David Mamet on Philip Seymour Hoffman and “The Handle and the Hold”
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HH: Yesterday was a lousy day. It was a lousy day, and some of you in Seattle are saying no, it wasn’t, it was a great day, and I understand that. Seahawks fan excepted, it was a lousy football game. But even before it was a lousy football game, a wonderful actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was found dead in his New York apartment. And I just thought the whole day had a pall over it as a result of that. And my friend, Lileks, wrote about the loss of his dog, Jasper, a 19 year companion over at www.lileks.com. So as I was thinking this morning who would I want to thread my way through these things, I thought David Mamet is exactly the guy to talk to. And I wanted to talk to him anyway, because I’ve been wanting to talk to him about The Handle And The Hold, his short story in Three War Stories, which he published last year, and he joins me now. David Mamet, welcome, it’s great to have you on.
DM: Oh, thanks, Hugh, it’s always great to be here.
HH: Now obviously you worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman. You directed him in State And Main. I don’t know if you worked with him in any other setting on the stage or anything like that, but how shocked are you by this?
DM: Well, it’s terrible. I mean, it’s a dreadful loss. I mean, once in a while, somebody comes along, and in this case, an actor in the arts, and you say my gosh, I’ve never seen that guy before. I’ve never, that’s the definition of an artist, right? It’s that something’s coming out of him that’s so unique that it’s never been seen before on land and sea. And that’s who he was both on stage and on the screen.
HH: Now when I started to look into this life yesterday, because I’ve just enjoyed him as an actor, I found an interview that he did with the Wall Street Journal, and that’s when I thought of calling you, because it’s an interview that came out after A Late Quartet debuted. And in it, he says a few things. He says when I’m in a play, or especially when I’m in a play, I don’t function well. I think it’s very difficult to navigate your life when you’re in the middle of trying to create something that’s bringing up stuff all the time. He went on to say when I think about going on stage, I get so scared now. To do a play is so frightening. And he was reminded of being in Death Of A Salesman, and he said an incredible thing, but it’s so scary to me, it’s petrifying. Is that common among actors, David Mamet?
DM: Well, who knows? I mean, actors are, I’ve spent my whole life among actors, professionally for fifty years. I’m crazy about them. I don’t know what they do. I’m just thrilled to be next to it. And I think to the largest extent, they don’t know what they do, because there’s a little bit of technique involved, and a vast amount of courage, and a vast amount of talent, and someone who can say I don’t know where this is coming from, but I’m going to let it out, and couple that talent with the courage to let themselves be, and the discipline to let it move in the right direction, someone like Phil. That’s a marvelous thing. It’s a terrible loss.
HH: Did you know when you were directing him in 2000 that he was in recovery, because evidently, he was addicted young and then was in recovery for 20 years, and then had a bad couple of years.
DM: I had no idea. I had no idea at the time or since that he had any problem, either addiction or otherwise, and I was shocked by his death and sad to find out that that was his problem yesterday.
HH: I want to read to you one last quote, and then expand it a little bit further than that, and then talk about this amazing story as well, because it really is, The Handle And The Hold is amazing, and there is an overlap which we’ll come to. Hoffman said to the interviewer when he was asked how do you negotiate your artistic passions with your everyday life, he said I don’t do it very well. I’m not a good example. I think some people do it well. I know some actors. They know how to have their life. They can compartmentalize in a way. But me, things kind of go to pot when I’m doing a show, and then the show’s over and I can get back to my life. But I know that’s the kind of deal I make when I do these things. I think that’s also to me what he film was about, he’s talking about The Last Quartet. Again, it takes something from me to give on that kind of level, to commit that much. What are you willing to risk? What kind of life are you willing to lead to have that? For any serious person doing this, I think this is a question you have to answer, or at least I know that it’s a question. Now that’s very similar to some stuff you talked about in The Secret Knowledge about having a compass and knowing which way you’re going. Is that common as well among actors, that their lives go to hell when they’re in the middle of big and important projects?
