''So this is the big story where you say Philip Seymour Hoffman is a big star?'' asks Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson. ''That he's brilliant? That he's great?''
Actually, it's a relatively short story, and no, Philip Seymour Hoffman isn't a big staryet. But there are plenty of big Hollywood directors who wouldn't argue with ''brilliant.'' This holiday season, Hoffman, 32, will appear in movies by three wildly different directors: In Joel Schumacher's Flawless, as a tortured drag queen opposite Robert De Niro; in Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, as a brash American ex-pat opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, and Jude Law; and in Anderson's Boogie Nights follow-up, Magnolia, as a compassionate nurse expat opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, and Jude Law; and in Anderson's Boogie Nights follow-up, Magnolia, as a compassionate male nurse opposite Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Tom Cruise. Attests Schumacher, ''He's just one of these great born character actors.''
For the past eight years Hoffman has been spinning variations on what he calls the ''quirky redheaded guy'' into a minor cottage industry -- showy as Twister's tornado-chasing goofball, loutish as Hope Davis' ex in Next Stop, Wonderland, pathetic as Boogie Nights' porn-film grip pining for Mark Wahlberg, even more pathetic as Happiness' shut-in, who reaches out via obscene phone calls. Along the way, he's developed a resume that's a careful mix of quality and commercial (last year he played Robin Williams' roommate in the blockbuster Patch Adams). ''I've tried to do roles of all stripes that keep the work coming and me interested,'' he says. Such roles have made Hoffman just famous enough to get those ghostly stares from strangers on the street lingering and lit by dim recognition that are the strict domain of the character actor.
On Nov. 24, however, the softly handsome Hoffman will step out of the character arena and into his first leading film role. In Flawless (Schumacher's only writing-directing gig since 1985's St. Elmo's Fire), Hoffman stars as cross-dressing vocal coach Rusty, who provides singing lessons as speech therapy for his homophobic neighbor Walt (De Niro), a retired New York City security guard recovering from a stroke.
''It's a kick-ass job to sweep in for 15 minutes and entertain with some character you've created,'' reflects the slouched, slacker-ish Hoffman of his career as a supporting actor. ''With a lead role it was very differentyou have to [entertain] and carry the movie and do it in drag.''
''He was petrified,'' laughs Schumacher, who cast Hoffman after auditioning hundreds of drag queens. ''But Philip understood the part -- the sensitivity and suffering. And he matched up beautifully with De Niro. They're both perfectionists. Philip would stop takes if he thought his pinkie wasn't effeminate enough.''
''He's not exaggeratingI was panicked,'' says Hoffman. ''I knew my habits of behaving weren't gonna work. I had to forge a new voice, carriage, look...everything. I wanted to be accepted as a woman and if I didn't get it right, I knew people would say it was bulls---. So I'd watch the tape, blanch, and go, 'Oh no! Oh f---in' no!'''