The late Philip Seymour Hoffman was undoubtably one of the greatest actors of his generation. His work in everything from Scent of a Woman to Capote to The Master will resonate forever. But in an odd twist of fate, his portrayal of Brandt, the manservant to the millionaire Lebowski in The Big Lebowski, has become one of his most beloved roles despite the fact he’s on only onscreen for a few minutes. The grin on his face when Tara Reid offers to perform a sexual act on Jeff Bridges for one thousand dollars is priceless, as is the way he explains that Nancy Reagan was the “First Lady of the nation, not of California” in an earlier scene.
Back in 2008, we spoke to Hoffman about The Big Lebowski for a story commemorating its 10-year anniversary. Almost all of this interview has been unpublished until now.
Tell me your memories of your first audition for Lewboski.
I remember having a good time, I think I went in twice. I remember the Coen brothers laughing a lot. I was just kind of enjoying the writing, I remember that. I had a good time with what they wrote and the character. I was worried what I was doing was too much, but I left really feeling good about it.
They really co-direct their movies, right?
Pretty much. On the set you’ll get notes from both of them, but they never clash or get in each other’s way. They really know how to work together. . .I’ve never experienced that dynamic of two directors before. It’s always been one director. But I worked with them on one film and one theater thing, and you never even think about it.
The script is pretty iron-clad, right? They don’t allow you to really deviate. . .
Oh, no. I don’t remember deviating at all. The script is pretty solid. It’s such a great read. I remember reading it the first time and laughing out loud. It was just hysterical. I was in my old apartment and it was just very, very funny.
Did you imagine it could be a hit?
I really loved them as directors, as a team. I love their movies, back to Blood Simple. I just knew they were really talented guys. I wasn’t thinking about the success, but more about being part of something that would be well done and that funny. I definitely thought they were going to do a good job.
It’s a pretty rare gift they have to go from such serious drama to such hysterical comedy.
They do sort of mix those two things. Fargo is a bit of a mix. They can do anything, those guys. They are pretty amazing.
I’ve heard people say that before filming they see the movie in their heads, and all they have to do is execute that.
It seemed like that. They were very confident about each shot, and the way it was lighted. I remember one moment thinking, “Ah, I’m in a Coen brothers” movie just from the way it was lit. They have a certain style. They’re on top of it, they know what they’re doing. I never showed up when they weren’t completely prepared. And since they create a storyboard for every camera angle, you know exactly how they’re going to show it too and so you don’t have to ask a lot of questions about it. You kind of know already, which is what I liked about working with them.
The film really tanked at the box office. Did that surprise you?
To be honest, back then I really didn’t think about it. I just remember enjoying the movie. I think a lot of people really enjoyed that movie, and it just didn’t do well at the box office. Who knows why that happened? Many movies I think are great don’t do well, and many movies I don’t like do real well. Who knows? I didn’t really think about that at the time.
You’ve done so many movies since then and your career has really taken off. Are you still recognized as Brandt?
Oh yeah. It’s a huge fan base. It definitely goes under the cult film status, for sure. People that love that film, love it, and they’ve seen it a lot and know it very well. I like that about that movie. I feel the same way. It’s one of those films that I haven’t seen in years, but sometimes I’ll catch snippets of it on something as I’m passing through the TV and it does make you want to stop and watch it. All the scenes are so great.
Do you have a favorite scene?
I don’t think I do. I like so many things about it. The scenes in the bowling alley are terrific. There are so many, just the opening shot of him in the super market where he pays with a check for milk. Then the landlord comes by and later they’re in the theater watching his dance piece. There’s just so many great scenes.
I love that in the middle of all the chaos, they find time to attend the landlord’s dance cycle.
Yeah, they gotta pay their respects. It’s just so good.
Some people just watch the movie over and over and there’s even Lebowksi fan conventions. How do you explain its appeal?
I don’t know. I guess the whole film’s attitude, you hate to lay too much meaning onto something that’s enjoyable. But there’s a freedom to the film. The Dude abides, and that’s something people really yearn for, to be able to live their life like that and have other people treat them like that. There’s something about that. There’s a quality to that. You can see why young people all over would want to enjoy that. It’s a celebration of that sort of attitude.
Just having no job and devoting all your time to bowling and leisure. . .
It’s also the idea that the Dude doesn’t want to bother anybody. He doesn’t want to make life difficult for others. I think that’s definitely part of it, and he’s thrown into this situation where he has to deal with all these things. . .I just don’t think he wants to cause anybody any harm or any hassles.
Are there certain thing fans often say to you on the street?
They just tell me they love the movie or they yell out “Hey, Brandt!” It’s stuff like that.
You’ve gone on to so many major roles since then, and it’s funny to think they’re yelling out about a very minor role from over a decade ago.
Yeah. It’s a pretty big. . .Back then and even now, it was a really great job. I would still consider that a great job. All the characters in that movie were wonderful, down to the smallest and smallest of characters. They’re all wonderful and they all made an impact somewhere in the movie. Those are the best kinds of jobs and they’re hard to come by.