When Cameron Crowe was casting Almost Famous, he knew he'd found his Lester Bangs before Philip Seymour Hoffman even entered the picture. "He was a forceful presence with a big heart," the filmmaker tells Rolling Stone as part of our new cover story on the actor, who was found dead February 2nd of an apparent heroin overdose. "Both those things collided magnificently in Lester and in Phil."
What lead you to cast Hoffman as Lester Bangs?
Writing the part of Lester was the easiest thing in the world, from those memories of talking with him and being around him. From the very beginning, the part of Lester seemed like the key to getting the movie right, because Lester was such a huge personality and a major guy in my life. I could hear his voice in my head saying, "Get it right." So [casting director] Gail Levin and I were very careful about casting the part. I knew Phil from Twister and Boogie Nights, where he was amazing — you saw him melt into this compassionate figure you just ached for. And that was part of Lester.
But Lester was a big, Rob Reiner kind of guy, so we checked out some other actors who were more that physical type. Some really good actors came in and worked on it. I don't want to say who. They put all their heart in it. And I remember we were at the end of this very long day and Gail and I looked at each other and said, "It's Philip Seymour Hoffman — if we can get him."
So you hadn't even reached out to him yet?
No. It was almost like we were preparing to reach out. Also, I knew you wouldn't ask Phil to audition. So it was, "Can we send him the script?" My only request was a few days of rehearsal. I was so into the idea of everyone needed rehearsals. It was my story — there was a character playing my mom.
What happened next?
I spoke to Phil on the phone, and I sensed he loved music and understood Lester. He had a break in his schedule — he was about to do Magnolia. I think he'd already been reading Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. I said, "We're going to have two days' rehearsal," and there was a slight pause and he said, "You may only need a couple of hours." And I said, "Let's have two days." Not long after he came to Los Angeles and showed up at our office. He was kind of dressed Lester-ish but still kind of casual. You could see he had a glint in his eye. He already knew this character. He had a leather jacket but he didn't look like an actor — more like a rock critic. It's a subtle difference. Instantly he was a huge presence, not unlike Lester.
He sat down and we talked about the meaning of the script and the commercialization of music and movies. And that's where we bonded a bit. When he drove to the office, he'd seen a director on a billboard doing an endorsement for a product. So he referenced that as "the line is blurry now." In the time of the script, musicians didn't do commercials. The lines were clearly drawn. And he was very interested in exploring what that line was. We watched a bit of Lester from a BBC interview on TV and I remember looking at Phil and feeling, "He's putting the pieces together." He was studying some of Lester's movements. He had a process. Lester was talking about Bryan Ferry, and I could see Phil was soaking in the mannerisms, but even more than that, the gregarious sharpness of Lester's wit.
We went over one of the scenes and I looked at Phil, and at a certain point, he was sitting on a sofa and I was struck by this one thought: "He's ready." He had the character. It was like a piece had dropped into place in the conversation. If we had had a camera, we could have filmed that moment. I looked at the clock and it was two hours exactly. And he laughed and said, "Told ya."
Talk about the famous "we're uncool" scene.
I don't think he was buddy-buddy with Patrick [Fugit]. Lester didn't wear the mentor crown easy — but he wore it a little bit. Also, Phil was sick with the flu, but he refused to let that stop him. He said, "My face is gonna be a little red because I'm sick, but let's go." And he was locked in from day one. We lit the room and all those records were picked out specifically. We read through the scene and he was going for deeper water. It went very quickly. And it was only a couple of shots. It was his last scene in the movie.
I remember going for a walk afterwards and just being really surprised that the scene became a soul bonding. It was the ache and private glory of those two guys and the fact that Lester was going to give this kid some advice and yet they were brothers. Phil captured that. It wasn't just a mentor and a young student. It was two guys alone in the world sharing their deepest feelings. That was a side of Lester I couldn't believe I was seeing when I saw it.
Did Hoffman tweak the script?
He was very much a stick-to-the-text guy in my experience. He listened to Lester on headphones between takes, and then he'd pull off the headset right before he was ready to go. He wasn't yearning for a ton of feedback between every take. He set a course and was cutting through the water. You were just thrilled to watch him go.
What did he think of the movie?
I flew to New York for him to do some looping. I showed him all of his scenes and he seemed very fascinated to feel the whole movie and not just the character. He said, "What are you doing tonight — want to come see me and John C. Reilly in True West?" I was like, "Uhhh. . .yeah!" We went and saw this blazing performance, and he told us to come back afterwards. Backstage, there was a small throng to see him and John. Phil pops out. He seemed energized, jacked. He looks through this crowd of people and points to me and crooks his finger and says, "Come here!" He pulls me back into the dressing room and says, "Hey, you made a really good movie!" He looked me right in the eye. It was no longer Lester. It was Phil. We talked on the phone a few times after time, but that's the last time I ever saw him.