Dustin Hoffman is on the phone to his wife. I know I shouldn't eavesdrop, but I can't help it. It's the voice. "Where's your meeting? Good luck. Bye-bye." So slow and deep and rich, like whipped cream mixed with gravel. Even when he started out 45 years ago in The Graduate, as virginal Benjamin Braddock about to be educated in the ways of love and lust, he had the voice. Hoffman is an extraordinarily convincing actor – when he sweats crazily in Straw Dogs, the sweat's for real; you can almost smell him as crippled hobo Ratso in Midnight Cowboy; and when he steps into a frock and heels for Tootsie, you know he's really learned to walk a lady's walk – but in the end it's down to the voice.
And to the choices he has made. There are surprisingly few stinkers and a high percentage of classics in the Hoffman catalogue – as well as the aforementioned, there are All The President's Men, Little Big Man, Marathon Man, Kramer Vs Kramer. When they haven't been classics, they've been Oscar winners (Rain Man, in which he played autistic savant Raymond Babbitt). But in recent years he's become something of a part-timer, favouring throwaway comedy (Bernie Focker in Meet The Fockers), voiceovers in animated movies such as Kung Fu Panda, or narrating documentaries.
Today, the voice is here to talk about directing more than acting. Thirty-six years after he started making his first film, Hoffman has finally completed one at the age of 75. Quartet is a feelgood movie about a home for retired opera singers, directed with warmth and skill. Which begs the question – why has it taken him so long?
"It's one of my demons, I guess. It has been, until now," he says. By way of an explanation, he takes me back to the mid-70s, when he bought the rights to a book called No Beast So Fierce, about a recidivist in San Quentin jail. He spent two years raising money, casting and crewing the film, by now called Straight Time, then he started directing. And the actor who is famous for telling film-makers when they haven't got it right found he couldn't make a decision to save his life. "I did a take that I was in and I said, 'What do you guys think?' And the cinematographer would nod his head and say move on, the editor would say it's no good, and that happened over and over again, until finally I couldn't tell. I lost my objectivity. I fired myself because we didn't have playbacks." Ach, that's rubbish, he says – just an excuse. He fired himself because he lost his bottle.
I tell him I'd heard he'd sacked himself because he didn't have anybody to shout at. He laughs. "It's a good story, but it's not true. I don't shout as a director. I don't shout as an actor. I have been known to shout at producers and heads of studios, but I don't think it's good to shout at people who can't shout back. The shouters I dislike are what I call the pigeon kickers; that is, directors who yell at extras and people who have to take it."
Was he right to give himself the boot? "No." Why not? "Well, because people were able to make movies and be in them before me. Citizen Kane – Orson Welles didn't need a monitor, and I should not have let that stop me. But I did." He talks with great intensity. He listens with equal intensity, particularly to praise, which he devours eagerly.
Straight Time was eventually directed by Ulu Grosbard and released in 1978, with Hoffman in the lead. He is proud of the film, but was never asked to direct another. "I felt I'd blown the chance. I felt somehow I wasn't allowed to direct; I'm allowed to be an actor, I'm not allowed to be a director. We all do that; we put things off because we don't feel we're entitled to do it. Unless you're one of the few who have no demons."
Hoffman has a history of blown chances. The list of films he has failed to make is easily as impressive as those he has made. The thing is, he says, he never planned on being a movie star – and that has stuck. When he made The Graduate, he was hardly a regular Hollywood hunk – short, twitchy, hamsterish – but he had an appealing diffidence, was boyishly handsome and, of course, there was the voice. Directors were queuing up to work with him, but he turned down virtually all of them. He didn't think he was right for the movies, didn't like the hoo-ha and wanted to go back to theatre. Two years later, in 1969, he returned to prominence, and a second Oscar nomination, in Midnight Cowboy. It couldn't have been a more unexpected role – after clean-cut Benjamin Braddock, here he was seedy, whiny and twisted. Mike Nichols, who directed The Graduate, asked what the hell he was doing – he had given him this great break and he was throwing it back in his face. "He called me up and said, 'Why you taking this ugly guy? That's a supporting part.' And I said, 'Well, I just like it.' Look, I started acting 12 years before The Graduate came along and made me an instant star. After that, I got scripts sent to me daily, whereas before I had none sent to me, and I just said no. There's a lot of movies I turned down."
