Philip Seymour Hoffman on Emotions and Acting

On February 2nd, officials found Philip Seymour Hoffman dead in his New York City apartment with a needle in his arm and 70 bags of heroin. But almost a year ago, Hoffman sat on stage, animated and energetic as he discussed acting, emotions and habit at an NYU event. It was reportedly around that time, in the spring of 2013, that Hoffman resurrected a habit he had kicked for over twenty years. I sat in the audience that night at NYU and took notes. I went back to those notes the other day, and as I read through Hoffman’s comments, my emotions between then and now had changed.


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Beyond his work on survival circuits in the rodent model, Joe LeDoux directs The Emotional Brain Institute, a joint incentive between NYU and New York State. EBI is a group of major researchers in the field of emotion, including Liz Phelps, LeDoux’s human research counterpart. Its goals are twofold: solve the problems of fear and anxiety in the brain and celebrate emotion. EBI brings together science and other academic disciplines through the lens of emotion, and hopes to focus the public eye on emotion research.
On March 7th, 2013, EBI hosted “Once More With Feeling: The Emotional Brain, The Actor, and His Audience.” Mark Wing-Davey, an actor, director and friend of Hoffman moderated a discussion with neuropsychologist, Ray Dolan, actor Tim Blake Nelson and, as noted, Philip Seymour Hoffman. They were together because for scientists looking to understand emotion, actors make perfect research subjects. This event “opened dialogue between neuroscience and actors to explore some of the neural correlates of being emotionally labile,” said Franchesca Ramirez, an NYU student who works with Phelps and LeDoux. Currently Phelps is working with the NYU acting school to bring actors into the lab as models of emotion. Research hasn’t started, however, they are meeting to discuss what questions to ask how they might conduct future studies.


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I was a VIP usher at the NYU event. It had evoked a sense of annoyed uneasiness in me. Actors, to me, were so “Hollywood,” so full of themselves and just so—so sure of the world. But now, as the media brings to light details of Hoffman’s battle with addiction, I’m left with an eerie feeling. Hoffman wasn’t a shallow actor, but a victim of the trade. As an occupation, acting burdens its employees to simulate emotions and balance a thin line between fact and fiction, and Hoffman’s words that night depicted the struggle of any actor. He was a man suspended and pulled between multiple worlds, and although it gives no excuse for addiction, it at least makes room for compassion. One thing Hoffman said is particularly disturbing. He said bringing the past into acting must be artful. It can’t be analyzed, yet “sometimes you learn something about yourself. Wow. You know what? Ugh.” And the audience laughed. – by: JoAnna Klein

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