Interview: Acting Legend Dustin Hoffman


In 2007 I had the opportunity to attend the London press conference of Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. The new family film starring Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman, that tells the story of a 243 year old toy shop owner who decides to give the shop to his assistant when he retires.

Acting legend Dustin Hoffman was present to promote the film and field questions from journalists, including me. Now this was a surreal experience for me. I am a huge Dustin Hoffman fan – I have a great love of Ishtar (no, really, I do) and all of his other work, notably All the Presidents Men and Marathon Man. Hoffman is a great actor and his presence heightens every film that he appears in, even failed projects like Billy Bathgate. He’s had a phenomenal career since his breakout in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Hoffman has been an A-list star longer than most leading men have been alive.

The thing about Dustin Hoffman is…he’s a toned down version of the character that he plays in Meet The Fockers. He’s funny, polite, a bit crazy (in a good way) and a true gentleman – he also looks much, much younger than his 70 years. Hoffman is a fantastic storyteller and he gave some interesting answers, even though he has a tendency to go off on a tangent mid sentence.

Hoffman stood around talking to everyone when the press conference was over. What I was able to gleam from him, is that in the New Year he hopes to star in and direct a film that he has written. He’s unwilling to go into details at the moment, but he did say that there are no kids in it. The current writer’s strike doesn’t affect him and he says that during this time, he’ll start putting the cast together for his film.

Hoffman was also aware of the competition from fellow festive family film The Golden Compass, and he couldn’t get over that films $160 million price tag. “Crazy”, was the word he used to describe it.

The most bizarre aspect to the press conference was, when towards the end he pointed at me and drew everyone’s attention to my similarity to Magorium writer-director Zach Helm. It was mildly embarrassing, yet kind of cool.

Now, before you start googling to try and find out what I look like, read what Hoffman had to say.

When I was starting out as an actor, there was a rule with the American actor’s union, that, if there’s more people in the audience than there is on stage then you don’t have to perform. Sometimes we had 3 people in the audience and we didn’t have to perform. It was the first thing that I thought of when I came out here; I was “yup- we’re gonna have to do the show”.

There’s the old maxim – never work with children and animals- and here you work with both.

Yes, I’ve heard that. I think it was W.C. Fields, he made that up. I think that’s more for a director, because I’ve worked on a movie where the director used a cat and a dog the first week, and was behind schedule a week, by the end of the first week. You should never do that. The studio wants you to be on schedule, especially in the beginning. Kids, I don’t worry about.

What’s your favourite children’s film?

I’m always terrible when I’m put on the spot like this. Well, maybe The Blair Witch Project (laughter). Ah… well, what I loved when I first saw it was Dumbo.

I’ve read that you came up with the character or Magorium, from a voice you use in a joke about an Ostrich. What was this?

I read it and said, I wanna play this part, but I don’t want to use a lot of makeup, so I tried to think, how was I going to sound at 243? The director, Zach Helm, we made the decision, that you can’t put prosthetics on. I’m not going to try and literally look like a zombie back from the dead. So if you can create a character that has an eccentricity about him, which you believe, he believes he’s 243, then we’ve done it. Then when we thought, what was I going to sound like? Nothing was coming to me, then my wife said, “if you’re going to do this movie, I’m going to read the script”, ‘cause she won’t read it, if I’m not going to do it. She read it and said “I kept hearing the voice you use in the ostrich joke”. That surprised me, so I went into a room and started practicing and reading. You can write whatever answer you want, ‘cause that’s a better story.

What’s it like playing an old man?

I don’t know if you’ve all seen the movie, I’m sure that you all have different opinions about it, ‘cause that’s the way the ball bounces sometimes. The idea is that the child in us, the child, that was us, has diminished as we get older. The child is the most pure part of ourselves. It’s the most unadulterated. It is the individual that never existed before and presumably doesn’t exist now with 7 billion people. There ain’t no-one else like you, but you. That’s profound. The child is fully that. The more you fit in the more you are generic. The best way that I can put it is; I knew a painter, years ago, when my 36 year old was 3 or 4, he’s since passed on , he’s a very good abstract painter. I thought. He came into the house and saw a picture that Genna had done on the wall, and he saw it on passing as he walked and said “I can’t do that anymore”. I knew what he was talking about.