I've heard, I say. "Yes. Yes, that's another demon. I've turned down some wonderful projects." For example? "You wanna list?" And he starts counting them out. Not the movies he didn't make, just those he regrets not making. "Ingmar Bergman, The Touch, because my first wife was pregnant and didn't want to leave her obstetrician in New York to go to Sweden." Is that really why he turned Bergman down? "Oh. I've always had great rationalisations. They rarely are the truth. You can find reasons not to do anything." Back to the list: "Close Encounters. Spielberg says I've turned him down more than any other actor. We finally did Hook together." Blimey, you could have chosen a better Spielberg film. "I just finally had to say yes! I'm glad I did it. So there's Close Encounters, the one about slaves and a love story Richard Dreyfuss did, and Schindler." Who would he have played in that? "Oh, Ben Kingsley's role." I tell him I'd have preferred to have seen him as Schindler's accountant. "I wish you'd tell him that." He laughs. "Yes, call him up now. Sir Ben!"
And he's back to his fingers. "Um, I turned Fellini down." Why on earth would he turn Fellini down? "That's a question I'd ask myself in later years. There is a reason." He looks embarrassed. "He didn't shoot with regular sound. He'd shoot just with a guide track because everything is dubbed there, and I thought it would compromise the performance. I said I'd pay for it to be done in direct sound, and he said no, that's not the way he worked. I love Fellini, and I turned him down." That's ridiculous, I say. He nods. "I always looked for reasons not to do something."
He's getting into his stride now. "I have a better one than that." I'm not sure if he's boasting or beating himself up. "Hold on a second," I say, "I've not finished with Fellini yet."
"OK," he says, "it's your therapeutic session."
"Do you think you were right to stand your ground about the sound?"
"At that time. But not now."
"When did you realise you were wrong?"
"Slowly. Slowly. It was called City Of Women. Not one of his best films." It's as if he's still trying to justify it to himself.
Now Hoffman's champing at the bit, desperate to top the Fellini and Bergman snubs. "At one point I was supposed to meet Samuel Beckett in a bar in Paris to do a revival of Godot, and I stood him up. I just kept walking round the block, I couldn't go in the door."
You stood up Samuel Beckett, I ask, outraged. "Yes." He chuckles so quietly you can barely hear it. "I pretended, 'Oh, I didn't know it was today.'" He stops. "I wish I had known the man." He says it with longing. "Ashamed of myself."
Did you go back home to your wife and admit what you'd done? "My first wife." he clarifies. "No, my memory is she said, 'Don't you have an appointment today with Samuel Beckett?' And I said, 'No, it was just tentative, it was never set.'" When did you admit to her you'd stood him up? "Never. It was to myself, and it took a few years."
If those opportunities came along now, would you… He answers before the question is out. "Oh, I wouldn't be making these mistakes. Some people are alcoholics, some people are drug addicts. Some people turn down great moments in their life, and I guess I fell into that category."
I ask if it was because he was lazy, and he says no, anything but. He can only explain it in a complicated loop that takes him back to childhood. "It wasn't an excuse not to work… it was hard for me to allow myself success. I would have been much more comfortable barely making a living out of acting, which is all I expected to do. I called The Graduate a freak accident, so I think I tried to disown it for many, many years after that."
