Total Film only has to put its tape recorder down to spark a Hoffman memory. "One of the first interviews I ever did was for The Graduate," he says within seconds of sitting down. "It was with [famed American journalist] Studs Terkel and it was in Chicago, 35 years ago. They sent me around to his study and we talked for like three hours. At the end he said, 'Let me just check my recorder.' And it hadn't worked. He said, 'Would you mind doing it again?' and I said, 'No,' and we did it. Six hours. What a lovely man..."
The Graduate was Terkel's - and the world's - introduction to Hoffman. These days, of course, he no longer needs one - a quick list will suffice. Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, Little Big Man, two Oscars (for Kramer Vs Kramer and Rain Man) from seven nominations... And if some of his choices during the last two decades have seemed, well, quirkier than what came before (Ishtar, anyone?), Hoffman has never lowered his performance standard. Accompanying his perfectionism (a word he bristles at, and fights off with a line about a brain surgeon who tells his latest patient, "Don't worry, I'm not a perfectionist...") is a guarantee that he will always, somehow, completely engage his audience.
And that's exactly what he's doing in his latest big-screen foray, this month's cat-and-mouse thriller Confidence. As The King, a sleazy, offbeat LA crimelord, Hoffman manages to taunt both Ed Burns and Rachel Weisz in a sexually domineering way. It's only a supporting role, but that's the way Hoffman likes it these days...
Most of your recent roles, like The King in Confidence, are smaller parts than you would have taken, say, even five years ago. Are you happy being a supporting actor?
You know, I backed off somewhere around the time of Wag The Dog . I just wasn't satisfied with the parts that were being offered to me and I thought I should re-evaluate where I was. I did some writing and bought a book, and have been working on that as a film to act and direct in. When you get into your 50s, you're supporting actors who are younger, unless you're developing a project yourself, or you have a certain persona, like Harrison Ford or Sean Connery, where age doesn't seem to be a factor. And the criteria that I had before, because I had the luxury to have it, was I want the role to be something that I can bite into; a director and cast that I really want to work with; and a script that works. There probably has never been a time when all those things actually co-existed together. But you kind of convince yourself...
So why Confidence, then?
I said yes to Confidence because I really respected James Foley's work in Glengarry Glen Ross. And because we found a way to reconstruct that part, because I couldn't have done it as written. It was written generically - a bad guy. He was a little like Jesse Ventura - a big guy who hung out at the gym. I said, "I can't play this. He needs to be a threat to Ed Burns, but I wouldn't feel comfortable using my physical self as a threat." The character was sexually ambiguous, so I said "Is he straight? Is he gay?" The writer said, "Maybe a little of both."
Then I was at the park with my daughter Jenna and her labrador, Louis. He was being mounted by another male dog, and I said to Jenna, "Can dogs be gay?" And she said, "Dad, this is not about sex, this is about domination. He's letting Louis know that this is his turf." And then I hit on something - to somehow use sexual ambiguity as an intimidating weapon.
How did Ed Burns react to that?
He seemed to like where I was going in rehearsal. I would throw out things like, "Why don't you just get that cute little Irish butt of yours over here and let's talk", to try to break him, because breaking an actor is tantamount to intimidation. And he laughed, but he incorporated it into his character and the scene.
Was getting into acting a happy accident or a conscious decision for you?
Somehow I think it was declared very early on that I was the - if not the black sheep of the family, not a very good student. So when I told my parents I wanted to go into acting because I was flunking out of my first year of junior college, they were relieved that I had picked something other than joining the army. But I can't imagine how they had high hopes for me. If they did, it was before I was in the third grade [eight years old], because that's when I started getting kicked out of school. My father moved to Beverly Hills - tried to go upmarket - and I was put into a very nice Beverly Hills school. And when he went bankrupt before the year was out, my parents asked that I stay in school for the remainder of the term. The line that I grew up hearing was, "If it were any other child, Mrs Hoffman, we would consider it. But not your son."
