The Stage Is A World In 'Synecdoche, New York'

Philip Seymour Hoffman i i

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays troubled theater director Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. Cotard constructs a replica of New York in a warehouse and attempts to stage a re-creation of his own life. Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics
Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays troubled theater director Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. Cotard constructs a replica of New York in a warehouse and attempts to stage a re-creation of his own life.

Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis as Madeleine Gravis i i

Therapeutic?: Cotard's psychiatrist, played by Hope Davis, is mostly concerned with pitching her self-help best-seller. Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis as Madeleine Gravis

Therapeutic?: Cotard's psychiatrist, played by Hope Davis, is mostly concerned with pitching her self-help best-seller.

Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard sits on a stairwell. i i

Cotard is constantly preoccupied with thoughts of death. "He's kind of lost in time," Hoffman says. Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard sits on a stairwell.

Cotard is constantly preoccupied with thoughts of death. "He's kind of lost in time," Hoffman says.

Abbot Gensler/Sony Pictures Classics

In Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a troubled theater director who decides his next production will be a re-creation of his own life. A "synecdoche" — cleverly reminiscent, but not to be confused with Schenectady — is, as Merriam-Webster reminds us, "a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole."

The film, which opens Friday, is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Hoffman talks with NPR's Melissa Block about attempting to stage an existential production on a grand scale.

'He Knows He's Gonna Die'

Caden Cotard is a character who cannot separate life and art, Hoffman says:

"I think he sees life and art kind of mixed ... And if you're going to create something, you should create something that is profound."

The film follows Cotard through trying personal times — his wife leaves him and takes his daughter to Germany; and over the course of the movie, his body deteriorates with age.

"You really are checking in on his life over a 40-year span," Hoffman says, "And that time in the movie keeps getting faster and faster as you move through it."

Hoffman says the film's treatment of the passage of time is quite realistic.

"Life doesn't splay out in front of you like on a road," Hoffman says. "Life kind of stacks on top of itself in the film."

Throughout the film, Cotard contemplates his own death.

"He knows he's gonna die," Hoffman says, "and he's not trying to deny that or look away from that."

'You're The Public Defender'

Hoffman has played many troubled characters, but he says his job as an actor is to investigate the characters' life stories so that he can be their advocate.

"You're their attorney," he says. "You're the public defender for your characters. ... You have to plead their case."

Troubled though they may be, Hoffman says that with the exception of a few roles, he doesn't think that he's played anyone "extraordinarily weirder or stranger than most people walking the planet."

"I think people are kind of weird," Hoffman says. "People go through rough patches. ... Film and theater ... is about drama. It's about the person struggling, it's about the person trying."

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