“My breakthrough was an accident”

Dustin Hoffman

Interview

  • INTERVIEW PATRICK HEIDMANN

Acknowledged as a wise man, Dustin Hoffman has no time for labels. In our interview, he talks about egocentric fathers, solidarity among actors and the effect of sex scandals.

Mr. Hoffman, your new film The Meyerowitz Stories is all about a family, and you play the downright unlikeable head of this particular family. Were you thinking of your own father as you  made it?

That’s interesting, because our director, Noah Baumbach, was originally thinking of his own father. He took inspiration for the character from his own experiences as a son – and was already thinking I should play the part. I’m not sure why. The longer we told stories about our fathers – that’s my father, this is my father  – the more we saw real parallels with each other’s lives. Just like Harold in the movie, my father was a failure, a failure in his mind, by his standards. It was painful to be a part of it.

Do you get why a father could be as mean to his adult children as we see him being in the film?

I think it’s a very primitive instinct. We’re talking about a father who’s unsuccessful, so he thinks: I’m not going down alone. That’s purely instinctive behavior, just like we all know from the animal kingdom. That just how we humans are. No wonder our DNA is only ten percent different from that of a fruit fly.

Dustin Hoffman (r.) with Ben Stiller in "The Meyerowitz Stories"

Dustin Hoffman (r.) with Ben Stiller in "The Meyerowitz Stories"

© Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Do you think forgiving your parents is something that everyone goes through in life?

I’ve been in therapy longer than I’ve been alive. What I’ve learned, personally, is that you try to remake your parents.

For others?

No, for ourselves. Even if they’re dead, you’re trying to improve them. You block your real painful feelings about them because you cannot bear to hate and then go past that to understand them …

Your own kids also grew up with an artist father, even if failure doesn’t come into it in this case. What did you pass on to your kids?

Well, you would have to ask my kids yourself. Some of them are in the arts and I am constantly amazed at how different their experiences are from my early ones. Today, it’s all about making it, making it. Simply being seen on TV or computer can thrust you right into prominence.

What’s your personal definition of success?

If you read van Gogh’s letters to Theo, his brother and maybe the only real friend he had, you see how difficult it was for him; he couldn’t make a living. No one would buy his stuff during his lifetime, he had no money and was always dependent on others. But from today’s point of view, you can hardly call him a failure, can you? It’s the same with the great composer Charles Ives, who changed the landscape of American music with his symphonies, but is still unknown except in expert circles. You see: Success in art is highly subjective.

However you define it, does success lead to happiness?

No, it doesn’t makes worry and care disappear. I remember talking with the great ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was going out with Jessica Lange while she and I were working on Tootsie. I wanted to know the answer to the same question. I asked him how success felt in ballet: A perfect night on stage? Or at least a solo during which you realize you nailed it, that it couldn’t be better? He said, “Never ever. A moment was perfect.” That’s all you do. I think that’s just the name of the game.

Let’s take a look back over your career. In 1967, you played in The Graduate, your first big lead. Were you prepared for the success that followed?

Not at all. My breakthrough was a freak accident. I’d done some work in theaters and a little for television, but there was no question of my going into the movies. Then I got the lead in The Graduate and totally unexpectedly, it became an international hit. It was like a light switch went on and I was an instant star. That’s not normally how it goes. Most actors start small with supporting roles and slowly build a career. I just skipped all those little steps on the career ladder without intending to.

Do you still enjoy your job?

And how! Particularly because I love working with other actors. We work incredibly closely together and help each other any way we can. That’s what I really love about this job; we are all basically in the same boat.

What do you mean?

Actors have no influence on how the film ultimately turns out. We have no say in the director’s choice of takes. And many directors don’t even let us look at the monitor to see how we played a scene. They have very definite ideas about what they want and aren’t interested in deviating even a single centimeter from that vision. Being powerless is not a pleasant feeling.

Maybe 80 is the new 40 – so there’s hope yet

Dustin Hoffman, Schauspieler

You recently turned 80. Do you feel old?

Physically? Oh yes, of course. And it’s weird to hear people talk about someone who’s died and then say, “oh well, they were in their eighties,” and you’re around the corner. You always read that 70 is the new 30, so maybe 80 is the new 40. So there’s hope yet.

With age comes wisdom. Would you agree with that?

Ask my wife what she thinks of it! At least you have gained a lot of experience. And when you’re almost always the oldest person in the room, the impression can arise that you are also the wisest. Whether or not that’s true is another matter. What I have noticed as I’ve grown older is how times have changed. When I started out, a sex scandal would have meant the end of any career. Today, if a sex video somehow gets into the public domain, you become a star. That’s extraordinary!