Dustin Hoffman waxes poetic on the old days in Hollywood

Dustin Hoffman had us enraptured like a minstrel singing songs of the old days. The guy's a movie legend, The Graduate himself waxing poetic on working with the great directors like Mike Nichols, John Sussanger, and now all these years later, young Zach Helm in his first effort. Mr. Hoffman doesn't do a lot of press anymore. So the room was filled with reporters chomping at the bit to get a question in. Here are some choice excerpts from his press conference:

How do you research someone who's supposed to be over 250 years old?

Dustin Hoffman: I visited a lot of graveyards. [laughs] When the writer and director met with me on this, we agreed what we didn't want to do. First, prosthetics, once we agreed not to do that, I thought the only way to handle it was to try to present a character that the people in the film as well as the movie audience would believe that HE would believe thathe was that age. So there was nothing to research then. If you meet people and they say something, it doesn't matter if they're lying or not, what's important is if they believe it. I think the essence was this was not hard for me. I've always felt that I'm subjected to being a "non-grown up" my whole life. I've never been able to grow up. I look forward to it at some point. This character is an adult, but he's not a grown up. "Grown-up" means you kind of pretend. You pretend to be other people. He's what a

kid is. That's the idea. A kid is there to believe, a kid believes as long as you let him believe. That's what I think the movie tries to be about.

In the past you wanted to play "Willy Wonka". This film seems very similar to that movie. How do these stories relate?

Dustin Hoffman: You want the truth? No, you want a good story. [laughs] This might be a good story. I never read "Willy Wonka" and I never saw it. So when I said that I wanted to play it, I heard the original was really good. Everyone said that it would be a good part for me, right around the time that Gene Wilder did it. So I put that out of my mind. When they did the remake, I asked my agent to see if he could get me for it, but he said no, they wanted a younger star. So I can't tell you anything about it. I hear that in "Willy Wonka", somebody's evil, or somebody's unkind. This film did not have a sinister figure and most children's works have a sinister figure but this one didn't.

Acting is essentially playing. It seems that this particular film gives actors a genuine opportunity to play. Is that a different experience, for you as an actor, than working on a screenplay that is more serious and has more violence?

Dustin Hoffman: No. I work the same all the time. It's funny when you said "play." When I did this film with Johnny Depp, I had a couple of scenes with him and so before he came over and we talked over the scenes. I'm a producer of his play which flops. He's a writer of the play. I'm the producer. And in talking about the scene, somehow Arthur Miller's name came up and I had worked with Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" revival. He said it's a play, a play. The critics just destroy the very meaning and essence. It's just play. They're the ones who put a serious stamp. And he loves that, in the film it becomes dialogue in the film. It's play. It's pretend, but my own feeling is that I don't think that I do, or actors do anything differently because we all do that. We all act. We all play, we all put on a face for our mother, or our boyfriend, or dentist, or what day it is, what clothing we're wearing. We're not ourselves. We are very private beings that we usually reserve for only a few. I always think that what differentiates from the actors and everyone is that we observe the way other people act and we try to find a craft in which we recreate it. That's what I do. I did have a lot of fun doing this, but not as much fun as Meet the Fockers because in "Fockers", I could just cut loose. And I could improvise. Here I had to say what the director had to say.

What were those scenes we heard about from director Zach Helm? What are "freebies"?

Dustin Hoffman: "Freebies" are just...well directors are directors and they have a vision. They want to hit the note that they want to hit. You make sure that you are comfortable with hitting that note and you oblige to do their vision. But many times when you work with them and do takes, you get impulses and I always...I think it started with the second movie I did--Midnight Cowboy, and that is the "freebie". Sometimes a director would say, "Well wait a minute, what are you going to do?" Well, it's like writing, you know what you're going to write, but you don't know until you write it. So I would tell the director to let me just do the scene, I have this...let me just do it and that's a "freebie". There's many examples of it. In Tootsie, Sydney Pollack wanted me to walk across the park, it was after I was disclosed and I wasn't a woman, and Charlie Durning's feelings are hurt, and I realize I have to apologize to Durning. So he had me walk up this bridge, there's mood music, and there's a mime in the background doing mime stuff. I say to him, can I have a "freebie?" And he says,"OK," so I said, "I don't need sound." I went up to the actor and I said, "The next take, I'm just going to come up to you and I just want you to fall over." And that was a freebie. And it wound up being in the movie. I didn't know what was going to happen; it was a "freebie."

