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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Acting Teacher Remembers the Actor: ‘He was willing to journey to very complicated places’

Philip Seymour Hoffman's Acting Teacher Remembers the Actor: 'He was willing to journey to very complicated places'

Tony Greco, an acting teacher for 38 years, first worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman when the actor was 17 years old. That grew into a professional relationship that would span three decades and much of Hoffman’s finest work, including “Capote” and “The Master.” Greco spoke to Indiewire by phone Monday in New York.

I knew Phil from when he was about 17. I never saw a kid who loved acting as much as Phil. His love of acting was as big as his complicated life. There always seemed to be an outlet for all the complexity of his life. What concerns me is the complexity of his life got bigger than what he could handle for acting. In my eyes, as an acting teacher, 46 years old is a young instrument. It’s not an old actor. I know in Hollywood it’s an old actor. That’s what’s really the tragedy to me. I worry that Phil started to believe his press. The Phil I knew never believed his press, was always constantly struggling. And then I think that maybe when you’re a young instrument and you have the talent that Phil had and the world throws at you what it started to throw at Phil… that’s a lot to handle. I think that’s part of the sadness of what happens to young actors. I think he started to think he was invincible.

When Phil came to me with a great role, nothing was off limits. I could talk to Phil about any part of himself. Any aspect of his life. His love of the role was so big, his wanting to get to the truth of the part, that he was willing to journey to very complicated places. I have another student who I’ve known as long as Phil, Nicole Ari Parker, and she just did ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ on Broadway. And you can imagine that if you decide to take on Blanche DuBois, when the play is done you don’t go home and not think about all the questions that these great roles bring up inside of you. If you really decide to go where these great roles will take you, then you come out of them a changed person. You come out of them different because a great role… when an audience sees a great role, it should make them question their own lives. And when an actor takes on a great role, it should make them question their lives. They change.

You could say one thing to Phil and he’d come back with a hundred different things. He was constantly digging. And then I think there wasn’t enough outlet for all of that. Studio film isn’t going to let you dig. When you get these great roles, that digging… there’s something about addiction, about obsession and great acting. I think if there were more outlets for Phil… that’s something I’m stressing to my students. If they want to go be on some sitcom on the WB, then they don’t have to dig too deeply. But if they really want to be actors, they really have to find material that can support all of the life that’s inside of them. I think he needed as much of that outlet as he could have. Look at Orson Welles. Or Marlon Brando. The energy turns in on itself. Creativity is a complicated thing.

READ MORE: Critic’s Notebook: How Philip Seymour Hoffman Rescued American Movies 

[As a student], he was really a mess, but an absolutely creative mess. He was always a mess. But he was also incredibly accessible — to other actors, particularly young actors. More than once I’d hear from a student, “I ran into Phil on the street, I said, ‘I’m in your class,’ and he talked to me about acting for an hour.” Incredibly generous about acting. How difficult the journey was for him, too. He’d never sugarcoat it, how complicated things were for him. Difficult to center himself, to dig into the role, to cope with the whole process. While he was very challenged and challenging, he also could… he was very rebellious against the process, but he’d also work toward it. And he’d share that with students. He’d share how ambivalent the process could be for him. That’s something that people who have achieved a great deal no longer share with young actors. There’s a need for people to think it was easy for them, and that they were touched by god. The real magical ones are the ones that have a bumpy road.

When I started teaching him at Circle in the Square theater, he looked like he’d literally rolled out of bed and one eye would be on his cheek and the other would be on his forehead. But then he’d pick up a script and be unbelievably alive. And later, Phil had his ideas on scraps of paper, in his pocket, on his bicycle that you could see him riding through New York everywhere… you’d see him on his BMX bicycle on the street, he’d stop, and he’d talk to you about some great role. He was an old-fashioned actor in a certain way, and I mean that in the greatest of ways. I think that’s even why he died young. I think that… people like Monty Clift and James Dean, I don’t think that they were looking to die. I just think it was part of the way they lived their lives. It’s kind of like — people now don’t smoke or drink coffee or eat sugar because they’re going to live another day when they’re 97 years old.