What was the next step after dropping out of junior college?
I talked my parents into paying for me to go to the Pasadena Playhouse, and I met Gene Hackman there. He had been in the Marines and he was a few years older, but the two of us bonded immediately. We seemed to be the antithesis of what the student body was like. It was the '50s and the young guys all seemed so beautiful: blonde hair, blue eyes. They would actually wear fake guns in holsters and practice drawing in the hallway between classes.
Because they wanted to land a role on a TV Western?
Exactly. That was their goal. I spent two years there, then went to New York, stayed at Gene's apartment on the floor, and wouldn't leave because I was scared of New York. It was supposed to be three days, and it turned out to be three weeks. He later told me that the only way to get rid of me was to find me a roommate. And he knew this guy, Bob Duvall...
It's amazing to think of you three hanging out together in '50s New York...
And we were basically three actors who were rejected over and over again. To the point where we would knock on the door, slip an 8x10 glossy with our resumé under the door and run, because we couldn't bear to go in and be rejected.
I met certain people in those early years, like Gene and Bob Duvall, who felt like I did - that all we could do was to perform a role from our own imagination, our own experience. We weren't conventionally good-looking, so by definition we were character actors.
It seems crazy that you and Hackman never acted together before both starring in the upcoming John Grisham adaptation, Runaway Jury...
Once the director, Gary Fleder, realised, he said, "This is ridiculous, you guys have to have a scene together!" So he got together with his writers and came up with one. It was an extraordinary experience for Gene and I. We had just one day to shoot it. We were both so scared.
Your big break, before getting The Graduate, was going to be Mel Brooks' The Producers, right?
Mel Brooks was literally my hero because I, as an unemployed actor, had memorised everything that was on his 2000-Year Old Man record. I used to try to pick up girls pretending they were my own lines. Mel saw me in some Off-Off Broadway play and cast me in The Producers [in the Kenneth Mars role]. That was going to be my huge break. And then Mike Nichols called me up to audition for The Graduate and made this very strange choice of casting me. So I had to tell Mel Brooks that I wanted to do The Graduate instead. Ironically, it was Mel's wife, Anne Bancroft, who got the part of Mrs Robinson.
What was it like working with Mike Nichols?
We had the most extraordinary rehearsal period on The Graduate. Mike was brilliant, everything was worked out. We rehearsed for four weeks, me and Bancroft and Katharine Ross and Gene Hackman, who was fired in the second week as Mr Robinson. And that made his career, because Warren Beatty heard about it and immediately cast him in Bonnie And Clyde.
The shoot itself was, at times, excruciating because Nichols is very demanding. Many times I've been accused of being a perfectionist, which is kind of silly when you think about it...
What do you mean?
Well, it's like you're going in for brain surgery and the brain surgeon leans over and says, "I just want you to know I'm not a perfectionist. Don't worry, I'm a nice guy." We all learned from Nichols. He took me aside one day when I was tired and probably not focusing well on the scene, looked deep into my eyes and said, "You're never going to get the chance to do this scene again as long as you live, and you're going to see it one day up there on the screen."
I have personally pounded on the hood of a New York City cab in homage to your infamous scene in Midnight Cowboy...
We're walking down the street, shooting what they call a stolen scene. The cameras are in a van behind a one-way mirror, we're radio-miked and we're using real people, not extras. I'm in my Ratso attire and no one recognises Jon Voight. It's real traffic, real pedestrians, there's a wide shot, so we're talking back and forth, over and over to just try to get this scene. We finally get it, and just as we're crossing the street, this cab almost hit us, trying to beat the light. I just blurted out, so we wouldn't lose the take, "I'm walking here!"
And you pounded on the hood most emphatically.
Oh, I was furious. It scared the shit out of us. I remember the cigarette comes out of my mouth, I'm so messed up.
Jumping ahead a few years, to the troubled shoot of Tootsie, when did you realise there might be a few clashes between you and Sydney Pollack?
