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October 2005
Capote : An Interview with Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Capote : An Interview with Phillip Seymour Hoffman

By Julian Roman

Phillip Seymour Hoffman has been a Hollywood stalwart for over a decade. He’s made a name for himself as one of the best character actors around. Now he moves to the forefront in one of 2005’s best performances. He plays legendary writer and personality Truman Capote, who changed the face of literature with his nonfiction true crime novel, ‘In Cold Blood’. The film is about that specific time period and is an in depth study of a flawed, but brilliant man. Hoffman, who is always engaging in interviews, was true to form while doing press at the Toronto Film Festival.

How do you play Truman Capote and avoid doing an impersonation of him?

Hoffman: 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 that was such an obsession and all those things. If that was the core of it, what was making him tick? I knew if that wasn’t happening, all the technical work I was doing would be fruitless.

What is your process for that? Do you spend the whole day as Truman?

Hoffman: 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 have to stay with it. But then when you’re finished you go take a rest.

Do you like Truman Capote?

Hoffman: I think you ultimately have to love who you’re playing. You have to have that kind of feeling, and you have to have passion for the person. So yeah, I was in constant state of trying to understand why he did what he did and kind of defending him, and getting behind him.

When you talk about growing to love the character you play. Does that mean you condone what he does? He manipulates Perry to write the book?

Hoffman: It’s not built on lies; his relationship is not built on lies. 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. I think 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 did want them to die. He might have felt guilty towards the end, but he was exasperated every time their sentence was delayed.

Hoffman: 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’s unbearable. I think all those things were happening at once.

How would you describe the relationship between Truman and Perry? It seemed that Truman was attracted to him in some way.

Hoffman: 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 and attraction and need after 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.

And he never finished another book.

Hoffman: He only wrote four chapters of ‘Answered Prayers’. He never finished that. The little he did with that really did a number on him too. He never wrote another book, another novel, he never finished his great work. He was finished.

Do you think that was entirely a result of ‘In Cold Blood’?

Hoffman: 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.

How did you balance his very public social side with his quiet tortured side?

Hoffman: 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?

Hoffman: 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.

Why do you think it took so long for a movie like this to be made about him?

Hoffman: Because he’s such a mimic, out-there, iconic figure; I think it’s a dangerous place to go. There are a lot of pitfalls in there, so I think 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.

What do you think of his relationship with Harper Lee? She went on to great literary fame herself with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’; but Truman never supported her.

Hoffman: 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.

You’ve had a celebrated career as a character actor. Are there certain roles that you particularly like to play?

Hoffman: 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.

Do you choose things that are personal to you?

Hoffman: 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.

Can you tell us a bit about your character in MI3?

Hoffman: He’s the bad guy (laughs).

You have a background in theater. Do you enjoy that more than film?

Hoffman: You 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.

Are there certain roles you just won’t do?

Hoffman: There are 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.


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