Good Grief

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Ofter the longest stretch of searing secondary roles in recent memory (think Happiness, Boogie Nights, Flawless, Almost Famous), Phillip Seymour Hoffman gets a long-overdue chance to carry a picture with this month’s Love Liza. Written by Hoffman’s brother Gordy — the film stars Hoffman as Wilson Joel, a web designer struggling to comprehend his wife’s suicide. Unable to bring himself to read the note she left behind, Wilson spends his days huffing gasoline, falling in with a subculture of model-airplane enthusiasts, dodging the affections of an amorous co-worker and fleeing from his mother-in-law (Kathy Bates). As a meditation on grief, Love Liza is interesting; as a showcase for Hoffman’s range and intensity, it’s more than worth your time. (Sidenote: I hoped to ask Hoffman about all this, along with many other minorly invasive questions, but the publicist would only allow me ten minutes with him; if you’ve seen Hoffman’s movies, you’ll know that ten minutes of face time just isn’t enough.) — Michael Martin

You once said that, through performing, you let people see what’s wrong with you. How is this true with Love Liza?
I say “me,” meaning what’s wrong with everyone, in my experience. You feel like you let people know your vulnerabilities, your insecurities, all the different things that make you up, if those things play out in fictional characters. I hope people go, “Yeah, I hope that’s something we all deal with.”

Did you see any similiarity between Wilson, Scotty in Boogie Nights and Allen in Happiness: they’re all men who are plagued by sexual or romantic fixations.
None. I don’t think there’s any connection. Wilson was a guy who was happily married three days before you meet him, living in a nice house. Scotty Jay and Alan are people whose lifelong neuroses are being played out. With Wilson, the suicide is something that just happened to him in the present. [pause] I don’t think the three of them would hang out.

This film deals with loss in an unusually open way.
It’s weird. I don’t think Wilson shows anybody his grief. That’s what’s interesting to me. He goes to the mother-in-law, and she bolts. I think it’s actually very American, the way these people deal with it: running away, not dealing with it, like going on vacation. I think the movie does expose all the things he’s doing to get away from the actual pertinent grief process, which would involve reading the letter and weeping and wailing. The movie eventually gets to that, but in the meantime you see him in a lot of scenarios where he doesn’t have someone beside him. You see how much he loved this woman and it was pretty awful.

The film doesn’t give you many answers: you don’t know why Wilson’s wife kills herself. How did you work those answers out for yourself?
I think Wilson and his wife had the perfect relationship. They adored each other. And I had to think, what does it mean to be with someone? What does it mean to have plans with that person, assumptions of the way life is going to be? And what’s it like to be with someone who kept some kind of secret?

I think all this stuff is right on the money, from what I’ve read and heard about suicide. You don’t know that someone is going to kill himself, and that’s usually what people don’t want to accept. I read this great book, Darkness Visible, which is about how depression leads to a suicidal way of thinking, and how suicide is looked on as taboo. To Wilson, suicide is like a heart attack. A lot of people have suicides in their family, and they say it’s accident or an overdose, — anything not to address the fact of suicide. That’s not what the movie was about, but that’s how I started thinking about it. It was feasible that Wilson would know nothing about why his wife killed herself, and so it could really slam him when he would find out: Did it have anything to do with him?

Any personal experiences with grief that you used
Everyone’s had different kinds of grief, different levels. Everyone knows what it is. No one I’ve loved has ever committed suicide, but I think I understand what it’s like to be broken inside because of loss or need.

Actorly loss or need?
No. [Laughs.] I definitely wouldn’t use the trials of the actor for this role. It’s much more personal than that. 

© 2002 Michael Martin and Nerve.com.