In Conversation with Dustin Hoffman (2006)

Empire News Editor Olly Richards interviews Dustin Hoffman at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006

The Empire Interview

“I can honestly say I don’t remember ever being bored. Depressed, anxious, sad, frightened, yes. But never bored, because I never know what’s going to happen in life.”

For a man of diminutive stature, Dustin Hoffman has loomed rather large over recent movie history. He could hardly be described as possessing matinée idol good looks; his is a face best described as characterful. But since sidling onto the screen as Benjamin Braddock in 1967s The Graduate (a role he won over the none-more-matinee Robert Redford), he’s ranked as one of cinema’s most intriguing leading men. He’s had his misstepsmost famously Ishtarbut those have generally been about poor choice rather than poor performance. The fact that in the space of a decade beginning in the late ’60s he made Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Lenny, All The President’s Men, Marathon Man, Straight Time and Kramer Vs. Kramer excuses him any later Outbreaks, Spheres or Dick Tracys.

If his early career was about proving himself capable of taking on any role from junkie to tranny (with two Oscars to prove it), his latter years have become less about chasing huge roles and proving himself than just having funthe result, it turns out, of a serious midlife crisis that he’s more than happy to talk about.

He hasn’t taken a major leading role in ten years, but think of any film he’s done since and he’ll likely be the first thing you remember. His appearances as a world-weary lawyer in The Runaway Jury, as an existential detective in I Huckabees, as a theatrical benefactor in Finding Neverland, and a past-it perfumier in upcoming period serial-killer pic Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer may be fleeting, but they ring with the laughter of someone doing it simply for the love.

Nowhere is that more evident than in next month’s comedy-drama Stranger Than Fiction. Dr. Jules Hilberta literary professor trying to help Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) figure out why he’s hearing a voice narrate his every moveis textbook Hoffman: endearingly bonkers, warm-hearted and slyly smirking in a way that suggests he knows a lot more than you and ain’t letting on. To see if he might let on a little bit (he actually let on a lot), Empire dispatched News Editor Olly Richards to meet with Hoffman at the Toronto Film Festival.

“Interviewing Dustin Hoffman is both the easiest and the hardest thing in the world,” says Richards. “You could walk into a room and not utter a word, and he’d fill as many hours as you like with anecdotes. But try to keep him on a single subject and you’re enjoyably wasting your time. The man has too many thoughts to stick to one topic. Before I’d got anything more than hello out of my mouth, he’d already told me that Emma Thompson was wonderful in bed (for the sake of Ms. Thompson’s modesty let’s assume he was joking) and that he’d developed a taste for rather expensive sake while shooting Stranger Than Fiction. I didn’t ask about that either, but it was nice to know…”

* * *

EMPIRE: There’s a lot of buzz about the writer of Stranger Than Fiction, Zach Helm, who you’re working with again on Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. What is it about him you like so much?

HOFFMAN: There’s not a lot of scripts like Stranger Than Fiction, and the feeling about Mr. Magorium was the same. Zach Helm is gifted and he is young. Someone said to me, “Take a look at the great artists and the age they were when they did their best work,” and it’s scary because a lot of it happened in their twenties. But maybe that’s because they didn’t live past 40…

EMPIRE: There are some wonderful little details about your character, Jules. Like when he’s barefoot, or constantly filling the cup of coffee. Was that part of Zach’s script, or did that happen when you inhabited the character?

HOFFMAN: Well, it’s information (about the character), in the sense that I’m playing a two-dimensional character by definition. In other words, this story’s not about me, it’s about Will Ferrell, and we in a sense are supporting him: we are cathartic to his changes, his evolution, if you will. Therefore I’m a two-dimensional character. You don’t get to know the guy. How can I reveal myself in a three-dimensional way without holding up the movie and by not making the scene longer? Do what you want, but don’t stop the train.

EMPIRE: Yet Jules doesn’t feel like a two-dimensional character…

HOFFMAN: What I learned in class was the word behaviour. That was a big word in class, and it simply means we get more information out of each other by our behaviour, not our words. The words are just words. Sometimes they’re insightful, but while you’re listening to me there is so much other stuff you are thinking about and some of it is being revealed in your behaviour. And I wanted the audience to know this guy through that. I said to myself, “This guy has no life, except here, and that’s why he acts the way he does.” Marc (Forster; Stranger Than Fiction’s director) and I talked about this guy, this office — all my stuff takes place in there, almost. This office is where he lives his life, it’s his house. That’s why I’m barefoot, that’s why I’m always with the coffee machine, that’s why I’m lying down. He doesn’t have a home to go to — wherever he lives, he doesn’t want to be there. Will Ferrell, you know what he said last night after the movie was over? He says to me, “My God, I never realised it before, but your character has the same kind of obsessive compulsiveness mine does.” I didn’t realise it, either. It’s true though.

