TORONTO – The hesitation Philip Seymour Hoffman (search) felt about playing Truman Capote (search) was not unlike the uncertainty audiences might feel over seeing a movie about the man who wrote the true-crime classic "In Cold Blood (search)."
Hoffman wondered how he would hold up in the title role of "Capote," impersonating the author's weirdly effete, self-important mannerisms and cadences, and questioned whether moviegoers would want to watch him do it.
"I did have hesitations and just knew that if I made the story the main character and really worked on that to fulfill it in a very personal and soulful way, that all the technical stuff about playing him would become secondary for people watching the movie," Hoffman said.
The result could be a breakout lead performance for Hoffman, a character actor who has earned enormous respect with idiosyncratic supporting turns in such movies as "Happiness," "Almost Famous," "Punch-Drunk Love," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Magnolia."
Hoffman, 38, undergoes a remarkable transformation as the bespectacled, dapper Capote — a raconteur with a wily, grandiose style of talking and a need to ensconce himself at the center of attention.
The performance may put Hoffman at the forefront of the best-actor race at the Academy Awards the way Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Ray Charles did last year in "Ray."
Hoffman recalled growing up seeing Capote in his unproductive later years, holding forth on TV talk shows in the 1970s. His recollections were hazy, though, until he reacquainted himself with Capote's off-putting demeanor by watching interviews and Albert and David Maysles' documentary "A Visit With Truman Capote."
At that point, having agreed to do the movie, Hoffman began moaning, "Oh, what the hell have I got myself into?" he said, laughing.
"That's always what I heard about people dealing with Capote," Hoffman told The Associated Press at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Capote" played. "Anyone said when they first encountered Capote that it was a jaw-dropping thing, like, 'Who the hell is this guy?' You can't get past the way he's talking.
"But because of his intelligence, his wit and his insightfulness and his kind of all-consuming warmth, that would go away. So I knew if I had that in mind and I knew if I had a genuineness about it, that the majority of people watching it would have the same experience."
The film centers on what would become the most agonizing period of Capote's life, as he spent more than five years researching "In Cold Blood," a nonfiction novel about the 1959 murders of the Clutters, a farm family in Kansas.
Capote, previously known best as the author of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," became obsessed with the killers, particularly Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), who along with Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) executed the Clutters after a robbery that nabbed only a few dollars from the family farmhouse.
Aided by lifelong pal Harper Lee (search) (Catherine Keener), who later would depict the boyish Capote in her novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," Capote befriends the Kansas investigator (Chris Cooper) leading the Clutter case, crossing the line from observer to active participant as Smith and Hickock's death-row appeals move through the courts.
Based on Gerald Clarke's biography, the film depicts Capote as a man torn between devotion to his lifelong companion Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), perverse love for the killer Smith and a desire to see the two murderers executed so he would have a suitable ending for his book.
Hoffman plays Capote as friend, accessory, artist, manipulator, liar, cheat and sympathizer. After the killers were put to death, "In Cold Blood" was published to great acclaim in 1966, followed a year later by a film version featuring Robert Blake as Perry Smith.
The strain of Capote's research left him broken, a heavy drinker and pill popper whose writing became sporadic and uninspired. Though he published an acclaimed collection of stories a few years before his death in 1984, Capote generally played the intellectual buffoon in his final two decades.
"Somebody said the other day, at the end of the movie, you feel like Capote committed a crime, and that's exactly right," Hoffman said. "That's why the film works so well. You really have this sense that he's the one who committed the crime, and I think deep down inside, that's how he felt, too. That's something he could never come to terms with."
An athlete growing up near Rochester, N.Y., Hoffman got into acting after he was sidelined by a wrestling injury. An acclaimed stage performer, Hoffman moved into small film and TV roles, working his way up to solid supporting parts in "Twister," "Boogie Nights" and "The Big Lebowski."
Hoffman memorably co-starred as a drag queen opposite Robert De Niro in "Flawless" and had the leads in the small independent flicks "Love Liza" and "Owning Mahowny."
"Capote," though, hinged entirely on Hoffman, said director Bennett Miller, who along with the film's screenwriter Dan Futterman has been friends with Hoffman since the three met at a theater program in 1984.
"He was the only choice. He was going to do it or we weren't going to do it," Miller said. "I've known Phil for 21 years now, and I feel I know him inside and out, and other than him being an incredible actor, a shamanlike actor, I will say that everything in this movie that gets revealed through this character are things that Phil knows.
"Meaning he's not putting it on. He's more letting it out. He learned the mechanicals of how to play this guy, but the spirit that gets expressed through the mechanicals is his. He owns that."
"Capote" is the first of two movies dealing with the author's "In Cold Blood" years. The second — an as-yet-untitled film starring Toby Jones as Capote and Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee and featuring Gwyneth Paltrow as singer Peggy Lee — is due out in fall 2006.
By that time, Hoffman will have moved on to his next gig, playing the villain to Tom Cruise's heroic agent in next summer's "Mission: Impossible 3."
"To play a bad guy in an action movie is something I've never done, and I don't know if I'll ever do it again. So this is really that opportunity, and it's the perfect place to do it, perfect people to do it with," said Hoffman, gushing over the prospect of mixing it up with Cruise.