Mimi O’Donnell Reflects on the Loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Devastation of Addiction

Courtesy of Vogue.com | By Mimi O'Donnell as told to Adam Green | Photography by Anton Corbjin| Originally Published 12.13.2017 | Posted 12.19.2017

The first time I met Phil, there was instant chemistry between us. It was the spring of 1999, and he was interviewing me to be the costume designer for a play he was directing—his first—for the Labyrinth Theater Company, In Arabia We’d All Be Kings. Even though I’d spent the five years since moving to New York designing costumes for Off-Broadway plays and had just been hired by Saturday Night Live, I was nervous, because I was in awe of his talent. I’d seen him in Boogie Nightsand Happiness, and he blew me out of the water with his willingness to make himself so vulnerable and to play fucked-up characters with such honesty and heart.

I remember walking into the interview and anxiously handing Phil my résumé. He studied it for a few moments, then looked up at me and, with complete sincerity and admiration, said, “You have more credits than I do.” I felt myself relax. He wanted to put me at ease and let me know that we would be working together as equals. After the meeting, I called my sister on one of those hilariously giant cell phones of the time, and after I had raved about Phil, she announced, “You’re going to marry him.”

Working with Phil felt seamless—our instincts were so similar, and we always seemed to be in sync. Though there was clearly a personal attraction, both of us were involved with other people, so we fell in love artistically first. Over the next two years, we continued to work together—I designed the costumes for everything he directed—and, along the way, I was invited to become a company member of Labyrinth, of which Phil was the artistic director. As an ensemble, we produced Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, which put us on the map. Then, seven years to the day since I’d moved to the city, 9/11 happened. It was disorienting to be finding our place as the world seemed to be collapsing around us.

When Phil and I weren’t collaborating, we would see each other at meetings, readings, rehearsals, or any number of the endless parties the company threw. It was a fertile, exciting time—we were all young, at our best and healthiest, and we were all in love with theater and with one another. Before every event, I’d think, Oh, God, I hope Phil’s there. And if he wasn’t, I was disappointed. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to date him. It was that I thought, You’re so attractive on every level that I want to be near you as much as I can.

In the late fall of 2001, we both found ourselves single, and I heard that Phil had been asking around about whether I had a boyfriend. He invited me to dinner at a little Italian restaurant in the East Village, and afterward we went to a tiny gallery nearby and looked at photographs taken on 9/11. I think what was going on in both our heads was: Do we feel this way outside work? And it instantly became clear that we did. But we were cautious. It felt all-encompassing. I loved working with Phil, and I was falling in love with him, and I didn’t want to lose the experience of being his collaborator if we broke up.

After our second or third date, I said to Phil, “I don’t want to just see you casually and see other people. I want to be with you.” He immediately said, “Yeah, I’m all in.” One afternoon not long after that, we were walking in the West Village and ran into a couple we knew. As we stood talking, their four-year-old son started riding his scooter off the curb toward the traffic. Without missing a beat, Phil reached out and with his big, beautiful hands guided him back onto the sidewalk, patted him on the head, and said, “You’re good, buddy.” It was gentle, it was firm, it was kind. At that moment I thought, I’m having children with this man. It was a done deal.

From the beginning, Phil was very frank about his addictions. He told me about his period of heavy drinking and experimenting with heroin in his early 20s, and his first rehab at 22. He was in therapy and AA, and most of his friends were in the program. Being sober and a recovering addict was, along with acting and directing, very much the focus of his life. But he was aware that just because he was clean didn’t mean the addiction had gone away. He was being honest for me—This is who I am—but also to protect himself. He told me that, as much as he loved me, if I used drugs it would be a deal breaker. That wasn’t an issue for me, and I was happy not to drink, either. Phil was so open about it all that I wasn’t worried.

A New Year’s Eve date made things feel official. Phil was looking for a new apartment and asked me to come along. One day in the spring, I told him that I wasn’t going to renew my birth control prescription, and he simply said, “Good. Don’t.” I was 34, which felt old at the time, and I told Phil that it would probably take a while to get pregnant because of my age. As it turned out, it happened almost instantly. I remember calling my mother and telling her, “Hi, Mom, I’m pregnant and, oh yeah, I have this new boyfriend.” Her response was “When do we get to meet him?”

