Everybody's favorite graduate talks about Brando, Eastwood, Stiller and sex - past and present
DS: After taking some time off, you've returned in four high-profile movies—I Heart Huckabees, Finding Neverland, Meet the Fockers and Racing Stripes. What made you decide to come back in such a big way?
HOFFMAN: I'm working differently from how I worked in the past. Five years ago I reached a point where I had become disenchanted with the stuff I was being offered. I said to my wife, "I'm not going to work anymore." Suddenly, three or four years had gone by, and I missed working. I'd always had the luxury of picking from many scripts. It was calculated: Is the character something I want to do? Is this a good script, a good cast? My wife said to me, "Why don't you just throw all that out?" And replace it with what? "Why don't you just work without regard to the script?" I said, "Then what's the criteria?" "The director. Do you feel you're going to have a creative experience? Will you have a good time?" It was earth-shattering, and that's what I did. I chose these movies because of their directors.
DS: What did these directors offer?
HOFFMAN: Huckabees was made by David O. Russell, who made Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings. When I first read the script I didn't understand a fucking word of it. Neverland was directed by Marc Forster, a terrifically interesting guy who directed Monster's Ball. I knew more about Meet the Fockers, of course. I had seen Meet the Parents and thought it worked as a comedy. I liked that Ben Stiller was the Jew and De Niro's daughter, whom Ben wanted to marry, was the shiksa goddess. They were the Jewish and Christian parts of the Judeo-Christian culture in America, a split that has existed for many years. With Barbra Streisand and me as Stiller's parents in the sequel, we were able to do more provoking related to that split. I didn't have to walk far to tackle the part.
DS: In I Heart Huckabees you play an existential detective. What is it, and would you ever go to one?
HOFFMAN: The director, David O. Russell, and I have both been in and believe in therapy. My kids affectionately call David "David O'Crazy," which is a compliment. The existential detective is a fantasy for those who are in therapy trying to understand how their defenses have built up. Here the therapist follows you around wherever you go and helps make connections that in real therapy are far more subtle. The idea of the therapist following you around is everybody's dream. It's the safety of someone taking care of you.
DS: What are some of the things you've learned from therapy?
HOFFMAN: We think we're the modern ones because we're the now. But Dickens and those of his time, for instance, thought they were modern. You begin to see how primitive we are. In 100 years they're going to look back at us and wonder why we wouldn't approve stem cell research. It's humbling. Also, most of humanity hasn't yet been born, and much of the rest is already dead. We're this little part in the middle. I have two dogs. I love to watch them romping in the ocean. If a lot of dogs are on the beach, the first thing they do is smell each other's asshole. The information that's gotten somehow makes pacifists out of all of them. I've thought, If only we smelled each other's assholes, there wouldn't be any war.
DS: How well did you know Marlon Brando?
HOFFMAN: I never met him. Brando was my generation's icon. When I first saw him I didn't know I wanted to act. I was in high school. I saw On the Waterfront and had an experience I'd never had at the movies before and didn't know why. He was about 80 when he called me. I was in my backyard with a cell phone. He wanted me to be part of a show he wanted to do about creativity. I said of course I'd do it, whatever he wanted me to do, but I wasn't going to hang up without letting him know what I'd wanted him to know since On the Waterfront. The conversation lasted until the battery went out more than an hour later. I named performances and moments. I couldn't let him off the phone.
DS: What inspired you to become an actor?
HOFFMAN: A couple of years after seeing On the Waterfront, it still hadn't crossed my mind. When I was in junior college and failing, they told me, "You don't get credits for Fs." So somebody said, "Take an acting class. It's three credits, and nobody fails acting." That's the only reason I took an acting class.
DS: You're famous for being a method actor, which apparently amused or annoyed Lord Laurence Olivier, with whom you acted in Marathon Man. After you had been awake for two days, you showed up on the set to play a scene in which you were to appear exhausted. Olivier famously said, "Why don't you just try acting, dear boy?" Well?
HOFFMAN: The story originated, if my memory serves me correctly, in Time magazine. They made it a better story, altering it to give it the kind of irony they wanted. I was shooting in New York and Olivier was in Los Angeles, and we were away from each other for a few days. I came back to L.A. and told him there was hardly any dialogue in a scene I had to shoot on a certain day. I was supposed to be exhausted from running away from him for three days, so I said I'd stayed up all night for a couple of days, and I winked at him. I was kidding. It was the days of Studio 54, and it was my way of saying I'd partied all weekend. We laughed about it. He said something like, "Well, why don't you try acting next time." It was fun.
