Dustin Hoffman: interview

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In ‘Last Chance Harvey’, Dustin Hoffman plays a divorcee who arrives in London for his daughter’s wedding only to find himself on the edge of things. He meets a stranger, Kate (Emma Thompson), with whom he’s able to share feelings of loneliness and disappointment as they wander about the city together. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe in the comedy/musical category, but British writer-director Joel Hopkins is as interested in characters and emotions as laughs

You play this character, Harvey, pretty close to yourself.
‘I was thinking of “Kramer v Kramer”. That was 1979, so this is 30 years later, and that was about a guy getting a divorce, which I was in the middle of at the time. The same was true here – this film kind of explores the after-effects of what happens in “Kramer”, if I’m speaking personally. And in “Kramer”, I played closer to myself than ever. No limping or putting on accents. ‘Emma Thompson and I realised we had something in common – we’re both character actors, which means you’re not good-looking enough to be the lead! So we said: Why don’t we play this as close to ourselves as anything we’ve ever done?’

I imagine people think it’s easy to act close to your persona. But it must be tough, too, not being able to hide behind a character.
‘It’s a perceptive thing you’re saying. Because you’re right. But I never argue with people, even friends, who say: “Oh, you just walked through ‘Meet the Fockers’!” Or: “Oh, you were just yourself in ‘Last Chance Harvey’, you just walked through that!”
‘The truth is that every movie is difficult. You shoot out of sequence. You shoot only two or three pages a day. You’re always making choices.’

This is a romantic lead, which is rare for you. Why’s that?
‘That’s such a hard question to answer. I guess “The Graduate” was a romantic lead, although the character of Ben Braddock was more of an anti-romantic lead because that’s how Mike Nichols cast me. The next was “Kramer”, then “Tootsie”, although in that I was wearing both pants and a dress. I was male and female!’

When Mike Nichols cast you in ‘The Graduate’ you were 30 and that was your big break. Were you confident it would happen one day?
‘No, the opposite. In those days I hung out with Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman and we were certain we were never going to be romantic leads. I was waiting tables and Duvall was working all night at the post office. We just hoped to be character actors who could earn enough to make a living for the rest of our lives. When “The Graduate” came about, I didn’t even want to try for it. I’d read the book and I thought it was a role made for Robert Redford. I was always going up for “character juvenile” roles – which meant you weren’t attractive!’

You spoke of looks earlier. You felt you didn’t have the face of a star?
‘I knew I didn’t. One of the reasons came to New York was because I’d been raised in Los Angeles and it wasn’t a place I hoped to get work. The subtext of New York was ethnicity. It meant Jewish, Italian.’

After ‘The Graduate’, did directors expect more of the same from you?
‘I was getting all these offers and they were all replicas. I went back to the theatre for a bit. Then “Midnight Cowboy” came along and people tried to talk me out of doing that.’

Because Ratso was a risky role?
‘Yes – and also a step down. Because it was a supporting part. Jon Voight was the lead. Mike Nichols said: “I’ve made you a lead and you’re going to undo it.”’

In some ways, you and Jon Voight personified wildly different approaches to casting actors.

‘Life magazine was very popular when that film came out and someone came up to me and said, “You know you’re on the cover?” I looked and it was a drawing of John Wayne on one side and me on the other. Both of us were up for Oscars and I remember it said: “A Choice of Heroes”. It was exemplifying the very thing you’re talking about.’

American cinema was changing. ‘All the President’s Men’ was typical of a new sort of film.
I think we were influenced by the French. They were our heroes when we were studying. We rarely went to see a so-called Hollywood film.’

Did you see the story last week that a New York Times reporter had the Watergate story before Woodward and Bernstein but did nothing with it? There was almost no ‘All the President’s Men’.
‘Gosh, no, we didn’t see anything. We were in Rhode Island the past few days. Our last kid was graduating.’

You filmed ‘Last Chance Harvey’ In London. Was that an attraction?
‘Yes, it’s a favourite place of mine. I’ve been going there since my honeymoon with my first wife in 1969. I’ve been coming ever since. Theatre used to cost about $2, but then, I guess, you guys started to copy Broadway. We’re going to London tomorrow, partly for the opening of the film, but also because we love it. We have a place in Kensington. It’s the only place outside the US where I can speak the language somewhat.’

Any favourite areas?
‘I’ve been all over. I like the East End. I remember Bob Hoskins told me about a trendy area. Islington, I think it was.’

You should pop down to Brick Lane on Sunday morning.
‘Oh, really? I’ll go there this weekend. We used to go to Bermondsey Market and people would wear miners’ hats before it got light to see the stuff being sold. Oh, it’s exciting.’

I guess the first time you worked here was for ‘Straw Dogs’?
‘Yes, that was Cornwall, which was extraordinary and cold in the winter. I did “Agatha” in Harrogate and Bath in 1979 with Vanessa Redgrave. Then, of course, I did “Merchant of Venice” in the West End in 1989. I could work in the UK constantly and be very happy.’

You’ve been doing supporting character roles for a while now.
‘After “The Graduate”, suddenly the best parts were offered to me. This goes on for decades and then you wake up one morning and you’re not being offered leads any more. You’re being offered supports. Then you’re reading the lead and thinking: This is great – but you remember you’re too old for it!’

You look in the mirror and remember that you’re 71?
‘Yes, and if you don’t look in the mirror, they do. I prefer to play a lead because you can make it three-dimensional, but what’s wonderful is that you have this enormous elephant taken off your chest. You’re not carrying the movie. It’s not your responsibility.’

You’re not snobbish. You do voices for animations like ‘Kung Fu Panda’. You do kids’ films like ‘Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium’.
‘No, I don’t care. However, years ago I did. We were all pretentious at the beginning. Being in your twenties is a time of pretension, your idealism makes you pretentious. It was the late ’50s, early ’60s, it was Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg. It was all about non-conformity. No one did commercials. We turned a lot of that stuff down. We were precious. Even being successful was considered selling out.’

Did you loosen up once you had achievements behind you?
‘Yes, I always think it’s akin to seeing older men walking down the street in outrageous colours. A yellow tie and orange shirt and green pants. Nobody dresses like that until they’re over 70. I think they wake up one morning and say: “Who gives a fuck? I don’t care what people think.”

You don’t try less. You just don’t care what people think.
‘You spend so much of your life basing yourself on what you think other people think of you. Then you realise that maybe one of the purposes of life is not to care.’

Last Chance Harvey’ opens on June 5.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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