Phil and I were both thrilled, and, soon after, we moved into an apartment in the West Village together. Early one morning in March 2003, I went into labor, which went on for 40 hours before I was finally given a C-section, delivering our son, Cooper. I remember the doctor cutting the umbilical cord and handing the baby to Phil. We hugged and kissed and cried—he was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen—and Phil beamed with uncontainable joy. Then, wearing scrubs, he started to carry Cooper toward the door to take him to our families in the waiting room. The midwife had to stop him and explain that he couldn’t just walk out of the O.R. with a newborn in his arms. He was so proud and over the moon that he couldn’t wait to show his son to the world.

My memories of Phil are overwhelmingly of a sweet and gentle and loving man, which is not to say that he didn’t have a temper, as anyone who knew him well will tell you. He was a sensitive person, and he was incapable of masking his anger. He would never sit and stew, or leave an argument unresolved. One night, when Cooper was five months old, I left him alone with Phil for the first time to join a friend who had invited me to a Marc Jacobs show. When I returned, Cooper was crying—he wouldn’t take the bottle and had been bawling the entire time. Phil yelled, “You are never leaving the apartment again. I don’t have breasts! I can’t feed him!” Then he handed me Cooper and stormed out onto our balcony for a smoke. A few minutes later, he slunk back in, and we both started laughing.

The growth of our family coincided with the rise of Phil’s career. I was pregnant with Cooper during the filming of Along Came Polly and Cold Mountain, and when he was born, Phil was rehearsing for Long Day’s Journey into Night on Broadway. While he was wrestling with his identity as an actor and whether he could carry entire movies, Capote came along. Phil overcame his hesitancy about portraying a man whom he physically couldn’t resemble less. That film, in which he transformed himself so astonishingly, was the game changer. He won every major award, including the Oscar, while I was pregnant with our second child, Tallulah. She was born in 2006. Willa arrived two years after that.

Our loose rule was to never spend more than two weeks apart as a family, and Phil insisted on it with a kind of urgency. We had babysitters, but Phil refused to hire a full-time au pair. More than once, I found myself asking, “You want to bring the baby to what?” Or “You want us to come to Winnipeg in the winter while you’re shooting?” And he’d say, “Just bring him. We all need to be together.” As our family grew, he remained adamant about it. “Can’t we leave the little ones home, and you and I and Cooper——?”

“No. We’re all doing it together.”

When I look back at how close we all were, I wonder whether Phil somehow knew that he was going to die young. He never said those words, but he lived his life as if time was precious. Maybe he just knew what was important to him and where he wanted to invest his love. I always felt there was plenty of time, but he never lived that way. I now thank God he made us take those trips. In some ways, our short time together was almost like an entire lifetime.

The exceptional leading man Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose death in 2014 dealt a heartbreaking blow to American cultural life. Photographed by Anton Corbijn, 2012
If I were to take a snapshot of how things were before they changed, it would look like this: We were living in the West Village. We had three healthy kids. Phil’s career was skyrocketing. He and I were still collaborating on theater and films, and I had started directing plays. We had wonderful friends. We had money. We were both so aware, since we came from middle-class backgrounds, of how much we had. His mantra was: We have it to give. And he did. Phil was endlessly generous with his time and energy and money, whether it involved something as serious as paying for a friend to go to rehab or just having coffee with an intern, meeting a writer struggling with a play at midnight, or showing up for a babysitter’s non-Equity showcase. He knew that it meant something because of who he was. He was never comfortable with celebrity, but he knew how to use his fame so that something good could come of it. Labyrinth, of course, got the bulk of his time, but he would do a benefit reading for almost anyone who asked. He became a fixture in our neighborhood, a familiar figure strolling the sidewalks smoking a cigarette, walking the kids to school, or sitting with us eating ice cream outside our favorite coffee shop. I couldn’t have imagined a better life.

Twelve-step literature describes addiction as “cunning, baffling, and powerful.” It is all three. I hesitate to ascribe Phil’s relapse after two decades to any one thing, or even to a series of things, because the stressors—or, in the parlance, triggers—that preceded it didn’t cause him to start using again, any more than being a child of divorce did. Lots of people go through difficult life events. Only addicts start taking drugs to blunt the pain of them. And Phil was an addict, though at the time I didn’t fully understand that addiction is always lurking just below the surface, looking for a moment of weakness to come roaring back to life.

