Philip Seymour Hoffman's 'Capote' Obsession

Madeleine Brand talks with actor Philip Seymour Hoffman about his starring role in the new film Capote. The movie depicts writer Truman Capote as he researches his groundbreaking "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood and develops a friendship with one of the killers he writes about.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

The New York Review of Books called the book "In Cold Blood" `the best documentary account of an American crime ever written.' "In Cold Blood" transformed journalism, ushering in a new style, the non-fiction novel. Its author? Truman Capote.

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Yeah, I've decided on a title for my book. I think you'll like it. It's very masculine. "In Cold Blood."

BRAND: That's actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in a new movie out this week called "Capote." Hoffman's done more than just transform his husky baritone into the shrill childlike voice that Capote was so well-known for. In order to embody Capote, Hoffman says he had to start with Capote's troubled childhood.

Mr. HOFFMAN: What makes him tick had a lot to do with that seven-year-old who looked forward to his father coming back. And he'd come back for, like, a day and then leave again. That 12-year-old that was brought to New York City to live with his mother--his mother used to openly make fun of him about his homosexuality through his teen-age years in front of people. And those are the things you need to look at 'cause there's some kind of thing that's driving this man that's not driving others.

BRAND: The film focuses on the chapter in Truman Capote's life that turned him into one of America's most famous authors when he wrote "In Cold Blood." It begins in 1959 when Capote reads an article in The New York Times about the murder of a Kansas farm family. He convinces The New Yorker magazine to send him to Kansas to write about it.

Here he was, a writer of some renown in New York...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah.

BRAND: ...and he decides to go out to rural Kansas, a place who's never heard of him, and he sort of drops in and, I imagine, received like an alien. He had this sort of fay mannerisms and that voice, that childlike...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, he has that very odd way of speaking. And he was a very small man, a diminutive man. He was much smaller than I, with a kind of dirty blond hair and the soft features. I mean, there was just something about him that just was vastly different, the way he dressed, and how that someone like him was--ingratiated himself into so many circles was kind of his talent. I got this vibe, this feeling that he had a way of meeting somebody in a very short period of time, understanding what it was he needed to do in order to win this person's trust, to let them know that it's OK to speak openly with him. And he also had a way of telling a story that kept you captive, and that had something to do with his voice and his rhythms and also the way--he just was, I think, a deep-feeling guy at the end of the day. And so you saw this certain raw vulnerability inside him.

BRAND: How did you do the voice? How did you study the voice, practice the voice? How did you get it just right?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, first of all, I don't think it's just right, I mean, 'cause I didn't worry about having it be just right. I knew that it had to be true, which sounds kind of corny, but I knew it had to be honest, and then I knew it had to express the vitality and the nuances of Truman Capote. But, ultimately, you know, no one can just--'cause that's kind of a mimic thing and that thing isn't as interesting.

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) I wanted to ask if you'd let me look at your investigation notes.

Unidentified Actor: That lawyer you helped find for your friends got them a hearing at the Kansas Supreme Court.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) Yeah, I heard it this morning. And, Eldon, I mean, if you do not want me to look at your notes, you are permitted to say no.

It is a bit mysterious at the end of the day how it all comes together, and I think it's really diligence and hard work just like any other art form, too. You know, you can do the research. You can read everything you need to read. You can talk to the people you can talk to, to illuminate things to you. You can get, you know, videotapes, audiotapes, all those things, and I had all those things at my disposal and I would have all those things and I'd be alone in a room and I would force myself to be alone in that room with those things for an hour or two every day.

BRAND: The central question in the movie, the central moral question, that Truman Capote faces is--he has an opportunity to help these murderers that he's become friends with get a lawyer, do their appeals, and he really doesn't want to because it means he can't finish his book. And the finishing of his book--the end of his book is their execution.

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Mr. CLIFTON COLLINS Jr.: (As Perry Smith) This is what we've been waiting for, the stay of execution to make a federal appeal, all thanks to you. Thank you.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) This is absurd. Do you know what absurd means? I'm ready. I have a plane to catch.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Smith) Please don't go out there.

(Soundbite of door)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) This is my work, Perry. I'm working. And when you want to tell me what I need to hear, you let me know.

The actions he has to take to create a relationship with this person, Perry Smith, and others...

BRAND: Perry Smith being?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Perry Smith being one of the two killers. The other killer being Dick Hickcock who--Dick Hickcock is a much more open person, so it was easier to get close to him, but Perry wasn't that--it wasn't the case and he had to work much harder and, therefore, became much closer to Perry. And I think there was a strong identification they had with each other about adults that dealt with abandonment as children and these issues of being orphans and stuff. And through that, you know, you're trying to get close to somebody and find out as much as you can about somebody. The byproduct of that is you become intimate with that person. It's impossible not to.

BRAND: And he has a great line in the movie. He's talking about himself and Perry and how similar they are and he says...

(Soundbite of "Capote")

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Capote) It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door while I went out the front.

As children, they were abandoned and they both had artistic aspirations 'cause you kind of see it in the film slightly. You get a glimpse in the fact that Perry liked to draw, he liked to write, and there's these things that you can see that he also had and so I think Truman basically was saying there was a huge amount of empathy he had toward Perry Smith that came from those two things.

BRAND: Tell us about the end, because that's when he witnesses the execution that he had wanted so he could finish his book.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah. My assumption about it is I think he wanted to project to everyone that, you know, I'm not emotionally connected here. This is my book, I did it and they need to die and they should die. And I have helped them and I don't need to help them anymore. And I think it was a complicated thing, but I think there was a certain kind of strength that he was kind of projecting and there's lots of stories about him, you know, expressing his happiness about the fact that their appeals didn't go through and things like that.

And I always wonder about that. Like, why'd he do that in front of people? You know, clapped his hand and jumped in the air about the fact that they're now going to be executed at a party or something. The end is--what you're seeing is that thing that he--you know, that ambition and that need to be accepted and loved by as many people as possible through the success of this book and the celebrity and the fame and the money that it would bring him and all these things.

But the thing underlying it, the thing that, you know, that is really driving it, is this grief, the unbearable grief and--that he was going to feel when they were gone, and that when Perry was gone, that he once again would be abandoned; that watching Perry Smith die was going to be excruciatingly painful and deal with a lot of grief. And that coupled with his ambition and this need for this book to be--you know, those two things were so conflicting; they were, you know, like the plus and negative of a magnet. They just would not go together. And there they were existing inside him at the same time. I think it was something that was unbearable in that moment and that's really up to the ending, where he just--he's at a loss for what to say. And I do think that those--at the end of this movie you really see everything leading up, and then you see at the end the damage, you know? You start to see like how does somebody after this event really move on. And I really--I think--hopefully, the film succeeds in showing why he became something else, why whoever he was before, he's not going to be now.

BRAND: Well, Philip Seymour Hoffman, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. HOFFMAN: All right, you're welcome. Thank you.

BRAND: Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in the new movie "Capote," which opens on Friday.

More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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