elaine carroll*

When I Met Phil. 

The first time I met Philip Seymour Hoffman was in 2002. I was 18 years old, I had just moved to New York City and I considered myself an actor! I was the kid who watched Lebowski on repeat and not only quoted Goodman and Bridges, sure, but I did a Brandt impression quite a bit (“..as a necessary means for a- necessary means for a higher education.”). I’d watch Patch Adams and go to school a sophomore and if I’d offended someone, would touch my hand to my chest as Phil did as Patch’s roommate and go “I am not a prick.” Don’t get me started on Scotty. I called myself a “fuckin idiot fuckin idiot fuckin idiot” again and again as we all did in acting school and really anywhere. 

I remember hanging out with a girl and thinking this is not going to work out. Catching up - date shit, ya know - and she goes “it’s like that movie ‘Happiness’ with Philip Seymour Hoffman. He so fucked up but sooo good”. I saw Happiness gathered around the TV with my parents and my sister (I know) and PSH was MESMERIZING, making those horrid, sexually threatening phone calls. I admit I was the kid who would repeat his lines from that movie, trying to replicate his subtlety and weirdness because I felt if I could master that, I could master acting. Anyway, that was enough for me to look at this girl and go “okay this IS gonna work out after all!”

Okay, so the first time I met Phil. Well, I didn’t really “MEET-meet” him the first time, but I did SEE him and I got myself in such close proximity. He was on a phone call outside of a building on 26th street between 6th and 7th avenue wearing khakis, a baseball cap and a button-up t-shirt. I did the slot machine rattle in my head: cherry, cherry, cherry, this is where I took 101 with Betsy Stover, he’s probably here rehearsing for a play. I’m pretty sure it was at or around the time he was doing Long Day’s Journey which of course I saw and I freaked over. I hadn’t before then seen an actor tear his heart out on stage (not literally, but the other way). He said in an interview, “…acting is the equivalent of pushing a grand piano up the stairs” and it made me wish I too would someday play Jaime.

So he’s on the phone, standing outside of the building I thought for sure was a rehearsal space and I’m going holy shit, I have to tell everyone I know. I tried to eavesdrop. Nothing. My hearing even then was like Howard Hughes’. Probably on with his agent, Sarah Fargo at Paradigm, I thought. I knew he was Sarah’s client because the year before I moved to the city, I picked up K. Callan’s The New York Agent Book and stumbled on Paradigm. At the bottom of each agency, they listed some of their noteworthy clients. Bam. Philip Seymour Hoffman. I made a promise to myself that I would someday be with Paradigm.

Sorry, getting off track. So, 26th street. Phil’s on the phone. I pull out my Motorola Startac and text everyone I know. Mostly fellow acting students, including my buddy Michael Cassidy (we used to do nonstop Phil impressions in tandem all day long in acting school, a Mike Nichols’-founded program called The New Actors Workshop). So, my friends freak out. Mike freaks out. And sure enough I can’t bring myself to wait around like a total creep for Phil to get off the phone, so I slink off and kick myself (I’m a fuckin idiot! Fuckin idiot! Fuckin idiot!”) and I think someday, I’ll talk to that man for real…

Three years later, someone got me tickets to see A View from 151st Street at the LAByrinth theatre where Philip Seymour Hoffman was artistic director. Sure enough, he was in the audience. Afterwards, I somehow weaseled my way into the after-party at some spot down in the Bowery and I see Phil across the room STANDING BY HIMSELF. How the fuck? I thought. He’s in a big coat. I remember reading another article about how he felt nervous at parties and feeling connected to him that way. His coat and his beard, things he hid his social anxiety behind. I related completely. I’m an empathetic person. I have to talk to him, have to. We have so much in common, right?

So I drank the rest of whatever I was drinking and I walk up to Phil and I make the first move. “Mr. Hoffman?” “Hi.” “My name’s Josh, I go to the New Actor’s Workshop. Mike Nichols is one of my teachers and he speaks the world of you.” (Fuckin idiot! Fuckin idiot! Fuckin idiot!) “Oh wow, yeah, Mike is great”, he says, and looks around cooly, probably thinking This kid just saw me in Twister and wants a handshake. My synapses were firing on all cylinders – How can I connect with this man! He’s my hero! I’m positive I misspoke, but I manage to tell him something inarticulately to the effect of “Yeah, he cites your rehearsal process as being really interesting and inspiring.”(Fuckin IDIOT!) Phil looked at me and peeled at the sticker on his Stella and nodded. “Ah, thank you. Thanks for that. He’s great.” And sensing we were through, I’d kissed the king’s hand and now I may shoo – I thanked him and nervously slinked off, once again, heart-pounding out of my goddamn chest. That’s what happens in the presence of greatness, I suppose.