Some of what Phil was going through was common to men in their 40s, such as the pangs of finding yourself middle-aged and feeling as though you’re losing your sexual currency (something many women experience at a much younger age), or seeing your friends’ marriages fall apart in the wake of infidelities. Other things were more specific: His longtime therapist died of cancer, which was devastating, and he had a falling out with a bunch of his AA friends. Phil had a love/hate relationship with acting. The thing he hated most was the loss of anonymity. He was making film after film—we had a big family and had bought a bigger apartment—and AA started to get short shrift. He’d been sober for so long that nobody seemed to notice. But something was brewing.

The first tangible sign came when, out of nowhere, Phil said to me, “I’ve been thinking I want to try to have a drink again. What do you think?” I thought it was a terrible idea, and I said so. Sobriety had been the center of Phil’s life for over 20 years, so this was definitely a red flag. He started having a drink or two without it seeming a big deal, but the moment drugs came into play, I confronted Phil, who admitted that he’d gotten ahold of some prescription opioids. He told me that it was just this one time, and that it wouldn’t happen again. It scared him enough that, for a while, he kept his word.

Phil went into rehearsal for Mike Nichols’s production of Death of a Salesman, and he threw himself into it with his usual intensity. Willy Loman is one of the great tragic roles of twentieth-century theater, and Phil gave one of the rawest and most honest performances of his career. It asked a lot of him and it exhausted him, but it had nothing to do with his relapse. If anything, doing seven shows a week kept him from using, because it would have been impossible to do that on drugs. Though he continued to drink after evening shows, he was otherwise clean, and as the days left in the show’s limited run wound down, I began to dread what would happen when it was over.

After the show closed, Phil didn’t have any work lined up for a while, so he had a lot of time on his own, and he very quickly started using again. It was all prescription stuff, though I don’t know where he was getting it. Again, I realized instantly, or at least I suspected.

“Are you taking pills?”

“No, I don’t do that.”

“Well, you’re dozing off.”

“I’m tired. I’m not sleeping well.”

As soon as Phil started using heroin again, I sensed it, terrified. I told him, “You’re going to die. That’s what happens with heroin.” Every day was filled with worry. Every night, when he went out, I wondered: Will I see him again?

I was getting all kinds of advice—everybody was fumbling in the dark. Some people told me to get the kids away from him. The urban historian Lewis Mumford once said, “In the city, time becomes visible.” When Phil started using, Freedom Tower was almost finished—a new building in the footprint of the World Trade Center. I remember walking along the Hudson looking at it, and realizing that our whole relationship spanned the fall of the twin towers on 9/11 to the rise of the new tower in its place. I thought, I’ll make a decision once the building is finished. I felt like I was drowning, and it gave me something to hold on to.

Phil tried to stop on his own, but detoxing caused him agonizing physical pain, so I took him to rehab. In some of the conversations that we had while he was there, Phil was so open and vulnerable that they remain among the most intimate moments of our time together. Within a day or two of returning, he started using again. At home, he was behaving differently, and it was making the kids anxious. We both felt that some boundaries would be helpful, and tearfully decided that Phil should move into an apartment around the corner. It helped us maintain a little distance but allowed us all to be together as much as possible—he still walked the kids to school, and we still had family dinners.

In the fall, Phil finally said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and he went back to rehab. We decided I would bring the kids, then five, seven, and ten, to see him for a family visit. We sat in a common room, and they asked him questions, which he answered with his usual honesty. He never came out and said, “I’m shooting up heroin,” but he told them enough so that they could get it, and they were just so happy to see him. It was hard when we left, because they all wanted to know why he couldn’t come home with us. But it felt healthy for us to deal with it together, as a family.

When Phil came back in November, he wanted so badly to stay sober, and for the next three months he did. But it was a struggle, heartbreaking to watch. For the first time I realized that his addiction was bigger than either of us. I bowed my head and thought, I can’t fix this. It was the moment that I let go. I told him, “I can’t monitor you all the time. I love you, I’m here for you, and I’ll always be here for you. But I can’t save you.”

