FINAL WORDS

06.03.14

‘I Think I Kill Pleasure’: Philip Seymour Hoffman Reflects on His Children, and Facing Life and Death

In a previously unaired interview made before his February death from a drug overdose, the actor talks about his children, happiness, and learning to live in order to learn how to die.

He sounded genially reflective, not sad, saying it—but Philip Seymour Hoffman was certain: pleasure was not happiness.

“I think I kill pleasure. I take too much of it and make it unpleasurable…There is no pleasure that I have not made myself sick on.”

In a previously unaired interview, Hoffman talked about happiness, pleasure, having children, meditation, life, and death.

Video screenshot

He was speaking at an event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York in December 2012. Today, a portion of the interview was released by PBS’s Digital Studios “Blank on Blank” series, in which actors’ words are played alongside a whimsical cartoon of them by the animator Patrick Smith.

Hoffman died in his New York apartment in February, at age 46, of an accidental overdose of a powerful cocktail of drugs. He died less than a year after what he said was a successful period in rehab, having been sober for the previous 23 years.

“There’s a period of time in your life when I kind of look back, and think, ‘Was I happy, or was I just not aware?” Hoffman said during the Rubin talk themed around happiness. “You really reach a time where you go, ‘I just don’t know.’ It really does upend a lot of things in your own life, in your own mind.”

He noted that he had three children—Willa, Tallulah, and Conner. “I think I’m happy when I’m with them and they’re OK. When I see them enjoying each other in front of me and they let me enjoy them in turn, that brings a feeling which I would say is happiness.”

He said he knew that in some sense this was because they were his children, “but I’m like, ‘Right now, right now, this is it.’”

There were other moments when thoughts of his own childhood “creep in,” and he’s not conscious of the love, and his children “start to reflect something other than what I hoped my childhood to be…they are showing me a childhood I might not have had in some way.” This led to other reflections of “shortcomings, inadequacies, incapabilities, and powerlessness”—the notion that happiness ends was “so discouraging” to him.

“When I see my children enjoying each other in front of me and they let me enjoy them in turn, that brings a feeling which I would say is happiness.”

“Life is short, time is short” recited Hoffman of the popular clichés, “and as we get older time does quicken. It is long…pertaining to that thought that the past is not done with you, because you can’t get rid of it and so therefore it just starts to drag”—the audience laughed—“and you get a glimpse of what you might have wanted or what it could have been. And you could start to have it in your life right now, but then the past does creep back in pretty quickly and that is a very difficult one—on how to keep it there and not have it ruin it [your present].”

On portraying dark characters on stage and film, Hoffman first said he appreciated novels that were “brutally honest,” because the reader is “grateful” for such frank characterizations.

Of his own parts, he said, “If I don’t allow people to somehow identify with the worst inside themselves they won’t ever have chance to walk out with that person [he’s playing] in their hearts or minds.” He, like the audience he hoped, identified with such characters.

Meditation, he said, takes one “right up to the lip of death, in saying, ‘I’m here, I’m scared.’ That’s life: learning how to die,  and therefore learning how to live.”

Was he happy, Hoffman was asked. “Oh God,” Hoffman replied. The audience laughed. “When I’m sitting out there, I’m like, ‘I’m the stupidest man in the room and I’m about to step up on that stage.’ That is a lot to do with what we’re about to talk about—that I would think that I’m going to talk about something that anyone would ever take seriously enough to incorporate into their own thoughts. [More laughter from the audience.] “So don’t listen,” Hoffman concluded drily.