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INT: Dustin Hoffman

11.10.2006

Few actors working today can boast an acting pedigree as prestigious as Dustin Hoffman’s. After four-plus decades of acclaimed work, Hoffman is still going strong. This week he stars alongside Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson in the highly-anticipated comedy STRANGER THAN FICTION. Hoffman recently stopped by the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to promote his latest film. Here are some excerpts.

Dustin Hoffman

Can you talk about working with Will Ferrell? Was he what you expected?

No, I thought he was going to give a comic performance similar to what he had done, and I'd never met him before. On the first day, the first thing I thought about him was God, he's what I thought about him was first impressions staying true throughout the experience. In other words, I thought he was very shy and guileless. And I went up to Forster and said, "What brilliant casting," because the character is guileless. He says "Gosh"... he really does say "Gosh" and "Gee." He's like that. But, he was acting. In the third or fourth take in the first scene we had, I literally backed off and just said "Uh oh. He's more real than I am." And I went to the director and told the director he's really working very subtly and the director said "Yeah," because he'd been working with him before, and I said, "I'd better match that," and the director agreed with me. He was showing me up. I think he's an actor.

There's a line you say in this movie about life being comedy or tragedy. Is that a philosophy you adhere to in your own life?

Personally, I think it's surreal. I think it's a surreal comedy. I really do think that. I mean I think it's close to Beckett and Waiting for Godot. I think the older I get, the more I think that the surrealists weren't that surreal after all. But they're real. When you think about it, we're on this thing called a planet, it's going around in a circle in the middle of nothing, and it keeps going around. It's nutty. It is, and God is this presence, however you want to believe, and he tells you that I'm gifting you with supposedly the greatest sense of intellectuality of any one of my species, and I'm gifting you this wonderful thing called life and that's the good news. And the bad news is you can be taken out at any time. Now that's if you think of God as a writer, (laughter) I'd like to know him just on a kind of artistic level at the end. That's my kind of black humor.

If you were forced to choose between life or art, what would you choose?

Well, I do like part that I play because I've met people like this. In fact, I know a couple fairly intimately and the intellectual part of him seems to have just obscured , pushed out of the room the emotional part of him. And it's like that line. When I was in my 20's that we used to always hear, we unemployed actors. The Louvre is on fire and you only have time to save the Mona Lisa or this scraggly alley cat. Which do you pick? We used to sit around and argue that over a joint and some wine (laughs).

So I would like to think that I would pick life, cause I intellectually believe that art is just all of us guys imitating God. So pick the real thing. Having said that, I think the closet you come to these kind of people that I play, unfortunately, either directly through friends, are doctors. They literally look at you and tell you terrible news, and it is just an intellectual you've got three weeks to live. I'm not criticizing those that do it every day have to find a way to do it. I could understand this guy. I also felt that he was as isolated and as paralyzed as Will. In a sense, they're no different from each other and they both somehow find love.

You were uncanny as the professor. Did you ever want to be one?

was such a bad student that I never even entertained the idea that I could teach, cause I couldn't learn. But, I wanted to be a jazz pianist and I just wasn't good enough. Right now, if some magic, that bottle you find on the beach and the genie pops out, and says, "You'll never get to act anymore but I'll make you a pretty good jazz player," I'd take it in a second. I really would, and there's nothing I like better than to watch jazz. I mean, you don't have to worry about getting the money for the thing, you don't have to worry about the script, you just get out there and play.

Did you base your character on any intellectual you knew?

Yes. I can't say who, but yes. I did. And you jump off from there, and it's funny how much that happens when you're in the field that I'm in. You find out through the years that I remember I said to Hal Ashby after Being There I know what Peter Sellers was jumping off from. And he said who? I said Stan Laurel. He said how did you know that? I said I hear it. And he did. That was his kick-off. He got that character and sometimes that happens.

What sort of an acting challenge is a role like this?

It is. We're no different from pitchers. Look at Detroit. Suddenly they start freezing at the plate. How can that happen? They knocked off the Yankees. We're no different. Spielberg, whom I've known for years and years and years, told me a couple of years ago that he throws up on the way to work on the first day. Sugar Ray Leonard told me the same thing. He said he threw up before every fight he ever had. You're driven by fear. I am. You want to know the example? The great driver Greg Louganis... what was it '88 Olympics or something like that?

He was the greatest diver that ever lived, I think, and then he made that one dive, it was a swan dive, kind of a basic dive as I understand it and he hit his forehead right on the end of the board. And I remember seeing that. I said, there it is. That's how close you are to getting a 9 and getting a zero. And you're aware of it when you're working. I don't think I ever feel and I mean this that I'm any more than a student. Ralph Richardson I think said it best on his 80th birthday, "I think I want to learn a little more about acting before it's too late".... I've been in bummers.

To go back to baseball, you get one out of five hits. It's not a bad number. But sure. Do I tell people not to see it? No, I don't tell them not to see it. I tell them it stinks... But I'll tell you one thing. When you're doing stage work, when an actor's doing stage work and he bumps into another actor - "hey, I hear you're in I'm going to come and see it." "No, don't come, wait six weeks," and that's what you don't get in movies because you know you want six weeks to solidify it.

I read an article where you were criticizing film industry recently. Can you talk about that?

Don't you love the way of the media - it's wonderful. It's such a creative animal (laughter). They asked me to do a master class in London. We were promoting this movie, it was for the British Film festival. So I said okay you sit there and she asks you questions and you take questions from the audience, an audience of kids, you know, who want to be directors or writers or actors, whatever. And one of the questions was how is Hollywood different now from when you started? And I sat there answering the question and I said "well, you didn't have video, you didn't have these kind of budgets. You didn't have studios that were only interested in hitting home runs.

