Given his iconic stature – star of some of the finest and most respected films in cinematic history – meeting Dustin Hoffman in person is not dissimilar to hanging out with the spate of old men that frequent your local deli. With slicked back hair and broad smile, along with that inimitable voice that’s at once soothing and sardonic, to hang with Hoffman is one of life’s pleasures.
It’s been almost five decades since his breakout role in The Graduate, and from work as disparate as Tootsie, Midnight Cowboy and Straw Dogs, this remarkable actor has continued to push his talents in sometimes surprising ways. With Oscars for Kramer vs Kramer and Rain Man, and a Lifetime achievement from the AFI way back in 1999, it would be easy for him to hang up the gloves and bask in the fame.
It’s nice, then, that Hoffman continues to show such passion for a project like Boychoir. Directed by Canada’s Francois Girard (Red Violin), this touching if slightly saccharine story about a troubled youth that finds his voice within a singing group trades on more than its share of clichés, yet it’s Hoffman’s performance as the choir director that gives the film its much needed heft. In a year where we saw the likes of J.K. Simmons giving Whiplash to his students, Hoffman’s far more affable, yet in may ways far more in keeping with traditional musical pedagogy.
I spoke with Hoffman during last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and found him as entertaining and affable as one could hope for.
Dork Shelf: Welcome back to Toronto
Dustin Hoffman: Well, yeah, it’s nice to be back with anything. It’s nice to be working, it’s nice to have a job. It’s nice to have a job that’s been admitted into a festival. The last time I was here was something I directed a couple of years ago.
I would love to be in Toronto not working and when there’s no festival around so I can just enjoy the city. But that hasn’t happened yet. I have worked here, but I’ve never been here for a period of time where I can just enjoy it.
DS: I hear that in the middle of production you took the cast and crew to Shake Shack. Is that a particularly favourite burger place of yours?
DH: I’d never done it before with Shake Shack. I had not done it before with any hamburger! It’s a decent question. The lead of the film [Garrett Wareing] he started talking about Shake Shack and asked me if I’d ever had it and I said no. He said, well, there’s a new one here, and that’s what started it. And then more people, we took as many people as could go at that moment, about twenty.
DS: You seem particularly strong acting with this ensemble of kids – is there a different energy that you get from acting with them?
DH: I don’t know if I like kids better than adults. I just like actors and I like working with them. I have said it before that I don’t think the general public realize how much we help each other. Certainly kids are more receptive and less suspicious. You say to the other actors “I just don’t think I’m doing good work”, and the other actors say [to you] “you know what, when we were just running the lines, you were right on the button!” and then the director came in and said “we need more energy.” It’s like those prison movies, you have to talk out of the side of your mouth.
We help each other because we’re all in the same bind. We don’t get to choose our takes, so it’s very hard to put yourself in a director’s hands when they’re asking you to do something that you don’t think is organic and they don’t even let you see the playback. They have fixed ideas of the way a scene should go. I got rid of all of that when I directed and it was a wonderful feeling. Anytime an actor wanted to come and take a look I said yeah, come and look at the take, I think you got it, if you don’t, we’ll do it again.
DS: Is that why you wanted to direct?
DH: It’s a large part of it, yeah. You don’t have to ask for permission!
I love Maggie Smith with all of my heart and soul, everyone said look out, look out, she’s tough and God bless her for that. We’re in the middle of a scene and she just stopped in the middle of doing it and said “I don’t know what the fuck this scene is about!”Everybody went like that and it was a great feeling. So I said OK, why doesn’t everyone just take a break. I said ok, what’s bothering you, she says [gestures wildly] and I said, you’re right, so how can we make it easy for you.
I think acting should be that way, it should be easy. It should be effortless. Many times you’re asked to make transitions, bridges that are not in the writing or the director feels it should be. You can just get on the train of a scene that’s well written, it’s terrific, or if you can find a way to do certain things to allow that so that you’re not, it’s easy.
DS: Is there a certain gravitas implied in just being Dustin Hoffman, thanks to all the roles you’ve played over the years?
DH: I swear I’m not aware of that. What I’m aware of is the longer you’re around, the harder it is to get away with murder. You’re trying to get past that so-called persona.Some actors, many stars are, have a signature, and they give the audience what they want, they give them that person. I once saw John Wayne in one of his first movies, which you can get now, Turner Classic Movies, and it’s not John Wayne, it’s just some guy. Suddenly, he started learning that this was the John Wayne they wanted. And he became that. I’m trying to get away from it because I don’t have a signature. I wish I did, but I don’t. Bogart had a signature and I think Spencer Tracey had a signature, but in a sense did more character acting a little bit.
