Not many people know that Dustin Hoffman is of Scottish descent. Even Hoffman has forgotten this until I kindly remind him of a 1989 heist movie called Family Business, where he is the middle layer of a three-generation crime dynasty, playing Sean Connery’s son.
“Oh God,” he hoots in that chewy, gravelly voice. “That was the silliest piece of casting I ever did. And Matthew Broderick was my son. But I cannot believe you saw that movie. Did it hang together?” I search for a positive for a film that explains away a marked lack of family resemblance by having Connery’s character mention a Sicilian wife (“he’d be five inches taller with a Scots mother”), but Hoffman catches the hesitation.
“No, it wasn’t a good movie,” he agrees, goodnaturedly. “I only did it for the money, and I try not to make choices for that reason. I’d just finished Rain Man and decided I wanted to do Merchant of Venice on stage in London, which meant I’d be away from movies for at least a year. So my agent said, ‘If you do this movie called Family Business, the director Sidney Lumet is a stickler for schedule, so he will shoot it in 32 days, you will get paid a lot of money – and then you can be away doing your Shakespeare’. That’s literally the reason I did it.”
Presumably he and Sir Sean saw the funny side of their bloodline? Now it’s Hoffman’s turn to be diplomatic. “Ah. Um, I don’t remember – but I did think that Sean Connery was the perfect actor for Sidney Lumet. I like Sean, but Sean didn’t like to do more than two takes because he likes golf. He gets his takes early, while it takes me longer. So he would get it done the way Lumet wanted it so he could go and spend part of the day playing.”
Can this really be Dustin Hoffman talking? A star noted for his drive and perfectionism? Hoffman leans forward immediately. “Meaning?” Meaning he has a reputation for wanting to get things right, whatever it takes. Hoffman is the only man to break into San Quentin, because he felt he needed an insight into what it was like in jail.
Hoffman likes this example, perhaps because it makes a change from being asked if he is like Michael Dorsey, the brilliant but obsessive actor in Tootsie who gets fired playing a tomato in a commercial because he refuses to agree that a tomato could sit down. He can joke about his height, his age, his propensity for tearfulness – his children tease him with “don’t cry again, Daddy” – but he clearly feels his skirmishes with directors and producers have been unfairly singled out as unusual, when they are not. “The press is lazy and they tend to stereotype: they say Warren Beatty was the one who always got laid, Jack Nicholson was the one who took drugs and Dustin was the one who was difficult and argued.”
“But Bill Murray picked up the producer of What About Bob and threw him in the lake. Jack Nicholson was reputed to throw a television at Roman Polanski – yet this stuff never got printed. Somehow my arguments always got printed. I was verbal, and I took the hit for being difficult. Gene Hackman would throw directors from one end of the room to another. He never talked, he was always physical.”
On paper, this might sound intense, but he breaks into a smile when he mentions Gene Hackman, one of his oldest friends, who let Hoffman sleep by the fridge when they were both struggling, broke actors. As for Murray, Hoffman campaigned to bring him into Tootsie at a point when he was stuck in goofy material like Caddyshack. His interviews skew interestingly because they contain inherent contradictions. He enthusiastically discusses awful films and bad press, and is unsparing on himself. “I wouldn’t say I like myself, but I’ve learnt to live with myself.” On the other hand, he’s alert to other people’s sensitivities; while I’m waiting, I can hear him cheerleading the journalist ahead of me with “these are excellent questions”.
When it’s my turn, he is funny and flirty, as if we are having an indiscreet natter in a pub rather than an interview in a celebrity-stuffed Soho hotel with Ben Affleck and John Goodman holding court just a few doors away. Yet famously he used to avoid encounters with the press, leaving us to speculate why no-one played damaged people onscreen quite like Dustin Hoffman.
Growing up in a house “where movies were never mentioned”, he had to overcome a childhood with an overwhelming mother and a disparaging father. His older brother was the golden child; Hoffman was regarded as sickly, and when he plucked up the nerve to tell his family he wanted to be an actor, his aunt Pearl immediately said he was too ugly to make it. No wonder he later immersed himself in the desperation of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, the anguish of divorce in Kramer vs Kramer, the locked-in emotion of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man and, of course, the alienation of Benjamin Braddock.
On The Graduate, the studio hated him because a short, dark, Jewish 30-year-old seemed a poor substitute for their first choice, Robert Redford, and he says his screen test was such a disaster that when Hoffman dropped a subway token, a crew member bent down and picked it up for him, saying, “Here kid, you’re gonna need this.”
The San Quentin break-in was for Straight Time, where he was smuggled into a prison bathroom during visiting hours and spent several days touring the cellblock in prisoner’s garb. Given that an inmate had recently been doused in petrol and set alight, and the jail averaged two or three knifings a week at this time, you can’t fault Hoffman’s fearlessness. Or perhaps this was recklessness: it was 1978, the actor hadn’t made a film in two years and his first marriage was on the rocks. Straight Time was supposed to be his debut as a director, and it nearly killed him.
“We had two or three weeks of night shooting,” he recalls, “and I was so exhausted that the make-up guy said, ‘Try this pill.’” It was an amphetamine that kept Hoffman up and working for 24 hours at a stretch. “I became addicted to them. By this point, I’d fired myself as the director but I was still producer and star. Then one day, we broke for lunch and I couldn’t get out of my seat again. We had to shut down the film.”
