A few years ago, when the movie “Doubt” was released, one of the film’s technical advisors, Fr. James Martin, wrote about his experience working with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played the accused priest. Jim first got to know the actor while serving as a consultant on a play that Hoffman was directing at the Public Theater, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” He remembered a man with a lively and curious interest in religion.
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.”
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!”