DM: Well, it’s not common, it’s universal. And Phil is being very, very hard on himself. It’s one of the terrible things that one has to do. Curiously, it’s harder in the theatre than it is on the set, because on the set, yes, you’re there for 18 hours a day. But if you’re acting on the set, you have many hours off, and you can catch up with your family and this and that. And you learn to switch gears back and forth between acting and resting, or acting and your hobbies or whatever, the acting and your family. But when you’re doing a play, you, that’s your life, and it looks like you have all day to yourself, but you don’t, because everything in you is geared toward that curtain all day long. And it’s, many, many actors tend to beat up on themselves, because they can’t make the shift. But of course they can’t make the shift. And listen, Hugh, it’s like saying if you were an actor, and an actor of that stature especially, and you’re going out live in front of a thousand people a night, it’s like going to play the Super Bowl. If someone’s going to play the Super Bowl at 4:00 in the afternoon, you can’t say yes, but it doesn’t start until 4, you know, let’s go ice skating with the kids.
HH: You know, David, do you have that problem, too? I mean, as a director, you’ve told me before you’ve watched the play from the back of the room, and sometimes, you’re not there, and it’s brutal. It’s a brutal business. But do you have that kind of fear of it? Or is it, are you long past that?
DM: Well, you know, I don’t think Phil was frightened of acting. I think he was, if you listen to the quote, he was beating up on himself for some, like many of us do, for something which is universal, and saying I guess I’m just no good, right? But the other way to interpret it is he wants to be great, because it’s his gift, and it’s his responsibility to go out there and be great. And so he has to shut off the rest of the world. Of course, he does.
HH: Now here’s the thing that really surprises me, and you’ve been around actors your entire life. You are a producer, screenwriter, director, all this stuff. Do they not have friends who pull them back? Is there no one who would know that he’s got 50 package of heroin in his room and he’s relapsed from his rehab? Are they essentially lonely figures?
DM: Well, somebody, and I think it was William Allen White, said, he says there’s no man on the face of the Earth who isn’t crazy for one hour out of the waking twelve. But if you think about it, many professions have downsides. Of course then Devlin said that printers come here to get drunk, because they would move from town to town as the work dried up, and they had to establish camaraderie with the new people, and so they’d send each other rounds of drinks, so they were drunk all the time. I mean, one of the dark secrets of the medical profession is that many doctors are impaired by drugs. And one of the secrets of, perhaps of a lot of show business is that there’s a lot of pressure, and in some cases, a lot of money, and I guess the drugs and the booze are around.
HH: Are you familiar, is it common to have deep friendships of the sort that people check each other in their cycles?
DM: Of course. Of course, it is. And you know, as they say, the kind of trouble you’re going to get into in life can be predicted by the kind of friends you have.
HH: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, that leaves that pregnant. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know he was talking about courage in this interview, and that’s what the subject of The Handle And The Hold is, and I want to go there next. This is a meditation on courage. And I didn’t see it coming at the end, and people will have to read the story. But when did you decide to write about Americans assisting in the founding of Israel?
DM: Well, The Handle And The Hold is about two guys, two American GIs who assist in the founding of Israel. And I’d written about it several times before. I wrote a book called Passover about a woman who had been a sniper in the Israeli war, and I wrote a movie we haven’t made yet called Russian Poland about two GIs stealing a plane in Czechoslovakia. And I wrote several things on the subject, because it was so close…oh, you know, I’ll tell you what I did. I did a movie called, what the hell is it called, Homicide about a Jewish cop played by Joe Mantegna who gets involved in the history of the family that had been gunrunners to the nascent state of Israel. So I know some of these people, and it’s, to me, it’s like meeting with George Washington, the courage of these people to help found the Jewish state. It’s one of the great stories that has been forgotten ever since Exodus. And the animosity in the West, the anti-Semitism, which in this case is called anti-Zionism, is appalling. And the more I think about it, the more I want to write about it.
HH: Well, the old man who is orchestrating the running of, in this case, not guns but an airplane to the not-yet Israel Palestinian Authority is a veteran of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe, and of the Jewish brigade within it. He is a veteran of the revenge squads of the Haganah. Is this based on anyone in particular?