What toy did you play with when you were younger?

The first one was a spin top. I just have a vivid memory of not understanding how it would work. It’s the first thing that I gravitated towards on set. The other part to the story is that it was metal. I don’t know what they’re made of now, it was during the second world war. That’s how old I am. We were asked to go down to the corner and give it to the war effort, because it was metal. There was a big stack at the gas station of all the kids who had come down and given their toys. I think my spin top turned the corner. That’s why we won.

Did you not want to use prosthetics, because of your experience during the making of Little Big Man?

Mercifully enough it was just 3 days, as I remember for Little Big Man, which was 121 days. I think 6 hours. Dick Smith who was the genius make-up man at the time, I think that it was the first time prosthetics had been used and it was an inordinate amount of time. Many times when you read something, you meet with the director and you have that critical “if we’re going to get into bed together then are we going to agree or disagree? So lets get that out of the way now Do we share the same vision It’s your movie am I going to be able to do my best work.”
You tend to talk about what you don’t want. Henry Moore said when asked “How do you sculpt those great things?” He said “It’s not hard, you just keep chipping away, what’s not an elephant.” You kind of talk about what you don’t want. The first thing that we agreed on was that we didn’t want to use prosthetics because it was a literal approach. If you’re going to do it realistically, then it’s a zombie movie. What are you going to do exhume this guy? Somehow, what we hit on was; if I can believe, that he believes it- I’ve solved it. That means that he needs a certain eccentricity. It frees the character. It’s the child again- that was more important than the literal age. Can I be like that? Can we be like that if we lived to 243 years old. Could we retain that part of ourselves for our entire life? The older you get the (more) pressure of being part of the mass. It’s like those men you see with the orange shirt, red tie and green pants, you know, they’re like 70 years old. They don’t give a shit anymore. You reach a point and say ”I’m going to be me in my 3rd act.

It’s been a while since you played on the London stage, your character in the film mentions King Lear. Do you have any intention of playing Lear or any other character on stage?

I know it’s being done right now, he toured with it McKellen’s doing it. Yes sure. It’s interesting- I think when it was written he was supposed to be 50 years old- ‘cause that was the normal life span, I guess. I did Merchant of Venice with the brilliant Geraldine Paige, for almost a year, we all moved here and my kids got British accents after 3 weeks, which appalled me, I thought they’d never loose it. I’m surprised that so many years have passed since I’ve been on the stage. It all comes down to what you want to do more. There’s a piece I’ve been working on for 4 or 5 years and I think that I’m finally going to be able to act and direct it. That’ll come first. The tough thing about a play, for me, actors say all different things, for me it’s that you don’t hold the actors, because they start to leave, there’s a synchronicity that happens on a good production. You become a family. You’re suddenly putting out there what you struggled to get. Then 6 months later a principle actor is gone and it just kills it, but you have to stay because it’s your contract. That to me is the part, that you loose your family. The good part of it is; that it’s pure. You are your own editor. You don’t act in a film, you do different takes, then someone else is going pick what they think is your best performance. On stage you’re going to do it.

Is it more challenging to be on stage or on film?

