Dustin Hoffman -No Holds Barred

                                                    June 1992 By Philip Berk                                              

He may well be the most successful character actor of all time, and a superstar to boot, but  — let’s face it — Dustin Hoffman is a worrier.

He worries about his career even though he has two Oscars behind him and has appeared in more great movies than any actor alive.

During the course of this interview for his latest movie, Hero, he actually had one ear glued to what others — costar Andy Garcia or director Stephen Frears — might be saying about him at another table. And I suppose for good reason.

Arthur Miller, the playwright whose Death of a Salesman furnished Dustin with one of his most acclaimed roles, once had this to say about Dustin:

“With Hoffman, every relationship — consciously or not — is about his work. Like all great actors, Hoffman has a tendency to drain people around him conected to a performance, even moving in with them if necessary and then, the moment they are no longer useful to his work, discarding them, sometimes brutally and moving on.”

Can you blame him for feeling paranoid?

Starting with former friend director Ulu Grosbard (whom he fired during the making of their film) all the way through Sydney Pollack (they came to blows on the set of Tootsie),  Dustin has fought with his so many of his directors, he was somewhat shocked when I suggested that he had been extravagant in his praise of them.

“All the time?”  he enquired.

Well, I reminded him,  this is what he had to say about Steven Spielberg at the Hook press conference last year.

“This is a great film maker. He makes a kind of film that no one has ever made before and no one will make again. I kept saying to myself when I saw the movie, ‘He’s got everybody’s best work up there. He’s got everybody doing their best.’ There is that kind of synergy. You can’t ask for more than that when you’re working with a director.”

So, what I wanted to know was, what  was it like working with Stephen Frears, the young English director who went from Prick Up Your Ears to Dangerous Liaisons to an Oscar nomination for The Grifters. 

“Stephen Frears is a difficult man,” he replied, carefully.

“He’s very difficult. Everyone is difficult. I have a prejudice about directors as all actors do. A director is the captain of the ship given a time frame by the studio to get from port to destination. There are two kinds of directors; there are company men, and then there are what I think are artists. An artist is someone driven to get the story as close to his vision as possible.

“How many times have you heard someone say: ‘It’s only a movie.’ ‘It’s just a job.’  ‘We’re professionals. We do the best we can.’ ‘We have to go on with our lives.’ It’s like a mantra.

“‘How many movies have you made where you put your heart and your soul into it and it didn’t work. So what’s the difference?’

“I don’t particularly like working with those directors.

“But there are other directors who are tortured souls, and Stephen is one of them. He’s one of those directors who’s going to be up a few times at night, every two hours, he’s someone who sweats, gets upset, storms off the set because the thing isn’t right. Give me that kind of director. I wouldn’t be married to him for a second, but I know, he’ll fight for the baby.”

Was it a great creative relationship?

“Let’s say, we had a rough time. But you better be temperamental; otherwise you don’t deserve to be making movies. If it were easier, you’d see more good movies.”

Why does he have these problems, and other actors don’t?

“The irony is everyone on a set has to be a perfectionist. If he isn’t, he’s fired. The camera operator, the makeup person, the sound technician. Their job depends on it. So why doesn’t mine? It’s like being on an operating table and the brain surgeon says to you, “Don’t worry. I’m your brain surgeon. I’m a hell of a nice guy. I’m not difficult, but  I’m not a perfectionist. ’ How would you like that?”  

Why was it so rough?

“Because for the first three weeks the rushes weren’t any good. And the reason was, if you’re doing character — I know I’m paid a lot of money, but it doesn’t matter how much money you’re paid — unless you’re John Wayne playing John Wayne every time, you need time, but there just isn’t any.

“You want to rehearse, but it’s too expensive. The cinematographer has already been hired, and he’s getting paid every week, so every week we’re not shooting, it’s costing us money. 

“In the theatre, maybe, by the third week of rehearsals, you start to get a sense of the character. The fourth week you’re into dress rehearsals, but you’re still experimenting. You go on the road. Six or seven  weeks later, you’ve got a semblance of the character. And even then you tell friends, ‘Don’t come see me for a couple of weeks.

“With a movie, you can’t rehearse while shooting because if you do, even if you improve the character, it wouldn’t match what you did the first week. With Hero I didn’t know I was going to have this problem. I thought I understood the character, but the early rushes showed me that what was written — a despairing character, a depressing guy, a down and outer, a self centered egocentric, wasn’t much fun.

“When we looked at the rushes, we agreed, that’s real, but that’s something out of The Deerhunter, some guy with a bad Vietnam experience. This is (supposed to be) a comedy. How do we retain the reality and still make the guy amusing?

“Stephen and I weren’t in trouble as colleagues, because we agreed it was shit. Real trouble is when when the director says ‘I think he’s funny’ or ‘It looks good to me.’ That’s when your stomach tells you you’re stuck in a bad marriage. So what I had to do was find the key to making this character amusing.”

Which was?

“It’s an unconscious process, but it occurred to me that I could be drowning in quicksand, and if I told my four year old daughter to run and get her mommy, she’d say. ‘I’ve got new shoes on. I’ll get them all dirty.’ 

“So I said to myself, what if I behaved like that, like a middle-aged kid. Suddenly the character had a bit of fun to him. He’d act like a kid, who when he gets angry says, ‘You’re not fair and I hate you and I hate Mommy.’

“And then again I thought of Jimmy Durante. When he used to end his TV show he’d be in tears when he’d say, ‘Good night,  Mrs. Calabash,’ and people assumed he was referring to his dead wife. And yet the name Calabash is very funny and I thought there’s something there. I needed to create someone who was both funny and moving at the same time, a harmless kid, in a sense, someone who’s not physically aggressive, who appears to be a dangerous animal,  but all he can do is  bark.” 

