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Playing the gifted but conflicted gay author, Capote, has been his hardest job in films; “it took the cake,” says Phillip Seymour Hoffman during a pre-Oscar trip to the Berlin Film Festival to promote the film. But with his next gig, as “a psychotic archetypal heavy badass character,” in Mission: Impossible III, he gets to fight, run & fly; “it’s pretty cool” he tells Helen Barlow.

Until very recently Philip Seymour Hoffman was a highly respected character actor who stood out in every movie in which he appeared. And it wasn’t because he’s big, burly and has a booming voice--in fact it’s quite the opposite. Hoffman has made a specialty of delivering sympathetic portrayals of outsiders and his latest embodiment of the effeminate, child-like Truman Copote, a gay man with a strange highly pitched voice, is no exception. What has changed is that the 38-year-old actor is a fully-fledged star, a leading man who is an odds-on favourite to take out the best actor Oscar on March 5, 2006.

When we spoke last Thursday during the Berlin Film Festival Hoffman admitted that at the time of making Capote, he had no idea the film would become such a success, especially since there was a rival Capote film in the works. “We really felt we might go down with the ship,” he quips. That he looked overwhelmed when he accepted his Golden Globe for best actor he says was genuine.

“I was absolutely petrified,” he recalls, drawing out his words. “I don’t know how anyone can have any other experience. All of a sudden you have to stand in front of millions of people and talk. It’s a moment of fear like I’d never experienced.”

Of course if he now wins an Academy Award he would enter the annals of Hollywood history and be referred to as an Oscar winner forever. Still there are many who believe that Hoffman, who came to fame in Scent of a Woman, and who excelled in movies like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Happiness, Punch-Drunk Love (all by P.T. Anderson) The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Big Lebowski and State and Main, deserves it. Does he agree?

"His ambition means the death of these men"

“If that was how I felt, God, that would be awful. I really don’t ever want to go to that place. That’s what the film’s about, Capote’s sense of entitlement and greed and lust and need and giving into it. It’s almost like watching a drug addict. His ambition means the death of these men. He doesn’t want them to die but they need to die so he can finish his book.”

Capote’s In Cold Blood is one of the greatest pieces of American literature, certainly the greatest of non-fiction writing. It tells of two men who in 1965 met their fate at the gallows for committing multiple murders in Kansas in 1959. Capote, a writer for New Yorker magazine, had travelled to Kansas to meet with the men and in one of the killers, Perry Smith, he saw a person who had been abused in his youth—not unlike himself—and probably fell in love with him. Still, that did not halt his ambition. He knew that here he could write the book of a lifetime, and managed to use his influence and power (most prominently as the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s) to organize a stay of their execution so that further court cases could be held. Once he realized that his book would not be completed until their deaths he abandoned them, and only returned to say goodbye and see them hang.

With In Cold Blood Capote became an enormous celebrity, though was unable to pen another masterpiece. When a chapter from his unfinished gossipy tell-all book, Answered Prayers, was published in Esquire magazine, he fell from favour and was ostracized from the celebrity circle he had once dominated. He basically drank himself to death: he died in 1984, aged 59.

“Capote started off as an outsider, reached the heights of profound ambition and then ended up where he started off, a loner,” Hoffman says. “He got what he wished for and in doing that lost everything. What makes him iconic in American culture is how flawed he is--the American public identify with his downfall. It’s like a story by Arthur Miller or Shakespeare; it’s a classic tragedy about a protagonist in extreme circumstances whose ambition and character flaws meet. When you’re watching the film as soon as he first sees Perry get out of that vehicle, his fate is written in stone.”

The success of Capote means a great deal to the actor, who grew up in the New York “burbs” as he calls them, because he is also a producer on the film and he made it with a bunch of friends. His friendship with the film’s writer Dan Futterman (also an actor for film, stage and television) and director Bennett Miller goes back to when he was 16 when they all attended a month-long summer theatre program.

