The Gospel According to Philip Seymour Hoffman

Before "Doubt" the Oscar winner found the spirit on stage in an "unwieldy" Jesus

Phil’s strength as a director of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” which debuted at the Public Theater in 2005, was partially the result of his interest in, and familiarity with, the raw material of play. From the beginning, he encouraged the cast to ask questions about the Gospels and the story of Jesus and Judas. Some of this comfort had to do with his religious background.

As a boy growing up in a town outside of Rochester, New York, Phil attended Sunday classes in preparation for confirmation in the Catholic Church, though his parents were not especially religious. “My parents were pretty liberal people, who didn’t talk about God much in the house,” he said.

Early on, religion was uninviting to him. “Those Masses really turned me off,” he said. “Lots of rote repetition, pretty boring and sometimes really brutal.”

His perspective changed when one of his two sisters became active in a Christian evangelical movement, to which she still belongs today. She encouraged her brother to accompany her to meetings with her friends, and Phil went along happily. “There was something that was so heartfelt and emotional,” he said. “Nothing about it felt crazy at all. And my sister was certainly the sanest person you could ever meet. It all felt very real, very guttural, even rebellious.”

The idea that a young person could be sane, generous, intelligent and Christian held out great appeal for him. So did the palpable sense of community he felt with his sister and her friends. Still, he held back from the total commitment that his sister made. “It was a little too much for me,” he said. “And by that time I was more into partying and acting.”

“My image of Jesus
is someone who is exciting,” Hoffman
said after the show
had closed. Though
that word is too infrequently used to describe Jesus, I
agreed with him.

“Were he alive
today, he would be causing havoc!”

So Phil, who describes himself as a believer and someone who prays from time to time, carried this positive approach to Christianity with him into the Public Theater during the rehearsals for the new play about Jesus and Judas. “My time with my sister and her circle of friends is something I still think about today.” He noted that he is often defensive about the way that many actors react to the idea of evangelical Christians. Is there a bias, I asked, against that kind of person in the acting community?

“Absolutely!” he said. “It pisses me off that there is this knee-jerk reaction against them. There is certainly an antipathy against them in the acting world, just like there is an antipathy in the politically liberal world. And, as a result, the liberal Christian is not heard from as much. And, you know, a liberal person who has a deep belief in Christianity can be a very powerful influence on things.”

His natural curiosity also prompted a desire for further study of the Gospel narratives. Consequently, Phil was sometimes the most animated person at the table readings at the Public Theater, especially when we talked about Jesus of Nazareth. “My image of Jesus is someone who is exciting,” he said after the show had closed. Though that word is too infrequently used to describe Jesus, I agreed with him.

“Were he alive today, he would be causing havoc!”

I laughed when he said this, but he was right. The tame, doe-eyed, unthreatening Jesus is not the Jesus found in the Gospels. (Nor is it likely he would have attracted many followers.) More often it is the Jesus who in his upending of the status quo proves a threat to those around him.

Phil recounted seeing an episode of Fox TV’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” in which Bill O’Reilly and a commentator discussed the recent capture of a Christian man during the Iraq war. The commentator told O’Reilly that the Christian hostage had forgiven his captors, and then she asked the host, to his discomfort, whether he thought that Jesus would have invaded Iraq. O’Reilly evaded the question, and so she answered: He wouldn’t.

Phil loved that. “That’s exactly right!” he said. “Jesus forgave his persecutors. If he were around today, he would be doing things that would be so… unwieldy!”