Family Affair

The Boys from Rochester: Philip, left, and Gordy.
Photo: Jim Wright

Philip Seymour Hoffman is telling me and his big brother, Gordy, about a recent brush with greatness. A few days ago, he says, he was staying in a fancy L.A. hotel (never mind which one) when he got in an elevator already occupied by a notorious A-list L.A. actor (never mind which one) and the actor’s entourage. It only took a few seconds, Philip says, to realize that everyone was a bit … blurry.

He looks absolutely gleeful as he recounts his incredulous response to the group: “You are so high!” He pauses. “You are so high! Where are you going?!”

To a party in the actor’s hotel room, it turned out—an informal gathering to which Philip was promptly invited. So a little while later, he went—and found a packed suite full of fabulous L.A. types and hangers-on.

As he tells us the story, Philip’s suddenly standing ramrod straight, arms dangling by his sides with his palms a bit upturned—an impromptu re-creation of his dumbfounded posture as he surveyed the party scene. Notorious Actor was nowhere to be found—“I think he was in the bedroom”—and “everyone,” says Philip, “was stoned off their asses.”

“So what did you do?” Gordy prompts. “Well, across the room,” Philip says, “I see this giant bowl of Peanut M&Ms!” He pantomimes barreling toward it, then flails his arms mechanically, as if he’s stuffing his face with chocolatey, peanutty goodness. “And then,” he says, dissolving into a generous, up-from-the-diaphragm, room-filling laugh, “I got the hell out of there!”

It’s a story that goes a long way toward explaining how Hollywood regards Philip (hot enough that everyone suddenly wants to party with him, even if they’re not quite sure what to make of him) and how Philip regards Hollywood (with a certain self-conscious bemusement).

But there’s another subtext at work here: If there’s a Hoffman brother who has the credentials to work a room full of fully baked industry types, it’s Gordy, the L.A. screenwriter and lifelong charmer, not Philip, the New York actor who has spent the past decade creating an astonishing array of cinematic misfits.

As the three of us sit down to lunch, it becomes clear that Gordy is not only the alpha brother—unless I address questions about their childhood directly to Philip, Gordy tends to do all the talking—but also the veteran party animal.

They’re here together because they’ve done something rather extraordinary together: They’ve created a film, Love Liza—Gordy wrote the screenplay, Philip stars in it—that might well garner Oscar nominations for the both of them.

“This is our first collaboration, period,” says Philip—but the film is notable for a couple other reasons as well. The story of a distraught widower who gets addicted to gasoline huffing as he comes to grips with his wife’s suicide, it’s Gordy’s first produced screenplay. And it’s the first time Philip has carried a film on his own: Despite his steady stream of almost schizophrenically diverse supporting roles—the cluelessly smitten porno crewman of Boogie Nights, the frighteningly deranged obscene telephone caller of Happiness, the besotted prep-school teacher of Spike Lee’s upcoming 25th Hour—until now he’s headlined only one film: 1999’s little-seen Flawless, in which he co-starred with Robert De Niro.

Gordy and Philip arrived at this singular success—Love Liza, which was a hit at Sundance and the Toronto and London film festivals, opens in New York and L.A. on December 30—by following entirely different paths.

They grew up with two sisters in Fairport, a small town outside of Rochester, the children of a Xerox-executive dad and a homemaker mom (who, at 37, went off to law school and is now a family-court judge). As Gordy tells it, he was the “confused child who made a ruckus in every class I was in. I ended up being voted class clown in every class—and class clowns, I’ve determined over time, are just kids who need a lot of attention.” Philip, 35, three years younger than Gordy, got attention pretty much by default because he was a preternaturally gifted athlete.

“I can remember distinctly,” says Gordy, “Phil picking up a tennis racket, and, like, immediately he could play tennis.”

On the way to meeting the Hoffmans for lunch, I happened to stop by a gift shop that sold jumbo, two-tone Superballs, and on a whim I bought two—one for each brother. Over lunch, Gordy ignores his, but Philip seems delighted to have a toy at the ready to distract himself from our conversation. Now, as if on cue, Philip starts absentmindedly bouncing his Superball on the ground next to his chair.

“Phil,” says Gordy, “could play tennis, baseball, basketball—anything—better than me, other people, everybody.”

Philip remembers it a bit differently: Gordy, he insists, was the celebrity, the big man on campus—every campus. “As I’d be entering one school, Gordy would be going on to the next one. And every school that he would leave, he would have this aura—you know, like ‘Oh, you’re Gordy Hoffman’s brother.’ He would leave this mythic energy in every school.”

Gordy did the drama-club thing first—he remembers giving Philip pointers for his audition for a high-school production of M*A*S*H (Philip played Radar O’Reilly)—but by the time Gordy went off to the University of Kansas to study English and economics, Philip was already eclipsing him on the stage back home.

“At Kansas, I partied a lot, and while I was there, Phil was in Rochester just taking the whole acting thing by storm. He did Death of a Salesman, he played Willy Loman as a 16-year-old kid, and everyone was like, Oh, my! And of course, I’m genuinely threatened, but I’m not really articulating that on any conscious level, I’m just like, Jesus Christ. And I’m feeling proud too, but I’m just too immature to admit that.”

