I’m late. I sprint to the elevator and tap my feet as it ascends, subconsciously believing that this will make it go faster. Breathing hard and shallow, I approach the door, hoping that, like so many other stars, today’s will be later than myself. I push the door open and find that it is not so. Inside the room, sitting on a chair, is a very ordinary looking man, the sort you’d pass in the street and not give a second look. He has a blank expression on his face. I grimace, for this is not just any person. This is the Hollywood legend and two time Academy Award winner, Dustin Hoffman. I mutter apologies and kneel down to set up my recorder.
"No need to bow," he quips. I look up and he’s beaming. My heart skips a beat. The ice is broken.
It’s been a couple of years since Hoffman last graced our screens, after a string of releases - Mad City, Hero, Hook, Sphere, Wag the Dog. He explains that his working attitude has always been based around his wife and brood of six children.
"I hated being away from them," he says. "The longest was about three weeks and that was too long. Then, one day I was being driven into work and saw the sound stage and thought I was going to vomit. I used to get goosebumps, knowing how lucky I was to be working. I just didn’t like the industry anymore and myself being part of it."
During his time away, he’s been writing and attempting to direct, although is tight lipped about exactly what, and now feels in a position to choose projects based on the people he would like to work with. In particular, he seems excited about collaborating with Mark Forster (Monsters Inc) and Johnny Depp ("an excellent actor") on Neverland, to be released later this year, and working with Susan Sarandon and Brad Silberling on Moonlight Mile, in which he plays Ben Floss, a man coming to terms with the murder of his daughter.
The film has echoes of The Graduate. The fact that his character is called Ben helps to steer your mind in that direction. Asked about the similarities, he accepts that this is a film about a young man, who doesn’t know what to do next, and seems to be the product of a family that has traded material gifts for love. However, he insists that his character was named after the real person who inspired the role.
"I know you don’t believe it," he smiles. "But when I got the job, I said, "You sure you want to keep this name?"
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the intended son-in-law to Hoffman's Ben Floss and, though their scenes together are limited, Dustin felt a father/son relationship between the two on and off set. This can only have been aided by the fact that Gyllenhaal is a "blood brother" to Hoffman's own son, Jake. "They’ve shared some of the same girls, though not at the same time." They recently met up in London, when Hoffman went to see Gyllenhaal in the West End play, This Is Our Youth. He took him for a beer afterwards to tell him how talented he really is. "He has this face that conveys everything."
On Family Business....
Being a parent seems to be his driving force. Obviously, he dotes on his family and can’t talk about anything without referring it back to his role as a father. He says he’s never encouraged his children to follow in his footsteps, feeling that the job hasn’t changed since his own youth.
"Ninety-per-cent of actors don’t work and the 10% that do aren’t necessarily the best. They just happen to be good at getting the job, which is a talent in itself." He’s also made them aware that he feels his own fame was a freak accident. "To paraphrase Picasso, if they take away my oils, I’ll use my pastels, if they take away my pastels, I’ll use my colouring pencils, and if they strip me down and stick me in a jail cell, I’ll spit on my finger and write on the wall. If that isn’t you, this job isn’t for you."
Probed as to whether he felt like that when he started out, he says that he wanted to be an actor for 12 years, earning money as a waiter to survive, and like Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman, loved the lifestyle so much that if he’d been asked to sign a contract which said he would have bit roles for the rest of his life, but be constantly employed, he would have signed it in an instant. He adds, with a glint in his eye, that his 21-year-old son has just finished film school and his 19-year-old daughter is a painter.
As parents, he and his wife set a framework so that their household was not a democracy and the children only became part of it when they abided by the rules. "Kids get smart early. You can’t con them. Although at 18, they’re their own person and free to make mistakes." When it comes to dealing with the harder issues, such as drugs and sex, Hoffman says " We never said no. We just described the consequences of unprotected sex, or when you smoke cigarettes. They know I smoked grass when I was young, but I explain that we didn’t know then what we know now and marijuana’s not the same anymore." He’s candid about his own experience with drugs. "We thought cocaine was the miracle drug, free from consequences. It was okay, they used it in surgery."
He says to pass the 21st century, then the revolution will be in the brain. "No two brains are the same. And women and smarter!" He’s bemused that the world has been controlled by men. "I can only put it down to plain physical strength, that one gender has dominated another. It must be psychological."
He admits that the boundaries of physicality between men and women are blurring, referring to the Williams sisters. "Jimmy Conners used to serve at 86mph and these girls are hitting at 120mph - all bets are off!". Again, referring back to his own offspring, he says, "We gave them genderless toys, but testosterone is the difference. It fucking destroys us. War is a male sport, always has been."
He sums up his feelings on women by saying, "In my opinion, they possess the strongest, most powerful element that a human being can have and that is the maternal. I'm not talking about whether they have children, or not. I’m talking about the innate need to nurture, to give, to generate love and have us evolve and sustain. I’m not sure men have this."
Voting blind for Oscars
Down to earth and reflective are not attributes I would have used to describe one of the world's most prolific actors and yet Dustin Hoffman alludes no buzz, just an aura that makes you know he’s important. He is, in fact, unassuming about his own ability and success. He has seen those highs and probably a few lows in his time. A wise sage, perhaps.
Now in his mid sixties, Hoffman has spent over 30 years in the spotlight. He enjoys being a dad, but what about grandpa? "I don’t like it. In America, after you’re 65, you’re a senior citizen." With two Oscars (Kramer vs Kramer and Rain Man) on the mantlepiece already, would he like a third? He doesn’t answer. Instead, he explains how he sees the awards process, in general.
"There are 45, 100 or 5,000 members who can vote. They don’t even have to watch every film. Only 20% have seen every piece of work before nominations . The others vote because they hear it’s a great film, box is checked, great performance, check. So much money has to be spent by the company to ensure that you’re even noticed for nomination. Susan Sarandon (JoJo Floss in Moonlight Mile) should have been nominated this year, but Disney didn’t promote the film, or spend the money to advertise the product. So many movies are never recognised. So many performances go unnoticed."
Vegas and bussing it...
Whilst in London, a few personalities have made an impression on Hoffman. One in particular is stand up comedian Johnny Vegas. They met at a recent awards ceremony. Asked what he thought of Vegas, he replied, "He’s the fastest, most sharp-fasciled mind I’ve seen in a long time. He's extraordinary." He even jokes they could do Laurel and Hardy together. That’s something I’d love to see.
What else does he have planned for 2003? " I want to spend time on the bus, get to see a slice of humanity." Home now is Los Angeles. "In LA, everyone has a car, except the invisible people, the disenfranchised, immigrants from Mexico, whom noone sees. I observe them - a great photographic series.".
He tells a joke.
"A Scotsman is asleep under a tree when a young lassie walks past. She thinks that this is the best time to find out if it’s true what they say about Scotsmen. A gust of wind blows up the kilt and the girl is so impressed with what she sees that she takes a blue ribbon out of her hair and ties it around his manhood. Later that day, the Scotsman wakes up and feeling something unusual lifts his kilt to check it out. On seeing the ribbon, he says, ‘I don’t know where you’ve been, laddie, but wherever it was, you won first prize’.