I certainly didn’t work with Phil on every project. I think Phil only worked with me on roles that he wanted to dig deeper, to explore why people did what they did, people who deserved a deeper level of respect. I don’t think he wanted to step into the role in “The Master” [in a general way]. I think he thought it was too important to get to why this man was what he was. He came to me with “Capote” because he owed Truman the respect to reveal why he did this very human thing. That’s something I really respected about Phil.

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I am happy for one that someone (or 2) people were involved in this article. Too much of what an actor does is "kept a secret" by so many…maybe fear or ego. But I love reading that Phillip worked with Tony and (others) which is pretty clear in order to get deeper into roles. Many actors are scared of that, they call any kind of questioning of them self or a role "violent" so just stay home (!) or if a teacher takes any kind of time to talk about his/her work with an actor "looking for money" Well lets be clear WE ARE ALL ON THE INTERNET looking and reading and commenting on an article. Schools advertise. They use students names. Not sitting at home mourning. At a certain it helps to take something away to help all of us. I think this interview makes me have hope that if I work hard enough and are willing to really bring life to something maybe, just maybe I too can become an artist. Thanks Dana (more like this about an actors work but not for such sad reasons I pray)

A Girl You Know

I studied with Tony and thought his technique was violently reckless. He doesn't promote his class, though-it's all word of mouth-so reading this came as a bit of a shock. Even though he's explaining Phil's process here, it does sound self congratulatory like the same Tony who's methods I disagreed with in class.


Thank you for the warm and insightful interview

Make Money

This was all about money, money money. The day after Phil dies,??? Acting teacher?? If you REALLY know someone, YOU MOURN with the rest of us. MONEY, money OH MONEY.

Stephen Rider

I'm only writing this because I think what its question, in regard to Tony Greco's outlook of Mr. Hoffman and their process together, is a completely intimate relationship that doesn't need negativity. Buddha says, "If you don't have anything to add to silence, then remain silent." Let's focus on the weightier things. Calling someone an asshole reveals more about you then it does about the person in question. It's not misleading at all. Do we know the intimacy of their relatioship? Do we know the many conversations that were shared over the many years? So we can't begin to know a thing about it. Let's leave the pettiness where it belongs. If we don't have someting to say that uplifts Mr. Hoffmans legacy then I sugggest we keep the negativity to ourselves.

Timeca Seretti

I also disagree with the comment that this article is misleading. As an actress we often study with several different coaches and we tend to go to the coach when we get a particular role that we know will bring out the best in us. He (Greco) stated that Phil did not always study with him, so what is misleading about that? And what's more important is that he is giving us some insight into Phil's process, than taking credit for what he did or did not coach him on.

Janett Esserton

I think the article really offers some insight into an actors process. I was happy it was about his acting I disagree with the other comment. It does not seem like Harris or Greco are only taking credit. I am sure an actor comes to a career with many teachers look at Brando he had Stella and Strasberg. Greco is just offering his relationship with Phil. I hope it stays about the acting. Which I think Harris article does.

A bit misleading

Phil Hoffman had a lot of teachers, of which Tony Greco was only one. Alan Langdon & Terry Hayden were very influential starting with his time at Circle In The Square. So was Jackie Brooks. He was far from his only teacher or most influential, though Greco (& Dana Harris) make it sound that way. Tony says "Phil only worked with me on roles that he wanted to dig deeper, to explore why people did what they did, people who deserved a deeper level of respect," as though he couldn't do that without Tony Greco's help. What an asshole. Look, we're all mourning Phil's loss. We're just not all trying to gain some additional credibility or business, off his name.

ugly george

Circa 1996 a hip P.A. on "Boogie Nights" found Ugly George & noted that the producers were frantically searching 4 me to support Burt Reynolds & Hoffman in it; but a closet-queen Investor objected to UG's hit NYC cableTV "The Ugly George Hour Of Truth,Sex & Violence" (which she watched 700 times from her Closet) being in "her" flick…Now Phil has foned me on the special UG-Fantomfone & asked me 2 put him in my upcoming expose of The Golden Age Of Porn (UG was there, you know) with Linda Lovelace/Harry Reems/Marilyn Chambers,etc etc! Who ELSE should be thus immortalized? [email address private]

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