Hoffman was born in Los Angeles to Jewish parents – his mother, Lillian, was a part-time actress and jazz pianist, and his father, Harry, dug ditches, worked as a props man in a film studio, was made redundant the day Dustin was born, became a small businessman, went bankrupt and ended up selling furniture. "We had cornflakes for dinner a lot," he has said. When Hoffman starred in Death Of A Salesman, he based his Willy Loman on his father. Young Dustin was a talented musician and Lillian wanted him to train as a classical pianist, but he preferred jazz, changed class, and soon decided he wasn't good enough to make it.
Hoffman wasn't a great student, didn't get the grades to go to university, and took up drama at junior college only because a friend told him, "They don't flunk you, it's like gym, nobody gets an F." He took to acting immediately, saying it was "the first thing I ever did that wasn't painful". He went on to study in LA at the Pasadena Playhouse alongside Gene Hackman. He moved to New York in the 1950s, shared a flat with Hackman and Robert Duvall, studied under Lee Strasberg, did any number of odd jobs (attendant in a psychiatric hospital, waiter, dishwasher, typist, coat-man in a theatre, Times Square headline crier during a newspaper strike, Macy's toy salesman) and worked whenever he could in theatre. But he was still drowning in uncertainties. He compared his acne-ravaged face to a rifle range, he suffered from polyps, his mouth was wired with a brace and he was short. Yes, he thought he could just about make a living from acting, but that was all.
Did he think he was leading man material when he started out? "Oh my God no. My God no. You're told what you are." When he said he wanted to act, his aunt Pearl said he wasn't good-looking enough. What did casting directors tell him? "I was told I was a character juvenile." A character Jew or juvenile? He grins. "That's what I mean. That's the code. You're the funny-looking Jew that's alongside Robert Redford." Did you want to be Redford? "Before I even thought about acting, I saw Rebel Without A Cause and I wanted to be James Dean." Why not Brando? "Brando was the icon. You had to be an idiot to think you could be Brando. Dean, you could buy a red jacket and look in the mirror. In the second year of acting class, I said to myself if I looked like James Dean, I could make it; that's the only thing stopping me."
He seems so plagued by doubt that I'm surprised he's so opinionated on set. Not really, he says, it's all of a piece – knowing there are options, striving for perfection. "I don't ever think there is just one way to do a scene." Ah, retakes. Hoffman is always demanding them, and he knows just how difficult that can be for film-makers. "There's nothing more insulting to a director than for them to be satisfied and want to move on, and for you to say, 'No, it's not good enough; we can do better.'"
Hoffman divides directors into two types. "Those who want to be surprised and those who don't. You can tell the directors who don't want to be surprised, because you see them mouthing the words while the scene is going on. And you know you're in deep trouble. He's shot it already in his head. He doesn't want any other intonation."
Is his reputation for being hard work deserved? "The media are lazy. It becomes the truth if you repeat it over and over." So is he difficult? He uhms and ahs. "There are a few directors I've worked with where we've clashed, but they are certainly in the minority. Some of those directors have been very verbal about it. I don't do that. I think it's immoral, cowardly, to wash your dirty linen in public. So I don't answer them in print." Well, not often. "There are directors I've fought with where the film has turned out to be very, very good." Sydney Pollack, who directed Tootsie, for example? "That's one. Basically, Sydney was not a collaborative director. He was a very good director, but he was the arsonist and the fire chief, and only he knew how to put out the fire. It's too bad, because there are directors who would rather fail in a film they could say was completely their own than collaborate and share the victory. It's an interesting phenomenon. And there are directors who aren't like that. Barry Levinson, for example, is extremely collaborative."
He's still thinking about his reputation. "I was the 'difficult actor'. That was the word, 'difficult'." Actually, he says, the more he thinks about it, the more ridiculous it seems. "I live in a community where there are much more objectionable things being done than disagreeing with a director. I mean, Jack Nicholson threw a television set at Roman Polanski, Bill Murray picked up the producer and threw her in the water, and Gene Hackman would throw a director from one end of the room to another, and I always thought, why have I got this reputation…"
You never threw a director? He looks down at himself, then at me. "No, I'm Jewish! Jews usually do it by negotiation. Hehehe!" OK, we'll set the record straight; you're not violent or nasty, just slightly verbal. He gives me another look. "Slightly verbal? I don't know what slightly verbal means. If you disagree, you disagree."