“I wasn’t sure acting was something I wanted to do in my life at that time,” Hoffman says. “I don’t think I was very good but I had a passion for it.”

As he grew up Hoffman enjoyed a close relationship with his mother, who took him to the theatre from an early age. When he injured himself playing sport as a teenager, he started acting as a way of impressing and meeting girls. But it was at college that it became something he might do as a career.

Miller remembers Hoffman as a very vivid character. “Even at that age I didn’t perceive any vanity in Phil whatsoever, which is unusual. In the program there were 32 kids who were full of insecurities but Phil never had that. He immediately became very popular as a result.”

Until now Hoffman has probably received more official acclaim for his work as a stage actor, most notably his two Tony nominations for Sam Shepard’s True West (2000) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2003). In movies Capote has been his greatest challenge thus far.

"the hardest job I’ve had in films "

“This took the cake,” he booms. “It’s the hardest job I’ve had in films, even if I’ve had as hard or harder jobs in theatre. It’s a character where you have to have all these technical external things happening while you’re having incredibly rich complex emotions.” Hoffman lost weight for the role, as Capote was actually a small man, but what seems most incredible is the voice. “It was difficult because he didn’t just have a high voice, he has a unique voice so I listened to tapes of him speaking for a very long time.”

Once the film was over Hoffman says he never used the voice again. He wanted to leave the character behind. Now that he is doing publicity (the chore he likes least) he has been forced to reflect on the dilemmas he experienced during filming. He becomes emotional when asked about the death penalty.

“I’ve always been against it, but it’s a dilemma for me now because I have a three year-old son [Cooper Alexander, with girlfriend Mimi O’Donnell]. If anything happened to him I might feel differently.”

He had no fear though in playing a homosexual, something many Hollywood stars tend to avoid. “It’s the third or fourth film where I play a gay character, in Flawless I was a transsexual, so I haven’t had any issue with that in my career. It seems to be something I’ve been able to do, ever since I kissed Mark Wahlberg [in Boogie Nights],” he laughs. “That was eight years ago. Nobody’s ever told me not to, maybe that’s because of where I am in the stature of celebrity. I think it’s a good thing.”

To level things out he now appears in Mission Impossible III. “I had a little bit of time off and then went to do the film, which was a whole different kind of thing,” he says.

What was the temptation? “My God, it was like being a kid. But first up was the fact that JJ Abrams was directing. I’ve known him since I was in my early 20s and I’d met him when he was writing Regarding Henry. He was like 20 years old and he was writing his own screenplays and they were being made. He’s this incredibly bright, imaginative guy and quite a guy, period. So when he called me to do it and then I read the screenplay after he rewrote it, I discovered he’d done a really great job. He really is trying to do something vastly different from what’s been done with this franchise. The role is this archetypal heavy, the psychotic archetypal heavy badass nothing-good-about-him- whatsoever character. I’ve never done anything like that. I get to fight, run, fly and all that. It’s pretty cool.”

Has Hoffman seen Lost, the series Abrams created? “I don’t actually have a TV, so JJ had to give me a whole season on the set. I’ve started watching it,” he responds guiltily.

Trying to conceal my horror that he hasn’t watched the best show on television, I tell him that in our recent interview, Lost star Mathew Fox told me, “that if anyone can control Tom Cruise, JJ can”.

“I think you really might dig the movie,” Hoffman responds, avoiding the Cruise issue. “The one thing I can say is that in this Mission Impossible he [Ethan Hunt] is drawn in an incredibly human way. He’s not the superhero and I think it’s a good choice because it allows room for him to do something different in the story and that’s why I did it.”

And what about working with Hollywood’s Number One star? “I’ve known Tom for six years because I did Magnolia with him, so I’ve known him a long time. And he’s really good to me. He’s a really nice guy with me and my family. I get along with him very well.”

Published February 23, 2006

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Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote


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