My Dinner With Philip Seymour Hoffman

In the late '90s, I wrote a column called "My Dinner With Rossi" for The Flatiron News.

Every issue would have a gorgeous rendition by a different artist of New York's Flatiron Building. The mag didn't have a huge distribution, but it was full of great photography and was artsy, edgy and very cool -- kinda like the Flatiron District was back then.

For my interview, I would invite people you might call B-list celebrities out to eat at their favorite restaurant in the Flatiron area. The mag didn't have enough clout for the A-list.

When I am asked who my favorite interviewee was in those years, I quickly say, "Quentin Crisp." The English writer was 90 and adorable and so humble and grateful to be taken out to dinner that it nearly made me cry.

When asked about my least favorite, I say without hesitation, "Philip Seymour Hoffman."

It was around 1998. He had done Boogie Nights, Twister, and Happiness and was making his directorial debut at the Labyrinth Theatre Company.

He chose "Chat and Chew," a cute dive on 16th Street.

He walked in, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and carrying a bicycle wheel. I thought from his appearance that we'd have an easy time together, but every question I posed to him seemed to annoy him more than the last.

I think I just wasn't intellectual enough.

When I asked him what he did for kicks, he nearly vomited on me.

"I read. I run. I snowboard!"

He did make a point to tell me he was straight, not gay, and that he was definitely NOT an L.A. person but a New Yorker all the way.

The interview nearly came to a crashing halt when I asked him, "So what was it like playing this lech-y guy lusting after Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights?"

He exploded, "Lech-y! He wasn't lech-y! What do you mean 'lech-y'?! He was needy! He didn't want to have anal sex with Mark Wahlberg; he just wanted to hug and kiss him! He's innocent!"

"I'm sorry! Calm down! I'm just a Jewish girl from Jersey. What do I know? I think Almaden is great drinking wine!"

Thankfully, I made him laugh. That self-deprecation thing is a good Band-Aid, and we were able to finish the interview. He slammed down a Coke and veggie wrap and loosened up.

He had just finished taping Flawless, in which he played a transgender woman opposite Robert DeNiro, and the love he had for his character "Rusty," not to mention the work it took immersing himself in the role, was daunting.

R- How did you prepare for the role? You're this big butch guy.

P- I worked my ass off. I watched
What Sex am I? and Paris is Burning. These men weren't just gay. They had conservative actual images. They really wanted to be woman as opposed to just drag queens. And I went to the clubs. I saw Joey Arias and Raven, who are in the film.

I wish I'd asked why he needed to tell me he isn't gay, and pointed out that the people in Paris is Burning were women in various bodies, not men wishing they were women, and most of all, that there was nothing "just" about any of the drag queens I knew. But PSH was far from the only person in those days who didn't get it, and my job was to listen to what he said and write it down. I took another tack.

R- How'd you learn to walk in those heels?

P- That wasn't as tough as just the voice, the vocal work and just the body. I had to train my body and my mouth for two or three months. When it was over, I was pretty happy to be a guy.

As he rambled on picking at his napkin nervously and dropping the F bomb every other sentence, it occurred to me that he had enormous affection for all the "ladies," as he called them, who had helped him immerse himself in their culture for that role.

Hoffman was eager to return to his rehearsal, and in our last moments together, I began to realize that what I had taken for snobbery was his strong discomfort at being interviewed.

While I was transcribing my notes, I realized that while I had never had such a tough time interviewing anyone before, I also never met anyone so passionate about his characters. It must be so painful, I thought, not only becoming your character but caring so much for them after you have stepped back into your own body.

When I heard the news of Hoffman's death due to heroin, I realized the great price he paid for numbing that pain.