On Hoffman and Work

Like so many others, I was stunned and saddened to learn (via email news alert, no less) that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died. For years, I’d regarded him as the greatest living actor.

Because he died of an overdose, his death has been framed by discussion of “addiction” --- how to manage it, how to deal with it, on and on. (The best of what’s been written is by people who’ve been there themselves, most notably Seth Mnookin at Slate and David Carr at Medium. Please read.)

But I think his death had more to do with art than with addiction.


On Monday by chance (I rarely leave the house) I was in my car, radio on, when “Fresh Air” aired here in Iowa. No surprise, Terry Gross devoted the hour to Hoffman, airing large parts of two interviews she’d done with him.

A single fact became clear from those excerpts, a fact that takes us past and beyond, but also explains, the “addiction” narrative: Hoffman was devoted to his work, and he honored that work by working his ass off for years and years.

And by “work,” I mean just that: Hoffman was blunt about the way in which his chosen work, acting, was work. He explained to Gross that film work, for example, consists of ten- and twelve-hour days, during which an actor might only be in front of the camera for a few minutes, but must stay “in character” during those long hours spent waiting for those few minutes. He explained that the necessary level of concentration is exhausting.

I think that the amount of concentration — sometimes the amount of personal exploration — it takes to do something well, can be not pleasant ... like hard work is. That doesn't mean that you don't want to do it, or that you don't love it, or that it's not ultimately satisfying. You know that old cliché; ... nothing's worth it unless it's [a] hard to do kind of thing. I wear that on my sleeve sometimes when I'm working. ... There's always something about that job that's exhausting, and that's what's exhausting about acting, is the level concentration over very long period of time.

If there's something emotional about what you're doing that day, you're carrying that emotion on one level or another for a long period of time ... it can be burdensome. But it's part of the work, and you're trying to create something artful out of it. And so, it's not therapy. So, you're not there to be in therapy; you're there to take, you know, what you know and the experiences and behavior and emotional life of yourself and others and try to make something artful out of it. But the carrying of that around and the focusing of that can be, it can be tough.


And so Hoffman worked. When he died, he had sixty-three film “credits” to his name. Sixty-three. And that’s just the films. He also worked on stage, both as actor and director.

That’s an insane amount of work by any measure, but it’s staggering given that the work in question is intensely exhausting, and that he’d crammed it all into a couple of decades.

But as I listened to the interviews, I also realized that, consciously or not, Hoffman believed it was important to serve as an ambassador, if you will, for that other-world that is “art.” He articulated what is it that actors do, how they do it, the intensity of the devotion needed to “work” as an artist.

He understood, I am sure, that in our culture, “work” is most often associated with activity that can be seen: garbage collectors collecting, nurses nursing, doctors operating, executives rushing from meeting to meeting.

But some “work” requires intense, prolonged mental concentration: Writing a book, for example. Researching a book. Creating a part for a film or play. The mind is focused entirely on that one thing, staying “in” character, pursuing a chain of thought, thumbing through thousands of pages of this, that, and the other.

To an outsider, however, that work can look like, well, not-work. Surely someone staring at a wall trying to figure out what X has to do with Y isn’t working, right?

Wrong. Staring at a wall can be hard work. And that’s what he took the time to try to explain.


Much of what he said sounded slightly canned -- but having done many radio interviews myself, I understood why: Interviewers ask the same questions over and over. After the first ten interviews, no one’s responses are fresh. They’re just not.

In Hoffman’s case, however,  and as with anyone who takes work seriously, his “canned” answer was one to which he’d given considerable thought. His responses may not have been fresh, but they were honest and articulate.

But here’s the kicker: He didn’t need to do interviews. People like him need never do anything remotely resembling promotional work. But he did -- and I suspect that it’s because he believed that part of his job was to explain to the world what it means to work as an artist. So he took time from an already loaded, merciless schedule to do an interview. Or three or ten.


Hoffman’s life, then, consisted of a form of flaying; of peeling away that which protects us from pain and harm and the abyss.

There is no wonder that he was drained and worn and tired. No wonder that he would be so careless. (My guess is that he’d understand the fury that his family surely feels amidst their grief.)

If there is a god or whatever, then I thank it for giving us Hoffman’s flayed humanity.