Philip Seymour Hoffman's Mind-Bending Trip

Actor describes working on Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" movie.

ByBy Nadine Shubailat
October 22, 2008, 1:35 PM

Oct. 23, 2008 &#151 -- How do you persuade an Academy Award winner to star in a mind bender of a movie named after a figure of speech -- especially one that makes you immediately reach for your dictionary?

It helps when you're Charlie Kaufman, the groundbreaking screenwriter of "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

"Charlie is an amazing talent. The films he's written and been a part of [have] changed things," Philip Seymour Hoffman said in an interview for ABC News Now's "Popcorn With Peter Travers."

Hoffman stars in "Synecdoche, New York," written and directed by Kaufman.

Synecdoche means "a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part" and is also a play on Schenectady, N.Y., where part of the story takes place. It sounds complicated and Hoffman, after he read the script, thought it would be impossible, which naturally made him agree to do it.

The main motivation was that "the script would endlessly spark conversations. We would trail off into conversations about our lives. He [Kaufman] is in his late 40s, I'm entering my 40s and time is moving faster," Hoffman said.

They talked about their children and Hoffman, who is expecting his third child any day now with his partner Mimi O'Donnell, believes that as a parent "the idea and definition of heartbreak changes and takes on a different meaning. You're heartbroken every day because you have never felt you could love like that."

Hoffman plays theater director Caden Cotard. His wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has left him to pursue her painting in Berlin, taking young daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) with her.

After receiving a grant, Cotard assembles a cast into a warehouse in New York City to create a brutally honest work, which grows bigger and bigger. Cotard, according to Hoffman, is an aging man "who's trying to do the best he can, trying to do something special, trying to get back his wife who left him and make his daughter love him again."

"Synecdoche" is Kaufman's directorial debut; Hoffman is also starring in another movie with a first time director-screenwriter.

"Doubt," John Patrick Shanley's directing debut, is based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play where Hoffman plays a priest accused of molesting a little boy.

Hoffman says he likes working with people who have written their own material because "there's an aliveness to the whole setting of work. The information and direction they give comes from a place way back."

Hoffman is harsher than any critic when it comes to his work and finds it difficult to watch himself on screen without always thinking he could have done it better.

"It is an incredibly self-absorbed experience," he said. He warns against becoming complacent: "The moment you think I can do this is the moment you are screwed. The next day you are just bad. To do it well you always have to go back to the beginning. If you skip beginners 101 acting stuff and go into genius, you are just bad."

From his breakthrough role in "Scent of a Woman" to his Oscar-winning performance in "Capote," Hoffman has played a range of diverse and eccentric characters, yet despite his extensive acting repertoire he never assumes he is one of the greats.

When asked to compare himself with his younger self starting out in the business, he said, "I didn't have as many worries. The simple heartaches of life become more. At that age, it's just you, your body is working so well, you're a clean slate and you can't lose. So make the mistakes, be bad, it doesn't matter!"

He said, "I remember knowing that it was a good time -- knowing how having nothing was a good thing." At that time, Hoffman was making ends meet as a lifeguard as well as at the Todaro Bros Deli on Second Avenue in New York, which, according to Hoffman, is still there and doing well.

"Synecdoche, New York" opens Friday in theaters.

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