DS: Does effusive praise turn you off?
HOFFMAN: It's discomfiting. When I was studying autism for Rain Man, I was trying to figure out how I could bring it to something close to me that I could understand. I knew all the outer things—autistic people don't make eye contact; they don't want to be touched. One thing most of us can do is praise the other guy, sometimes lavishly. But the hardest thing is to get praise. We become autistic. We stop making eye contact. It's too powerful. I tracked down the author of Emergence: Labeled Autistic. She said something that made me understand. She said the one thing she wanted more than anything else in life was for someone to hug her, but the second anyone did, she couldn't bear it. That sentence just destroyed me. On a certain level, that's all of us. We want praise more than anything, but once we get it it's sometimes painful.
DS: Have you ever been typecast?
HOFFMAN: No. You don't need to go further than The Graduate. In the book, and originally in the script taken from the book, Benjamin Braddock is a New England Protestant, head of the debate team, track star. I mean, he looks like Redford, and that's how everyone expected Mike Nichols to cast him. In fact, when he previewed the film, people were coming up to him and saying, "God, it's such a good movie—it's a shame you miscast the lead," because they couldn't process me in that role. I was not typecast, and typecasting is the least interesting way to go, always.
DS: What about other actors? Who else has been successfully cast against type?
HOFFMAN: I once met Clint Eastwood, and it was remarkable. I studied him as I spoke to him. I looked down, and his pants were a little short—they showed a bit too much of his socks. There was something so timid and shy and almost gawky about him in real life. I remember thinking to myself, Someone should have cast him in Meet John Doe, the Frank Capra movie, because that's the real him. There's not a wisp of aggression about him. That's the real essence, not the guy who says, "Make my day."
DS: What young actors do you admire?
HOFFMAN: Mark Ruffalo is a wonderful actor. I've worked with talented people—Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Schwartzman. I don't know how young is young, but I just worked with Ben Stiller, and I think he's as sharp a comedian as one could wish for. Adam Sandler is the only actor I ever called up to meet out of the blue. It wasn't for me but for my kids. They kept talking about him. They saw his movies—those early ones, Happy Madison or whatever it is. They'd never asked if we could meet anybody, but they wanted to meet him. I got his number and called. I said, "I don't know you, but would you do it?" He said yeah. He was shocked. He was an hour late to the house and later admitted he was so nervous that he went around the block for 45 minutes. He couldn't even talk. He's a great basketball player. He played with my kids. I told him I loved Punch-Drunk Love, that it was one of the best performances of the year. He's a lovely man.
DS: Would you rather hang out with men or women?
HOFFMAN: For whatever reason, I was never one of the guys. I wasn't on a football team. I played tennis because of my lack of stature. I was never in a club in high school. I would rather be in no club than in the club that takes anybody. I was never in a fraternity. The minute I finished high school and left my parents' home, I became aware of how extraordinary it could be to be with a woman on a daily basis. That's what I did. I got into relationships. The most wonderful thing was to hang out with your girlfriend. I don't understand the world of men. It's a foreign land to me. Men hang out. I never hang out with men. I have a passion for sitting down with a group of gals. I like the energy of women when they're together. They don't seem to have the same anxiety as a bunch of men looking around at who to fuck or discussing the deal they did or didn't make.
DS: In The Graduate, you were seduced by an older woman, played by Anne Bancroft. But she wasn't that old, was she?
HOFFMAN: I was 30 and Anne was 35. It's all lighting.
DS: What was your most embarrassing moment?
HOFFMAN: In the 1950s I would go to the drugstore, and it was no big thing. My mother wanted Kotex or something, and I had no problem. But to go to a drugstore to get what we then called prophylactics was different. I wouldn't dare ask a woman. I saw a male and thought, Okay, I can ask that guy. Sure enough, just before he got to me a woman came up, and I asked for two boxes of Band-Aids or something.
DS: Let's talk about sex. How did you lose your virginity?
