Editor's Note: Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died on February 2, 2014, at the age of 46. One of the most widely respected performers of his generation, Hoffman won an Academy Award for his role in Capote and was nominated three other times. To remember him, we dug up Josh Bell's November 2005 interview with the acclaimed actor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the most versatile and accomplished actors of his generation. In roles as varied as a closeted porn industry hanger-on (Boogie Nights), an obsequious personal assistant (The Big Lebowski), a nebbishy gambling addict (Owning Mahowny) and legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Almost Famous), Hoffman has established himself as an indelible screen presence while also completely submersing himself in his parts. Now with his latest film, Capote, Hoffman is breaking out as a leading man, and talk of an Oscar is heating up. By phone from Los Angeles, he talks about making the movie, his process as an actor and what it's like to work with Tom Cruise.
How familiar were you with Truman Capote before getting involved with the project?
Not very. I obviously knew who he was. I knew what he had written and why he was famous and I remember him as a kid from the talk shows and stuff. But I wasn't well-read on him. It was reading the script—I learned a lot about those things I didn't know, about what went on in writing this book. And that made me want to read the biography, which I read. It's a great book, a really great read. And then I was just kind of semi-obsessed after that, and I started reading everything that he had written and all that. But beforehand, I had a kind of a layman's idea of what he was.
Do you think that was a positive thing coming into the role?
I think that it was really, really positive, actually, because a lot of people who know him or are well-read have a real strong opinion on him. He's not a guy that people have a gray opinion on. People are really strong one way or the other about him. And I didn't have a strong opinion one way or the other. I was just eating up all this knowledge and reading his stuff and reading stuff about him and talking to people. And I was forming all my ideas and opinions in the moment. It was just very helpful, because then I wasn't really judging him very much or I wasn't biased one way or the other.
How did you approach playing a real person differently than you approach playing a fictional character?
What differs is that you have the materials in front of you. When you're creating a role that's been invented, you don't know what that person sounds like or whatever. That person might sound like you, or maybe not. You've got to find that.
With this, what's strange is that you do know. It's very odd. You know how he sounds, you know how he goes about what he does, because it's right there. And the more well-known, the more you know. With him, he's very well known, so there's a lot there. So it's kind of a given in the story that this man talks and behaves this way. So you have to fulfill those givens along with everything. It's easier in a way, and much harder in a way, if that makes any sense.
It seems that the film is a little coy about Capote's homosexuality. Was that a conscious decision?
No. We had a scene in the film where you see Jack and Truman dancing and kissing and stuff. And Gerald Clarke, the biographer who was one of Truman's closest friends before he died, said that was the one false note in the movie because, he said, they just weren't physically affectionate with each other in front of other people. When you read about Truman's life, he had lovers when he was younger. He was with Jack a long time and then in the end he was with certain other people. But reading about his life is not kind of a Jackie Collins novel. It's really not a bed-hopping thing. You really see that it was a part of his life for sure, but it wasn't something he trumpeted. He didn't hang all over Jack or sleep around a whole lot. I mean, he did, but not like I'm sure other people do, whether they're heterosexual or homosexual. It was a very interesting part of who he was. So we knew that if we emphasized it, we would be forcing something. We'd be actually saying, "Well, he's gay, so we should probably show something about the fact that he's gay." Which really would have been a false note. You get it. From the first minute you see him, you know who he was. The public affection with his lovers wasn't documented as something he really did.
Is that maybe a sign that we've gotten to the point where you can make a film about a gay person and not have an obligation for it to be a representation of homosexuality?
I hope so. What a burden. What an awful burden, you know what I mean? They're people. I hope we've gotten past where we have to identify who the person is by their sexuality. That's a good question, and I do think this movie is a typical example of, these are human beings going through a situation, a drama, and their sexuality and their leanings are a part of it, but they're just a part of it. I would hope so, we'd be able to tell stories about gay men or straight men or gay women or whatever and focus on the person, and the fact that they're gay is a part of who they are. You know it or you don't, or whatever.
You've been sort of a chameleon in many of your roles in the past, and you've been in a position where a lot of people recognize you but maybe not as many know your name. Getting all this recognition for this role in Capote, where you're the star and it's focused on your performance, does that affect your ability to disappear into future roles?
It definitely is going to be more exposure than I'm used to. But because of the film and the part, I don't think they're going to be sending me to play Truman Capote-like people. So there's something unique to that. But yes, I agree, I think the exposure's going to be more than usual. And I do think that as long as you are as private as you can be, which I think is important for an actor, just because you want people to watch the character not the actor, you're doing OK. But, yeah, it will be definitely different.
Does it bother you then to see all the actors getting so much attention in tabloids?
Well, sometimes you never know if it's the person wanting to be seen or if it's somebody's really going after them. I never know, so I try not to judge too much. But yeah, I think it's important for an actor to try to be fair with the media and talk about themselves. But I do think it's a courtesy to the audience members for them to go to the theater and know less about the actor and more about the character they're watching. It's just a more pleasurable experience. You can really give in to the film more. You wish there wasn't so much of it, but again I always hold out judgment, because I always wonder, well, maybe the person wants everyone to know that stuff about them. Or maybe not, who knows?
Working with Tom Cruise now on Mission: Impossible III, are you seeing a different side of that?
Well, you know, he's a rock star. But the thing is, I've worked with Tom twice, you know, I worked with him on Magnolia. Two very, very different films. And he's an actor. He's a really hard-working, dedicated guy. He's a good guy. So that's how I see him. That's my experience with him. I haven't really been with him when he's in the public eye in the way that everyone sees him. I'm with him on the set somewhere. We're bantering back and forth about the scene, or just about whatever. That's my relationship with him. So that's how I see him. But, yeah, it's Tom. I can't say, "Tom, you want to go down and go to the drive-through at McDonald's?" I know that's difficult for him and not for me. It must be difficult for him sometimes. But I think he's been with it so long that he deals with it.