Wrestling With Fame
Philip Seymour Hoffman refuses to bask in reports of his gathering greatness. Meet an actor who deflects—and seduces—with acumen and cunning worthy of, dare we say it, Truman Capote.
By Jennifer Drapkin published January 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
This is a story that Hoffman, arguably the world's finest actor, tells about himself to maintain perspective. His latest film, Capote , is garnering all kinds of accolades: The best movie about journalism ever made. The most emotionally taut portrait of an artist overcome by ambition ever drawn. That's just for the movie.
The real praise has been lavished on Hoffman's psychologically luminous performance, as it has since his 1992 appearance in Scent of a Woman . "Naked as a newborn baby, utterly lacking in vanity, his performances delve into areas of the psyche most actors don't even know exist, let alone have the daring to tackle," critic James Mottram raved in The Scotsman . "He's an actor's actor, really fearless," observes John C. Reilly, who has costarred with Hoffman in films and on stage.
In real life, Hoffman is a large, burly man with a husky voice, yet somehow, he persuasively melts into Capote, a hermaphroditic elf in bespoke suits who captivates despite a voice that has all the gravitas of a kazoo. Even more remarkably, Hoffman conveys the transformation of the writer from person to persona during the six years he wrote In Cold Blood , the true story of a family murdered in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, and a masterpiece that made nonficton as literary as fiction. A Southerner, unmistakably homosexual and seductive to his very marrow, Capote thrived as the consummate New York raconteur. But he also managed to endear himself to the buttoned-up Kansans, the detectives and especially the two men who were eventually executed for the murders.
Confronted with the reports I've gathered of his genius, Hoffman shares with me the story of losing the wrestling match in front of his mom. "It doesn't matter how brilliant or wonderful I think I am. On any given day, no matter how hard I fight, there is somebody who can take me down. I can fail in front of my peers. I can fail in front of my parent. I just have a certain understanding that I am only as good as yesterday when it comes to what I do for a living."
Hoffman does not rely on his talent to carry him through a role. He spent five and a half months transmuting himself into Capote. Much of the time was spent alone, in a room with the door locked, reading. He studied archival footage of the writer plying his increasingly alcohol-sodden charms on late-night talk shows. He lost 40 pounds and practiced the inscrutable voice and fey mannerisms for an hour or two every day. He consulted old friends and acquaintances of Capote, including the late photographer Richard Avedon, and walked the streets of New York with headphones replaying Capote's interviews with his biographer Gerald Clarke. Like a classical musician practicing scales, learning a piece measure by measure so as to have only to breathe soul into the music onstage, Hoffman prepares not to play, but to vivify, a character.
Despite such preparation, Hoffman suffers from as much anxiety before a performance as sixth graders in the final round of a national spelling bee. Capote director Bennett Miller, who has been friends with the actor since they were both 16, remembers receiving phone calls laden with self-doubt in the days before Hoffman opened on Broadway in Sam Shepard's True West and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night . "He works himself into states of crisis and distress, worrying that people are going to know he is a fraud and that his career is over," Miller says. Hoffman won Tony nominations for both roles.
Preparation takes very deep levels of concentration, a process that Hoffman describes as "lugging weights upstairs with your brain." It's not a fun time to be around him, reports Dan Futterman, longtime friend and Capote screenwriter. "Whatever he is going through it's painful, it's private, and he does not want to be disturbed." For Hoffman, acting is taxing, demanding and isolating. In preparation for Capote , he "went through profound levels of self-criticism and self-judgment because ultimately I felt that I always had it wrong."
It's the capacity for self-criticism that makes Hoffman such a contender. Artists who sacrifice self-criticism to bask in reports of their gathering greatness are at risk of destroying the very edge that makes their work penetrating. Such was the case with Capote himself, and the film's power rests completely on Hoffman's ability to illuminate the subtleties of such self-treachery—and renders his role resonant for our narcissistic times.
Capote began In Cold Blood with the conviction the book would achieve great success as the first-ever "nonfiction novel." Indeed, he was paid $2 million in 1966, more than any author before. The buzz was so great that its serialized appearance in The New Yorker sold out on the newsstands at nine in the morning when the issue was first put on sale. The book was not only the best seller of its day, it made nonfiction a dominant genre. Capote literally reveled in his reputation, traded the ultraviolet burn of fame for social currency and gossip, and never completed another book. He died an alcoholic, reviled by the celebrity friends whose private lives he was attempting to exploit for a new work. "While writing the book," Hoffman emphasizes, "Capote knew how famous he was going to become; while I was making the movie, I was aware of how big a flop it could become."
Hoffman generally does not seek out media attention. He fears that if people know too much about him, they won't be able to focus on his performances. But as star and executive producer of Capote , he is in the position of having to talk about himself. Hoffman has endured almost a hundred interviews to promote Capote before we meet. We are sitting in a café in New York's Greenwich Village, playing a classic game in which the subject attempts to reveal as little as possible for the sake of his privacy, while the writer attempts to extract as much as possible for the sake of the public. I am a rookie: This is my first fight against a famous person.
