I hated myself a lot in college. It’s a thing you do, I think; part of trying to figure out who you are is getting a lot wrong, and then being angry with yourself for all the things you aren’t, and that anger always turns inward, no matter how much you try and push it away.
I did a lot of theater, which is not necessarily the best place if you’re insecure about who you are, but I loved it. I took acting classes, with wise and warm and deeply humane teachers. In one of those classes, we sat around in a circle, and told each other what actors we reminded each other of. Basically the idea was to give ourselves a clearer sense of the kind of industry we’d be getting into if we decided to pursue a career as performers. Just because you saw yourself as Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep didn’t mean anyone else would. Comments were halting, and mitigated by basic decency, but there was a terrifying clarity to the process; the realization that you, too, could be reduced to a type.
My roommate at the time told me I reminded him of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was devastated. This, to my mind, confirmed all of my greatest fears; Hoffman was a great actor, but he wasn’t, y’know, a hunk. He wasn’t a sexual dynamo on screen. He was hardly ever the hero in movies, and I could remember very few times when he got the girl. Worse, there was a clamminess to PSH, a sweaty, fleshy, mouth-breathing constancy that wasn’t at all what I wanted in my life. I couldn’t bear the thought of being real and a person and occasionally gross, and that’s what PSH was—that was part of his brilliance. There was grace to his work when he needed it, but even the grace could never entirely transcend his foundations. He was not an idol, or a ghost, or an icon, or an ideal. He was uncool. The thought that I might be uncool as well, that I could be walking around in the world and people would just look at me and think, “uncool” without me knowing it, haunted me.
I never forgot this. Other memories from college faded, but I never forgot that compliment my roommate gave me, which is undoubtedly the kindest, most generous, and most wonderful thing anyone ever said about me as an actor. Every time I’d see PSH on-screen, it would be great because he was amazing; but there was also a complicated, reflective, and unsettling sensation of facing off against something I’d just as soon never have to deal with. The undeniable reflection of existence, of the rough and unglamorous pieces I work so hard to ignore. Of snot and shit and saliva, of organic tissue and biological process, of flaking pink skin and dandruff and not fitting the right shirt, of being slumped and sallow and awkward in your shoes, of never being able to ignore the impression you left in the world. Of imperfection. Of waking up each morning and looking at yourself naked in the shower and going on through the day regardless.
There are lot of things to say about PSH’s career. Actors like him don’t come around often, and there was so much more he could and should have done that it’s hard to grasp the scope of the loss. And yes, addiction is horrible and terrifying, and as a culture we need to learn to be more humane in how we aid the afflicted. But what I feel the loss of today is the honesty that permeated every aspect of his work, from the smallest bit part to the most multifaceted leading role. The man had dignity and presence and charisma, but none of those qualities ever let you forget that he was perpetually at war with the messy, sprawling stupidity of being alive. He was not perfect. He was not gleaming or well-muscled or sculpted or pristine. He was uncool. And god, he was just so fucking beautiful.