Four years later, I was working as an on-staff director/cast member at CollegeHumor. It’s my first year and we were going to do something called the “All-Nighter” where us writers stay up all night and talk to our fans and make videos, all in solidarity for the college kids studying for finals. I’d met an up-and-coming comedian named Pete Holmes once before (I directed him in a sketch for CH where he played a doctor in a parody of The Wrestler) and tonight, he and I, being equally avid Phil fans – were gonna shoot a sketch showcasing our respective Phils. So we made “Hardly Working All Nighter ’09: Philip Seymour Hoffman” where Pete and I – as two Phils – end up calling and creeping on writer Sarah Schneider. We went back and forth doing our Phil impressions as we always did and had a fucking blast and in between takes when we weren’t making each other laugh we would just shake our heads knowingly like a couple of superfans. No one can do what HE does.

In 2010, I met a guy named Ralph Arend through a mutual friend. Ralph had seen some of my videos and thought I was talented, so showed to the powers that be at his place of employment – Paradigm – the office of Sarah Fargo, agent of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ralph used to put actors on tape at Paradigm and he championed me to get an agent there, one who at the time was working in tandem with Phil’s agent, Sarah. Around the same time, my insanely talented friend Elaine Carroll – completely fed up with the Hollywood waiting game - made Very Mary Kate, a web series featuring her in the title role as the Olsen twin herself (and often, the other one). Eventually, Elaine asked me to play Phil in an episode. I of course I jumped at the opportunity and it was fun as hell. Not long after the video came out, Ralph told me he’d shown Yul Vasquez, a buddy of Phil’s from the LAB. Yul apparently showed Phil our video. “Really?” I asked, as excited as I was freaked PSH would “acknowledge” me. WHAT WOULD HE THINK? I thought. I never found out from Yul’s side, though not long after, my agent told me that during one of their monthly conference calls with Phil, in which they review all of his current and upcoming projects, Phil mentioned me. What on earth did he say!? I asked my agent. “Well” she started, “Phil said that he doesn’t like that we represent someone that does what he can do and is better-looking. He was joking, of course.” I’d never received a higher compliment in my life at that point, other than Colin Quinn telling me “you did good!” after playing the character of “South Korea” in a sketch on Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn.

Three years later, I’d directed a couple of sketches for a Maker Studios’ channel Remix The Movies. Impressionist and YouTube star Alex Farnham was coming to town and wanted to knock out a quick sketch with me where I played Phil and he played Ryan Gosling. The sketch sort of pulled from the same game as the vids I’d done at CollegeHumor and on VMK - Phil creeping on Gosling to a too-creepy point, Happiness-style. On the shoot day, I met a guy who worked for Maker (let’s call him Will) who introduced himself as a good friend of Phil’s. “He’s seen your impression, man,” he said. He held up his phone and asked me if he could take a video of me doing Phil FOR Phi. I really don’t love doing impressions when you ask me to – in fact, unless it’s Anne Ramsey from Throw Mama from the Train I fucking hate it. So half of me is going oh god, fuck this guy, whatever, I’ll do it and the other part of me is going if this is a real thing, better make this good, I guess? So I do it and Will films it and apparently sends it to Phil and I never see him again. For a bit, anyway.