How come it took three weeks to discover that?

“I didn’t think it was going to be a problem. The character wasn’t that far afield from someone I understood. I didn’t need to go picking pockets to understand him because I’m a bit of a thief myself. I’m partial to lifting things like soap in a hotel, a nice bath towel.

“And when I decided to do the movie, it was because I loved the script. I didn’t know the character that well. I was more attracted to the story. The character didn’t stick out that much. Even the writer doesn’t help you because even though he’s written the part, he hasn’t consciously done it.

“And at this stage in my life I’ve made up my mind to think twice before turning down a chance to work with a good director.”

(Hoffman is known for having passed on a number of award winning roles, but the last time I interviewed him he denied this.  “I was never offered Dog Day Afternoon. I would have loved to have done Serpico , Five Easy Pieces and Cuckoo’s Nest, but was never asked. The only role I turned down was Gandhi  and only because I didn’t want to be the only non Indian in the cast.” He did however turn down Personal Best with some regret and The Man Who Loved Women without any.)

His marriage to Lisa Gotsegen, a law graduate and the daughter of an old family friend, has produced four children, Alexandra 4, Max 7, Rebecca 8, and Jake 10. Dustin also has two older daughters from his first marriage Jennifer 21, and Karina 25, whom he adopted. 

What is the secret of this collaboration?

“One of the contributing factors (to the divorce in my first marriage) was that sometimes I’d be away two, three months. So when Lisa and I were married, we made a deal to keep the family together and we have never been apart more than two weeks in the 12 years we’ve been married.”

He couldn’t be married to Stephen Frears. But could he be married to himself?

“I am married to myself,” he replied flippantly, and then seriously  he added, “It hasn’t been easy. I’m more flawed than flaw.  We’re all married to ourselves. I think I’m a dead man without my wife. She’s the opposite of me, and she’s got my number. She knows me on a level that I would never reveal to anyone else. With one sentence she can stop me from making grievous mistakes, which she has over the past 12 years.”

Despite his fears, Hoffman looks remarkably well for his age. He’s 54. I can remember interviewing ten years ago for Tootsie and unless memory has played tricks on me, his face today is just as tanned and unlined, his hair just as thick and healthy, and his body just as taut and muscular as it was then.

Hoffman’s first movie The Graduate ushered in a new era for leading actors. Until Mike Nichols cast him, an ethnic kid with a large nose, to play a handsome track star in that film, those parts went to glamour boys. Soon thereafter, Hoffman was competing with both Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro for just about every top role; nonetheless, over the years he has managed to star in such all time greats as All The Presidents Men, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Rainman, Midnight Cowboy, Straw Dogs, Tootsie, and Lennie.

In Hero he plays a little man who rises to great heights of heroism. Has he ever taken a stand on a controversial  issue. And is there a risk in publicly endorsing a political candidate?

“That’s an interesting question. I’ve tended to remain on the sidelines. After The Graduate, I went around in an airplane with Senator McCarthy’s daughter when he was running for president, but then when Bobby Kennedy announced, I felt trapped because I wanted to support Bobby but I had already come out for McCarthy. 

“Since then I’ve never been politically visible for any candidate, but when people ask me whom I’m voting for, I tell them I’m voting for Clinton. Not that I  think that’s being politically active (or heroic.) 

“But I think you’ve got to be moved by something in order to become politically active. For example, this AIDS thing, I was a late bloomer but suddenly I’ve become overwhelmed by the courage of the gay community. They can teach this country something in the way they’ve come together against incredible odds and with all the prejudice against them. When Arthur Ashe is asked how hard it was to have AIDS, and he answers ‘Not as hard as being Black,’I now realize I’ve led a very sheltered life.”

Hero also satirizes media manipulation. Has he ever fell victim?

“You can say something facetious as a joke and suddenly you read it after its been published and —  I’ll give you one quick example.

“A journalist was interviewing me for Hook, and he asked me what it was like working with Robin Williams.  And I said, ‘Robin is two people. In one sense, he’s very introspective, shy, serious, insecure, like all of us. But he’s so scared he won’t even watch his rushes. He stands outside. And when you come out, he asks you, ‘How was it? How was it?’ And when you say,’ Why don’t you go in there?’ he says,’ No I can’t.’

“‘But then there’s the other side to him. When he starts to improvise, he’s faster than his brain. It’s like he’s possessed, a demon has got hold of him.’ And I said to this interviewer, ‘I guess when you have a talent that enormous, in a way, it’s almost painful.’

“Well when it appeared in publication, it read in block letters, ‘Hoffman says about himself, When you have a talent that is so enormous….’ It was very painful!”

On other politically charged subjects Hoffman volunteered some unorthodox opinions.

Does he believe Ice T has the right to advocate killing cops?

“I don’t understand why they don’t put it to the vote of the shareholders. Warner Bros. is a publicly owned company. Call a meeting and ask the shareholders to vote on (whether the record should be withdrawn or not.)”

Is he bothered by Dan Quayle’s comments about the Cultural Elite?

“When Dan Quayle says ‘cultural elite,’ it’s not coming out spontaneously. There is a huge swarm of people on Madison Avenue hired by the Bush administration to create this issue. Quayle is just a player. And when he misspelled potato, it was not because he can’t spell. It was because it was misspelled on his manuscript, a typo.”

Incidentally, when I asked him privately if he now believes he is ready to direct a movie (he was hired as the director of Straight Time but quit after a couple of weeks to concentrate on just acting) he replied, “Absolutely. And I should never have quit that one, either.”

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