TORONTO — Dustin Hoffman could be saying anything right now. He could be talking about his acting career, an astonishing body of stage and screen work that spans more than half a century; or “Quartet,” which marks his film directing debut; or his suit — the suit is sharp. The point is, it wouldn’t matter. If you’re a woman of a certain age, sharing a hotel sofa with the star of “The Graduate,” all you hear is “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” You’re only human.
Hoffman may be 75 now, silver-haired and miles past vaulting into an Alfa Romeo convertible, but he still looks enough like Benjamin Braddock, the tortured lover-stalker who won a generation of hearts when he pleaded “Elaine!,” for you to be transported straight back to 1967 every time he speaks. He’s perpetually captured in the A-frame of Anne Bancroft’s stockinged leg, though that hasn’t stopped him from immortalizing a host of other memorable characters: Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy,” Carl Bernstein in “All the President’s Men,” Dorothy Michaels in “Tootsie,” even Chuck Clarke in “Ishtar.” He has seven Oscar nominations under his belt, with two wins (best actor, “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Rain Man”).
Now Hoffman has finally ventured behind the camera. “Quartet” is Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of his stage play about an idyllic retirement home for opera singers and musicians. The cast includes Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, and Billy Connolly as performers who struggle to recapture the magic of their once-exemplary “Rigoletto.” The film is a sweet geriatric tonic that should play in theaters for months, if “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is any barometer, and there’s one question that Hoffman is constantly being asked about his job change.
“I can’t tell you why it took so long because I’m still working that out with my therapist. It goes under the heading of Demons,” he said during a post-screening Q&A last fall in Toronto.
“I decided a long time ago [to direct],” he told a gathering of press at the London Film Festival in December. “Sometimes it takes you 40 years to get around to doing something.”
However he finally got here, it’s clear that this is Hoffman’s time both to reinvent the present and celebrate the past. Recently he was a Kennedy Center Honoree, sitting next to the Obamas and receiving shout-outs from esteemed friends and colleagues such as Robert De Niro. And when he sat down to be interviewed the morning after “Quartet” premiered to a thunderous ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was as giddy as a debutante.
Talk about seductive . . .
Q. So, do you plan on unveiling any other talents at 75?
A. You want to know the truth? As much as I’ve loved this experience and want to do it again, I originally wanted to be a jazz pianist. I studied classical and jazz — wasn’t very good, that’s why I didn’t become that (I didn’t have a good ear, I couldn’t pick stuff up quickly) — and if God were to tap me on the shoulder and say, “OK, you’re a jazz pianist, but you can never do any more directing, acting, or anything,” I’d still say yes in a second.
Q. About that house that was featured in the movie, what I want to know is: When can I move in?
A. Here’s the thing: Ron Harwood was inspired by a documentary called “Tosca’s Kiss.” Verdi was extremely successful toward the end of his life, he had amassed a fortune, and he built this mansion, of which he actually said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Not the operas; this was the best thing he did. And he put it in his will that after he passed, all these singers and musicians who no longer have work can live there. And we tried to replicate the fact that, no, this is not a nursing home, this is an exceptional place. We changed it from the Verdi House, which still exists in Milan, to the Beecham House.
Q. The idea of making such a place for talented people to live out their days still practicing their craft . . . it’s inspired.
A. [Nodding] Once we decided to use real opera singers and retired musicians, it became for everyone an extraordinary experience because the spine of the movie was in the making of it, because no one had knocked on these people’s doors. They had been first-rate and suddenly they’re just invisible.
Q. The movie promotes this beautiful idea that art has a way of prolonging life. Is it safe to say that’s something you believe in?
A. Yes. And I would say art in the broadest sense, because you can make an art out of anything, and it deepens the more that you work at it.
Q. With the success of “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” does it feel like there’s a renewed appreciation for veteran talents like the ones in your cast?
A. My father once told me that when he was born, in the early 1900s, the average lifespan was 47 years old. We’re almost double that now. So medicine and health and figuring out what not to do — you know in all those black-and-white movies they smoked constantly, they drank all day long — that’s part of it. The other part of it is that for the first time, I’m told, the [moviegoing] demographic is over 40, because the kids are only going to see selected movies.