DM: Well, I know, as I say, I know a bunch of these guys. And I would never identify them by name, but there’s a lot of them out there. And of course, as any fictional character, these guys are a mélange. But for example, my good friend, rest in peace, Sidney Lumet, with whom I did a whole bunch of work and who was a friend, we used to live around the corner, and his daughter, Amy, told me just recently that he’d been a member of the Irgun, and that he was involved in getting planes to Israel before the war.
HH: No kidding?
DM: Oh, yeah. And what he did was he staged a phony movie where they were flying in these Spitfires, and he’s doing this phony movie, and of course, everybody looked at these Spitfires coming in, but nobody realized that they weren’t going away at the end. And I should say that for some of your listeners who aren’t aware, there was an arms embargo against the state of Israel.
HH: Yeah, we’re going to come back and talk about that. Don’t go anywhere. David Mamet is my guest talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman and about Israel. His book, Three War Stories, you’ve really got to read it.
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HH: That is Opus 131, which is drawn, the principal theme of the last movie I remember Philip Seymour Hoffman being in, A Late Quartet. I’m talking with producer/director/writer David Mamet, who directed and knew Philip Seymour Hoffman about not only Hoffman, but his book, Three War Stories, and the courage element Hoffman talks about in the interview I discussed with David Mamet in the last segment about courage and what it takes to be an actor. In this book, it takes a lot of courage for these American GIs to A) come back with 85 million other guys to ten jobs, as you put it, and then decide to throw in with establishing the state of Israel, and doing so from Las Vegas. And I am curious if you knew this kind of guy in Chicago who is Nick?
DM: I knew, yeah, one of the character is a Jewish cop who after the war becomes involved in the Las Vegas police, and another guy who is a Jewish criminal from Chicago.
HH: He’s a wise guy.
DM: Yeah, he’s a wise guy from Chicago, a Jewish wise guy in Chicago. Yes, I did know those guys, and I was privileged. I was privileged, not, you know, you come out here to the West Coast and to the ex-Jewish business of show business, and people talk about weak Jews, the weak Jews, the passive Jews. I never met a weak Jew in my life. Growing up, you know, my parents were the Depression generation and the war generation. All those men and women were strong as steel. And I’d like to say something about courage today if I will.
DM: If I may, and that’s, that the state of Israel’s fighting for its life. It has been for sixty-some years under attack every day. The same Arab fanaticism which is trying to eradicate Israel is trying to destroy the United States and crops up as terrorism constantly. And for someone to speak out against that, someone prominent to speak out against it is an act of courage. And I’m talking about Scarlett Johansson. Scarlett Johannsson was, is the spokeswoman for a company, a Jewish company that’s set up in, I think at…
HH: Yeah, Sodastream.
DM: Yes, a soda company, and she’s the spokeswoman. Now they employ about 500 Palestinian Arabs in Ma’ale Adumim, and Oxfam, which is the Oxford anti-hunger, whatever the hell it is, I think she was on the board, she was nonetheless a spokeswoman for that. She wanted to eradicate hunger. They kicked her off because she was speaking up for, because she was also a spokeswoman for a commercial enterprise that happened, P.S., to be employing a whole bunch of Palestinian Arabs. And they thought that it was part of the Israeli “occupation”, and she turned to Oxfam, and she told them where to go. God bless her.
HH: Yeah, there is a lot of that in this story, both the mama who sends her son on Okinawa the .45 in a Filco, and the son, I’d never heard of a Nambu until I read this story, actually, David Mamet. I didn’t know what a Nambu was, so I don’t know where you did your research, but it’s awfully good. There’s a lot of that. And do you sense that people have forgotten this story how Israel got there, how it actually lives precariously on the edge and requires courage of this sort?
DM: It’s not that they’ve forgotten, Hugh, it’s that they don’t know and they don’t want to know. The colleges in the United States, the universities, are almost exclusively leftist and anti-Zionist, and are trying constantly, and many of them have, divested themselves of Israeli holdings, and are teaching some sort of cockamamie diversity, which is another name for racism, and are anti-Jewish. And the Jewish kids who go to college are brought up in the midst of this filth, and they’re, I don’t know what the countervailing force is. There are some of them. One is AIPAC, the American-Israel Political Action Committee, which is working with members of Congress. Another one is Birthright, which is an organization which will send any kid who’s Jewish between the ages of 18 and 25, they’ll send him or her to Israel free for two weeks to look around and make up their own mind. But other than that, the media is on the left, and the universities are on the left, and the Jews, as usual, we are out in the cold.