While Gordy was in Kansas, Philip decided to apply to NYU for acting. Gordy took it upon himself to give his little brother another pointer: “I was like, ‘You better make sure you cover your ass and apply to other places!’ I was definitely threatened by the type of clarity that he had. He just said, ‘I’m going to NYU!’ And he ended up getting accepted, you know?”

At this point, Philip has put down his Superball. Even though they’re across a table from each other, the brothers have a way of talking past each other, and now Philip speaks of Gordy as if he’s not in the room:
“You see, Gordy might have been thinking certain things about me, but I always looked up to him. It was like, no matter what I did, he was still the older brother. You know, I went back to our high school two years ago when my mom was running to be a judge—she was campaigning in our hometown—and I remember teachers that were just like, ‘Where’s Gordy? When’s Gordy gonna come back and visit?’ ”

In the early nineties, Philip began his transformation from being Gordy’s brother to becoming, well, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Actor Sam Rockwell, a member of LAByrinth, the New York theater company that Philip helped found in 1992, says that starting with his earliest cinematic roles, “Phil always swung for the fences.” He still remembers being shocked when he first saw Boogie Nights: “Phil’s the kind of guy that you might mistake for being a frat guy—he’s the kind of guy you play poker with,” says Rockwell. And yet there he was onscreen “with this tank top that’s too small for him, his belly sticking out, and he’s got that hair swooped over and he’s sucking on that pencil, playing this weird, effeminate, bisexual character. My mouth dropped. I was like Oh, my God! “A lot of actors, they’ll cry and they’ll scream and they’re emotional, but you don’t really care, you know what I mean? But with Phil, you care because he’s got this emotional depth that is rare—he’s got this visceral power, he’s very brave, and he’s got this ability to go places that are very, very dark and scary.” Philip doesn’t exactly trumpet his successes. His family and friends mostly hear about his roles through the grapevine, or in the papers. “Phil,” says Gordy, “has never been the guy who’s going to get on the phone and call everybody and let them know, ‘Hey, I just scored a big job.’ I mean, sometimes that would happen, just if you happened to call him and he just got news. He’s mellow like that. But we all knew what was going on.” Gordy, meanwhile, was working a series of random jobs after graduation, first in D.C., then in Chicago—various means to support himself as he began writing. “I wrote my first play when I was 23, in D.C. For almost four years as I was writing, I delivered pizzas and I was a bicycle messenger. Then I had some friends from college who were in Chicago, I was going to go to Chicago and model … ” Philip interjects: “Gordy, from when he was very little, has always been somebody who was incredibly adept at finding work. He used to find odd jobs in the paper and take me to cut down somebody’s damn tree all day or pick strawberries and sell them on the corner. He was an entrepreneur from a very young age.” As an adult, Philip had his own string of odd jobs, but he struggled with each one: He’d been fired as a waiter and a spa lifeguard and was working at a deli when he got his big break—the Scent of a Woman audition—in 1991. “The whole time Gordy was doing the model work, or delivering pizzas, or driving a cab,” says Philip, “he was writing his own plays, putting them up, holding auditions. I had a lot of pride looking at him. I knew he was always gonna stay on course and do what he needed to do to write.” Early in 1997, Gordy made his way to L.A. and got heavily involved with the local theater scene. The brothers, now on opposite coasts, would check in with each other now and then, but they weren’t exactly comparing notes. A few years back, Gordy says, “I remember going to see a movie and thinking, in a way, ‘I’m going to go see my brother.’ It wasn’t like we were estranged, it’s just that I was never really in the same town with him, never saw him, and it was like, you go to the movies to see your brother, to visit with him. And it made me actually cry a little bit when I realized that that’s what I was doing. “I haven’t seen you for most of this year,” Gordy says, suddenly addressing his brother, “since Sundance or something, and it’s funny because I still have that feeling sometimes.” There’s a pause, and these two big, barrel-chested guys look at each other wordlessly—and I’m thinking I’m going to cry a little bit if they don’t cut it out.

Living very separate lives on opposite coasts, the brothers had no intention of collaborating—or any reason to, really. Philip continued blowing away audiences and critics with cinematic supporting roles—becoming, for one thing, part of indie director Paul Thomas Anderson’s favored ensemble (following Boogie Nights with Magnolia and now Punch-Drunk Love)—and carving out a career onstage, both acting (he scored a Tony nomination for True West) and directing (at LAByrinth). Gordy, meanwhile, was writing plays—among them, Hong Kong and Frozen Cat—that would be mounted in New York, Chicago, San Diego, England, and Australia, starting his own troupe, the Company Theatre, in L.A., and becoming something of a big brother for the L.A. theater scene with his BlueCat Screenplay Competition (“The Annual Search for the Best Screenplay in the World”).

“When Gordy first wrote Love Liza, he didn’t write it with Phil in mind,” says the movie’s director, Todd Louiso, an old actor friend of Philip’s (Louiso was the dorky record-store clerk Dick in High Fidelity). “Of course, now it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Phil in the role.”