EMPIRE: What was it like acting opposite Ferrell?

HOFFMAN: Marc directed me with just two words: “Don’t smile.” At the end of a scene with Will I’d say, “Well, that felt like a good take.” And Marc would say, “You smiled.” I’d say, “No, I didn’t!” “Yes you did, a little one!” Marc is a terrific guy, grew up in Switzerland. I’d always tease him. I’d say, “Who was the last great comedian to come out of Switzerland? That was a funny take, but you don’t think it’s funny!”

EMPIRE: Jules is a writer, a professor of literature. Yet you yourself have never seemed to be interested in writing…

HOFFMAN: I am interested. I do write. I just don’t think I write well.

EMPIRE: You mean you write scripts, or you just write?

HOFFMAN: It must touch a big problem I’ve not resolved yet and I’m trying to work it out. I have journals, and I don’t leave the house without a notebook. It’s a blank notebook for when I’m working; it can be this size, that size, and I have these things all over the house. I find them and they’re dated — it’s a journal, this journal I’m going to keep, and it’s dated 1994 and the next page is blank. So all these journals are filled with one or two pages and that’s it. The rest of it is blank. I don’t know why I stop it.

EMPIRE: Why do you start it?

HOFFMAN: Good question. Because writing this journal is the only way I can find out how full of shit I was ten years ago, and I’m seeing something that I’ve written ten years ago and I still feel the same way. I really feel that I haven’t gotten anywhere. It’s one thing to look at photographs and think, “Did I really look that young, ever?” But it’s another thing to say, “Is that what I thought?” What I knew at 25 years of age I don’t feel any different about now. That’s a pretty good feeling.

EMPIRE: Do you go around your house and pick up old notebooks, reading what you wrote then?

HOFFMAN: I don’t go around picking them up because I forget where I’ve put them. I just find them. But I want to be able to keep a journal every day.

EMPIRE: Stranger Than Fiction is about a man awakening and trying to be who he really wants to be. When in your life did you become yourself? When did you awaken?

HOFFMAN: It hasn’t happened yet. That’s the most honest answer I can give you. Tell the truth: have you found yourself?

EMPIRE: I’m not sure I’ve really started looking… Is it sometimes that we know what we want but we just can’t get it?

HOFFMAN: Finding yourself is different from knowing yourself. I think I learned that late in life, because I just learned a few years ago to trust your gut and to be truthful as much as possible with yourself and with others. It’s less painful. Or, in other words, it’s more painful if you don’t be truthful. That doesn’t mean you have to be destructive to someone, and I do believe that it’s very difficult to be truthful with yourself. Because we lie about ourselves. I believe there is an unconscious, and I believe the unconscious is unconscious for a reason: you can’t get to it. If you could it wouldn’t be the unconscious, and I think when something unpleasant about yourself comes into your consciousness it’s like sitting on a hot radiator — you jump off, you don’t want to know, and for me it’s less pain the more you try to confront the lie about yourself.

EMPIRE: Is that because society forces us to box ourselves in?

HOFFMAN: No, I think it’s human nature, because human nature doesn’t want pain. I think parts of us stay the same. We don’t work through every trauma from the day we’re born. We don’t work through them, we don’t. They remain unresolved, and if there’s one at three years of age, at seven years of age, at 12 years of age, the first man who lied to you… These are painful things that stay there and certain things will kick them off no matter how old we get to be, and suddenly a part of us is once again three years old, ten years old, because they haven’t been worked through. I do know that one of the few things I have been able to work through has not been triggered again.

EMPIRE: What was that?

HOFFMAN: I had a crisis. I had a real crisis. I stopped working. I just stopped for about three-and- a-half years and I was paralysed. It was interesting because it was right after I got this lifetime award from the American Film Institute. I walked in in my tuxedo, into this room full of people, and they had from one wall to the other every character I’d ever played, pictures of them. And it destroyed me, it didn’t make me feel good. I’d always wondered, “What is a panic attack?” I never knew what it was when people would say they had a panic attack, and I went home that night and I got into bed and I had a panic attack. I’d never had one of those. It was awful.

EMPIRE: How did it manifest itself?

