In Synecdoche, New York, the audacious directorial debut of screenwriting demigod Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theater director who creates a stage version of his entire life inside a working, fake Manhattan where actors interpret his fears, illnesses, and messy relationships. Catherine Keener, playing a painter for the first time since memorializing Kramer on Seinfeld, is his callous, more-famous wife.
A lot of people won’t even understand the word synecdoche (meaning a part that represents a larger whole). Will audiences be able to figure this film out?
The first time I read Being John Malkovich, I said, “What the fuck? Who is this Charlie Kaufman and what’s wrong with him?” This one, you know, it’s like how I did crosswords with my dad: I was fine with putting it down, coming back a few days later. I wasn’t ever in a hurry to figure it all out.
When you first saw the film, was it what you’d imagined?
It completely wrecked me. Because of all the devices and the cultish quality of Charlie, people categorize him, but it’s all that heart. It felt like that personal relationship you get in the theater—and I hate the theater! I like it from the audience, but when I’m onstage I feel like I’m in the audience, watching me.
Very meta! No wonder Kaufman loves working with you.
Yeah, I love Charlie. But this is not esoteric stuff. This is superpersonal. It’s like these waves of emotion that kept happening, rolling you over and over. And then you finally swim ashore.
He’s talked about being inspired by his fears—they’re almost nightmares.
But I didn’t walk out depressed or scared. It provoked some release of shit inside of me, to name these fears and make me laugh about them. It reminds me of this nightmare a friend had: She was driving a car down a hill in Malibu, hurtling toward a beautiful home, and her brakes went out. She couldn’t shake it. She’s very controlled, to a fault, so I said, “Maybe you shouldn’t be afraid—maybe you’re just hurtling toward your ideal, to lose control.” It made her feel better.
With Being John Malkovich, this is the second movie in which you play a lover who leaves a man for a woman. Is this a particular fear of Charlie’s?
I didn’t think of it, but, wow, that’s true! I’m not sure Charlie even thought of it. Why did you? Are you worried about your wife?