It was a challenge he faced every day in his portrayal of Truman Capote, who for 20 years was not only America's most famous writer but one of its most recognizable celebrities. The project was developed by two of Hoffman's oldest friends, Bennett Miller, the film's director, and screenwriter Dan Futterman. The three have known each other since they were 16.
Miller says they all worried the movie could end their friendship, and Hoffman had other concerns.
"I knew this was gonna be something — the risk quotient was high," says Hoffman.
Why was it high risk?
"Just the possibility of humiliation," he says. "Yeah, failing was high. Yeah, it was huge. People knew who he was. It was — he's an iconic figure. The fear, the nightmare of just being embarrassingly bad in the role was very real."
The film follows Capote during the six-year period in which he reported and wrote his groundbreaking masterpiece "In Cold Blood," a work of non-fiction told in the form of a page turning novel. It gave him the fame he so desperately craved and that ultimately ruined his life.
For Hoffman, the line between parody and perfection was razor thin, and he spent hours at Bennett Miller's apartment studying old documentaries of Capote.
Most of the footage they screened was from the 1960s, before either of them was born. And when Capote was at the height of his powers, he was a brilliant, glib raconteur who was one of the few openly gay personalities in the country.
"He worked as much on promoting himself or putting himself out there as he did on his writing, I believe," says Hoffman.
Looking at old footage of Capote, Hoffman says, "You can see he's full of nervous ticks. If you really are watching closely you can see that his eyebrows are twitching, a lot of movement. His forehead. There's something about him that I could see was agitated."
"Researching this work has changed my life, it's altered my point of view about almost everything," says Hoffman. "What is it? What is his personality? What makes him tick? I knew that deep down inside I had to understand it for myself in some personal way."
Asked how he identified with Capote, Hoffman says, "The ambition, the drive, the wanting to be the center of attention, the wanting to succeed. … They're all inside me somewhere."
Hoffman grew up in a middle class household near Rochester, N.Y. In high school he was a clean cut, competitive jock who excelled in baseball and wrestling until a neck injury cut short his athletic career and hormones led him to acting.
"And this woman that I was — a mad crush on — woman, girl, she was in high school — walked by the other way. And, 'Where you going?' And she goes, 'I'm going to audition for a play.' You know and I kept walking — 'I think I'll go too.' And I turned around. And I followed her in," Hoffman recalls. "And I auditioned for the play. And I got to be with her everyday. You know what I mean? It was like you're just a teenager. And you have a crush, you know. And then all of a sudden it's not about the crush. All of a sudden you realize you like doing theater. And it's, you like being an actor. You like hanging out with these people."
Over time, he applied the same competitive drive he had with wrestling, to grappling with roles on the stage and screen, steadily building an impressive resume, with a stubborn, single-minded zeal for perfection that he doesn't seem entirely comfortable with.
"If I don't think I'm doing well, I'm unpleasant. That's my neurosis, you know what I mean?" he says laughing. "If I don't feel like I'm doing the job well, and I don't know how to get there, or I'm too scared, or whatever, I'm not a happy guy and I'm not pleasant. I'm not pleasant to be around."
The depth of his commitment and his talent is apparent in one of the final scenes of "Capote." After six years of cajoling, befriending and seducing two killers into telling him the story that will make him famous, as he says his good-byes they are heading off to the gallows.