In pre-production. At one point I said to Sydney, "Our interpretations are different about what was agreed on, and if we don't push back shooting this, we're going to be fighting. This is my project, as much as it is yours." Because I originally was writing, with my friend Murray Schisgal, about what it is to be an actor.
What was the most difficult aspect of the shoot?
That the make-up didn't work. It took three hours to apply and it started to disintegrate from the moment it was applied. So by the time I go out, Owen Roizman, the director of photography, looks at it and says, "It looks okay here, but the left side is a little... Go fix that." While we're fixing that, another part is disintegrating. We were shooting the woman stuff first, and after a month, we're a month behind. We would get one shot a day. That caused consternation, which built to the point that I saw rushes - and I looked green. I looked looked like something out of a John Carpenter film.
That was a terrible day. I turned to Sydney and said, "We're fucked." And Sydney says, "Clear the room, please." And the whole crew leaves except for Owen, and he says to Owen, "What do you think, Owen?" and Owen was honest to a fault and said, "It doesn't work." And then there was just a fight and words were exchanged. I mean, it got nasty. I said, "I'm not shooting any more 'til this is fixed." I'm sure I was a bit hysterical. And I'm not sure Sydney and I ever recovered from it.
In contrast, you and Barry Levinson bonded on Rain Man and soldiered through some huge challenges.
Barry came in like six weeks before shooting started. Directors came and went for different reasons - Sydney Pollack entertained doing it for a while, as did Spielberg. But Barry was the first bona fide writer/director I had ever worked with. He's constantly saying to the actors, "Put it in your own words if you can't do it. That way you make it real."
You worked it up in consultation with real-life autistic men, didn't you? Including two brothers - just as the movie portrayed.
I introduced Barry to three autistic guys that I thought could be used as prototypes, and I wasn't sure which one it should be. And he did not prefer the guy I preferred because the rhythm was too slow. He says, "This other guy has a very fast rhythm," and he wound up being the prototype - he and his brother, who was not unlike Tom Cruise, very handsome, a college football star. We got a lot of help from him. I'd call every day and read the scene to him. And he'd say, "My brother would never say, 'I know how to drive.' He would say, 'I'm an excellent driver.'" He was a gold mine.
Yet you really struggled to find the character early on in the film...
One day in the car, we did a few takes in this 110°F heat. I was unhappy with what I'm doing and Cruise - we not only liked each other, we loved each other, it was a close relationship - is being so sensitive and supportive: "Come on, don't worry. You're fine. You're not as bad as you think." So we do a few takes and Barry says, "Just improvise. Keep going until we run out of film."
And so here I am, and I feel like I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I'm convinced this underscores how far away I am from the character. Later, Barry is sitting in his chair, shaking with laughter, and says, "Come here, you've got to see this." I said, "What Barry? It's shit." But he knows funny. And what I did without knowing it, just because Cruise kept the improvisation going, I just kept saying, "Yeah... Yeah... Yeah." I said, "That's the guy."
You seem happy these days to take on character parts, like the author's friend in JM Barrie's Neverland...
That is a pure supporting part. I was glad that I did Moonlight Mile, I was glad that I did Confidence, and then [Miramax chief] Harvey Weinstein called me up and said: "You're not going to want to do this, but I'm going to ask you anyway. We're doing a movie with Johnny Depp and there's a small part for you..." But I'm a huge fan of Johnny Depp. He's one of those actors who makes a living out of trying not to be a star.
Do you feel any more urgency to do good work the older you get? Or do you feel like time isn't pressing you?
It is pressing me. I always played the game of, I'm okay, I'm not halfway yet. I didn't think I was halfway when I was 40. Once I hit 50, I said, "Okay, I'm halfway." And then when I hit 60, my father-in-law said to me, "How do you feel?" I said, "Well, I accept being middle-aged." He said, "Middle-aged? How many people do you know who are 120?"