September 30, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

On the surface, Philip Seymour Hoffman seems like nobody in particular. That might be a pretty blasphemous thing to say about the scruffy, 38-year-old actor who — in a brilliant and diverse 14-year career — has brought to life some of the most memorably offbeat misfits to flicker on screen and strut across the stage. But as he settles into a banquette at an elegant Upper West Side restaurant, Hoffman practically fades into the background. His rumpled, pale yellow shirt nearly matches his stout, freckled arms, the shock of blond hair that frames his jovial face, the wan track lighting above, and even the wall behind him. Could this really be the same guy who awkwardly bussed Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, grossed us all out with that phone-sex scene in Happiness, and flounced about as a caftan-clad transvestite in Flawless? Is this man — the one mumbling his order for a simple glass of mineral water — really about to portray his most outrageous on-screen personality yet? ? These are fair questions to ask if you haven’t seen Capote (see review on page 49), in which Hoffman morphs into famed writer/raconteur Truman Capote, who went to desolate Holcomb, Kan., in 1959 to investigate the quadruple murder of a local family and spent the next six years writing the genre-defying nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. (The book’s massive success ultimately paralyzed its famously self-promoting author, who battled alcoholism and depression before his death in 1984 at age 59.) In fact, Hoffman so trenchantly channels the diminutive, nasal-voiced dandy that it’s hard to believe he ever doubted his ability to play him in the first place.

Capote‘s uneasy journey to the big screen began in 1984, when Rochester, N.Y., native Hoffman met Bennett Miller at the New York State Summer School of the Arts. The son of a Xerox employee and a teacher-turned-lawyer, Hoffman had turned to acting the year prior after a neck injury sidelined his high school sports career. Actor Dan Futterman (Related), who wrote the Capote screenplay, was in attendance too — and he recalls watching Hoffman tear through an improv class on one of his first days. ”It was abundantly clear that Phil got it in a way that nobody else up there did. I was standing there in absolute shame that I was a complete farce.” The three became pals — Hoffman and Miller attended NYU together — but it wasn’t until some 15 years later that Futterman read Gerald Clarke’s acclaimed 1988 Capote biography, completed a screen adaptation, and asked Miller to consider directing the film that the trio first discussed a collaboration. Hoffman was dubious from the start. ”As a kid, I knew him from the talk shows,” he says, referencing Capote’s famously bizarre visits to Johnny Carson’s couch in the early ’70s. ”There was something that was so awesome, so mythical to me. I didn’t see myself as the guy who should be playing him.”

His old friends convinced him otherwise; after a prolonged struggle to secure financing, Hoffman signed on as an executive producer and began reviewing audio and video tapes, as well as Capote’s handwritten letters to and from Perry Smith, the convicted killer whose uncomfortably close kinship with the writer is at the heart of Miller’s mordant biopic. ”When you first see [Capote] again, it’s shocking,” says Hoffman. ”No one acts like that! No one talks like that! I told myself to remember that shock — it’s what everybody in the audience should feel in the first moment of the movie. Everyone’s head should snap back, like ‘Who the f— is that?!”’

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