Working together on the dramedy and how acting is the same as sports.
After taking so many starring roles, Dustin Hoffman realized some of the best acting is done in the supporting category. So he teamed with Marc Forster in Finding Neverland opposite Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Freddie Highmore.
Having a fantastic experience with Marc on that film, Dustin told him he'd like to do it again; that film is Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell. Dustin plays a professor who eases Will's mind after Will finds out he's the subject of a book where he's going to die.
Working with Will was a fantastic experience for Dustin; he even surprised him a little. "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 - 'G-d, 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 guiless. And I went up to Forster and said, 'What brilliant casting!' Because the character is guiless. 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 'Oh, 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."
And for Will, it was beyond a mutual feeling. "It was great; it wasn't unlike the film in the sense that Dustin's so entertaining to be around. Amazing stories and he was almost like a second director in a way - in fact, better than the real one. For instance, that scene where he tells me I'm about to do, you know that was the end of the first week of filming we had to shoot that scene and I'd never ever done a scene like that where I had to maybe potentially kind of go to pieces and Dustin was incredible, he was like, whatever you need. At one point he hasn't even been on camera yet. He's off camera and he's crying and he's like that kind of giving of an actor, you know he's like, so he, that was, I kind of owe a lot to him I think when I watch the movie."
Dustin compared playing Professor Jules Hilbert in Stranger Than Fiction to playing sports; he says athletes and actors are really all the same in the spotlight. "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 diver Greg Louganis in the '88 Olympics; 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 (editors note: Louganis hit the back of his head on a reverse dive). 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, sure; do I tell people not to see it? No, I don't tell them not to see it. I tell them it stinks. To go back to baseball, you get one out of five hits; it's not a bad number. 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."
The common bond between Dustin and Will in this film is Marc Forster. Both of them say what an amazing director he is. Will says he relied on Marc a lot. "Marc has such a unique style in that you almost don't even feel like you're being directed. He's very much like a phantom, a Swiss phantom and he kind really allows you to kind of explore it and figure it out. But, because of that there were times when I said to him, 'Are you okay with all this so far you haven't said anything in like an hour.' And it's like 'no, no, no, no, no very good, yes; no, believe me I'll tell you.' At the end of the day, I landed exactly where he thought it should be and I think we have the same idea of who this guy was."
Dustin went into Stranger Than Fiction blind, not even reading the script because Marc was attached to direct. And he says he wasn't anything like this character he plays. "I was such a bad student that I never even entertained the idea that I could teach. I couldn't learn, but I wanted to be a jazz pianist and I just wasn't good enough. Right now, if some magic 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; 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."
That kind of goes the same for Will; the character he plays, Harold Crick is kind of on auto pilot. And truly, you can't tell if he's writing the story for author Emma Thompson, or Emma's character is writing his life. "I don't know about living on automatic pilot, but I've had times where I've decided to just test myself and my mettle and for no good reason other than it's what life is. So you know I've had, even before I was acting; I had one day in high school I decided to just show them my pajamas, just for no good reason, just so people would go, 'what are you doing?' And just to see if I could stand the withering looks of people going 'that guy's a weirdo.' And it was a good test, psychologically, but like I do odd things and they turn out to be great kind of stepping stones for really being committed to what you're doing, which later I think laid the ground work for being committed to character and which is kind of the only thing I think I really do well, is once I lock into something I'm pretty much that person."
Dustin's very loyal to people he's worked with in the past. His next film, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, is written and directed by Zach Helm; Zach wrote Stranger Than Fiction. In the movie, Dustin plays a toy store owner - something very fun, and a good change of pace. " It's 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, 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."
Will's next move is on the basketball court in a new film called Semi Pro. "It's about the ABA; it was the step child sister basketball league to the NBA in the seventies that had all these outlandish characters and crazy kind of small market teams and so."
He's also got the ice skating comedy, Blades of Glory - and he's already working on his post-acting career because of that. "My ice skating is excellent! I've been asked to go to Vancouver for the Winter Olympics as an alternate so we'll see what happens, fingers crossed. I'm starting to design my own line of sports wear for figure skaters - mostly birds, peacocks, eagles, falcons, birds of prey; it's an exciting time."
And it's an exciting time with Stranger Than Fiction; it opens in theaters November 10th, rated PG-13. It also stars Queen Latifah and Maggie Gyllenhaal.