One of Hollywood's greatest character actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, 41, won a Best Actor Oscar in 2006 for his role as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller's Capote.
In his latest film, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, he plays Father Flynn, a Brooklyn priest who is accused of inappropriate behavior with a pupil by a nun (Meryl Streep) at the Catholic School where they work. Hoffman's performance in the film has earned him Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
"Phil was the only actor I could think of who could make Meryl sweat through every scene," says director Shanley. "And when they had their big scene, it was a battle royale; it was gladiatorial, it was outsized, and it was thrilling to watch. It was one of the most electrifying weeks I've ever had."
Doubt's intricate web of themes had always attracted Philip Seymour Hoffman. "I really like that there are no absolutes in this story, except people's passions. I love that it's a battle between the old and the new and, in the midst, religious issues, ethical issues, political and gender issues, and racial issues are all left up in the air," he says. "I think that's an astounding and rare thing."
Still, he was taken aback when he was offered the role. "When John Shanley called, it did take me by surprise because I'd never thought of myself in the part," he says. "But I knew it was a challenging, interesting piece and if John was offering me the role there must be a good reason for it. So it was one of those times when you say yes because it feels right and only then do you start to figure out what the role's really about."
Once Hoffman began to peer beneath the surface of Father Flynn, he became even more fascinated by the character, the ways in which he is both revealing and those in which he conceals himself. "I would describe him first as a modern thinker," he says. "He has a way of looking at faith, religion and a lot of things in life that I think challenges the status quo of how the church is run."
That modernity rankles Sister Aloysius (Streep) well before she ever has reason to accuse him of anything and makes them natural enemies - and yet, Hoffman sees them as sharing much in common. "I think they're similar in a lot of ways," he offers. "They're both very strong individuals who see things one way. She sees him as a threat to her way of life, her identity and her view of the church; and he sees her as a threat to how he wants to relate to the parishioners. And neither one is someone who will back down."
Hoffman says that he came to his own private conclusions as to Father Flynn's actual guilt in the matter at hand but he never shared them with Streep and he, like Shanley, prefers to let the audience come to their own decisions. "One of the wonderful things about this story is that at any given point, you might have empathy for any one of the characters, and I think people will be split over Father Flynn," he says. "It's an unsolved mystery. It isn't necessary to always offer the answer."
Doubt opens in cinemas across Metro Manila starting this Wednesday, February 4.