Q. Were you thinking of your own mortality, your own third act, during filming? Did it resonate on a personal level?
A. Unfortunately or fortunately, it’s resonated with me all my life. My wife and I have been together 35 years, and she says, “From the first day I met you you’ve said, ‘I’m old. I’m old. I’m gonna be 40. I’m old.’ ” So, you know, maybe that’s a defense. But I won’t even say third act at the moment. If it’s a four-act play I’ll say third act. Or a five-act — opera is five acts; to me, if you’re still, God willing, basically healthy, you’re still in your second act. The third act is when something catches us. And I’ve often felt that, when you get sick and have a cold or a flu that prolongs itself, by the sixth or seventh day, you can’t remember what it feels like before you got sick. And that’s what I fear the third act is for many people. It becomes their reality.
Q. What is your “Rigoletto” — the moment that, when you look back over your career, you think, “Man, I was really good right there”?
A. I would say today, after last night. It was surreal. I’ve never had an experience like that in my life. Not only did [the screening audience] like it and go with it and seem to get the changes in it — because that was purposeful; Arthur Miller taught me that.
He said, “The more you can get the audience to laugh at Willy Loman, that’s the jab — you’re setting them up, and then you knock ’em out when they least expect it.” And also in the pace that the editor [Barney Pilling] and I agreed on — I told him, I said, Arthur Miller used to stand backstage when I did “[Death of a] Salesman” and I’d come off after a first act where it really had gone well, I thought, and they’d gotten all the comic nuances of the character, and I’d come offstage and I’d say, “Great first act, right, Arthur?” And he’d shake his head, he looked depressed, he’d tap his watch. I said, “What’s the matter?” He says, “You ran 2½ minutes longer than you should.” I said, “But they were laughing. You can’t talk through the laughs.” He says, “Yes, you do.” I said, “Why? They’re going to miss it.” “I don’t care.” And then he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “I want ’em here [Hoffman shifts to the edge of the sofa and leans forward], I don’t want ’em here [he moves back, relaxing into the cushions].”
Q. You’ve obviously been preparing to direct, in terms of accumulated knowledge, for a long time. Is it a good thing that you’re just directing for the first time now?
A. It ain’t a bad thing because of what’s come out of it, I guess. You’re speaking from a kind of feminist point of view. In other words, process is so important. And the male thing is always, “No! I should have done a better [job]! I’ve got to be this! I’ve got to do that!”
Q. That goes back to my “Rigoletto” question: A lot of people still see you as The Graduate or Ratso. . . . Your film is about this idea that it can be scary — paralyzing, even — to think the apex is behind you.
A. Right. Steven Spielberg said to me — because at one point he was going to direct “Rain Man” and we worked together on it for a long time — he said, “To this day there isn’t a film that I do where, on the way to work on the first day, I don’t throw up.”
Q. That’s comforting to the rest of us.
A. But it’s true. I played tennis with Sugar Ray Leonard one time. He was an athlete but he didn’t really know how to play tennis and he served in a very namby-pamby way. I said, “Why are you serving like that?” He says, “Well, I was injured when I was about 4 or 5 and I can’t put my arm back further than this [Hoffman cocks a pretend punch, positioning his elbow in line with his shoulder].” I said, “But you’ve got five [championship] belts!” He says, “Yeah, but in boxing it’s all from here [clutches his biceps].” So he found the thing that worked. But he said that with every single fight he ever had, he had diarrhea.
Same thing with Alan Arkin. Alan Arkin became successful before any of us actors of our generation in New York, and he did a play called “Enter Laughing.” Remember? He would get diarrhea a few times a week, onstage. And he would grab the phone — it wasn’t ringing — put it to his ear and say, “Yeah?” then give it to [another actor] saying, “It’s for you.” Then he’d go offstage and [the actor] had to improvise.
Q. Do you ever have that kind of nervousness? Does it get any easier with experience?
A. Beckett said, “Fail, fail, fail, fail better.” In other words, you recognize that if you’re going for it, you’re probably going to fail. And that’s the best experience that you can have, if you can weather it. It’s tough in this business ’cause you can’t get a job sometimes. But risk that. Otherwise, it’s “Ooh, I’m The Graduate. I’m going to give them that, because that worked.” And there are actors that do that. One other thing, and you must look it up if you can: There’s a play written by E.E. Cummings called “Him” and it’s about a starving artist in a garret with his girlfriend and — God, I wish I had it with me — he says, you’re on a trapeze and you’re juggling all these things in the air and you’re sitting on a chair that’s sitting on the top of another chair when you’re trying to do good work, and you swing and you swing and you swing and you swing and you ultimately . . . fall. And he says — what’s the line? — he says, “And you fail. But an artist must survive.” You have to survive, not the thing itself. That’s the game. If you can do that, then it’s possible to continue.