I guess that was also the moment I made the decision I had deferred while looking up at Freedom Tower back when Phil had first started using. It’s difficult to stay in a relationship with an active addict. It feels like being boiled in oil. But I couldn’t abandon him. I just had to figure out: How do I live with him? And how do I do it without caregiving or enabling, and in a way that protects the kids and me?

Some time in January, Phil started isolating himself. He was in Atlanta filming The Hunger Games. I called and texted him and said, “I’m here to talk.” At that point, we had started to shift things over to me financially, because Phil knew that when he was using he wasn’t responsible. We began making plans to set up another rehab as soon as the movie wrapped, but I knew we had a difficult path ahead of us.

It happened so quickly. Phil came home from Atlanta, and I called a few people and said that we needed to keep an eye on him. Then he started using again, and three days later he was dead.

The circumstances of Phil’s death were so public—people around the world knew he was dead an hour after I did—and every detail, from the days leading up to his overdose to his funeral, were, and remain, all over the Internet. And so I need to keep the rest of that awful time private. I had been expecting him to die since the day he started using again, but when it finally happened it hit me with brutal force. I wasn’t prepared. There was no sense of peace or relief, just ferocious pain and overwhelming loss. The most difficult—the impossible—thing was thinking, How do I tell my kids that their dad just died? What are the words?

A loving swarm of friends and family carried me through those early days, but even so they felt miles away. They can’t be there with you. There were a few people I knew who had gone through something similar. We would get together, and I wanted to say, Please don’t go, because you get it. From others, I received a lot of well-meaning advice, such as “Just get out more” or—I kid you not—“Craft.” Literally two weeks after Phil died, some fellow parents asked me to show up on a Friday morning to man the stall where they sold school paraphernalia. And after the fifth person suggested I should start running, I lost it. “I don’t want to fucking run,” I said. “I want to jump in the river and kill myself.”

When I finally did decide to run, it was always at night by the Hudson. The darker and rainier it was, the more violent the water, the better. I couldn’t get enough. Something about the extremity of it, the closeness to death, was weirdly comforting. If I wanted to jump, it was there.

What got me out of bed every morning and kept me alive, of course, were my kids. I had no choice: They needed me, and I loved them more than anything in the world. I would hit moments when I felt, I’m done. I’m so done, but then I’d see their faces, and right away it would become, OK. I can do this today. They were keenly aware that I was now their only parent, and Willa, my youngest, obsessed about it, asking, “If you die, how are people going to know how to find us?” It was almost a year before I could go out at night without the kids’ going into a panic. When I forced myself to make a few tentative forays into the world, within an hour there would be a phone call and I’d be on my way back home.

Even as I started getting out more, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the theater. Phil had been my favorite person to go with. He was so enthusiastic and open and generous—he was floored by actors all the time—and at the end of any play, I would look over and he’d be crying. So, for a long time, theater was out of the question. I knew that, whoever was sitting in it, the seat next to mine would feel empty.

It’s been almost four years since Phil died, and the kids and I are still in a place where that fact is there every day. We talk about him constantly, only now we can talk about him without instantly crying. That’s the small difference, the little bit of progress that we’ve made. We can talk about him in a way that feels as though there’s a remembrance of what happened to him, but that also honors him. We talk about his bad sides and his good sides, what he did that was funny and what he did that was crazy, and what he did that was loving and tender and sweet. We open up, and it brings us together and keeps his spirit alive.

This fall, after a long campaign by my kids, I agreed that we could get a family dog. They had their hearts set on a French bulldog, and after some research we found a breeder and picked out a puppy, a girl, whose picture was so cute it was almost insane (and I’m not a dog person). The moment we made the decision, Cooper said, “She’s going to die. Dogs don’t live very long, so we’re going to see her die.” In her birth and in her coming to us, we were also mourning her death. Something about that felt right, knowing that everything you meet or love is going to die. I was in awe of my kids that they were able to hold both things in their heads at the same time. That’s who they are now. And it hasn’t stopped them from loving this little creature (her name is Puddles) scampering around our apartment. None of them wants to hold back. They’ve given their hearts to her, without hesitation or reservation.

They’re all in.

In this story:
Sittings Editor: Andrew Mukamal.
Hair: Ilker Akyol; Makeup: Cyndle Komarovski.

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