True to any adaptation of Truman Capote’s life as well as Jon Robin Baitz’s work, there’s a ghost of writerly truth buried in the very telling of “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.”
“I think in my own life as a writer, I’ve cannibalized events and people. I’m old enough now not to like doing that, not to feel good about it and not to get past my understanding of the pain it causes,” the two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and playwright behind “Other Desert Cities” and the ABC drama “Brothers & Sisters” told TheWrap. “But in Truman’s case, I let it play out.”
Unlike Season 1 of the FX anthology series, which gleefully documented the blow-by-blow fight between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the Truman Capote installment unfolds like “an Icarus story.” Instead of starting at the beginning of Capote’s greatest literary accomplishment — “In Cold Blood” — by the time “Feud” begins Capote is already a staple among New York high society.
Over the course of eight episodes, the series details how this well-connected and dazzling party guest who once adorned the homes of the most enviable socialites fell so far as to have his ashes auctioned off to a stranger. It’s a demise that all came down to Capote’s quick wit, venomous pen and the women he loved who later became the victims of his unpublished tell-most novel, “Answered Prayers.”
“I wanted to concentrate on his dying fall, like in a ballet, the last acts. I’m very interested in how people end up. Do you earn the face you have by the time you die?” Baitz said. “It’s the story of a kind of intimacy within a world that is almost crumbling before your eyes of couture and glamour, of writers being important.”
Constructing Capote’s relationships with his swans presented a particular challenge to Baitz. Though Capote was well known to the American public thanks to his many television appearances, the swans he so loved were not. Many of them retained a strict private life until their deaths. In order to create Capote’s relationship with each of these women, Baitz said, “I just looked at them.”
“Sometimes this thing happens when you’re walking on the street and you see someone, and you really see them. You don’t know them, but you project onto them a whole story,” Baitz explained. “I think that’s a writer’s disease. When I was writing this, I tried to let it control my lens.”
That’s how each of the top-tier talent who portrayed Capote’s four swans approached their roles as well. Though Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny and Calista Flockhart all admitted there’s always trepidation when it comes to portraying a fictionalized version of a real-life figure, all emphasized that their characters and stories are colored by Capote’s framing of them.
“It’s through the eyes of this particular script, and it’s through the eyes of Truman Capote,” Flockhart, who plays Jackie Kennedy’s sister and one of Capote’s swans, Lee Radziwill, told TheWrap.
“We feel accountable to their families, to their memories. It’s a little more daunting, I think, because there are people I’ve met who knew Slim Keith,” Lane told TheWrap. In “Feud,” Lane portrays the socialite who was credited for exemplifying the American jet set. To prepare for the role, Lane read Keith’s autobiography “Slim: Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life” multiple times.
“I will just say, I asked for grace, woman to woman. Whatever universe we find ourselves in in the hereafter, I asked permission,” Lane said. “[Slim Keith] was a whole complete, amazing woman who had many lives. This is probably not what she would have wished for, which is to be held in the frame, in the filter, in the lens of this one awful predicament that happened to her where she lost a deep treasured friendship to a betrayal.”
“I don’t think any people like their stories being told,” Chloë Sevigny, who plays international style icon C. Z. Guest, told TheWrap. “I’m hoping that audiences and family members and friends are all sophisticated enough to understand we are doing an interpretation of these people’s lives, these times, what happened.”
Though Sevigny said that the series relies on several facts, she emphasized that it was more about capturing the “essence” of these historical figures and their complicated friendships.
“We hope we do a good job of that and that they give us their blessing. And if not, poo-poo to you,” Sevigny added.
Watts, who executive produces “Feud” and plays the series’ co-lead, echoed Baitz’s approach when it came to capturing her character. Because the real Babe Paley was extremely private, Watts focused on pictures of Paley as well as what others said about the socialite.
“The physicality was all made up based on pictures that I saw of how she held her hands and how she was dressed,” Watts said. “Everyone talks about the level of presentation, the perfection, the never-a-hair-out-of-place or wrong word was said.”
Watts, who came aboard the project while working with Ryan Murphy on “The Watcher,” noted that Paley was of “another era.” But that flawless appearance comes at a cost.
“That was why it’s interesting to play someone of that level of perfection. You know that there are cracks,” Watts said.
The first two episodes of “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans” premiere Wednesday, Jan. 31, on FX at 10 p.m. ET/PT. New episodes will premiere weekly. Episodes will be available to stream Thursdays on Hulu.
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