DS: I’m skeptical – Do you really wish you did?
DH: Have a signature? Yeah, I guess I do. It’d be less work, but I know what you mean.
DS: Less work at being you, or just less work?
DH: Well, I guess just giving the audience what they want. I don’t try to do that. I try to surprise. And many times you don’t. If you see something scripted that feels unique in the character and the script, then you’re trying to do that. This character was extremely hard because he’s by definition 2 dimensional. If it wasn’t a star playing the part, it would be a supporting role. The story’s about the kid. And even in the number of scenes, I think I’m in the first two scenes and then not in it for another half hour or so, but they sell it, so he should be 2 dimensional. You try to act 3 dimensional with a 2 dimensional part. All that means is whoever you are outside of the story, the audience never knows. They don’t have a clue. Have I ever been married, do I have anybody I’m living with, blah, blah, blah. Redford said that after President’s Men because we had girlfriends, he had a wife, and he said it should all be cut out of the movie. We should be 2 dimensional characters, just telling the story. So the audience has no clue who we are outside of being reporters.
DS: Who are some directors that you worked best with?
DH: Mike Nichols was wonderful. [The Graduate] was 100 days of shooting, but it was [also] a month of rehearsals. Starting from zero on a sound stage with tape, like you do in a play. You can’t do that today because it’s like we’re not going to be paying for the cinematographer and the art director and all of these other people’s salaries if they’re not shooting. Some people will still do it, but it’s hard to get even the principal actors. But that was extraordinary, [Nichols] was able to get the money for that and he had no fixed idea on how any of those characters should be played.
Barry Levinson I did some films with, I loved working with him. Spielberg is extremely generous. I haven’t worked with Woody Allen but it’s surprising to me how many actors when I ask how was he, I ask it felt like you were improvising he says I was, but that’s Woody Allen. They said Woody says say whatever you want. Just make it work, just make it real. I prefer that and I prefer those kind of directors.
DS: How important is music in your life?
DH: I wish I had had the talent to be a musician. If God tapped me on the shoulder right now and said no more acting, no more directing, but you can just have, be a decent jazz pianist.
DS: But you do play a bit of piano
DH: Yes, but I can’t play well enough to make a living at it and I love it more than anything. I always have.
I improvised in that scene. I did play. And I did learn that when I was 10, but I also improvised where I said I didn’t have the talent. I didn’t. I could never read music gracefully, I don’t have a good ear, it takes me so long. There are people who can just hear it and do it. I don’t have any knowledge of the math which goes into the music and there are some people who just have an intuitive feeling about it.
DS: You’re accused in the movie of being old. Do you feel old?
DH: I’m accused? You have to break it down. Old in what way? Physically, God yes. You hear about people dying and they report, well, he or she was in their 80s and you’re around the corner, so sure. I did see an article just yesterday, the guy’s been researching aging in today’s world and he said 70 is the new 30, so as soon as I’m finished this interview I’m going to finish the article.
Being around longer than other people, you can’t help but have a certain amount of wisdom that you wouldn’t have had otherwise, and it’s inescapable. I don’t know how you write this, but when I started out, if there had been something released even once a photograph of somebody giving somebody else a blow job, end of career. And now, it makes someone a star. That’s extraordinary.
DS: So what does this mean in your life?
DH: Blow jobs are finally getting the credit they deserve!
I think Elvis Presley was on the Ed Sullivan Show and they did not photograph him below the belly button, not his gyrations. I remember the Beatles were considered having very long hair and they didn’t . I remember women, when I first went to New York to study, every once in a while you’d see a woman crossing the street without a bra, just in a t-shirt, and it was an event, it was extraordinary.
If when I was a kid if someone had said, any of us, and I grew up in the 40s and the 50s, do you know that at a certain point when you reach adulthood, the planet is going to have a limited life span, you would not have believed a word of it, it would have been science fiction. But we are causing the planet to have a limited life span and I think it’s a race to see whether we blow ourselves up with the technical means we’ve invented or we just implode because of you know. And we all know this, it’s not something we don’t know.
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