Philip Seymour Hoffman, found dead in his West Village apartment yesterday, was a Villager through and through: he battled his alma mater, NYU, in the fight for Greenwich Village, and he often ventured east to stage shows at The Public. There, as artistic director of LAByrinth Theater Company, he helmed “The Little Flower of East Orange” and taught East Villager Ajay Naidu — who played a doctor alongside Ellen Burstyn — some lasting lessons about theater. Over the phone yesterday, Naidu, best known for his roles in “Office Space” and “Bad Santa,” told us what it was like to get his first break as a solo artist from one of the most talented and admired actors of our time.
In 2001 I was making my first venture into solo work, with an esoteric piece that combined breakdance, clowning, rhyming, mask work, ancient gestures from the Natya Shastra, Sanskrit drama, and characters from the streets of New York City. I had no I idea where it fit. My manager, who was also Phil’s, told me I should show it to him in the LAByrinth and do it in front of them after one of their company meetings.
One day I went to their theater at Center Stage and Phil said to everyone, “So, we have a treat this evening — Ajay is going to do his solo piece just for fun, in front of all of us.” And I did it and they all stood up and cheered me for several minutes straight.
After he greenlit Darwaza, LAB produced it two months later and it was sold out every night for two weeks. I still think of that as my real entrance into New York theater. Phil told me that he didn’t understand the exact parallels of all the myths in it but he understood there was a moral lesson somehow and every time I stood to tell it he felt the air go out of the room, in that I was giving them some kind of knowledge that would change how they felt morally. He felt there was some sort of revolution in the piece — he didn’t understand it, but he felt it.
In 2008, when Phil directed me in The Little Flower of East Orange, I was in awe of him. If he thought I was good enough to play in something that he was directing then I had to know why, so I could keep going that way. That’s when I started learning about acting from him in a more serious context.
Phil was an actor’s director — he allowed things to come out as opposed to forcing them. He believed that if someone plays a character and it’s not broken you don’t fix it. He wasn’t a tinkerer — he was much more of a hammer-and-chisel man. He’d say, “You need to make this guy strong, stand up straight, go there…”
Phil was a great cinephile and he was glad that movies were there and he loved talking about, making and watching them — but theater was everything to him. Phil Hoffman was the theater.
He didn’t care about how the play was going to be received or any of that — he really enjoyed inhabiting stories, inhabiting characters. He believed in stories and he believing in changing people’s mind by – as Shakespeare would’ve said – “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”
Once we started technical rehearsals on Little Flower, he was never not in the theater – he was there when I got there in the morning and he was there when I left at night, always working and generating and moving forward. He was relentless when it came to narrative and to clarity, and he insisted on a certain level of excellence that doesn’t exist with many other directors.
He was very hard on me until I got to where I needed to get to, and then, when I turned the right corner, he just left me alone. He was like, “Okay, you got that now.” When you saw him smiling at you, you knew you were doing good — because he was so fucking good, there was no way he’d let you go out like a sucker. He sedimented information onto me about the needs and wants of the character — slowly, so that by the time we were playing, it wasn’t just like taking a bite out of a single-layer cake, it was like taking a bite out of a 10-layer cake.
He was such an open channel and so incredibly sensitive and loving in the hard face of this world — and then coming into the limelight the way he did — definitely made him put up some carapaces around his life.
When we were doing the show, we talked at length about troubles with addiction. Phil told me some really horrifying stories of his lowest lows. He said that one time when he was trying to get clean he accidentally swallowed a little Listerine and it felt a little too good and as a result he was terrified. I told him, “I just don’t get that.” And he said, “Well, you’ve never been a real alcoholic, then.”
His stories were always deeply human and down-to-earth. They were about having seen a ghost or having had a weird experience on the subway. The most incredible thing he told me about “the business” was: “Man, the best days in the business are the day you get the job and the day the job is done.” Because there’s nothing metaphysical or esoteric or mystical about acting — it’s a job. It’s good to get a job and it’s good to finish it.
We were in a movie together, Montana — it’s relatively unknown, but he was really tremendous in it. There’s a moment when he looks up from his desk, after I’ve shot myself in the hand, and I’ll never forget the way he played that reaction. It was really astounding – how little he did and how much he conveyed. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he played his character — a disgusting rich kid who was on to the vulnerability of Matt Damon’s character — with such aplomb. I think Phil knew what his shtick was — his major contradiction was that people found his characters somewhat vile but at the same time deeply moral.
On the set of Montana, he was really, really quiet and his attention was turned inward on the character. He used to come to the theater in character when he was playing characters, and he would come to the set the same way. The most valuable lesson he taught me was that the “present actor” — the one that’s in the here and now as opposed to anywhere else — is a thrilling thing.
Later, he was a great supporter of my film, Ashes. He realized I was up against an enormous mountain to make it but he knew that I wanted so badly to tell that story that he said I should do it at all costs. He got his shoulder behind me and pushed because he believed in my vulnerability and who I was. And the story I was telling was important to him, too. It made me feel so gratified and so strong in my weakest, most terrifying moments of making the movie amidst hair-raising financial schemes. I would always remember him saying, “You must make it, it’s not a question, you have to finish it.” Because brain children don’t die, they just hang around being neglected. He was one of the people who pushed me through.
About a year ago, he called me just to say, “Hey man, you want to meet up and have coffee?” We went to Cafe Minerva and just hung out and hugged and talked about nothing, really. And I wondered why. But he didn’t seem to have any ulterior motive whatsovever. At one point he just asked me, “What do you want to do next? Are you going to make another movie?” I told him I really wanted to do a remake of my favorite rock opera set in India, and he said, “I think that’s probably one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard.”
It was always so bizarre to me that this incredible Oscar-winning actor who I have so much respect for, and who I idolized so deeply, would actually treat me like a peer as opposed to a fan. To have someone that was that much of a light in our world actually care about me and my art a little bit… he was probably my #1 cheerleader, and without him, I wouldn’t be where I am.
The last time we communicated was when I wrote to tell him I was on tour with The Master and Margarita in Europe. I’ll never forget what he told me: “You’re going to remember that experience so much more than doing bit parts on movies while you’re here.”