Truman Capote's arrival in Kansas in late 1959, his curiosity piqued by the slaughter of a family of four, was about as inconspicuous as a spaceship landing. And he was E.T. Cartoonish in his feline effeminacy, the New Yorker writer had Kansans asking, "What's the matter with Truman?" He couldn't have been less like the Plains folks with whom he spent much of the next five years researching the "nonfiction novel" he called In Cold Blood. Yet he had the gift of empathy for turning strangers into intimates. Capote understood wounded people from the inside, for he was one of them.
At first Philip Seymour Hoffman felt no closer kinship to Capote than the Kansans originally did. "I wasn't sure I was right for it," he says of the title role in Capote, which chronicles the by turns supportive and betraying bond he formed with one of the killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). "I was not an aficionado of Capote's writing or his life," he adds, speaking in a baritone voice several octaves lower than the Tiny Terror's infantile whine. But Hoffman, 38, is a friend of the film's writer, actor Dan Futterman, and its director, Bennett Miller, and they wanted to work together. So, he says, "I was like, 'What the hell?' I literally said, 'What the hell?' Then I started watching material on Capote, and I thought, 'Oh. My. God. There's no way I'm going to do that,'" Although he was an executive producer as well as the film's star, Hoffman hoped the project would fall through. "I thought, If we never get the money, we'll all be off the hook."
The idea that Hoffman would be scared by any role must baffle those who have seen the Rochester, N.Y., native commandeer a couple dozen of the strangest, often slimiest characters in movies. From the obscene phone caller in Happiness to the obnoxious interloper in The Talented Mr. Ripley, from the porn-film gofer with the too tight T shirts in Boogie Nights to the tabloid snoop who gets fricasseed in Red Dragon, Hoffman brings so much persuasive skill to those sad creatures that they threaten to usurp the movies in which they are only sideshow exhibits. Sturdy and pleasant looking, Hoffman can play a kindly drag queen (Flawless) or a helpful nurse (Magnolia) and do so with a wiliness and daring that earn him plaudits as one of the finest actors of his generation--though he has yet to be nominated for an Oscar or a Golden Globe.
That should change with Capote. For one thing, he's playing a famous person (as winners Jamie Foxx and Cate Blanchett did last year) who's also a writer (as were Nicole Kidman in The Hours and Jim Broadbent in Iris, for which they won Oscars). More to the point, he and the film are terrific. Supported by the eminent Catherine Keener (as author Harper Lee) and Chris Cooper (as detective Alvin Dewey), Hoffman begins with a dead-on impersonation of Capote that soon becomes a kind of channeling as the audience comes to see this American tragedy through his eyes.
Of the early Oscar talk, Hoffman says, "As an actor, it's nerve racking. But when I'm wearing my producer hat, I think, 'Hey, this is great. If the film gets nominated, it will be seen by way more people.'"