The last time Philip Seymour Hoffman appeared on a Chicago stage, people walked out. It wasn’t his fault: The 1994 Peter Sellars production of The Merchant of Venice was notoriously long and avant-garde. A largely unknown actor then, Hoffman went on to star in more than 40 movies, including Doubt, Almost Famous, and Capote, for which he won an Academy Award. But the actor, 42, is a theatre enthusiast at heart. He returns to Chicago to direct the world premiere of The Long Red Road, which opens February 13th at the Goodman.
As a young actor, was it a harrowing experience to have people walk out?
That’s just theatre. People walk out in theatre. People stand up. People yell things to you. People eat candy in the front row. What’s harrowing about theatre is actually doing it.
You have so many movies to your credit, yet you continue to act in and direct plays. why?
It’s why I got into this. It’s why I’m here. I started my career in the theatre, and it will end in the theatre, I’m sure. Film has gratefully come along for the ride.
The playwright Brett C. Leonard left a message on your answering machine asking you to direct The Long Red Road—sight unseen. What compelled you to take a look?
I’d worked with Brett vicariously through others, but I’d never directed or acted in one of Brett’s plays. He is a very exciting writer, but I wasn’t sure. So I directed a workshop of it at LAByrinth [Theater Company in New York, where Hoffman served as co-artistic director]. The play is gangbusters, it really is.
How did it land at the Goodman?
LAByrinth didn’t have the money to produce it at the time. So when Bob [Falls, the artistic director at the Goodman] showed interest in it, I told Brett he should go where he wants to go, because we couldn’t afford to produce it.
The six characters in The Long Red Road confront some pretty dark subject matter— alcohol, guilt, regret. You’ve also had your own battle with alcoholism. How does that experience affect your approach to this play?
I don’t know. I’m not sure. We’ll find out, I guess.
You just directed your first film, Jack Goes Boating, in which you also star. What was it like to direct yourself?
When you’re directing, you’re looking outside yourself, helping others, getting others to do the best they can. As an actor, there has to be concern for yourself. You have to know what you’re doing and manipulate yourself. Going back and forth isn’t easy. It’s a very insecure world being an actor. You see how schizophrenic that can become.
I read that you never get nervous when you direct a play.
How old was I when I said that?
You said that last year.
It sounds like something I would have said a long time ago. When you’re directing, you’re not nervous. You get nervous when you watch the show. I think I was probably talking about the actual art of directing. It doesn’t make me feel nervous. It makes me feel relaxed.
Do you still get nervous when you walk onto a stage?
Ah, yes. It’s harrowing, remember?