This film seems to be about mentors and students. During your career did you have mentors, and are you mentoring people?

Dustin Hoffman: This could be a long answer. I wanted to be a jazz pianist, but I wasn't good enough. I got into city college because I didn't have the grades to get into university. I took acting because it was a way to get three credits. I just needed three credits and my friend told me to take acting because it was like gym--nobody fails you. I took it. And that's literally how I got involved in acting. In those days, the hero, the mentor was indisputably Brando. I don't think there's an actor today that tilted that axis the way Brando did. Gene Hackman, Rob Duvall, James Dean, a whole generation of actors. But there was something that he did that no one had seen before. A lot of people had been natural in their acting, a lot of people had been gifted, but he did a couple of things that were quite new. He hit a private spot that's almost unbearable to watch sometimes. It was that private. There was femininity in his masculinity that I don't think anyone had seen before. There was almost an androgynous sense sometimes in his acting. And it made him more masculine. He was the first mentor, and there was this teacher, his name was Bobby Brown, he took me aside he had 25 students, I was one of them. I studied with him for two years and he had brought the method acting to Pasadena and they didn't like him. That was the days of the "Un-American Activities." They thought he was a communist. And he took me aside, "You're a theater person, you're a theater animal. This is what you should do. And he says go to New York, study in New York and nothing is probably going to happen at least 10 years, so you've going to wait a lot of tables and you're going to get a lot of crap. You're a very strange type and you're going to have trouble getting work." He was absolutely correct, because it was 11 years, 12 years when I got the break for "TheGraduate". Mike Nicholson became the next mentor. I was spoiled, and John Sussanger followed on Midnight Cowboy. Both those directors brought theater rehearsal into film. They got permission from the studios. These directors somehow got three, four weeks of rehearsal before shooting started. We were able to rehearse. We were able to build, like you build a play. Now I'm at the age where

the mentor for me is the artist that survives. When I hear about a director like Lumet, at the age of 81 making a film...I mean that's all you can ask for. There's this Portuguese director who came out with this latest film. He's 97 years old. They are automatic mentors. [laughs] It has to do with that.

What was it like working with Natalie Portman?

Dustin Hoffman: I met Natalie Portman years ago. I think she's about 26, I have a son about 26. The first break I got was in a "Class Z Summer Spot", which meant there were no more than a hundred spots in New York. I got to play "Peter" in the "Diary of Anne Frank," which was her boyfriend. When they did it on Broadway, I went to go see it; I took my wife and saw Natalie Portman in it. So we went backstage to meet her. It's an image I won't forget; there she was in this room with her mother who was deciding to even let me and my wife in because she had Natalie sitting down doing finals. She did let us in and I did a very bad thing. I called up my son in Los Angeles and said, "I got her." [laughs] He's hated me ever since. But I put him on the phone with Natalie and later he says "Dad, don't pimp for me anymore." [laughs] And they talked and they met a few times. But this was the first time I met with her, and Natalie's very bright, coming in every morning to make-up doing a New York Times puzzle. She could do Monday and Tuesday very rapidly, but when you see her do Wednesday and Thursday and Friday...she strikes me as someone who belongs in that league, that short list of actors who try not to be seduced by stardom. I called her up after "Goya's Ghost." It's a flawed film, but everything is flawed. There's some great stuff, visually wonderful, scenes between Javier Bardem and Natalie, and I saw a depth I hadn't seen in her work before. I called her up and said, "Holy cow!" It was kind of painful for her because the film didn't really open and she put in all this work. She thanked me. She stays grounded, she tries her best. She's a professional. She's fun to work with. She really has a need for privacy. It's genuine. She has friends that she's kept since childhood. I wish her the best.

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Julian Roman at Movieweb
Julian Roman