HOFFMAN: My parents went to Las Vegas one New Year's Eve weekend, and my brother Ronny threw a party. I loved that he let me be part of it—I was 15, and he's seven years older. I cooked steaks. It was one or two in the morning, and I saw a line of guys standing outside a bedroom door. They said, "Do you want to go next?" "What do you mean?" "Barbara's in there." I had met Barbara, a beautiful older woman, about 20. She was what in those days we called a nymphomaniac, which is not a word you hear anymore. She was servicing these guys, one after the other. I had never been laid, and I couldn't believe my good fortune. I went in. It was dark, and she said, "Is that you, Ronny?" I said yes, lying for fear that she'd reject me. I wasn't old enough to drive a car, so I thought maybe I wasn't old enough to drive a woman. I remember whistling because I wanted to appear relaxed as I was taking off my clothes. It was wonderful. I came quickly and kept humping and humping. I thought, Is that all there is? I kept waiting for the next fireworks. The humping went on for about 20 minutes until somebody opened the door. It was just like a movie: A shaft of light was thrown from the hallway onto my face, and she screamed because I wasn't my brother.
DS: Were you traumatized? Was she? Have you recovered?
HOFFMAN: She was shocked just because I wasn't my brother. I jumped off her, stark naked, and left the room. I was kind of shocked and dizzy. I wound up in the living room, and guys were sitting around having beer and talking, and I was naked. This may have been the beginning of my acting career without my knowing it, because they stood up and applauded, and I liked the applause. What was disturbing about it was that I couldn't get laid again for another two years.
DS: Do you think you've ever gone too far in researching a role?
HOFFMAN: No. My wife told me on a couple of occasions that I carry baggage home with me after work. It's not that you're in character, because I've never understood what that means. You're not some character, you're just yourself, always, and you're just messing with yourself. You're more in an exaggerated zone of yourself, and that happened to me in Straight Time, certainly. I hung out with convicts for a couple of years. That was the hardest time my wife had living with me. The easiest, she says, was during Tootsie. She said I was the best girlfriend she's ever had.
DS: How do you react when people approach you and imitate one of your characters or quote a famous line?
HOFFMAN: People tend to think they're the first ones to say what they say to you. People have come up to me for 35 years and said, "Plastics." But they look at me like no one else has ever said it, and that's what's amazing. You think to yourself, Well, that's about 4,500.
DS: Midnight Cowboy was one of the first mainstream movies to be rated X
HOFFMAN: When we were rehearsing it, Jon Voight and I suddenly said to each other—because we'd read the book by James Leo Herlihy—"These guys are gay." So we went to Schlesinger, who was openly gay, and said, "John, why aren't we just playing these guys gay? We avoid seeing them sleep together on the same dirty mattress on the floor in their abandoned dwelling." And John said, "Oh my God, I had enough trouble trying to get the studio to give me money, and now you want to do this? Nobody will come see this." I understood, and we laughed. When I did Hook, Bob Hoskins and I were rehearsing, and suddenly we looked at each other and realized it at the same time. We said, "These guys are gay!" Hook and Smee are a couple of old queens, and it was fun. Suddenly we rehearsed it that way. "Get over here, Smee. Give me a foot massage." We went to Spielberg, and he had the same reaction Schlesinger had had years before, because he said, "This is a kids' movie." But suddenly it made all the sense in the world. They were really good friends. They lived on a ship. They were devoted to each other.
DS: You once said, "In middle age, you're no longer chained to a maniac." What did you mean?
HOFFMAN: One of the best things about middle age is that you wake up and you're no longer chained to a maniac. If you're a man, the maniac is your libido. You still have it; you're just not chained to it, meaning you're not dragging it around like an iron ball in the same way. You're still thinking about getting laid. It's just that other things start to permeate. Suddenly I'm walking on the beach and looking at shells, and I'm preferring the shells to women walking by in bathing suits. Someone says, "Geez, look at that girl." "Yeah, but look at that shell." I just turned 67, and I'm still at the age—knock on wood—when I can say and feel, "Okay, if I stopped aging right now I'd take this." I'll take 67 to the bank for the next 30 years. I want the chance to get older and older and older. George Burns said it best. When he turned 90 they asked, "Do you still have sex?" and he said, "Sure." They said, "What's it like?" And he said, "Did you ever shoot pool with a piece of rope?" God bless him.