Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman had been good friends since they attended a theater program together when the director was 16 years old, so it was Hoffman and only Hoffman who Miller knew he needed when putting together his narrative feature debut, “Capote.” Miller recently gave a masterclass at Qumra 2018 in Qatar (via The Playlist) and looked back at the making of his 2005 biographical drama with the late Hoffman.
“When I think back on it, I think it was totally insane,” Miller said of casting Hoffman as the literary genius. “Capote was 5′ 2”, Phil was 5’10″1/2, he weighed about 240 lbs, and had a deep voice, thick wrists like a wrestler or a football player — like a jock. He did have the right color hair, though. But he was an amazing actor.”
Miller worked with costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone to create suits with tight shoulders so that Hoffman’s head would appear bigger in proportion to his body, thus giving off the illusion that his frame was smaller. The director also cast taller actors and put some performers on boxes when they appeared opposite Hoffman so that the character would be the right size. While it took work to turn Hoffman into a physical Capote, the actor nailed the emotional Capote from the very beginning.
“The main thing is the character’s interior and without getting too deep into it, there are lots of parallels in Phil’s life,” Miller said. “Which I knew and only became more evident with time. There was something about that character that he could own that nobody else could.”
Miller remembered working with Hoffman on one particular scene in which the actor took full ownership of the character. The director encouraged Hoffman to start crying during the scene, but the actor refused and told the director that crying just wouldn’t feel like the Capote thing to do.
“He said to me, ‘You want me to cry? I’m not crying, if I’m going to show up to see these guys, I’m not going to make this about myself, because that’s disgusting. My reason for going there is to help them,’” Miller said. “So I let that sit, and two months later we’re filming the scene, and he goes, ‘There’s nothing more to talk about. You want me to be emotional, I’m not going to get emotional.’”
One of the actors on set approached Miller and said that Hoffman had to be stopped because his choice not to be emotional for the scene was wrong, but Miller knew better than to get in the way of Hoffman’s process. Unsurprisingly, Hoffman let the moment dictate what he would do and he nailed it.
“The lights come up, we roll the camera, the door opens, he walks in the room and sees the two guys sitting there shackled about to be executed,” Miller said. “And he can’t open his mouth, and you just see the vein in his forehead and his face turns red and his eyes fill with tears and you see him unraveling. It’s painful to look at. And he does it in one take and that’s it, it’s over.”
“Phil couldn’t imitate,” Miller concluded. “He couldn’t say ‘Oh I have to do this and hit that mark.’ He had to tell himself what Capote would have told himself, just to bring himself to where he would have been in that moment.”
Hoffman ended up winning the Oscar for Best Actor for this performance in “Capote.” Head over to The Playlist to read more from Miller’s masterclass.