I’d seen every movie, read reviews of every play, and studied the way he would prepare for a role.
My friend Zach, an old college roommate from theatre school who moved to New York after we graduated, talked about serving him in the bar he was working at. I’d always ask what he was like.
Of course not, what would be strange about the most amazing actor in the world (to me) just ordering a beer? He was a local in his neighborhood and he worked a ton. Multiple movies and plays all going on at once.
In 2008 The New York Times cited him saying:
“I try to live my life in such a way that I don’t have profound regrets. That’s probably why I work so much. I don’t want to feel I missed something important.”
As the news of his death graced my phone as I lay in bed the flu, I felt a bit of my heart breaking. But not before it started to race with anxiety and fear. While I had, at one time, wanted to live Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life, I realized that I came very close to dying his death, in a manner of speaking.
The next role, the next job, the next high.
Addicts have a tendancey to be runners. We’re either running from something or to something. Addicts love to chase the wind.
But with all that running, with all those vapor-grasping marathons come a tremendous amount of pain, and with this pain, comes an even more enormous desire to numb it all away: more jobs, more work, more heroin, more porn, more money, more food — you name the drug.
In the art world, this strange phenomenon of chasing the wind seems to always ends in disaster.
Willy Loman finally crashes the car in his moment of grandeur.
Michael Jackson must be kept alive to keep the tour going until he can’t be kept alive any longer.
Nina Sayers gives everything she has — literally dying onstage — but finally gets the standing ovation she (and her mother) always dreamed of.
In 2003 I went to NYC to find an apartment, perform in an “up-and-comers” musical review, and finally stake claim to the dream that began when I was 9 years old. I had seen Scent of a Woman and Magnolia a billion times, I had been to theatre school, I had done the regional theatre thing and I was ready to be a working actor in T.V. and film.
And yet underneath my mostly-healthy desires lived an ugly undercurrent; something lying just out of view; hiding in the backstage of my past.
The truth is we all navigate our lives just above the surface of our own version of an ugly undercurrent; it’s just that some of us have the luxury of it being more pronounced in the form of addiction. Addicts are forced (one way or another) to either get their shit into the light or die in the dark alley. Non-addicts’ undercurrents can be deceptively benign which can often make their rock bottom moments come too late.
After reading that his death came at the hands of heroin, I searched the archives (AKA Google) and found little about what would have led Hoffman to his addiction. His parents divorced when he was 9 (mine divorced when I was 18) and from what I can tell, got sober when he was 22.
The following is an excerpt from a 60 Minutes interview in 2006:
Hoffman says he doesn’t drink and went into rehab at a fairly early age.
“I got sober when I was 22 years old,” he says
Asked if it was drugs, alcohol or both, Hoffman says, “It was all that stuff. Yeah. It was anything I could get my hands on. Yeah. Yeah. I liked it all.”
Why did he decide to stop?
“You get panicked. You get panicked,” Hoffman said. “I was 22, and I got panicked for my life. It really was just that.”
He said if he hadn’t stopped it would have killed him and there were things he wanted to do.
The irony with addiction is that the panic that can so often lead us to sobriety is often the same panic that began the addiction in the first place.
My panic began after I was sexually abused as child, which led me to life of running and a myriad of addictions that made the gypsy life of an actor the perfect place to run and hide.
This isn’t an unusual trajectory for artists.
The whole point of acting is to enter into another character so deeply that you become that character. The horror is that after the scene is over or the show closes, you have to go back to just being yourself. Now there are a million actors, many of who are friends that can handle this delicate balance with grace and ease. But because I was always running and hiding, never willing to have my backstage life moved center stage, I simply couldn’t.
Like Mike Shiner, Edward Norton’s character in Birdman says:
“I pretend just about every place else, but not out there [the stage].”- Mike Shiner
After the up and comers review, a couple auditions and a few talks with agents, I got back on the plane, headed to Syracuse, NY, where I was finishing up a contract of Camelot. One more month and NYC, here I come!
As I flew, looking out the window over the city, something whispered. Something told me not to go back. Call it a voice. Call it God. Call it Karma. Call it Higher Power. I called it the Holy Spirit. Jesus. Crazy, I know.
I look back at that moment with fear and trembling for I’m pretty sure had I returned a death sentence awaited.
Instead, of returning to NYC, I moved to Chicago, worked quite successfully in the theater and T.V. world paying my rent by acting. The trajectory was up and to the right until my body and soul gave in and I realized it was time for a rehab experience of my own. The panic and my addiction to sex and pornography and all the ills that came with it had grown.
My rehab came in the form of seminary and then a house in the suburbs with a lovely wife and three little girls. I’m working as a film and creative director, I’ve got a family, and a community of people who tell me the truth even when I didn’t want to hear it.
10 years later from that moment in New York and I while I wish it weren’t so, I still have to choose being sober over hiding. Every. Single. Day.
I should be dead of some overdose of some kind or another. But for a host of reasons: because of people who kept telling me the truth, a family who loves me, therapists who kept calling me back, and a whole mess of grace, I’m alive.
But still I’m left with this lingering dis-ease.
Why is it that we continue to let our artists suffer for the sake of fame and standing ovations?
If they keep us enthralled by their beauty should we just let them do so until they collapse onstage before our very eyes?
When will there be a non-negotiable line item for all artistic productions to include therapy, rehab, and mental health wellness?
What cost are we willing to pay to allow our prophets and poets to suffer on our behalf?
And so a final question to my actor friends, to the Screen Actors Guild, to Actors Equity, to all the unions representing directors, agents, casting directors, and writers, to every audience, and to all who care for artists in their lives:
To care for artists — as with everyone — we most move toward a more holistic and integrated view of the soul. One of my favorite books, Understanding the Enneagram, says it like this:
No matter your faith, I’m certain you could join me and say, Amen.