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A search for empathy, rage and a murderer's mind-set

His character's abuse and abandonment paved the way for Clifton Collins Jr. in 'Capote.'

October 07, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

"Capote" director Bennett Miller says the role of murderer Perry Smith was the hardest to cast in the film. "It's a very complex character," Miller explained. "Emotionally and psychologically, the character has to hit a lot of marks."

The movie tells the story of Truman Capote's quest to write his nonfiction masterwork, "In Cold Blood," about the savage murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan. But the drama turns on how Capote ingratiated himself into the lives of their killers, Dick Hickock and especially Smith, with whom the author found an odd kinship.

The New York-based director recently recalled coming to Los Angeles for a day to audition an actor who, it turned out, wasn't quite right for the role of Smith. Miller was set to return home when the film's casting director gave him an audition tape of actor Clifton Collins Jr. Miller quickly made arrangements to see Collins, and knew immediately that he had found his man.

"He gave an amazing audition," Miller said. "It's the kind of thing that ends up being on the Internet. He did the confession scene. He kept it together and at the end he broke down and he couldn't stop crying. He was sitting on the couch and I was pointing the camera at him. He was burying his face in his hands and turning away from me and he's crying and crying."

Since "Capote" opened last month, Collins, 35, a veteran of more than 40 films -- including "The Last Castle" and "Traffic" -- has earned praise for his nuanced portrayal. Collins said he usually draws upon certain "triggers" he has within himself to spark specific emotions while in front of the camera. But he didn't need any of those for "Capote." Research on Smith's early life, growing up as an abused youngster in and out of orphanages, was all he needed, Collins said over an iced coffee at the Farmers Market.

"When I learned he got beaten by the nuns with a flashlight or when I learned he got thrown into a bathtub by a nurse at another [orphanage] because he peed in the bed.... You just want to step in and save him before there is too much damage done," Collins said.

Limited to just a third-grade education, Smith spent the rest of his life drawn to opportunities to learn on his own: He broadened his vocabulary, took up drawing and even played the guitar. But there was a darker side as well. Smith, who broke both legs in a motorcycle accident in 1952, came out of recovery to find himself facing jail time on a burglary charge. Inside the Kansas State Penitentiary, Smith caught up with Hickock, and the two began hatching a plot to rob the Clutters once they were released.

Miller's movie opens with the killings, and follows the relationship among Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Smith. Collins' nuanced performance shows Smith as both wounded animal and beast.

"He had been a stick of dynamite since the first day he was abused," Collins said. "This is a man whose mother drowned in her own vomit. His one sister committed suicide and his brother committed suicide. I do empathize with Perry, but you can't justify what he did. It was wrong, but I just want people to realize the humanity -- you are not born a killer."

Collins spent the first 10 years of his career using the name Clifton Gonzalez-Gonzalez, in honor of his grandfather Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, a Texas-born comic who got his break as a contestant on the Groucho Marx quiz show "You Bet Your Life" in the early '50s.

Not only did his grandfather win the contest, he won the hearts of viewers. In 1954, he made his film debut in the John Wayne classic "The High and the Mighty."

"I come from a family of performers," said Collins. "My father's father was a trumpet player and his mother was part of a dance troupe. My family in general was very adamant about pushing a creative education in addition to an academic eduction. My grandfather was pulled out of the second grade to perform."

But his father never liked the fact he had taken his grandfather's name." My father passed away when I was making [the 1997 drama] '187,' " Collins said. "I lost him to suicide."

He decided to change his name while shooting the 2000 film "Price of Glory."

"I was standing outside Hollywood Park, where we were shooting a fight sequence," said Collins. "My dad used to live in a trailer outside Hollywood Park at 102nd in Inglewood ... I would spend the night there. The trailer would shake when the planes would fly over. It just hit me hard. I was starting to be haunted by my dad."

Collins said he decided "to go back to my God-given name" even though some in the industry advised against it.

"One of the powers-that-be said, 'You will lose your fan base.' I said 'If I have fan base just based on a name, I'm sorry. I hope I have a little bit of talent. Those fans will follow me.' "

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