Philip Seymour Hoffman
The actor talks about Truman Capote's moral ambiguities and supposed lies.
Hoffman: No, because you never know where one's going to lead.
Slate:Capote is a famously complicated character, and you shot the film in 36 days. Did you and the director and screenwriter come up, in advance, with an idea about how you wanted to represent Capote?
Hoffman: One of the things I've heard Danny [Futterman] say is that what intrigued him was not so much Capote himself but the relationship between a journalist and a subject, and Capote was a perfect vessel for exploring that relationship. I knew that was a big part of the story, going in. We all were interested in it, though, for many different reasons, there were many things about the story that spoke to each of us. I was particularly interested in the idea that someone could be at that point in their life, and ultimately that would be the beginning of the end—that interested me very much. That something that could bring you such wealth and such fame could also be your end, your undoing. We loved talking about the things in the film.
Slate:Some people are skeptical of the biopic genre. David Hare wrote, "[T]he orthodox biopic is, at best, a resolutely waxy form of entertainment. The purpose, in a Madame Tussaud's sort of way, is to emulate an original. But as few of the audience have ever encountered the original, the exercise often has a curiously pointless air. … An actor is compelled to, say, scratch her ear, on no other grounds but that, 'Oh, Sylvia always scratched her ear.' Who is in charge here? The artist or the subject?"
Hoffman: If you want to make a film just because you want to make a film about a person, then I think David Hare is right. Whatever he says about being waxy—yes, it's almost like a film chatting, ruminating on the person's life, and being enthusiastic about them. You're watching the film and getting all the highlights of the life. The actor can improvise and do a brilliant job, but the film around him just waxes poetic on the life. You get it, as a viewer—that an artist has a hard time, etc., that they suffer. But it was a very conscious decision on Danny's part that he didn't want to make that movie—the straight biopic. He was much more interested in the themes, and the themes just happened to co-exist with a real person. The whole film took place between 1959 and '65. There's nothing before or after. It's a film about a writer at work during a specific period of his life. It's just not a biopic, Bennett and I always say. I've sat in some of the screenings and there are a lot of people there, I can tell, who don't know who Capote is; at the end, when the quote comes up about Capote's life after this period, I hear an audible reaction. Some people in the audience have forgotten that this is a real person; he's not famous enough to them to remember that he's a real person. And they see the quote at the end and they say, holy s---, this is a real person.
Slate:You've been in 40 or so movies, I think, and you've played what we might call happy or positive characters maybe five times. (Magnolia is the shining example.) Do you have a thing for playing unpleasant people?
Hoffman: Well, I think if you look at any actor who isn't just playing heroes, that's what their résumé looks like. There are characters in movies who I call "film characters." They don't exist in real life. They exist to play out a scenario. They can be in fantastic films, but they are not real characters; what happens to them is not lifelike. But ultimately if you're not the actor playing that hero, that "film character," then you're taking on other roles in other movies, and you're going to be playing characters with a slightly more realistic view of what life is like. Ultimately, all characters have some negative and positive energies. That's just how I see it. I didn't go out looking for negative characters; I went out looking for people who have a struggle and a fight to tackle. That's what interests me.
Slate:The film spends a lot of time on Capote's ultimate desire for Perry and Dick to be sentenced to death. Why do you think that Capote was so obsessed with having them die? Couldn't the book have worked without their death?
Hoffman: It is true he wanted them to die, yes. There are a lot of reasons he wanted them to die. Bennett did a good job letting you see that it was multilayered; you just saw a man in an incredible state of pain, and you think, "What the hell is happening to him?" And you start to theorize, in your own mind. He couldn't bear the burden of having them around anymore. I think that's it. The burden of having them around for five and a half years, of being responsible to them. Then there was the idea that if they were alive and the book came out, he would have to deal with their response to it. There would have been a litany of things he would have to deal with—people going to Perry and Dick for their take, what they thought, their anger at him. But the main reason was the gnawing sense that there needed to be an execution at the end of the book, for the reader. Perry and Dick's dying was a very personal thing for Capote, and it was very painful to him. I think he ultimately couldn't deal with the burden of having them around anymore, and he needed to know what was going to happen to them. He had to get out of the way and let justice take its course.
Slate:But of course, getting out of the way wasn't so simple; it involved turning his back on them, didn't it?
Hoffman: Right. He backed off. He didn't help with the lawyers.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Photograph of Philip Seymour Hoffman by Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.