HH: So a story within a story, and in this case, of Nails Nathan, whom you call Stone Jew. He’s a gangster in Chicago.
HH: And it’s, people have to read the story. It’s a very funny and amusing story. Is that good for people to hear, because I’m sure that’s based on something that’s somewhere in your Chicago past.
DM: No, it’s a true story. The story was there was a fellow I called, he had two names. They actually put it in a movie early on. It was Nails Nathan was either his real name or something like his real name, and he worked for Capone. And he came back and he won the Medal of Honor, I believe, in World War I. He came back, he was working for Capone, and he was a big horseman, and he used to ride his horse all elegantly togged out in British horseware through Lincoln Park every day. One day, his horse threw him and kicked him, and he died. And the guys went to the horse that night and machine gunned him.
HH: It’s a great story within the story. All right, to the end of this, I don’t want to tell people the choice Nick makes, because it’s an interesting choice, and it’s a choice at the end of the story, and there’s a lot of wonderful reading before that. So what capacity, what percentage of people have that capacity to make that choice?
DM: Everybody has it. To be a hero? Everybody has the capacity to make the choice, because the hero journey is someone says thank you, I’d rather not. Moses says that, Jesus says that, Jonah says that. Everybody says that. They say yeah, now is not good for me, God. I see your point, but now is really not a good time for me. Please pick someone else, please let this cup pass from me. So the story of the hero journey is of course we’re all terrified, but that’s who the hero is. He’s somebody who says yes, I’m scared to death, I’m not, I mean, Moses couldn’t even talk. He says I’m not qualified, it’s not a good time for me, I’ve got to go pick up my cleaning. Pick someone else. But the hero goes anyway, and through putting up with his own feelings of inadequacy and his own feelings of cowardice, and not conquering them, but being able to live with them, he creates a heroic act.
HH: And that brings me back to where I began with Philip Seymour Hoffman. In this interview, and I sent it to you before we did this, it’s all about being afraid and conquering fear. And what’s your advice to actors who are tempted to go off and sedate that fear, which obviously that’s what he was doing?
DM: Well, who knows? You know, addiction’s a terrible thing. I smoked one cigarette, and it took me twenty years to get free of it. So I guess the best advice is the stoical advice to avoid temptation for fear you cannot withstand temptation.
HH: That’s easier said to an older person than a younger person who’s living the life, right?
DM: Of course.
HH: …when they’re living the life. So David, how’s this book done, Three War Stories?
DM: I think it’s done pretty well. It’s an e-book. We should point that out. You can download it from Amazon either in its totality as Three War Stories, or individually as The Handle And The Hold, which is the story about the Jews.
HH: We’re going to come back, because I said I want to do each of them. Notes On Planes Warfare is the one we haven’t done, and I skipped out of order. But I wanted to do The Handle And The Hold, because it’s just, with the Iranian thing happening in real time, you must wake up every morning thinking these choices are going to get made again very soon.
DM: Well, of course they are. Yes, of course they are. And you know, you read, for example, during World War II, there was a famous, I don’t know if we talked about this, the Taft letter. There were 20,000 Jewish children, and they got visas to get them out of Nazi Germany, and they put them on a boat. And Roosevelt wouldn’t let them land.
DM: And Senator Taft wrote a letter to the Hadassah or the B’nai B’rith, or someone saying surely you must understand that although we want to be humanitarian, if we let these children in, their parent will want to come in, and it’s a bad precedent and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So we sent them back to die. And the current political climate is sending Israel out to die, and Israel is our ally. And Israel has been in the forefront of fighting Arab terrorism for sixty-six years.
HH: I hope you will write about one thing, David Mamet. You say an American will fight for a girl, himself or the world. I hope you’re still right about the last one. David Mamet, thanks for joining me on a sad day for anyone who loves great art. David Mamet is the author of Three War Stories, and of course, the director of Philip Seymour Hoffman in State And Main, and many other wonderful works of film.
End of interview.