Just nominated for five Oscars—including best picture— Capote, directed by Bennett Miller, written by Dan Futterman, and co-produced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is one of those rare movies that conveys something of what it is like to be a writer. It does so in part by limiting its scope to the years Truman Capote spent researching and writing In Cold Blood. Forty years after its publication, the legacy of In Cold Blood is still a complicated one. Many people think that Capote not only exploited Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the two murderers whose story he told, but actually invented scenes wholesale. The other week, I spoke with Hoffman by phone from Los Angeles about the difficulties in capturing as contradictory and ambiguous a figure as Truman Capote.
Slate:In Capote, you captured the moral ambiguity inherent in the relationship between the journalist and his source. But the movie completely sidestepped Capote's other alleged "journalistic" sin, which was to invent details of his story. At a time when many writers are being raked over the coals for their concoctions, why did Capote let Truman Capote off scot-free for his?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Well, I think the only thing that we know was fabricated was the end, the scene at the Clutters' grave. But Capote didn't hide that—he talked about it himself. It wasn't a fabrication that he was trying to sell as the truth. It's not like what's happening with James Frey. He did profess everything else is factual. I know that there are people in Kansas who say, "There's this, there's that, it's embroidered." But there is nothing I know that is made up. Of course, for the purpose of the writing, what he did have to do is take himself out of the story. In the book, he is never present as a character, only as an author. And so there are people who had to stand in for him, to "hear" conversations that in real life he heard. But he was open about that, too. So, the idea that he fabricated really wasn't a point of interest for us; there wasn't enough to go on. We were more interested in exploring the lies and fabrications he told in real life. The book itself is probably a pretty solid work of truth.
Slate:Do you believe that he could recall conversations with 94 percent accuracy?
Hoffman: It probably wasn't 94 percent. But it was probably 80 percent. Look who we were talking about! This is a guy who lied all the time. But this is also a guy who was indeed bright, complicated. And he was clearly a great listener. He really understood people—when you look at how he captures characters on the page, you see he had an unusual talent. So, I hesitate to say that his braggadocio is false—I bought a lot of it. After all, this wasn't a guy who just talked, talked, and talked, and wrote only one short story. He understood something about human complexity. I don't know about 94 percent, though. Maybe he hit 94 percent accuracy once, and that became his bar—a level he assumed he could always hit.
Slate:The film itself takes some liberties with the real sequence of events. Why? Most notably, William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, never accompanied Capote to Kansas.
Hoffman: No, William Shawn and Joseph Fox, the magazine's publisher, were made into one character. Joe Fox did go out with Capote to Kansas. And Capote did want Joe Fox to go in with him when he went to say goodbye to Perry, and it was this awful uncomfortable thing for Fox. Ultimately Danny [Futterman] made these two characters one; you only have an hour and a half. And if you start going off on a tangent, you've got to finish it, or else you have a broken limb, dramatically. But we were open about the changes. And most of them don't affect the larger story.
Slate:You've now played both Lester Bangs and Truman Capote—two larger-than-life cultural figures. Is there a difference between impersonating a real-life person and creating a character?
Hoffman: There is at first. One difference is that you have all these materials at your disposal. There's information right there that can help you—books, tapes, photographs—which you don't have when you're creating a fictional character. But once you get that information, you have to start looking at the character as a fiction. When you're playing someone who really lived, you carry a burden, a burden to be accurate. But it's one that you have to let go of ultimately. Films are always a fiction, not documentary. Even a documentary is a kind of fiction. So, ultimately you have to think about the story you're telling. You want somehow to be able to create the character in such a way that people actually stop thinking about the fact that they're watching a real person—that they're watching "Truman Capote." If you can get them to be more invested in the story they're watching than in the character, then you've succeeded.
Slate:Do you like one kind of acting, inventing a character vs. playing a "real" one, better?