Dustin Hoffman on directing national treasure Maggie Smith in Quartet
"She will put her foot down, and she will say, I don’t know what the bleep this scene is about. And when she says it, you pay attention!”
Why now? Dustin Hoffman smiles and sighs. Why, after a life in front of the camera, has he waited until the age of 75 to direct his first film? “Well, it has to do with our demons,” he says. “But at my stage of life, you get a glimpse of the end of the tunnel – so the question becomes if not now, when?”
The voice, that familiar nasal rush of words, is unmistakeable. His hair stands in a luxuriant shock, now more white than grey, his shirt sleeves rolled up as he prepares to discuss his belated debut – Quartet, a gentle tale of retired British opera singers starring Maggie Smith (who has been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance) and Tom Courtenay.
“You know, a friend said to me recently ‘live your dash.’ I said, what do you mean? and he said, ‘On your tombstone, there’s the date you’re born and the date you die – and in between there’s a dash.’ So maybe I finally realised how to live my dash.”
He smiles again, a pithy description of a 45-year process – the urge to direct starting, he says, soon after his breakthrough in 1967’s The Graduate. Between then and now were decades of procrastination, ending only when a friend passed him the script for Quartet before a flight home to LA. Abruptly, struck by the story’s portrait of the ageing process, he decided to make it himself.
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“Which is not to say,” he goes on with a snuffling laugh, “that my wife and my agent didn’t both then have to spend the next year coaxing me along before we started. I was constantly aware these were uncharted waters.” So there were moments when he thought of backing out? “Long moments.”
These would be the demons. It’s strange – for all his gifts, it can’t be easy being Dustin Hoffman. As a young actor, an early lack of success and hang-ups about his looks and his Jewishness propelled him into therapy, where he’s stayed “off and on” ever since. Even now, while some stars of his status would barely acknowledge an interviewer, he’s obliging verging on the anxious.
“If you want me to stop talking, just scratch your nose,” he tells me – later apologising when he thinks he’s rambling: “This is why I never finished school.” And all in an industry where time is money, and the money is usually other people’s.
“Films are expensive,” he says. “You can’t always fix things, because every day costs $150,000. So it’s hard to commit to directing a movie. If you’re a painter you don’t have to get it right first time. But directing is like bungee jumping. You have to get it right first time, or...” Splat? “Or splat.”
In fact, Quartet proves to be a sweetly human comic drama set in an opulent retirement home, with Smith and Courtenay pondering the annual operatic fundraiser alongside Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly. The funny thing is it also looks a safe bet for the money men. With the movie business going through chilly times, a rare piece of good news has been the discovery of a large, loyal audience right in front of its nose: Hoffman, a grandfather of two, lights up as he describes how older cinema-goers have become the dominant force at the box office.
“Hollywood has finally woken up to the fact that films for and about older people make money. The kids are no longer the money makers. They go to the movies, but they go to a movie. Otherwise they’re on the computers, the laptops, doing everything but going to movies. So who’s left? The babyboomers. People my age. I’m a child of the ’30s, I grew up going to three movies a week. And my generation keeps up that tradition – so if you’re making films, they’re the audience.”
Sometimes as Hoffman talks, a passing expression will call to mind one of his indelible characters – Midnight Cowboy’s tragic Ratso Rizzo, Tootsie’s cross-dressing Michael Dorsey, Rain Man’s autistic savant Raymond Babbitt (Sunday, ITV3). But the last of those came in 1988. Lately, he agrees he’s slipped into the background – to many, his biggest recent role would be the peevish Master Shifu in Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2 (Friday, Sky Family). He nods fiercely at the idea that time stops for no man so much as a movie actor.
“Yes! It’s the truth! It’s harder for women – studios think actresses are used up at 40 – but it’s not so different for actors. I mean, I got lucky. I played a 21 year old when I was 30 in The Graduate, and for the next decade I had my choice of scripts. But the lead parts were characters in their 20s and 30s. Then in my 40s I looked younger – they said! – so I still got the leads. But at 50 suddenly all you’re offered is supporting parts. Now, it’s nice you get days off, but you’re rarely challenged and your characters never get enough screen time to become three dimensional. So then, to come back to your first question, you think: ‘Maybe I’ll direct...’”
I still sense ambivalence. In Quartet, Michael Gambon’s retired opera director is a monster in a kaftan – while during the opening titles, Hoffman’s credit as director hovers briefly in the corner of the screen before vanishing apologetically.
His eyebrows fly upwards: “I hope it’s not apologetic or my shrink will come after me! Films are about the actors. It’s just my opinion but I don’t think you should focus on the director in a film. What keeps you in the story is the actors. I told them, wouldn’t it be nice for people to see a side of you guys only your friends normally see?”
Which brings the conversation to Maggie Smith. A bona fide national institution in the wake of Downton Abbey, her character in Quartet at least starts out as a walking nightmare. How was it working with the Dame?
“She doesn’t pick any bones,” he says, then frowns. “is that the right phrase?” He starts again: “What’s wonderful about Maggie is there’s nothing more important to her than doing first-rate work. Nothing. So she will put her foot down, and she will say, I don’t know what the bleep this scene is about. And when she says it, you pay attention!” And then? “Then you say OK, you let everyone leave, and you sit down with her and she’ll tell you what seems fraudulent about it. And she’s always right.”
In the end, he says, their relationship found its balance – she coming up with her own lines, he tweaking her performance: “She has great instincts, and she does things that no director could ever think of, but sometimes I would simply say to her” – he makes a shrinking gesture with his finger and thumb – “and it just meant less, less, less. Because as actors, we don’t think we’re interesting if we’re not doing something. But on a 70ft screen, no one is doing nothing, and I would say to Maggie: ‘You’re there. You don’t realise it. Just sitting, resting between takes, you’re there.’”
He’s clearly fond of Britain and the British, a chunk of his time regularly spent in a townhouse near Hyde Park. But despite the apparent deep-seated Britishness of Quartet (shot in a Buckinghamshire country house), he says its setting didn’t influence his decision to make it.
“For me, the film was never about nationality. What grabbed me was that I understood it emotionally. I understand what it’s like to be at the top of your form, and then the ageing process starts to compromise your gift. The injustice of life, you know! So no matter what your nationality is, I like the idea of having combat with God.”
I ask him to explain that phrase: “Well, I think that’s the only way to go. It’s a duel! Because He or She is the one who decided you’re temporary. I mean, at least we all go, it’s not as if some people die and others don’t. That would be a bummer. But even so, once you know you just have this short time, you realise how ludicrous, how absolutely nuts it is for us not to really live every minute.”