Interview: Philip Seymour Hoffman on 'Capote'

Philip Seymour Hoffman on Getting into Character for 'Capote'

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in "Capote". © Sony Pictures Classics

The late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman won his Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of In Cold Blood writer Truman Capote in Capote. The film depicts Capote writing his fame true crime book and the relationship he formed with Perry Smith, one of the killers. Speaking with, Hoffman talked about the movie Capote, getting into character, his research, and leaving Truman Capote behind at the end of the day.

Preparing to Play Truman Capote:

I had a great documentary by the Maysles [Albert and David] called With Love from Truman that was kind of my bible, actually. I really watched that a lot because I thought that encapsulated a lot of things I needed to know. It was him at that time, it was before he completely disintegrated into what he eventually became, which is a man who died of alcoholism and stuff. So it was still him in that time. They caught him privately and you really got to see a simpler guy, not a guy who was on. So, it was helpful.

The Line Between Imitation and Interpretation:

It's not a literal thing, you know what I mean? Everything, if you give yourself over to it, eventually transcends into something artistic and that's always a world that is a bit gray and indefinable. You do all the kind of concrete work that you can do, the documentaries or the audio tapes or the visuals or what you read, you interview people.

I keep saying I put myself alone in a room four months before we started to shoot and tried to get in that room everyday for an hour or two with all these materials that I had and everything I could, and just start working. And what that is, is something that I had to figure out. A lot of it was practice and things like that of technical stuff.

But ultimately all that had to be one. Where it wasn't just imitation, it wasn’t just mimicry, it was creating a character. A real guy and it was trial an error.

On Why He Never Read In Cold Blood Until After Reading the Capote Script:

I wasn't assigned it like most people. People were like, "Oh, I read that in college." I read other things. And so there was a lot of Capote reading I had to do.

Did Capote Take Advantage of the Convicts?

You know, I had to play him so I really didn't spend too much time on my own objective [looking] at it and still going, "Oh, did he…?" I immediately started to try and look at it through the eyes of Capote. I don't think ultimately, I think he drew them in anonymous light. In that book I think it's somewhat of an empathetic light. In that book, it makes them very real people. You really do get an idea of Perry Smith's background and [Richard] Hickock's background. There is a certain compassion toward these two killers in that book. So that I realized [that] and that was pretty vivid. That tells you a lot about, obviously, how close he got to them.

What Angle Does Capote Take on Telling Truman Capote’s Story?

We knew that the story wasn't going to shine him in the best of lights.

But it's a tragedy and there wouldn't be tragedy if you didn't see the self-awareness happen, which is not a pleasant one. That happens to him and it begins this downfall, so that's the story. That's the story, it wasn't like a judgment that we made, that's the story. This guy died at age 59 alone, of alcoholism, without writing another book. That's the story. We are trying to tell what we think instigated [it], started that ball rolling. But ultimately in playing him I had to go through his story, so I had to justify his actions in order for it -- because he did -- in order to go through it, and then ultimately understand what would be the overwhelming thing that would start this downfall in his life.

On Capote’s Need for the Killers to be Executed:

I know the book only works if they are executed.

Who knows what everyone was thinking how the book could have ended and still done well… I think there are a lot of reasons that, again, aren't so black and white of why them dying is beneficial. I think it had to do with the book and it had to do with would he be able to successfully come out and publish this book and get it out there with them still alive and in their voices? Then they could read it. Would they disagree with it? All of these things may come up. There were a lot of issues that he saw and I think he just wanted it clean. He wanted an ending and also wanted it clean, and he was really dealing with it.

Page 2: Philip Seymour Hoffman on His Attraction to "Capote"


Philip Seymour Hoffman Explains His Attraction to Capote:

It was really the story that was the most attractive thing. The story of this and his story. The idea of the technical stuff of playing him, that wasn't the thing that attracted me to it. That stuff was daunting and the scary stuff. I had to be drawn into this in a different way. What I was drawn to was the tragic tale. This classic tragic tale.

Something being inevitable, something playing itself out and no one could stop it. There was something about that, which was very interesting to me and compelling. I think that what makes the film compelling is you can't stop it and it's so subtle and simple and kind of slow. It's there and it's lulling you and you realize that you are on this train toward this place. It's inevitable and that's, I think, something that makes for good story and a good film.

On Remaining in Character During the Shoot:

I didn't really go to shops and stuff, I really didn't. That would have been really frightening, I think. At work, because it was like an athletic event in a way, very specifically meaning that if you are running a race you don't want to stop in the middle of the race and have to start running again. It's harder to do that. Trainers will tell you that's how you should work out because you will burn more calories because it takes more energy.

I had to keep a certain sense of the voice and quality and these things because if I let it go, it was just too much energy to get it back up again. Once the day is over, I can go home and be me. I needed to do that. I needed to rest. It's really that simple.

The Responsibility of Being in Almost Every Scene in Capote:

It’s a huge responsibility and sometimes that's overwhelming. But it's a positive thing in the aspect that you get to work everyday and you do get the benefit of getting into a rhythm. You are in front of the camera a lot. Whereas when you are a supporting player, you come in and there is pressure to just get those three scenes just right. Whereas when you are a lead, you kind of modulate through. Like some scenes are this, some are this, there is something different about it which actually can be quite freeing.

On Working with Clifton Collins Jr, who Plays Perry Smith:

It was great. He's great, I really think that everyone in this film [is]. I think you will agree with me, the cast kind of just settles right into these roles in ways that are kind of uncanny. You kind of forget who they are. It's really just one of those special times when the ensemble just kind of [works].

While we were casting it, as a producer I was, I had never been having a say. It was scary. Like who is going to play these guys? Perry Smith, it was really, really tough. The fact that we got Clifton… I remember seeing his tape. He auditioned and it was great. Just the way he looks, everything about him. We are the same size and that's such an important aspect of the story.

He just rammed it right in there. I was just so grateful as, really as a producer, that we got him.