They took him home, then to a psychiatrist. “He said to me, ‘If you carry on with these pills they will shorten your life.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care’. At that point if God had said to me, ‘I’ll give you a great movie, but take 20 years off your life,’ I’d take the great movie.” He pauses. “But that was then.”
He got a second warning on the set of Agatha later that year. He’d quit amphetamines but dosed himself up on high-caffeine tea instead. “Eventually I went back to my camper and my heart was racing. I thought I was going to die right there. They got a doctor and he said, ‘You’re very lucky, because that’s as close as you can get before a heart attack without being damaged.’ From that day I became smarter. No more drugs.”
The episode was so harrowing it was another 34 years before he thought about directing again. In the meantime he’d met and married Lisa Hoffman, who has encouraged him towards a less clenched, less emotionally expensive approach to work and life. “She said that I worried too much. If I read a script I would want it to be a good part, and a good director. Over the years I turned a lot of things down, stuff I should never have turned down.”
Directors he turned down included Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. He was so indecisive that he walked around the block until he missed a working lunch with Samuel Beckett. He said no to Spielberg when the director asked him to do Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Schindler’s List (and, alas, said yes when he was offered Hook.)
“Someone once said that a movie is like an aeroplane; it barely leaves the ground. Most movies don’t work. Now I take films for the creative experience, and because I want to work with someone. Because whether a movie is a success or not is a crapshoot.” That’s not to say he has eased up entirely. Hoffman’s need to throw himself wholesale into a film has always suggested a director in an actor’s body. Now at 75, he is the fully fledged director of Quartet, a playful, tender portrait of four opera singers who live in a retirement home for musicians.
Many of the best moments come from the retired stars Hoffman uses to fill his film, including 90-year-old opera singers and a former conductor of the London Symphony. At a time when many of them had been written off, Quartet gives them a new beginning. “Some of these people are quite disabled, and yet the voice refuses to leave,” he says. “I love the stamina – and the superhuman sound they can still make. It’s not like acting. There can be good actors and bad actors, but in opera, either you’re a singer or you’re not.”
Sir Tom Courtenay had long been attached to Ronald Harwood’s script, and when Dame Maggie Smith came on board, she suggested Pauline Collins as the third superstar singer to Hoffman. When Albert Finney dropped out, Hoffman went after Billy Connolly himself. “Dustin phoned me up, told me he was making this film and read me the cast list,” Connolly tells me. “I have to say, it was the best laxative I’ve had in my life”.
“Oh, Billy was terrified,” says Hoffman, cheerfully. “Even though he’d worked with Dame Judi Dench on Mrs Brown, which is why I wanted him in my film. The first day of filming he was shaking with nerves.”
Hoffman won them all round, even Smith, who is famous for her hauteur. “It wasn’t difficult to direct them,” claims Hoffman,“because everything I despised in directors for 45 years I knew they despised.’’
They played fast and loose with Ronald Harwood’s script, according to Tom Courtenay, because Hoffman wanted the actors to keep the characters close to themselves. So Courtenay’s dog got into the film, although he was later kennelled by the cutting room floor, Pauline Collins’ portrait of dementia is based on someone she knew, and Connolly was encouraged to improvise one-liners.
“We loved him,” says Courtenay. “He’s passionate and energetic, and he keeps going until he conks out.”
What is it that keeps Hoffman going, given that he could afford to kick back and conk out a bit more often? His friend Gene Hackman retired ten years ago, but Hoffman still feels there’s work to be done. While others might count Hoffman in Oscars (two), or the age he was when The Graduate made him famous (30), or the years it’s taken him to direct his first feature film (75), Hoffman is now measuring the rest of his life in dogs.
“I think about how many years I have left,” he explains. “A dog usually goes up to 12 years. So I’ve got a dog now, and he’s almost 12. When he goes, I can get another dog and that will take me to my 80s. Then I’ll get another dog to take me to my 90s. I reckon I’ve got four dogs left in me.”
I think this means Hoffman is planning to live past 100, so no wonder he’s not considering retirement in his 70s. The need to work comes up even when we digress into a chat about houses. As well as properties in New York and Los Angeles, Hoffman has owned a house in London since 1988. “I would prefer to live here more than anywhere else.” What’s stopping him? “I’d have to get a job. Get me a script that takes place in England.”
Or maybe Scotland? “I’ve never been to Scotland,” he says. “I’ve never been most places.” He likes the idea of visiting as a guest of the Edinburgh Film Festival, since it takes place in June, “my birthday month. What hotel do I stay at? A nice one? I’m so old I’ve got to pay attention to these things.”
Our time is up, but Hoffman is in full speight, so he kisses me goodbye and walks me to the door, still talking. The publicist looks slightly relieved; they are behind schedule but at least Dustin Hoffman has almost left the building.
Then, as we reach the door, a waiter arrives with Hoffman’s iced tea. “Oh” he says, “we should give Siobhan the iced tea. Siobhan, would you like to try iced tea?” I start to say, ‘No thanks,’ when his publicist shoots me an agonised look; if I argue, I’m eating up more time. I take the tea.
So I’m sipping Hoffman’s drink as he sets off to introduce a screening of Quartet, and he waves enthusiastically, then disappears. Then suddenly he bustles back, grinning. “Siobhan, why do you want to interview an old Jew? I’ve got Ben Affleck trapped here by the lift right now. Come on, you can talk to him.” And sure enough, very faintly, I hear the star of Good Will Hunting. And what he says, is “Help.”
Quartet is released on 1 January