LOS ANGELES — Philip Seymour Hoffman ambles into the lobby of the Sunset Marquis Hotel with a New York Times folded under his arm. It may not be an especially remarkable detail — Hoffman lives in Manhattan, so naturally enough he’d want to keep up with his hometown paper at a time of national crisis — but here along the hipster corridor known as the Sunset Strip, it is as unexpected as a volume of Latin poetry.
Hoffman’s appearance on the Hollywood press circuit would seem to announce — just as surely as New York Fashion Week and opera galas — that fall is here, that season when Hollywood releases its best films in hopes of winning the Academy’s attention next March. His new film, “Capote,” premieres Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In it, Hoffman plays the title role of Truman Capote, bringing to life the 20th century’s most colorful writer with help from first-time director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman. (Hoffman is also the film’s executive producer, the first time he’s taken on that responsibility.) Yes, Hoffman does the “voice” — Capote’s strange, reedy, childish mewl — and his astonishing performance is sure to generate the kind of breathless word-of-mouth excitement Capote himself would have loved.
“Somebody made a joke that this would be a two-hour movie about some guy going like this,” says Hoffman, pretending to type furiously at a keyboard. “But that’s the thing about Truman, really, he’s not like that. His life is as colorful as his writing.”
But it does focus on the five years the author spent researching and writing his masterpiece, the “nonfiction novel” that would become “In Cold Blood.” As the movie opens in 1959, Capote is literally the life of the party — trussed up in black tie and telling stories, drink in hand, in a paneled Uptown apartment — thanks to the recent success of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” He’s then seen reading a report in the Times about a brutal murder in Kansas and promptly calls William Shawn, the legendary New Yorker editor, to announce he’s found his next subject. He travels to Kansas with his childhood friend Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener, and begins to insinuate himself into the mind of the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, played respectively by Christian Collins Jr. and Mark Pellegrino.
“Capote” dramatizes the author’s wrenching obsession to create a literary milestone, and watches his ambition take a dark turn. “The crude way of putting it is that it’s the story of someone losing his soul,” says Hoffman. “I think he got diseased. Something about the spirit — the light — started to become sick. Capote is that person who sees that golden chalice and will do anything to get it.”
“In Cold Blood” was published to immediate acclaim in 1966, the same year Capote threw the Black and White Ball. It was, however, the beginning of the end. An ensuing grotesque devolution saw Capote transformed from Great Writer to Tiny Terror, a drunken talk-show personality spurned by the Swans he so loved. All of that, however, comes after the film’s closing credits. (By coincidence, there is a second Capote film to be released this fall, “Have You Heard?” in which Capote is played by Toby Jones and which focuses more on Capote’s high society moment.)
In person, Hoffman looks nothing like the young Capote, the boy wonder. He is shambling and unshaven, and his full beard, redder than his wispy blonde hair, shows evidence of his 37 years — call it salt-and-paprika. Nonetheless, Hoffman physically transforms himself on-screen. When he minces into a Kansas police station to request an interview with police chief Alvin Dewy, played by Chris Cooper, Hoffman’s Capote is as recondite and absurd as a show pigeon.
The actor studied Capote’s distinctive mannerisms in a short documentary by the Maysles brothers, “With Love From Truman,” that was shot when “In Cold Blood” was published.
“So then I just started working on it,” says Hoffman, who at several points in the interview underscores the workmanlike drudgery of mastering a character. “But you can’t do just the voice because then you’re mimicking someone. Ultimately this real person has to become a fictitious person. They’ve got to become a character you’re creating like any other character.”
To learn more about the writer’s private self, Hoffman turned to those who knew him, including biographer Gerald Clarke and photographer Richard Avedon, who traveled to Kansas with Capote to photograph Smith and Hickock for the New Yorker.
“I had dinner at Avedon’s house,” recalls Hoffman, “a long three or four hour dinner and he talked endlessly about Truman. They were about the same age, and he was obviously there in Kansas. That was extraordinarily helpful, but also one of the great, great moments of my life.”
Later, after shooting had already begun, Hoffman recalls that he suffered a crisis of confidence and he turned to director Joel Schumacher, who directed Hoffman in “Flawless” and who attended the famous Black and White Ball. The actor says he was most grounded by Schumacher’s intimate reminiscences about Capote’s mundane life, such as walking the dog late at night.
Hoffman did not, though, try to speak to any of the surviving members of the high society milieu that Capote loved before “Answered Prayers” caused his exile.
“First off, I didn’t really know where to look,” he explains. “And second, there was a part of me saying don’t go there, because that’s like telling the end of the story. I really had to concentrate on the beginning. So I didn’t want to know too much about what he became.”
As he speaks, Hoffman is relaxed and congenial. One imagines that with his pleasantly mellow voice, he would be a splendid dinner companion. But what is most striking about the actor is his exceptionally sensitive mechanism for empathy. As he recalls an early scene in the movie, during which Capote tells of being locked in a hotel room while his mother hit the town, his eyes redden and grow moist.
“His childhood was awful,” says Hoffman. “He had this sense of being abandoned, a sense of not being loved, a sense that he would be left kicking and screaming alone in some room somewhere.”
And that, says Hoffman, was Capote’s undoing. Both his literary ambition and his personal magnetism — the two seemingly irreconcilable halves of his life as serious writer and society gossip — derived from a desperate desire to keep everyone “in the room.”
Hoffman acknowledges that Capote is a morally tainted character, but he can’t bring himself to condemn the stark choices he made while creating “In Cold Blood.” In the end, Capote paid his own price.
“He couldn’t help but needing to be loved,” says Hoffman. “When he was getting it, I think he was creatively on fire and potent. And when ‘Answered Prayers’ time came around, he was in grief. He was grieving his goddamned existence from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to bed.”