HOFFMAN: For the first time I can understand what people mean when they say they could jump out the window when you’re in this mood, because you want a relief from it, from that thing. It was an extraordinary feeling. It’s real. I mean, there’s something inside you and that something happened to me. Rather than feeling good about it, I felt that everything was over and that somehow I had not been able to connect with what I really wanted to connect with through my work, ’cos you’re trying to find something in your work that kind of transcends. I mean, writing might be similar — ultimately you’re trying to use that to find out certain things…

EMPIRE: So you took some time off?

HOFFMAN: A lot of time off, but you don’t know it’s a long time. Suddenly you realise you haven’t worked and you realise that it’s not just six months or a year — it’s three-and-a-half years!

EMPIRE: What made you come back?

HOFFMAN: I took the first job that was offered — was it Confidence? Or it may have been Moonlight Mile — and just changed my whole way of working, which was: don’t worry about the script, don’t worry about this, don’t let that be the criteria for anxiety, don’t worry if you can do the part, don’t worry about any of that. Do I want to work with the people in it, the actors? Yeah, I want to be in Finding Neverland (as theatre manager Charles Frohman). “But that’s just a small role,” everybody said. The director, who had done Monster’s Ball, this young Swiss, Marc Forster, who also, of course, did Stranger Than Fiction, was very suspicious of me. We met on the telephone and he said, “Why do you want to do this part?” He said, “You know, it’s not about this character, it’s about the Johnny Depp character.” And I said, “I know, but I just want to work with you guys.”

EMPIRE: So did acting help?

HOFFMAN: It didn’t solve it. Acting didn’t solve it. If it did I would have been less crazy today, but I’m not. It doesn’t solve it, but for me it’s a relief to be able to admit certain things about myself, even though that sounds _ like a contradiction, to admit | certain things about yourself | disguised in your work. You j know, “It’s not me, it’s the character!” Come on, it’s you.

EMPIRE: How did you like the idea in Stranger Than Fiction of a literature professor playing the role of a therapist — as your character Jules does for Will Ferrell’s Harold Crick?

HOFFMAN: I never thought of it that way, but you’re right. He doesn’t start out that way. When Will is presenting himself like a patient and Jules says, “You’re crazy…” — I love that. I saw it last night for the first time with an audience and some of the lines got buried because of the laughter. But one of the things Jules says, and I think there was a laugh before, he says, “You sound like you’re crazy, I don’t deal with crazy.” I love it. When I read the script it was quite wonderful because Jules is an intellectual professor, yet he would just say things in a kind of simplistic way. Well, I wouldn’t say simplistic, I’d say analytical, because I know therapists… Well! I think, as with any profession, it’s very rare to find a good therapist. We entrust ourselves to certain professions too easily. “Oh, he’s going to operate on my brain, he’s a brain surgeon, he’s got to be good.”

EMPIRE: How long have you been seeing a therapist?

HOFFMAN: My whole life, on and off. The first time I started was years after being an unemployed actor, when I was in my twenties. And then success ruined my analysis because I did The Graduate. Suddenly I’m going all over the place making movies and my therapist is in New York. One of the things you learn in therapy — well, there are a few things you learn — is that one of the arts of a really good therapist is knowing when to say a certain thing and not wasting it. I’ve found this in life, that you don’t always have to say what you think to someone, because if it doesn’t land, you’ve wasted it. You know what I mean by landing? Are they going to take it in or is there going to be a defence? Because we all have defences. It can be an artform, I think.

EMPIRE: Given your crisis a few years back, has therapy really worked for you?

HOFFMAN: I don’t think I had a chance without it.

EMPIRE: To deal with failure or life?

HOFFMAN: To deal with failure.

EMPIRE: But you haven’t really had much of that.

HOFFMAN: Yes I have. I waited tables for over ten years and I got to the point where… I don’t know in your work how many times you can be rejected, but I’d send out the resume, or drop it under the door and knock and run. Not go through that, “Okay, thank you, we’ll call you…” And then The Graduate comes along, which is like a freak accident, and then after that I turned everything down; it was troubling, for whatever reason. The next film was Midnight Cowboy, which I finally took, like, a year later. And everyone is calling me up, telling me, “You can’t take that part, that’s a supporting part. That’s not the cowboy, that’s not the lead, the lead is Jon Voight, you’re a star now, you can’t go backwards and take a supporting part. You’ll defeat everything you’ve done.”

EMPIRE: What did you say?

HOFFMAN: I said, “No, I like the part.” So people would say, “Look at that character: he’s not attractive. At least in The Graduate you were made to look attractive, but here…” I said, “No, I don’t want to be a star. I want to be an actor.” But I think there was a part of myself that was trying to disassemble good fortune.

EMPIRE: Were you frightened of success?

HOFFMAN: Yeah. The truth is yes.

EMPIRE: How come?

