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Philip Seymour Hoffman Channels Capote

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Channels Capote

by Brad Balfour

Though the actor is almost a head taller than the late author and social figure Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman brilliantly recreates the writer for the film about his life during the creation of his literary masterpiece, In Cold Blood – the story of two killers who massacre a family in Kansas in 1959 – which became an Oscar-nominated film of the same name in 1967.

As the Southern scribe (creator of the book, Breakfast at Tiffany's) immersed himself in understanding the lives of two killers who slaughter the Clutters during a robbery, he became as tortured as the killers themselves. In director Bennett Miller's Capote, Hoffman elevates the author's story way beyond being a simple biopic and achieved a Best Actor Oscar nomination as a result. You kept your performance from simply being impersonation. What did you do to become the character? Just concentrating on the story, probing into that story and understanding everything about it – and everything about why he might have done what he did to get what he wanted. Why was it such an obsession? If that was the core of it, what was making him tick? I knew if that weren't happening, all the technical work I was doing would be fruitless. Did you spend the whole day as Truman? You spend the day you're working as Truman, as the actor technically, sticking close to the voice and physicality because dropping it and bringing it back on is more exhausting. You've got to stay with it. But then when you're finished you go take a rest. Was it important to give him that voice? Of course it is; it would be impossible. I can't just go up there and say "Hi, I'm Truman Capote" and act like me. People would have been walking out in droves. Part of the story is that he is the guy who he is in Kansas in 1959 and that's part of the drama. In playing the character, how helpful were the clothes you were wearing? They were from the period and were what he wore a lot right from the photos we had. Again, it’s part of the story and everything goes back to the story. He walks into the sheriff's office, the FBI, and there he is with the bowtie and the suit and all that. It's all part of the story that that's going to clash, and he still got past it. He still won those people over ultimately, with the help of Harper Lee.

What do you think of his relationship with writer/researcher Harper Lee? He needed her. He brought her with him down to Kansas to buffer that immediate impact that was coming his way. Ultimately, he became a taker, and she became Jack. They get cold with him and grow apart as the movie progresses. Did you like Truman Capote? I think you ultimately have to love who you are playing. You have to have that kind of feeling, and you have to have passion for the person. So I was in constant state of trying to understand why he did what he did and kind of defending him and getting behind him. Would you like him in real life? I think I would, actually. Obviously, it depends, because there's a lot of people who liked him a lot and he did them wrong, and they stopped liking him. So who knows, I might have been on the bad end of the stick with him at one point and it could have been bad. But ultimately if I was just a passive observer of him, and met him a little bit here and there, I would have liked him. He's pretty fascinating so no matter what he did, I would have wanted to know him. When you talk about loving the character you play, do you condone what he did because he was dishonest in his relationship with one of the killers, Perry Smith, in order to get what he wants out of him? His relationship is not built on lies. Yeah, he lied to Perry in order to do what he needed to do, but their relationship I don't think is built on lies. Or else the tragedy wouldn't have unfolded; he would have coldly allowed them to die, and it wouldn't have been a big deal. That's missing the point a little bit. The relationship itself was built on an extraordinarily powerful bond in identification that ultimately had to be betrayed, because of what he had to have done. Truman was attracted to Perry in some way. How would you describe their relationship? The problem is you want to compartmentalize your life. You want to be able to say "that" doesn't have to do with "that." That was the problem, that he couldn't separate the two. He couldn't separate his obsession, attraction and need for Perry Smith from the actual project. It was inseparable and therefore fed into the ultimate demise. He couldn't have one without the other. He couldn't say, "I love you, I am obsessed with you, I'm fascinated with you, I want the best for you…could you be executed?" [laughs]. Is that possible? That sounds so silly, but you know ultimately that was the dilemma, a no-win situation. Ultimately at the end of the day, he was going to be abandoned once again, left once again. I know that sounds as self-centered as possible but that's ultimately the grief he is feeling at the end, is the self-reflection that is crushing him. He can't be left alone again.

