In The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the charismatic founder of a spiritual movement he invented after World War II. His group claims to help practitioners free themselves from traumatic life experiences. Oh, and a boat is involved.
But Hoffman’s character, Lancaster Dodd, is definitely not a thinly-veiled version of L. Ron Hubbard. And his movement is definitely, definitely not a slightly altered spin on Scientology. Nope. Not at all.
The Oscar-winning actor said as much – early and often – in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. In fact, he’d really appreciate if everyone would just stop it with all the Scientology stuff: “It’s not a Scientology movie. It’s something else,” he told writer Rachel Dodes. And that’s pretty much all he would say, despite Dodes’ efforts to, you know, interview him:
You just finished playing Willy Loman on Broadway. Both Death of a Salesman and The Master tackle this theme of post-war alienation, but from different angles. Did you take anything away from one that you brought with you to the other?
Does it bother you that everyone’s been calling this “the Scientology movie”?
No, not so much. Though I do have to answer the question a lot.
What do you think about it?
What I just said.
Do you think that once people see the movie they will still think it’s about Scientology?
There’s nothing to answer. It’s not a Scientology movie. It’s something else.
But you do see the similarities though, right? “Auditing” versus “Processing” – the techniques to rid people of traumatic life experiences—the disdain of non-believers, the likeness to Scientology’s Sea Org, the fact that it takes place in 1950, the year Dianetics came out, etc.
Sure. If people are going to be that literal about it then they are. But it’s not something to be taken literally or my character would be called L. Ron Hubbard. People do this all the time. Films are like that all the time. They are inspired by things but they are not those things. Every season there are films like that. But because it’s around that thing people are paying attention to it.
So, do you think people are paying more attention to it because Scientology has been in the news so much lately with the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes divorce?
It’s because you guys are paying attention to it. To be honest it’s because of you guys. If I did interviews and it didn’t come up then it wouldn’t come up. But it comes up because there’s an appetite for it, from you guys. It’s a good story.
What would you prefer that people focused on?
It doesn’t matter to me what people focus on.
The man who was Capote gave similarly short answers when asked if he prepared for his role by reading New Age self-help books (“There was no reason to”), whether there was a lot of improvising on set (“Not so much”), and if it was “unusual” to be around somebody as unhinged as Joaquin Phoenix’s character (“No. I mean, a lot of people are unhinged. I’ve worked with a lot of characters that are unhinged. I’ve played characters that are unhinged. That’s, like, my job”).
The reporter’s desperate last resort: “Is there anything else you wanted to add about the film?”
“No,” said Hoffman.
So why is PSH so reluctant to discuss The Master’s inspiration, even though director Paul Thomas Anderson has admitted the Hubbard connection? Maybe he’s trying to avoid offending Magnolia costar Tom Cruise. Maybe he resents how the Scientology angle has overshadowed the film itself – a legitimate concern. But until more people see The Master, it’ll be tough for us to focus on other aspects of the movie.