HOFFMAN: They say power corrupts, right? Well success corrupts, stardom corrupts. It does. How do you stop it? You’re less pure. I think that once you succumb to that, to what good fortune gives you, then it’s easy to think, “Well yeah, he’s not that good, but you know, it’s a great part, and it’s good money, and blah, blah, blah,” and you succumb to it. And it doesn’t matter today, people don’t care about movies and whether they’re good or bad, just whether they’re successful in terms of box office. Studios don’t care. Someone said to me in an interview before on television, “So, how does it feel doing a script that was considered a hot property in Hollywood for years?” I said, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” I said, “If it was the hottest property, why did it take so many years for it to get done?” I mean, that’s the real truth.

EMPIRE: What other truths have you learned in your career?

HOFFMAN: One of the things you learn when you become famous, if you do become famous, is it demystifies a myth, in that it doesn’t change anything, anything really organic inside you. But the myth is that it does. I remember when I first started therapy, the therapist said, “What do you want?” One of the first things I said was, “I’d like to work for the rest of my life, I’d like to have a great marriage and to make enough money to have a townhouse in New York City.” I was convinced: give me that and that’s it, I don’t need anything else, nothing would change. Maybe that’s one of the reasons people in the arts, not just actors, become famous and successful. So why do they suddenly start drinking, become addicts and become so self-destructive? I don’t know. The demons are there.

EMPIRE: Do you mean you have the demons before you become famous? Or that the demons come with the fame?

HOFFMAN: You need the demons to become famous. I don’t deny that. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean you want them.

EMPIRE: Do you find acting can be a catharsis for you? For example, playing Michael Dorsey in Tootsie was he the actor you might have been had you not had that success?

HOFFMAN: I’m not sure I really understand that question.

EMPIRE: Okay — what was the specific appeal of Tootsie to you as an actor?

HOFFMAN: Tootsie was started by me and my friend, it was our idea initially and we worked together, Murray Schisgal and I. We worked on it for over two years just by ourselves, we got as far as we could and then sought other help. It started as a satire on my own way of working, on being called ‘difficult’ in those days.

EMPIRE: That was something you resented, then?

HOFFMAN: Well, I would always say, “Why do they not say that to the camera operator?” or, “Why don’t they say, ‘Why are you being difficult?’ to the sound man?” If the sound man says, “I hear noise and I can’t roll if I hear noise,” they don’t say he’s being difficult. Directors always just wait until it’s right, and they’re perfectionists, those people, because it’s either sharp or it’s dull. And I don’t think actors should be treated differently. How would you like to have a brain surgeon, and you’re on the table and you’re getting wheeled in, and he introduces himself and he says, “By the way, everybody likes me.” You don’t want to know that. You just want to know: is this guy the best?

EMPIRE: So Tootsie was rooted in your own experience?

HOFFMAN: That picture started out with a comic premise. Anything that’s real has to be real before it becomes truly comic, I think. In the days that I was studying acting it was Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler and two or three others I can’t remember, but these were the great drama teachers, maybe of all time, reflected by the Stanislavski Principle, which revolutionised a certain naturalistic way of acting. Our teachers all disagreed, but we went to these classes like it was a temple. It was a religious thing, and you were there not to just play a tomato — which is in the movie you were there to be

EMPIRE: How do you mean?

HOFFMAN: What kind of a tomato it is. There are different kinds of tomatoes. And if you’re going to be an animal, you go to the zoo and you observe that. The art is in the specificity, that’s what we were taught. Then we go out and get an audition and it results in a job and you’re there and you’re playing a tomato that came from reality. And the director says, “Move over there, you in the tomato suit,” and you say, “No, a tomato doesn’t have legs, I can’t,” and the director says, “Get him out of here,” and he hires somebody else. So everything you’re taught is now out of the window. Whereas in class, if you had a director who had gone through the same thing, they would say, “Yeah, you’re right,” and I’d say, “Maybe I could roll, a tomato can roll,” and that’s the art of it. Like the art of anything.

EMPIRE: How did you go from that to dressing up in drag?

HOFFMAN: Well, that’s what Tootsie started out to be. It didn’t start out to be anything else, and once we started with that we then hooked on to this thing we’d never thought of before, and that was what it would be like to be a woman, but a woman that is me. In other words, what is it like to be the other sex — what if I had been born a woman? Would my personality be different, would my essence be different? Because when we said this it was, “Wow, I’ve never thought of this before.” And the first question I asked is, “Am I as unattractive as a woman as I am as a male?” Once I realised that, I realised a profound truth. If I went to a party and met this woman, who was me, I wouldn’t talk to her, she wouldn’t be attractive enough. I realised how many interesting women I haven’t met. It was a big, big lesson. I wish every project could start like that, but you’re not that lucky sometimes.

