An interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Interviews with a point.
Jan. 31 2006 11:18 AM

Philip Seymour Hoffman

The actor talks about Truman Capote's moral ambiguities and supposed lies.

The actor/producer racks up another award. Click image to expand.
The actor/producer racks up another award

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?

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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?

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.

Slate: Capote was both famously disciplined and dissipated. How did you go about figuring out how to portray this? It's obviously harder to represent a writer visually than it is to write about him or her; most films do it by just having a writer at her typewriter, tearing up drafts, or pacing around maniacally.

Hoffman: Well, it seemed to us that if you could actually see him at work in many different ways, ultimately that would suggest to you a lot of what you're saying, both the discipline and the dissipation. You see him alone thinking, you see him interviewing people, you see him watching, you see his different tactics, his manipulations—the movie is about that, about someone in that active state of creating. The least important aspect of that is him at the typewriter. That's what Danny, Bennett, and myself knew was true. It's the same with acting. There's a lot of creating that goes on that takes place before the film is actually being produced. And so in this film he is always in the state of watching someone, of creating something. So, when you do see him at his typewriter a couple of times it isn't tedious; you feel, I know why he is there. He has a s---load of material to get down on the page! And I know it, because I've seen him gathering it.

Slate:So far, Capote has met with tons of critical adulation. Do you think there is anything the movie failed at?

Hoffman: I don't think the movie failed at this, but I think there could always be more room for Perry and Truman's relationship. Again, I don't think the film failed at it—actually I think it did quite well—but their relationship was five and a half years of talking and visiting and writing to one another; there's a lot of terrain there. And we'd probably lose half of our viewership, but you could have put 45 more minutes capturing that, the relationship. I don't think this was a failure, and I say that out of respect to Bennett because I think he was very successful in getting all those things in the film very artfully, with great nuance—almost stroking you with this story. But there's always more you could put in, more you could get.

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.

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