The actor grew up in Fairport, New York, a middle-class suburb of Rochester, where his mother is a family court judge and where his wrestling career came to a bruising halt during his sophomore year of high school. The resulting gap in activity led him to follow a would-be girlfriend to an audition for The Crucible . He never got the girl, but he did get the part. Today, Hoffman lives in Manhattan with his girlfriend, Mimi O'Donnell, and their two-and-a-half-year-old son. He met O'Donnell when he hired her as a costume designer for LAByrinth, an off-off Broadway theater company he codirects.
Sitting calmly, Hoffman could be a truck driver, unshaven and overweight, a 4-year-old T-shirt hugging his belly, stringy blond hair splaying from underneath a baseball cap. But speaking about his work, his voice reaches a crescendo that could make an army cower. I try not to be intimidated. We run through his past roles: the gay soundman from Boogie Nights , the sensitive nurse from Magnolia , the "uncool" rock critic from Almost Famous . I am ready to turn the conversation to Capote .
PT : The movie deals with exploiting your subjects' real life for the sake of art. Did you ever feel like you were exploiting Capote's real life?
PSH : "The themes in the movie could be about anyone: What happens when you can't reconcile the thing you're after for the price you pay; what happens to the artist when the muse becomes his love; what happens when you use someone's real life for artistic purposes. Capote knew that he was going to become larger than life while he was writing the book, and he wanted it. He wanted people to know about his persona, and he used it to real effect. After a while, his writing became secondary to his celebrity."
I'm 25, young enough to know Capote only through his writing. I knew nothing of the persona at all. It could have died with him.
"I'm 38, so I remember." His face reddens slightly, and a vein on his forehead emerges. "You know, you are the fourth person to ask the question about Truman using Perry, [one of the murderers in In Cold Blood ] and about me using Truman, and it's always people your age."
There's a reason for that. When you are younger you are still grappling with ethical questions.
"And you think you stop when you are older?"
No, but it doesn't take that place of prominence.
"But don't you think that by asking the question you are using me ?"
Yes, actually I do. I am aware of that.
"That's what I think is so interesting. I think young people are actually willing to go there, because they have more guts about it. Because they have less to lose."
No, I wouldn't say that a younger person has nothing to lose. It's really the opposite.
"You don't have a reputation."
Exactly, you are trying to build one.
"But when you have a reputation, there is more to lose. When I was starting out I had a lot of bad auditions. But it wasn't seen by a lot of people. A young actress just asked me, 'When did it become easier for you to connect with your feelings, or whatever?' And I go, 'That it's scarier now than when I was your age.' The older I get the more aware of myself I get, the less risky I am, the less sure I am, the less willing I am to go to those places."
When I saw the movie, all I could think was, if you interview him and he reveals something personal, then you've done a good job, and it will help your career. And you are using him. And that is journalism.
"I'm curious why only young people ask me that."
Because we are thinking about it. Also, editors tell young writers scary things like, 'If you haven't made your interview subject angry at least once, than you haven't done a good job.' That's not something sensitive young people want to hear.
"I disagree with that analysis completely. I think that's naive."
On whose part?
"On your part. You're sitting here thinking that it is because you are sensitive. It's because you are scared. You know, it is uncomfortable, and you do get angry at interviews. People ask questions and you are like that's none of your fucking business. It's only overtly exploitative when what you read is not what happened. Then you know a point of view was brought into the interview. If I had gone in to play Capote with a very strong take on him, that would have been manipulative. It's what the movie is about."
"Am I upsetting your plan?"
Bennett Miller told me that you are a genuinely humble person, and that keeps you self-critical. He said you are humble and that comes from being humbled at a young age.
"Yeah, absolutely. It's kind of like..."
Humbled by what?
"I'm not as humble as people are saying, I think."
That's an ironic thing to say. Because if you are truly humble, you don't come out and say, 'Yeah, I'm the most humble guy in the world.'
"I didn't say that."
"I know. That's my point." He smiles and nods in acknowledgment.
"What Bennett means is that I can be ambitious, but if I keep myself in check, if I have a third eye, then that's a form of humility. And there were experiences in my 20s that made me have some perspective."
Experiences like what? What is a humbling experience?
"What is a humbling experience! My God. Imagine walking on to a film set, and 30 people are watching you, and 25 of them are complete strangers. Imagine playing a scene where you have to be as private as possible and you do it awfully. Imagine walking into a room naked and falling down with shit coming out of your ass, and saying, 'Oh, can I do it again?'"
So you think that's what Bennett means by humbling experiences?
"Sure, and he knows my personal experiences, too."
What are they?
"Well, those are things I don't really talk about. Those are things about me that aren't very important."
Well, of course they are important.
"Not in this context."
In precisely this context.
"Think about—no—you know what it means to be humbled in your life."
But the context is that I'm writing a piece and I want to illustrate it.
"That doesn't mean that I have to tell you about humbling experiences in my life."
No, but it would make the piece better.
Here Hoffman laughs. "You just finished talking about exploiting and being ethical," he says.
I know, and you told me don't be scared, so I guess I'm not scared anymore.
I was just saying, that's what your bosses mean.
Maybe my bosses are right.
"Fair enough," he concedes.
He pauses and leans back in his chair, rifling through the repository of embarrassing events in his life. And he tells me the high-school wrestling story. In truth, Hoffman is still every bit a wrestler. He wants to be challenged and engaged. To get down on the mat. To feel pain, anguish, anxiety, embarrassment while everyone is watching. This time, to win.