So that takes me to Tuesday, April 30th, 2013, a Maker Studios party at The Jane Hotel for the Up Fronts. I bring my buddy Todd and rendezvous with my partner, Vince. Security is tight. Rumor has it Snoop Lion is gonna perform and Philip Seymour Hoffman is coming. No fuckin way, I think, but worth finding out. So I go and it’s packed and everyone’s beautiful and I’m underdressed and feeling shy as I usually am in party situations that aren’t at my friend’s place in Brooklyn, but I stick around at the prospect that I may once again get a glimpse of my hero. So suddenly, Will comes out of nowhere and goes “You wanna meet him?” He didn’t have to tell me twice. I asked if I could bring Vin and Todd to wherever we were going and was immediately shut down. “Snoop’s entourage is keeping shit real tight, so it’s just gonna have to be you.” I wave bye to my buddies and Will drags me upstairs to a VIP area where we breeze past a table of beautiful people seated around a large man in a big jacket and a baseball cap barely covering tufts of platinum yellow hair. Will tosses me onto the couch: “Stay there.” I try so hard not to look in Phil’s direction but obviously I do. He catches me staring across the table and we lock eyes. I know for sure I turn away before he does. So, I keep sitting there, not exactly sure what I’m waiting for. I strike up a nice conversation with a gentleman from the New York Times, trying not to be rude, trying so hard not to look over his shoulder at Phil who is right there, now for the third time really close and I could potentially REALLY talk to this guy. It took a lot to maintain eye contact, but I did, I focused with the gravity of an acting exercise back at New Actors Workshop.

So several minutes pass and I’m talking to the gentleman from the Times and my nervousness has melted away with the alcohol and conversation before - all of the sudden, Will grabs me – “It’s time.” Great. Heart’s beating out of my fucking chest all over again. I quickly exchange pleasantries with the Times kid and follow Will like some backwards version of The Wrestler, marching toward my doom or my victory or whatever I can’t be flowery right now, my heart is beating out of my fucking chest as I type this so I’ll just get to the damn point.  

Will brings me to Phil – his friend of many years – and before he says anything, three of the beautiful people flanking Phil at the head of this table – turn and look at me and start pointing excitedly. I just remember one guy going “Oh shit! That’s the guy that does Phil!” Years of “inadvertent fanning” over one another (okay, all fanning is one-way, I’m sure) – all the rumors of Phil reacting to our Very Mary Kate videos – all of the rumors he knows who I am, he’s seen what I’ve done, be it via Yul Vasquez, our agents, a friend of a friend who used to babysit his kids, a grip on Jack Goes Boating and on and on and so on – and finally I’m about to find out what this guy really thinks of me. Well, if he hates me, at least I’ll die having actually met him…

So Will introduces me. “Phil, this is Josh.” And Phil looks up at me – the beautiful people continuing to point and shout - and Phil smiles and shakes my hand. “Oh, yeah! Hi. Phil, nice to meet you!” I almost piss myself. Then Will goes, “He does the impression of you!” And that’s when I near faint. And Phil – shaking my arm still like a greeting between two Shakespearean comrades – goes, “Yeah! Well done! Well done!” And I apologize to him for the informality, trying to formulate a sentence that in some way proves that what I do comes from the purest form of love and admiration. And as I’m mid-sentence, I’m whisked away. “Okay, thanks, you gotta go back to your friends!” Will shouts. Long story short, Will and I – in an exchange of  heated words – explained he was getting serious flack from security about allowing me up. I was on the clock and my time was up. Mid-sentence.

So the next day, Will apologizes for cutting off my conversation with Phil – my hero! – and promises he’ll do anything to make up for it. So he invites me to Phil’s play. I can’t go. “Well, what can I do to make up for last night?” And I think long and hard, and I said “Would you mind giving him a message?”  Will complies.

I’m not sure if this ever got to Phil, but I meant every word. I’m as angry, devastated and blindsided as the rest of us. I’m heartbroken for his girlfriend Mimi and their three children. I’ll never, ever forget this man, an uncanny master of his craft. Phil, you’ve set the bar. Wherever you’ve gone, you’ll here remain forever unmatched.  

Hey Phil,

We met briefly at the Maker party last night. Your buddy (Will) intro’d me as “the guy that does that impression of you”. I shook your hand and sheepishly apologized for the circumstances and informality only then to be immediately ushered away too soon. 

So, here I am, reaching out to finish my thought; to tell you what I would have if time hadn’t been cut short:

It’s a pleasure and an honor to meet you. This impression of you - this impression that is my most favorite to do and is everyone’s favorite to see - is the favorite because you’re the favorite. I met you years ago and tried to muster the guts to say as much at the after party for “A View from 151st Street” while bumbling through statements like “Mike Nichols is my master scene study class teacher and he respects you so much” among other things Heineken gave me the courage to say but then forget.

I’m so looking forward to “Family for All Occasions” and to, someday, working with you; to your brain, and talk how acting is indeed as mentally difficult as pushing a piano up the stairs. 

Best and thanks,

Josh Ruben


Elaine Carroll is great in this.