You had studios that would put out a movie if they had to with a single or a double." And I said "you had word of mouth. And I don't think it exists anymore." There are exceptions. I guess "Little Miss Sunshine" would be an exception. It was one of my favorite movies. [That's what] I said and it just came out [that] Hollywood practices legal euthanasia now. Because from what I understand… a movie opens on Friday (I'm sure you've heard this), the first 2200 theatres I (and they didn't open in those kinds of theatres, I think Jaws started that) the first performance they get the tally nationwide, even if it's different times, so before Friday night is over, they know what it's going to make that weekend pretty close.

And as soon as they know what it's going to make that weekend, they know what it's going to drop the second weekend 40 or 50 percent or whatever it is and then they have a sense of what it's going to do domestically before Saturday comes. And those decisions sometimes are made before Sunday which is alright, we're going to drop this much advertising, we're going to do this you know. That's euthanasia. They put the film out of its misery.

Do you ever get cynical with Hollywood?

No I don't. It's an amazing contradiction in that Hollywood, which I guess is six studios, that's what Hollywood is. The word is never used. Affectionately. Six majors and their average as I understand is $65 million a picture and another 40, 50, 60 for prints and ads and advertisers, so they're in for $110 million and I'm not going to criticize the studio heads because if I was a studio head I'd be scared shitless because you make a couple of mistakes and you're out.

And they go to the computers, as I understand it, and they punch and their decisions are made on what's going to take the first and also when I started you didn't have that top-three or whatever five pictures, whatever it's going to gross. Everything comes from a market standpoint, so therefore film is a product. Yeah, look at what you have as I understand it for the last few years you've got the indie films, that are the most exciting films, that I think are getting the most nominations, the most awards. It's being turned on its head.

Can you talk about your next project Perfume - The Story of a Murderer?

Well, that was the most expensive movie that Germany ever made, as I understand it. There's a wild story about Perfume by the way. The story I heard is that the author wouldn't give the rights and for years, Milos Forman and Polanski and people like that were trying to get it, and he was resisting. He's kind of a reclusive guy, Germany's J.D. Salinger or something, and the producer took him out to dinner and said, "Come on, give me a number." They were drinking, and he says, "Give me a number, come on." And he said, "$10 million," and he said, "Done." And that's where the budget started

Were you aware of Tom Tykwer's work before?

I called Tom Tykwer up. Being a celebrity, that's the best part of it, I think, that you can actually have access to talented people. I can say, "Can someone find out how I can talk to Tykwer?" I never used to do that, and I do it now. I do. He was making a movie somewhere in Czechoslovakia and shooting all night long, and we talked for about two hours, and we had a friendship before we ever met.

Talk about playing toy store owner in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.

Well, the guy who wrote Stranger Than Fiction is named Zach Helm, and he wrote Mr. Magorium and he directed it, the first thing he ever directed. After I did Stranger, we had lunch or something and asked me if I wanted to play the part. And we talked about how we would approach it and how he would approach the film, because it's something fantastical. It takes place in a magical toy store, and this guy that I play runs it, Mr. Magorium, and is 243 years old. So we had to make the decision are you going to do prosthetics, not prosthetics, are you going to find a way in, in which the audience will accept when I say I'm 243 years old. Hopefully and it has to come out of the character thing, I think he's really a first-rate talent Mr. Helm. I didn't use makeup, I had a certain hairstyle, nice hairstyle, eccentric hairstyle, eccentric clothing, kind of a way-out character that will work or you know had a good run of my career.

How was it working with so many kids in a movie?

There's kids in it because it's in a toy store. I love kids. I just love working with them. It started with Kramer vs. Kramer and very early on in that movie we found out it's better to improvise with the kids to give them a sense of what the scene is about because otherwise their parents are going to line-read them and they're going to come in every day having learned the lines from one of the parents and they're going to sound like what every kid used to sound like on television. Well Dad!

You stopped working for a few years. Can you talk about the reasons why?

Yes. I stopped working because I didn't like the scripts that were being offered to me and I had such an unusual career up until that point because I started with The Graduate. Nichols was the best director around and it was a first rate screenplay and a first rate movie just technically it stands up. We rehearsed for a month and no one gives a director permission to rehearse because the crew is hired and studios think they're hired so we're shooting. They're not doing anything and we're paying you? And he got away with it.

And Schlesinger got away with it a year later when I did Midnight Cowboy. So I thought movies were not that much different from plays .You rehearse and then I learned that it's not true. But I got my choice of scripts. I was lucky and then as one gets older, these leads are written for people in their 20s, 30s, less in their 40s, worse for women, much more difficult. When you see someone like Meryl Streep or Emma [Thompson], they're defying gravity. It's extraordinary, really tough. And 50s and 60s. We tend to support at that age. We tend to support who the lead is unless you're developing stuff yourself.

So the criteria I had was out the window. Because I could throughout the years to say I can only say there was a variety of factors that congealed. Who's the director? Who's the cast? Is it a good script? I mean I could pick. And then what there was for me to pick, whether it was a lead or supporting, I didn't like anything. And my wife said to me the magic words: "Why don't you just grow all of that criteria out that you've had for 35 years." And I said, "What?" She said, "Just don't make decisions on whether you're going to work based on any of it." I said, "What do you mean? What about the part?" She said, "Forget it. We've been together 30 years." And she says, "You're only happy when you're working with people that are really creative and that should be your only criteria, and it's been a moving experience for you. And ironically, that's why you became an actor in the first place, to get that thing."

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at thomasleupp@joblo.com.

Source: JoBlo.com

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