. I don't think the play is really ready to move. I'm hoping in two or three weeks, after more rewrites, it will be.
PBOL: Having done work on Broadway and in some major films, how do you gauge "success" when doing small, Off-Off-Broadway theatre?
PSH: That kind of level is the best level. You see work you don't see in other things. You're not under the pressure of getting fired. Or of money. Or what's "expected of you." There's just the pressure of their peers at the company. That creates an environment where you and your peers challenge each other, push each other to do great work. Great work happens, and it's about that. At the same time, no one's sitting looking in judgment wondering if they should get rid of you. I love working on Broadway and films, but you have people sitting there watching run-throughs saying "get rid of that guy" -- and you know it. And when critics from all over the country come in to watch every show all week -- that's one of the most painful weeks you can go through as an actor.
PBOL: But rising to a certain level in the business has to have some effect on your choices. Will film soon make it impossible for you to do much theatre?
PSH: Actually, it's been harder and harder to do film. My last shoot was nearly ten months ago, and I don't plan on shooting another till January. Over a year will go by without me working on a film, apart from this documentary I'm taking part in for Off-Line Entertainment, where I'm talking to people about the presidential election. And Paul Thomas Anderson [director of "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia"] will be doing a movie next spring. But theatre is too important. I've had the same manager for eleven years and my agent not much shorter than that. They understand that. They trust me, and I trust them.
PBOL: Even so, the success you and John C. Reilly had doing True West -- you were both Tony nominated and both received a mutual "Special Achievement Award" from the Outer Critics Circle -- makes it surprising that you didn't opt to keep going in it. Was your commitment to A Train the only reason?
PSH: When it started, I thought True West was a 16-week gig. Then the play just took off like a rocket. Both John and I were like, "Wow," we didn't expect that at all. We enjoyed the ride, and we did extend for two weeks. But I knew I had a play to direct. And I pushed back the play; we were going to run Jesus for six weeks, and now it's running only four weeks. Any longer in True West and I couldn't have directed Jesus. At the same time, because I just came off True West and the Tony thing, I was a good person to help the company. I'd just been in the whole hoopla, which brings attention to the company. We did 140 shows of True West. Acting that play is not like acting other plays; there's a special amount of exhaustion. It's quite a task. By the end, I knew we'd done what we'd set out to do, and it was time to move on. Even so, there's a chance we might do it again in London in the spring. PBOL: When the new actors came into the show, critics who'd formally raved turned brutal, and the box office plummeted. Did that bother you, or did you feel a certain level of schadenfreude because the replacement cast didn't equal your success?
PSH: I didn't see the new guys. I know Josh Brolin personally; he's a nice guy. Granted, I felt proud of John and me...it was our little baby. But these guys were thrust into a situation that I'm sure wasn't as nurturing. Plus, they had to work under the pressure of our having done it. I know what it's like to get bad reviews. It's not fun. So there's no way I'd ever go, "Oh god, I'm glad they didn't do well." I really felt bad. You don't wish that on anybody, trust me.
PBOL: Speaking of which, is there a particular moment in your career you wouldn't have wished on yourself? An embarrassing or funny onstage incident to share?
PSH: I was 22 years old and doing King Lear at the Whole Theatre in New Jersey. Austin Pendleton was directing; I was playing Edgar. I didn't have any underwear on under the suit I wore in the beginning of the play, because later on Edgar goes out into the storm, and he's naked. So it's early in the play, and I have a scuffle with Edmund. I go running away from him and slip on the stage. My backside ripped from the beltwaist to the bottom of my balls, basically, and flipped open. I felt that cool breeze, and I'm thinking, "Oooh, Wow." Then the audience went into hysterics. I ran offstage and thought "Oh, fuck!" It's so funny when you look back on it, mostly because I was so earnest and committed about the whole thing, and so young. You just wish you could take the audience and make them feel what you're feeling at that time; to be exposed like that, literally.
PBOL: Moving from disaster to epiphany, do you recall the first stage show you saw that made a major impression on you?
PSH: I remember two of them. All My Sons in seventh grade at Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York. That was fantastic. I don't even know if the production was any good, but it was fantastic. At the end, I was like, "Oh no, he killed himself!" It was like a miracle happened. These people made me believe a story. I couldn't believe you could do that. And then there was Dustin Hoffman in Death of a Salesman in 1985. I was, like, 17 at the time. One of the greatest performances I've ever seen in a play. And I've never had that kind of experience from seeing a movie. That visceral adrenaline feeling you get from a great piece of theatre.
PBOL: Final question: If you hadn't made it as an actor, what do you think you'd be?
PSH: I like the thought of being a teacher. I don't know what the hell I'd teach, `cause I don't know much. But I like being around people and learning stuff.