I was on drugs back then: coke, booze, Xanax, anything I could get my hands on, really. It was 2002, and while Philip Seymour Hoffman's Hollywood career was skyrocketing, mine was a flameout from a jet engine careening backward down the wrong runway.
I was brought to the set of Cold Mountain by a boyfriend. I had no money, and no memory of how I'd gotten there. "We arrived first-class, right?" I found myself standing in a swamp about 30 miles from Charleston. I was wearing dark sunglasses, clutching a copy of Mary Boykin Chesnut's diary for authenticity. And way down in the bog stood Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he was working too.
He was in character, holding a Bible, walking waist-deep through swamp water and practicing his lines. And his mood, his body language for a big scene that day, seemed triumphant, like the Music Man and all his trombones. Hoffman's preparation consisted of pacing back and forth across a current of swamp water. For all I knew it was filled with cottonmouths. I was watching a famous American actor do a water ballet. The algae swirled around him like fractals of angst. Now over there! Where his performance anointed any water, that algae dipped and bowed in mini whirlpools.
There are a zillion and one people like me in Hollywood. Like I was: the drug-addicted boyfriend who clings set-side and tells you he's working on a whopper of a script, only this kind comes from a pharmacist. He is right, that trick of the A-lister. The San Fernando Valley gets smack between his dream job in Hollywood and that surfboard-filled sea, unless he hooks it. The Valley makes the hairs fly out from your nostrils, not the other way around like everywhere else. The Santa Ana heat rips the voice right from your throat, all the while stuffing the blues down your ears and back into your arm holes. But in this Southern swamp, I sniff coke high up in the tupelo trees. I will keep my pipes down. I will stay really interested in everything else, just to avoid my lacerating physical dependence on narcotics.
Life circa 2002.
Lunch was spread out on white sheets and dispensed off generic meal trucks. There were long buffet lines where you could casually make eye contact and just as casually avoid everyone. Grips and gaffers, accounting PAs and wardrobe assistants, all those who had work to do when the set closed for the "talent" lunch -- they ate first. I waited patiently with the executives for the crew to get out of my way. It was a ritual the young lovers and underlings had over the brass; they could delay lunch. As I remember it, from what I remember of it, the truck was rich with chicken, quinoa, carbohydrates and kale. But as with everything else in Hollywood, you could pretty much get anything you wanted.
Case in point: I was sitting next to Anthony Minghella, the actors Jude Law and Jena Malone, and soon Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anthony introduced him as Phil. But Phil had no time for me, and I approve of this message. We never spoke directly once during lunch, except for that stiff greeting where I didn't conclude that his eyes had taken a picture of my face or anything behind it. In the 12 years between then and his apparent overdose, Philip Seymour Hoffman would not be picking me out from a lineup of men he would remember, even when his life must have flashed before his eyes.
Everyone except Phil and me had plates with normal portions. I was feeling no pain, just sitting there with my squeaky-white Styrofoam bowl laden with pineapple chunks and strawberries. Phil, on the other hand, had a small salad. No tomatoes. At one point he looked at Minghella and asked what the director thought of his rehearsal, and the director said he thought he was wonderful. And Phil asked another question about the scene they were going to shoot next. And the director answered in a calm voice and told him how he would like it to be played. Then, a tacit agreement made, Hoffman walked away and threw his salad in the trash. He wasn't that hungry either, and he had work to do. I stayed and finished my fruit. Anthony Minghella leaned over to me and said, "There goes one of the finest actors in America."
Yes, there he goes. That day I watched him lumber off.
Phil did not want to see our faces. We were banished from his view. It is a provision actors request to remove nobodies from their sight lines while giving a performance. I don't blame them. During his scene that day, one large group of crew members stood in the switch cane, and another group stayed with their warm lanterns like glowing monkeys high up in the oak and chestnut trees. We were the audience for Phil's performance, and it was a bravura performance. He illuminated the water, and he was fearless. When he let go he was Wagnerian. I now think keeping people at arm's length is a very respectable frailty for any actor -- or any addict.
The night before I met Philip Seymour Hoffman, I was on a C-jag talking a mile a minute about Akira Kurosawa to Anthony Minghella. I blathered on about Ran. I thought a battle scene in Cold Mountain might play like a battle scene in Ran. Anthony agreed, but when the cut came back, his battle scene had been left on the editor's floor. There was no danger in his fight scenes; not even the soil felt disheveled. And that Kurosawa discussion had become one more coked-out Hollywood wax poetic about a better movie in the process of making a worse bomb.
I remember watching rushes of Law and Kidman and thinking, "They are both fucking someone else when they are supposed to be playing young virgins." Unconvincing -- like our society's response to addiction. We say we want to do everything in our power to stop death by injection, but we don't. If we want needle deaths to end, drug use should be decriminalized and Naloxone kits made available to all families with opiate addicts at home. The cops shouldn't be going after the dealers to arrest them; they should be bringing them Naloxone and teaching them to dispense it as needed. Instead of treating addiction as a crime, we should be treating it as an epidemic, one that's hooked on poverty and not just celebrity.
The press made a point out of the 70 bags of heroin allegedly found in Hoffman's home. "House Of Heroin," they shrieked. At the height of my injection use, I could score 70 bags for three grand, and that would last five weeks. Some of my deceased friends could slam 10 bags in 24 hours. We just called that a healthy tolerance.
It wasn't long before I was barred from all sets for good. And I don't regret that either. Both addictions, drugs and Hollywood, came to a close abruptly. Don't let those gates smack you on the way out of L.A. But if they do, just remember that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a man I saw walking on water, and the obvious thing to say is that he drowned.
I didn't like Cold Mountain when it was released, but life has a way of changing my taste in movies, and I'll watch it now. It's like a 2-and-a-half-hour base camp where I dredge up memories of how I got out of that dirty swamp myself. I often fall asleep before looking down that blue stone well through that old hand mirror. The dream I have is always the same: I pick up a needle full of dope, when off the cliffs of Cold Mountain an avalanche of snow buries me deep. I overdose alone, encased in thin ice.