“In ’96, Phil and I just happened to both go home to Rochester for Labor Day weekend,” Gordy explains. “This is when it starts to feel like a conspiracy from heaven started to kick in, because I don’t think we’d ever both been home on Labor Day weekend before or since, other than when we were kids. I’d just finished Love Liza, and I gave it to him to read. I wasn’t even thinking about getting it made, it was just a matter of I’d finished something.”

“I read it,” Philip says, “and it was really strong, it was really good.” The brothers have a way of not being overly effusive in each other’s presence, but after a pause Philip adds, “It was really, really good. I thought, It should get done, and then it was like, I’ll do it. It wasn’t like he asked me or I asked him.”

Of course, heartbreaking films about gasoline-huffing widowers don’t get made easily, and the film’s backers—an ad hoc consortium of private investors and indie-movie mainstays (producer Chris Hanley, of The Virgin Suicides and American Psycho, among them)—came together in fits and starts only over a period of years. (It helped, too, that Oscar winner Kathy Bates committed to join the cast, as the mother-in-law of Philip’s character.)

It was shot in early 2001 in Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans on a budget so paltry that director Louiso was told that beyond the principal players, he’d have to cast locally to fill out the extensive supporting cast. “Todd said, ‘I can’t do it that way, I have to do this right,’ so he flew actors out from L.A. at his own expense,” says Gordy. “I mean, the guy must have written a five-figure check to the airlines.”

In the end, the brotherly connection between the film’s star and its screenwriter didn’t help much. “I sensed that Todd wanted to have autonomy,” says Gordy, “which any director wants to have, so I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to go to the shoot, don’t worry, you take that script and you go make your movie’ ”—a decision he quickly regretted.

“I remember one night, one of the producers called me from Alabama. And I’ll never forget that, because at that point he was the only person who called me. It was such a disenfranchised feeling. It’s like the old joke that the writer on the set is like a hooker and after the hooker’s been paid, it’s like, ‘What are you doing here? Scram!’ ”I interrupt Gordy to ask Philip, “When did you call?”“I called him at the end,” he answers, a bit meekly, “and I called him once during the shoot just to say hi.”

“I wasn’t like, Why didn’t Phil call me?” says Gordy, “because I knew he was working—I knew it wasn’t going to be any different from any other movie when he’s unreachable because there’s a total commitment and immersion that has to happen. But I just had this feeling, this really alienated feeling.”

I then ask Philip, who’s looking increasingly pained, what he told Gordy at the end of the shoot. “Well, I remember thinking, You know what, I don’t know if this is going to be any good. There was just something about it where I was just so unsure. I felt like I could have done much better or whatever. It was my brother’s film—I wanted to be protective of what he had written. When it was finished, it was like, Now you can be a brother, and I called him and I left him a message basically like ‘I’m sorry. I hope I did okay.’

“It was kind of like we were back in high school again. I was going by Gordy’s bedroom and knocking on his door being like, ‘Oh, you know, I tried to do that thing that you did, and I hope I did it.’ It was very moving. Much more vulnerable than I ever like to get in my life.”Philip looks directly at me. His eyes are moist.

“I get much more vulnerable in my work than I do in my life, I think. It was one of those moments where I was like, Wow, now I know why I don’t like to get this vulnerable, because on the phone, I couldn’t control how much I was feeling.”

With the Hoffman brothers, nothing is ever as it seems. Philip, the frat-guy look-alike, is the cinematic and theatrical shape-shifter who can portray absolutely any type of character. And “Gordy, who gives the impression of being this big, lovable bear,” says actor Dan Klass, “is really a poet.”

Klass, who’s known both Hoffmans since high school in Rochester, is yet another friend who got sucked into appearing in Love Liza—this extraordinarily moving film about death that is, of course, really about life.

“In a lot of ways,” Klass says, “Love Liza is a two-hour poem. People who see it will be shocked that it’s so unconventional, because it’s poetry – it’s not necessarily Screenplay Format No. 4. Gordy’s ability is to capture exactly what people say, but also what people don’t say and what they don’t reveal.”

I’d interviewed the Hoffman brothers when Philip was still undecided about whether to head to Broadway next summer to appear as Jamie in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (with Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, and Robert Sean Leonard). When I call him to discuss his decision to do it, it becomes entirely clear that he shares with his brother an almost unnerving devotion to trying to express the inexpressible — no matter how painful.

“Acting onstage scares the hell out of me,” he says. “It scares the shit out of me. I’ve never done Long Day’s Journey. I’ve read it probably ten times, I’ve seen it four times. I just love the play, it’s one of my favorite pieces of theater, but I always think that with a play, you could pretty much just drop dead, you know?”He lets out his familiar, resounding laugh.

“I mean, if I really thought about exactly what I was doing, which is basically exposing personal truths about myself to 600 strangers, I might just drop dead!”

Following up Love Liza by expiring onstage during Long Day’s Journey, I tell him, would be one helluva way to go.“That’s right,” he says, laughing again. “Next August, I die!”

Family Affair