5 Things I Know For Sure About

Like many others, I was shocked and saddened by the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing. Also like many others, I didn’t know him personally. (A couple of acquaintances of mine had the pleasure of working with him.)

It’s always the case that, whatever demons someone is wrestling, no matter what sorts of static the social chatter happens to produce around gossip, speculation, and sordid details, the fact remains—a life was lived, and so many are the better for it.

Hoffman’s passing made me remember all the times I saw him in movies and thought, “Philip Seymour Hoffman is so good.” From Boogie Nights to Happiness, to The Talented Mr. Ripley or Magnolia or Almost Famous or Capote or The Savages—such a long list!—Hoffman was always true to form and utterly brilliant.

His passing also made me reflect on the takeaways; not just the often-cited reasons for staying away from drugs or seeking help when it’s needed, but what we can learn about craft from unwitting mentors like Hoffman, and how it can give us pause to focus on our own lives. As an indie film director, I’ve taken time to think back on all the lessons I’ve learned about the big screen, my own successes and failures, and I’ve come up with a few things I know about what Hoffman loved and spent so much time doing—acting.

  1. It’s the Method. This is not to knock techniques like Alexander, Viewpoints, or others. If anything, these augment and support Method acting. But think of the greats: Hoffman (Philip Seymour and Dustin), Brando, De Niro, Pacino, etc.—and it becomes clear that there’s something really effective about listening, staying focused on the moment at hand, and making use of affective memory. I know, Anthony Hopkins—you think method actors are a “pain in the ass.” Well, you played a black man passing as white. That was a pain in the ass.
  2. Homework works. There are folkloric stories like Hillary Swank living as a man and Daniel Day Lewis’ extreme character makeovers. In my own short films, I’ve created little assignments like having someone write a love letter to an ex-partner, sending two characters out on a date, and discussing the experience of one actor’s digging her own grave for a part. Similar to mindfulness meditation, the best way to observe behavior (aside from studying actual human behavior) is going out and doing it yourself and seeing what arises. According to Hoffman’s long-time acting teacher, Tony Greco, a main drive of Hoffman’s was wanting to get to the truth of the part. One of the best ways to do this is through homework.
  3. Acting is a fragile profession. All publicity stunts and Shia LaBeouf aside, actors can be brittle people, and I would argue, need more love and attention than most. After all, they’re opening themselves up to complicated and difficult emotions, without the assistance of a trained therapist (other than the director!). Sidney Lumet’s anecdote of Marlon Brando nailing the emotion on a 34th take in The Fugitive Kind speaks to allowing an actor to overcome an emotional block, no matter how long it takes. Such interior moments are, by their nature, contained and delicate; a director has to treat them accordingly.
  4. Bigger isn’t always better. Orson Welles once said, “The famous difference between stage acting and acting for the camera? It’s all nonsense, you know. There’s just good acting and bad.” Of course, acting for the screen in cinema’s Golden Age was very different from today’s oft-muted, “character study” performances in indie films. Bigger might have been better at one point, and at times it still is. But, the prevalence of unforgiving close-ups and hyperrealism call for smaller, not larger. Oh, and good acting helps, too.
  5. We’ll always have actor heroes. In 1951, legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper interviewed Preston Sturges about “the future of motion pictures” given the advent of television. He predicted that movies and the industry would simply change to keep pace, since people will always need stories and entertainment. We’ll also need people to act for us, to mirror back our hopes, fears, aspirations, nightmares, triumphs, failures, and everything in between. Gossip columns notwithstanding, we’ll always have and need actor heroes, and the more stories we continue to create, the more diverse these heroes will be.

Thank you, Mr. Hoffman. Godspeed.


5 Really Bad Instances of “Ethnic” Casting

A recent Cinemulatto Facebook discussion on Breakfast at Tiffany’s had me thinking about really, really bad instances of white people playing people of color in movies. Sure, we have half-forgiven relics such as Al Jolson in blackface, Luise Rainer winning an Oscar for her role as a Chinese farmer, or even Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder. Gene Wilder is funny in Silver Streak and A Mighty Heart had decent acting. Plus, it’s long been a cinematic norm to have white people “stretching” to play non-white roles (or the occasional Filipino portraying someone like Richie Valens). History has kind of allowed us to pardon the simply misinformed choices of well-meaning casting directors.

Some casting decisions, however, were just really, really bad. Here are the most painful.

Not even close to black
  1. Anthony Hopkins – Coleman Silk in The Human Stain
    A Welsh man playing a black man passing as white. The younger version of Coleman Silk is played convincingly by Wentworth Miller. However, we couldn’t get beyond Hopkins’ British accent and the fact that not only does he not look remotely black, but he seems to have trouble sounding American. Was Tom Hanks busy?

  2. Mickey Rooney – Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
    Granted, Mickey Rooney didn’t mean to offend anybody. Still, this is just goofy. No longer funny. Bad. Truman Capote’s novella had Mr. Yunioshi in only a tiny role as Holly Golightly’s annoyed but smitten neighbor. No sign of false teeth, and he even had a hipster profession as a photographer. Where’s the spinoff?

    Gael García Bernal was a working actor in 2000
  3. Sean Penn – a Cuban peasant in Before Night Falls
    He appears in only one scene, and maybe someone wanted to add more A-list actor cred to Julian Schnabel’s sophomore film effort. I’m a big fan of Schnabel. I’m a small fan of the bad makeup job on Penn. I don’t get it—the cast is otherwise packed with Latino actors. As for A-list, wasn’t Johnny Depp enough, in two roles? Couldn’t he have played just one more tiny role as the peasant?

    Bad Comanche
  4. William Shatner – dual role as a white man and his Comanche brother in White Comanche
    Okay, the makers of this movie get points for featuring mixed-race brothers. They fight each other. Shatner whoops and hollers as an Indian brave. Guess which one smokes peyote? Shatner was at the top of his game with Star Trek, so maybe he thought he could do anything. Verdict: wrong.

    The stuff of nightmares
  5. Peter O’Toole – a Tibetan lama in Kim
    This is so bad, I don’t know where to start. Actually, I’ll start with the overwhelming sadness caused by knowing this is the man from Lawrence of Arabia. Please, avoid this made-for-TV movie from 1984 based on the Rudyard Kipling novel. The book: classic. Peter O’Toole as a Tibetan lama in a skull cap: horrible.

What are some of your least-favorite ethnic casting moments?