What Philip Seymour Hoffman Told Us About Grieving

Philip Seymour Hoffman did not suffer fools lightly. And as a talented but troubled bear of a man who died too young at 46 on the floor of a New York apartment he wouldn't be much in for sugar-coating.

The last time I saw Philip, I was apologizing to him. It was at a swanky lunch in honor of Cate Blanchett's performance in "Blue Jasmine" earlier in awards season. As I turned to greet a friend, my hair whisked across a stranger's face. I looked over my shoulder and there was Phil. I cringed, mortified. I knew he had a temper.

I apologized. Hoffman shrugged, surprisingly relaxed. Had he mellowed with age?

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Hoffman, once a rebel, had long been a fixture on the Manhattan film and theater scene – but he hadn't completely tidied up his act to please anybody. Even at the swanky lunch, he was still looking relatively schlubby for a name-brand actor.

But what he always valued were actors, and he was there to show solidarity and support for one he long admired: Cate Blanchett.

It was nice to see Hoffman at the peak of his game, despite persistent rumors of drug abuse and rehab, balancing mainstream hits like "The Hunger: Catching Fire" and indie movies, television comedy and a family of three. He already had four Oscar nominations, too, and one win (for "Capote").

As a co-founder of the actor-driven LAbyrnth Theater Company, PSH remained close to his New York theater roots. He had just completed a very successful run of the Arthur Miller Classic "Death of a Salesman."

I thought he'd mellowed with age because the first time I interviewed him, over a decade earlier 2002, PSH had been anything but warm and cuddly. Prickly, that's what he was.

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The interview was at the Sundance Film Festival for a small and nearly forgotten drama called "Love Liza," a film about a man grieving over his wife's suicide that Philip's brother Gordy had written.

Hoffman didn't want to talk about anything but the work, the work, the work -- and, of course, my publication at the time (Us Weekly) wanted to know about the man, the man, the man. He was not interested. And he wasn't particularly concerned about the impression that he made.

Sadly, that movie was about inconsolable grief, and Hoffman had a lot to say about a drama that concentrated on three or four months of a guy grieving and, ironically, becoming addicted to "gas huffing," or inhaling gasoline fumes.

"We want to deal with it straight on," Hoffman told me. He was quick to add that "Love Liza" was not a metaphor for relatively recent world events: "This film is not about 9/11," he told me. "I was talking to somebody the other day, after 9/11, about getting back to normal. Odd. What is normal? And why would I want to get back to it? Maybe we have to change. Sometimes we have to destroy what we had. "

That quote, and that grieving process, reflects a lot of who Hoffman was as a man and as an actor – he had demons, and even success couldn't bury them.

Hoffman wanted to face the darkness straight on, even when there was so much light. Even in the dark comedies of his that I loved – "The Savages," or the ironically titled "Happiness" -- he brooded his way to a laugh.

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Back at Sundance, Hoffman explained: "Grieving is not just sitting in the corner and crying. It's the exact opposite. These people are actively trying to do something and what they are doing is active, human and alive, and ultimately lead to catharsis. To get there a person has to do a lot of work."

So, in reaction to Hoffman's premature passage, we need to go back to his work, and try hard, as he would have done, to find meaning in this death.

He found life messy, weird, funny, beautiful and endlessly difficult. He stared down the long, dark hallway that most of us avoid.

He did not live easily in the world. He tried. But he didn't.

"Normal is an odd word," Hoffman told me a decade ago. "Living a somewhat healthy life that makes you happy at the end of the day is alright. But normal? Not Sundance, because the movie world doesn't make you feel at ease at the end of the day."