Towards the end, when Truman is back in New York, he can't wait for the Supreme Court to sentence them to death. Can you condone that? You shouldn't condone it; you're watching the film. But me as the actor, no. You see him at the premiere scene at the bar. He's not a guy that's going, "Oh fuck man, when are these guys going to die?" He is tortured about it, because he knows that's what it's going to take, and he needs that to happen. That's when you sort of see the self-destructive part of him, that diseased soul, selling of the soul, that stuff – that’s when you see the price he is going to pay. That slowly creeping self-reflection that starts to creep in – that’s unbearable. That's when he starts to project that all over the place. So I think all those things were happening at once. There are moments where he was known to say, "I hope they die" which I think is cold about him in certain things. After the execution he cried from the minute he got on the plane to the minute he got off. And he never finished another book. He only wrote four chapters of Answered Prayers – he never finished that book. The little he did with it really did a number on him too. He never wrote another book, another novel, he never finished his great work. He was finished. Was that entirely a result of In Cold Blood? Well, it's never just one thing. But he said, "If I had known what would have happened, I would have driven out of Kansas like a bat out of Hell." So our take on it is that it had a lot to do with what happened afterwards. Why do you think it took so long for a movie like this to be made about him? Because he's such a mimic, out-there, an iconic figure… it's a dangerous place to go. There are a lot of pitfalls there, so it took somebody actually attacking it from a certain angle for it to be as artistically fruitful as possible. I never thought about playing the guy until they told me.

How did you balance his very public social side with his quiet tortured side? I had to make a lot of assumptions; I had to make choices, based on what I read or whatever. There's a documentary about Truman that covers him in black and white right on the first printing of In Cold Blood in 1966-1967. You get a sense of him privately in that, being interviewed and being on camera. Capturing him in a lot of different settings and being the talents that they are, you get a sense of him in a private way. Was he very concerned with how the public viewed him? I think he was always concerned with how he was being perceived. To be accepted and to be admired and loved… everyone is worried about that, but I think it was a huge character flaw in him. It was endless with him. Do you think he was as much an actor as a writer? No. He's not an actor. You know, everyone's an actor. If you're going to say that you're an actor. Changing who you are in an environment to try and deal, I don't think that's unique to him at all. I think it's a human quality. He was a writer. Do you choose things that are personal to you? Oh yeah, personal is huge. Even for Mission: Impossible III – there's got to be something about that that is personal to me, and why I want to do it. Even if it is about career, there's got to be some kind of personal drive-in mind of wanting to do it, on top of identification with that character and getting the character told. There's a certain aspect of the character in MI3 that is new to me, and it's something I know I want to explore. So that's why I'm doing it. What gave you the confidence to do this role? I read Dan Futterman's screenplay and went, "he's good." So that was over. And Bennett Miller has been a filmmaker since he was a teenager. He's a very successful commercial director and his documentary has critical success. He has not really much failure in the venues he's tried in media. I know he's smart and trust his judgment, so when he wanted to do it, it was easy for me to champion him as a director.

Are there certain roles you want to keep playing? I try not to plan that too much, I try and get a vibe for what it is, and it kind of answers itself. There are certain things I know I don't want to do anymore, but some things are easy choices. Ultimately, what I'll do next is always kind of up in the air for me. As much as I want to say, "This is what I'll do" or "now I'll do a blockbuster," I don't function that way. You make brave acting choices. Are there any certain roles you just won't do? There's certain parts, I can't get specific, where you're like “Ah, I don't want to deal with that.” It's kind of like when you see a movie sometimes and you don't want to deal with it. It might even be a good movie. So that's really what it is. There are some things I was more interested in doing when I was younger, and don't really want to go there again. Sometimes it's just blatant and you want to move on. You have a background in theater. Does that interfere with your time to make movies? Well, you've got to plan your life accordingly, what you want to do or need to do. I don't really think. “Oh no, I won't be able to do a film for a while” if I do this play. If I'm doing a play, I'm involved with the play. Someone said to me, "How can you take yourself off the market?" and I'm like, "What?" I had no idea what he was talking about. This is all acting – this is what we do. What do you think of screen actors going into theater? Maybe they'll do well at it too. Sometimes you're surprised. Like Christian Slater, he is doing all this theater now. And I mean I couldn't have more respect in the world for him. That's who he is, he's an actor, and sometimes actors change up. I directed Anna Paquin in her first play, and she's done like seven plays since then. She is a known, legitimate, New York theater actress. But when I hired her, I didn't know. That would have been a presumption. Sometimes screen actors come and do a play and never go back, but some of them don't. You got to hold that out and see if that's possible. How do you feel about an Oscar win for Capote? I'm a producer on this, a very hands-on producer – Cooperstown is my company. I'm very excited if that happens, and no one knows obviously, but if that stuff does transpire, I am very excited. I think I would be more nervous and nerve-racked if it was just about me as an actor, but it's much more than that to me. Award season can always help a film.

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: February 28, 2006.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2005. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2005. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2005. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2005. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2005. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

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