Tribune Archive: 2005 interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman poses with his Oscar for his work in "Capote" at the 78th annual Academy Awards. (Mike Blake/Reuters / March 5, 2006)

This column was first published in Oct. 16, 2005

Philip Seymour Hoffman knows the voice well, the one any actor hears in his head sometimes after performing a scene onstage or on a movie set. It's the voice that murmurs: You're doing it all wrong. 

"The level of self-criticism while doing 'Capote' was just unbearable," says the star of the superb new film, in which Hoffman inhabits the role of literary peacock Truman Capote, he of the high, nasal, helium-and-alcohol vocal delivery and unique arsenal of mannerisms straight out of a Restoration comedy. 

"To play him," he says, "there's a constant feeling of intimidation because Truman had such strength, a kind of cocksureness: He walks with his hips forward, and his head tilted up, and there's something very powerful about the guy, in a way most people would be uncomfortable with. And that doesn't exempt me. I'd rather walk into a room somewhat shyly, whereas he'd come in and grab it. 

"For a long time . . . I was just very self-critical. It was trial and error for a long time, well into the first week of shooting, even. And then eventually you hit such a level of self-loathing that you come back up. And things start to come together." 

Audiences know Hoffman's face, even if they don't yet recognize his name. He has stolen scenes, or gone down trying, in everything from "Happiness" to "Cold Mountain" to "The Talented Mr. Ripley," as well as the oeuvre of Paul Thomas Anderson: "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Punch-Drunk Love." In his three dozen movie roles prior to "Capote," the 38-year-old Fairport, N.Y., native who first tried acting at age 15 after a wrestling injury sidelined his athletic endeavors, has played a broad array of wormy, anxiety-prone and anxiety-provoking sleazeballs, phone-sex addicts and the occasional nice guy. 

He certainly seems like a nice guy, sitting here in a Tribune Tower conference room, with an open bottle of water in front of him. Mid-conversation Hoffman accidentally knocks the bottle over and spends the next 10 minutes dabbing at the results in different ways, with a series of inadequately sized cocktail napkins. For a while it turns into a scene about an actor being interviewed while worrying about a water stain. 

The "Capote" script, based on Gerald Clarke's biography, was written by an old friend, actor Dan Futterman. From the start, another old friend, Bennett Miller, Hoffman's fellow New York University classmate, was slated to direct. (Miller previously made a 1998 documentary about a Manhattan tour-bus guide, "The Cruise.") Hoffman balked at first, and he feared what he calls the "parlor trick" aspect of playing such a well-known character, with the famously louche voice and wittily insolent manner. 

Eventually he took the bait. With his participation as star and co-executive producer, after various pitch meetings the modestly budgeted $7 million project secured the financing it needed. "If we had been trying to raise money for this without Phil," says Futterman, "it would've been absurd."

The film considers a narrow but eventful sliver in Capote's life, 1959 to 1965, during which the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" author left the Manhattan high life and his Brooklyn apartment (shared with lover Jack Dunphy) for long stretches in order to research and chronicle the story behind the murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kan. Capote'sresulting book, "In Cold Blood," caused a sensation.   

Yet, as director Miller and screenwriter Futterman argue, Capote's entanglements in the reporting of the story led him to the edge of a cliff, and then off it completely. Working on "In Cold Blood," he ventured, slyly, into a complicated friendship with killer Perry Smith. He offered financial and moral support of Smith and Dick Hickcock's legal defense. Eventually Capote retreated from the murderers' orbit as their imminent execution handed Capote, at long last, the ending to his book. In the aftermath Capote became a character more than a writer, and then a caricature more than a character.

Hoffman captures all this without a single extraneous flourish. The skill he displays here, says his comrades, was evident years earlier. Director Miller, screenwriter Futterman and Hoffman met at the off-Broadway Circle Repertory Company's summer theater workshop in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 

A natural    

"The first moment I saw Phil act is a really vivid memory for me," recalls Futterman. The improvisation exercise of the day, he says, was designed to "loosen up the teenagers, get them to act with their emotions, that kind of thing. I don't remember what I did, but I'm sure it was some half-assed attempt to get a laugh. 

"And then Phil walked into the room. I'm not certain exactly what he'd prepared -- I think it was a scenario involving a death in the family -- but he was a mess, bright red, sobbing, you couldn't even understand what he was saying half the time. But it was powerful. He was this 16-year-old ex-jock, and I remember very distinctly feeling that if I was going to act, I'd have to get serious about it. Because this guy completely gets it." 

Prior to filming "Capote," Hoffman experienced a turbulent year. His girlfriend, costume designer Mimi O'Donnell, gave birth to their son, Cooper in March 2003. Hoffman was coming off work on a couple of independent films, one of them ("Love Liza") written by his older brother, Gordy.     

Then, on Broadway, in an experience Hoffman considers "rewarding" and "depleting" in equal measure, he played the dissolute Jamie Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's four-hour butt-kicker, "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Staged by Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls, the revival starred Brian Dennehy (as did the earlier Goodman incarnation in Chicago), Robert Sean Leonard and the electrifying, different-every-night Vanessa Redgrave, whom Hoffman -- no meek performer himself -- considers the most exciting actor he's ever worked with. 

Falls describes Redgrave as "the loosest of the cannons" on that acclaimed project, but says Hoffman kept everyone on their toes as well. "I love him," he says. "Phil's a '70s sort of actor, like Nicholson or Pacino or even Bruce Dern, intense but playful."

Hoffman's memory of the run? " `Long Day's Journey' was . . . um . . . it was . . . uh . . . .there's a certain psychological trauma . . . " He breaks off into a grin, then resumes. "There's a certain trauma that takes place when you do O'Neill. I mean, it's just acting, but to do that play right, there's a certain place you gotta go, and you gotta do it over and over, over a period of months. And it does do a number on you. And afterwards you don't want to act for a while." 

Then came "Capote," which meant a lot of preparation. He studied films of Capote, listened to biographer Clarke's taped interviews, read reams of Capote's fiction. Every day for five months, Hoffman says, he worked an hour or two a day on the voice and mannerisms.     

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