They’re different. The challenge of the stage, is – on film if you get it right, it’s in the can. On stage you get it right, you want to get it right the next night and if you don’t it’s depressing. You can’t get what you think are your brilliant moments all congealed. On stage you’ve got to be real to the first row and as real to the last row and the balcony. The most challenging stuff is the stuff that you can’t get. A lot of the time actors say “Oh you’re in that? I’ll come and see you.” The other actor says “Don’t come and see me when I open, come in 6 weeks. It’s going to take me that long to find the guy. On film you can’t do that. You can’t go to the director after 3 weeks and say “I found the character!” He says “Don’t say that- what are we going to do, re-shoot the first 3 weeks? It’s too late, you gotta play that crappy one you’ve been doing!” It’s hard, it’s very hard. I researched Rain Man for 2 years before I did it. I couldn’t have done anymore research. I don’t like to know what I’m going to do, I just take it in, take it in, take it in and on the camera something comes out. What came out the first week was awful. I saw the rushes and there’s a bit of Papillon, a bit of that character, and I said to the director “let me otta here- get somebody else” I really did, I didn’t have it. I wasn’t even close and he said “lets go back, we’ll look at the rushes, tell me if there’s a moment, anywhere, that you think is wonderful, that you think you’re in there.” I said “there’s one there, there’s another.” He said “fine. Lets do that.” I said “I can’t, I don’t know when I’m doing that, when I’m in there doing it I can’t look at anyone.” I guess that’s the hardest thing. Then one day Tom Cruise and I are in a car in Cincinnati, in that care that we drove in. Sorry that this is a long answer. I should shut up now. We were using those remote cameras, so there’s no room for anybody else and the directors watching the playback. He says “Just drive and do the scene a few times”. When he says over the radio we got it and if there’s film left just screw around and improvise. He said that we got it, so we start to screw around, and Tom kept saying things to me that I didn’t know, I kept processing through my brain how does this guy answer? I couldn’t figure out what the character was thinking. I couldn’t get him. We got back and Barry Levinson said “you gotta see it, you gotta see the playback”. He was so happy. He said “I think you got him.” I said “what?” He played it back and it was on of those wonderful moments. Every time Tom would say something, I’d say “yeah”. He said there’s your guy. I could fall in to that immediately. I couldn’t explain it, but there it was.

You’ve done two of Zach Helm’s films in a row, what attracted you to that?

First of all, the volume of scripts diminishes. I was lucky to become a movie star by freak accident, after The Graduate I got a crap load of scripts. I never even had one! So suddenly I’m able to cherry pick the best or the worst, as you will sometimes. As you get older the volume diminishes because the leads are written for guys in their 20’s, girls in their 30’s, women are right, that closes in on them earlier than it does for men. Someone my age becomes a supporting actor. There’s some good parts there. There was a tilt, so I said “Oh, I’ll take what I think is going to be fun to work on.” I like Marc Forster very, very much. I’d taken a supporting part in Neverland, so your reasons become different. Oh Johnny Depp, I really like his acting, I get to do 2 or 3 scenes with him. Then Marc Forster is doing Stranger Than Fiction and he calls me up and asks if I want to do this role. I say yes.

You must see Kite Runner, it’s extraordinary. He fought with the studio for a year to do it in their language and have subtitles. They didn’t want to do that and he walked away from them. Then Zach Helm comes along with this, he’d written Stranger Than Fiction, so I did it. Not many guys around who can play 243. Anyway here’s what Marc Forster said. I hate him for it ‘cause he’s in his 30’s. I said “how’d you learn that so early?” He does this film Finding Neverland, and he lets me see it before it comes out. “I’d like your family to see it.” I say “can my mother in-law and father in-law, can they come? The kids” “Yes of course” I watch it and think “WOW” We all laugh and cry in the same places. So I call him up and say “oh my God man, you made a movie, a lovely film, it’s cross generational. My mother in-law, father in-law all love it. My kids of disparate ages, they love it. It works. I mean you can kick anything apart, nothings perfect, but it’s a plane that gets off the tarmac. It works.” He calls me back a week or 2 weeks later and he said “These guys are giving me a terrible time. The studio. There’s 50 notes. 50 changes.” I said “what are you going to do?” By that time I’d be screaming and pulling.. you know- go to the bat. They’re trying to kill your kid. He said “I said very quietly that I don’t agree with your notes, but it’s your film, you paid for it. Make the changes you want. I walk away and take my name off it and go on with my life.” I said “How could you do that? That’s your identity!” This young kid, to me 32 (years old), says “That’s not my identity. I’m my identity, no one can take that away. They can change that, then I go and do my work again.” I thought that that was one of the most extraordinary, educational things I ever heard. It turns out that they didn’t make one change. They played it in front of an audience who liked it the way it was. I’ll never forget that. I am my identity. You can walk away. Sometimes of course… Did I depress the room?