The publicist walks into the room and says time is up. Hoffman looks peeved, tells her we're enjoying ourselves and we want to go on longer. Ach, he says, the industry has changed – years ago, you could natter for hours on end. Now, they expect you to do interviews in five minutes.
So we talk about the new film, and how he finally banished that demon. Unlike the first time he tried to direct, he doesn't appear in Quartet. While the film, an adaptation of the Ronald Harwood play, makes the point that old age is not for sissies, it is also a hymn to the human spirit. Conventional and rather old fashioned, what emerges is Hoffman's ability to get the best out of his starry British cast (Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Maggie Smith). It's funny that somebody with your reputation has cast the fearsome Smith in one of the lead roles, I say. Was he scared of her? "I was forewarned." Of what? "Oh, that she can destroy you if you bullshit her, and I said, 'Well, that I certainly won't do.' And when we met, we sat on a couch and I said to her, 'I think we both have the same reputation of being hard on directors.' And she said, 'Some.' And I said, 'Yes, I can say the same thing.' And she's brilliant."
He has said he doesn't enjoy acting; it's too intense. Today, he says, he'd adore it if only there didn't have to be an end result. "I wish we never had to let the film out. I'd love acting if it was just something you went to work at every day. The same with plays: rehearsals are the best fun in the world."
As a director, this time round he found it easier to let go. "It was a relief to do what most directors don't do – let an actor come over who was ambivalent about his work and say, 'Have a look at the monitor, put the earphones on. If you don't like it, we'll do it again, but I think we've got it.' Directors don't let you near the monitor usually, they like to keep you subservient."
The publicist is back. Time really is up now, she says: he's got to be somewhere else. Just a bit longer, he says; there's so much to talk about. So he chats about his second wife, Lisa, whom he married 32 years ago, the pride he takes in his six grown-up kids, his grandchildren, how he likes to spend time in London when he's not in LA. I ask if Lisa works. He grins. "Oh yeah, and now you have given me an opportunity." If you want to do me a big favour, he says, give her beauty company a name-check.
That's bonkers, I say, I can't just drop it in. Think of a context, he says. He's sat there, laughing, belly pushed out as far as it will go. And somehow he still looks good for his years. OK, I say, how do you look so young at 75? "Thank you. I use my wife's skin product… lisahoffmanbeauty.com." And he's in stitches.
Meanwhile, the publicist is dragging him to his next appointment. "Go on, ask me your favourite question you haven't asked." Earlier this year, newspapers reported that Hoffman had saved a runner's life after he'd had a heart attack in Hyde Park. "Ha!" he says, hardly saved his life. So what did happen? "He looks as if he's resting, and then boom! He hits the concrete and his face gets totally bloodied up and I realise something is wrong – his eyes are open, he's dazed, he can barely breathe, and I just happen to be the one there. So I start yelling out: 'Do you have 911 here, what's your equivalent of 911?' and someone comes over and calls it, and I say, 'I don't think you should move him.' He's on his side. The paramedics got there within four minutes. It was across the road from the Albert Hall. They come running out, they've got the defibrillator, and a portable cardiac thing, they cut open his shirt, they defibrillate him, it's like clockwork. Then I go out to get the papers the next morning and it says I saved somebody's life… I was there! That's all."
As the publicist ushers him out, he says that the film has been cathartic. "I've been in therapy for a number of years," he says. And that was the focus? "Yes." How long had he seen the therapist about his inability to direct? "About 10 years." With a good therapist, he says, you can achieve anything. "You know, I'd like to be in therapy even after I die." And, with that, he finally agrees to go.
• Quartet is released on 1 January 2013.
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image: © Phillie Casablanca