EMPIRE: Coming back to the present, your next movie is the adaptation of Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer. What was the appeal of that?

HOFFMAN: I had read the book for the first time about 20 years ago and I wanted to get involved when I heard the director Tom Tykwer wanted to adapt it. I liked his film Run Lola Run, and so I just called him a few years ago. We became friends — but only by telephone.

EMPIRE: You’ve taken the role of Baldini, perfumier mentor to Ben Whishaw’s Grenouille, the killer with a supernatural sense of smell. Did you see any parallels between yourself and Baldini?

HOFFMAN: Baldini lives in constant fear of his contemporaries finding out that he steals odours in order to make his own perfume. So if you’re asking me if we have anything in common, then the answer’s definitely “yes”. I’ve been a thief all my life, because art is also a kind of theft. I wish I’d met Baldini just once, so I could tell him: don’t feel guilty, because we all steal.

EMPIRE: Have you ever been bored by acting?

HOFFMAN: I’ve never been bored, period. I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever being bored in life. Depressed. Anxious. Sad. Frightened, yes. But I’ve never been bored because I never know what’s going to happen in life, so that stops you from being bored.

EMPIRE: So what specifically excites you about being an actor?

HOFFMAN: We are different from other people. That’s not to say we are different from everyone, but we are different from say, you, who would probably prefer not to be in front of people. You would maybe like to be read by a lot of people, but you don’t want to be in front of people. When I worked with Laurence Olivier {on Marathon Man), I became friends with him and I asked him this question. I said, “Why do we do this? What makes us different?” And he gave me the most honest answer I’ve heard anybody ever say. He said, “Why!? Look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me,” and I got goosebumps and the hair went up on the back of my neck, and that’s all it is. I love this.

EMPIRE: What’s the toughest thing about being where you are in your career right now?

HOFFMAN: The most difficult thing, which harkens back to before, is to gamble. And sometimes stardom and success starts to mitigate gambling, because when you gamble you’re taking a chance that you’re going to fail, and that shouldn’t be the criteria. “If I don’t make it, I’m going to fail.” So fail.

EMPIRE: Does that happen a lot, expecting to fail?

HOFFMAN: Well, I’ve never known if a film is going to work or not. I always assume it’s not going to. Most films don’t work, commercially speaking. I remember passing Bill Murray on the street in New York after we had done Tootsie. He was in this costume, which I later learned was his Ghostbusters costume, and I said, “What movie are you making?” “Oh, piece of cake. Huge hit.” I’ve never forgotten that. And I’ve never, ever felt that.

EMPIRE: Have you reached a point where you can look at your work and feel okay about it?

HOFFMAN: Yeah. I’m at a better place now than I’ve ever been before. I’m at the best place I’ve been, but it’s taken a while. I wish I could have learned some of this stuff about 30 years ago. And you know, what is amazing — and you would think it is painful and maybe it is for some — is when the things you learn are from the people that are not only younger than you, but much younger than you. Like Marc Forster, who’s like, 34, 35 years old.

EMPIRE: What did he teach you?

HOFFMAN: I guess it’s okay to say this because the company is not in business anymore, but when he did Finding Neverland he told me that the studio at one point wanted this list of changes, like they always do, the suits. He asked me what I thought and I said, “I can’t tell you what to change, it’s wonderful.” They even changed the title, it was a wonderful title, it was Neverland, but they had to change it to Finding Neverland.

EMPIRE: And the reason for the changes was…?

HOFFMAN: I think it’s a male thing, and women can have it too if their testosterone levels are high. It’s like animals, it’s like dogs — they have to piss on the turf and make it their own. I think producers, and suits, executives, they have to piss on it. They know it’s a good film but yet they want to change the title, so they own a part of it. Anyway, I said, “I wouldn’t change anything,” so then the next time we had a conversation, he said, “I got in a big fight and blah, blah, blah,” and I said, “What did you do?” Because me in that kind of situation in the past, you’re ready to kill like you’re protecting your child. He said, “I told them, ‘It is not my film, it’s your film. It’s your money so I don’t own it, you do whatever you want, make any changes you want. You want those 30 changes? Make them. But I’ll walk away now and take my name off it.’” He was very calm and it paralysed them. And I said, “How could you do that?” And he said an extraordinary sentence: “Because my work is not my identity. I am my identity.” Man, he’s a kid. That’s powerful, isn’t it? “You can’t hurt me.” That’s what I learned from him.

Empire, December 2006


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