There's no wrangling Dustin Hoffman. Not on a movie set, where he can be fearsome. And not in a roundtable interview with eight journalists, as he proved last September when his new drama, Boychoir, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In the film, Hoffman plays the choirmaster at an elite music academy that trains boys during that shining, evanescent moment in their pre-adolescence when their voices sound like angels' harps. Then one day their hormones kick in, and it's gone. (The movie opens in select cities today.)
Hoffman's six-decade career is the opposite of evanescent – two Academy Awards, a score of indelible performances from Midnight Cowboy to Meet the Fockers, from The Graduate to Death of a Salesman. Even his failures are epic (Ishtar). At 77, he's grey-haired and ready to grin, with a bracelet of meditation beads and a naughty sense of humour. "When I started out, if one photo was released of somebody giving a blow job – end of career," he tells my table, apropos of nothing. "Now it makes someone a star." His eyes crinkle into a riot of laugh lines. "Blow jobs are finally getting the credit they deserve."
He appears to wear his living-legend status lightly: "I swear I'm not aware of it," he says. "What I'm aware of is, the longer I'm around, the harder it is to get away with murder." But though he's pint-sized, he's not shy about exerting power. He may be the guy who hired a samba trio to entertain the crew of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (which shot in Toronto), and who signed so many autographs outside TIFF's Boychoir screening that an impatient handler had to pluck away his pen. But he's also the guy who drove director Sydney Pollack nuts on Tootsie, forcing co-star Bill Murray to run interference.
So if we journalists want to ask Hoffman Boychoir-related questions about talent, training and art, but Hoffman wants to talk about the fraught relationship between actors and directors, guess who wins?
"Dustin can be intimidating, even frightening, if there is a lack of understanding or trust," Zach Helm, Mr. Magorium's writer/director, once told me. "If you expect an actor to do as you say, he's not the guy to work with. But if you want someone to collaborate, I don't know that there's anyone better."
François Girard, Boychoir's Quebec-born director (he also made Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin), agrees. "Dustin is an obsessive/compulsive actor," Girard says in a separate interview. "We both would like to do another take for this, another for that. But there was so little time on this movie, only 27 days – we didn't have that luxury. It was a recipe for tension, but our friendship stayed alive." He laughs. "That might be my biggest satisfaction of this movie."
Hoffman's obsessiveness lasted right through Boychoir's editing process. "Dustin watched about 20 different versions," Girard says. "He kept calling me back, exchanging notes – 'This scene, are you sure?' The editor would come back, we'd reopen the scene, we'd cut for two days, and then Dustin would call back again. But I love it about him. It shows his dedication to the film."
Hoffman makes it clear that Girard was a good collaborator. He also makes it clear that he's no fan of directors who aren't. "Directors are sometimes satisfied before they should be," he says. "They feel threatened" if an actor fights back. They sacrifice getting a scene right in order to get it finished. They come in with fixed ideas of how things should go, instead of letting things happen organically in the moment. They don't let actors watch the playbacks of their takes. "You have to con these directors into making them feel like what you're suggesting was their idea," Hoffman says. "They would rather not collaborate and fail than collaborate and succeed."
To counter this, Hoffman continues, actors help each other. "You say to another actor, 'I don't feel I'm doing good work,'" he explains. "The other actor will say, 'When we were running lines, you were right on the money, but then the director asked for more energy. Uh-oh, here he comes, I didn't say anything.' It's like those old prison movies – you talk out of the side of your mouth."
Hoffman "got rid of all that" when he directed his first feature, 2012's Quartet (about a home for retired musicians, including a diva played by Maggie Smith). He says it was a wonderful feeling. "People warned me, 'Look out for Smith, she's tough,'" he recalls. And indeed, in the middle of one scene, she simply stopped dead and announced, "I don't know what this scene is about!" But rather than fighting her, Hoffman called a break, heard her out, and fixed the problem. "I think acting should be that way," he says. "It should be easy, it should be effortless."
Don't get him wrong – he's had great experiences with some directors. Mike Nichols was wonderful on The Graduate. "They spent three years on the script," Hoffman says. "We had a month of rehearsal, starting from zero on a sound stage with tape, like you do in a play. Then we had 100 days of shooting, which is like five movies now. We could go back, do things over."
On All the President's Men, Hoffman and his co-star, Robert Redford, felt they should eliminate from the script all scenes of their characters' personal lives, "so the audience only knows us as reporters," and director Alan Pakula agreed. Hoffman loved working with Barry Levinson on Rain Man, Sleepers and Wag the Dog. Steven Spielberg was "extremely generous" on Hook. And though he hasn't worked with Woody Allen, Hoffman admires Allen's willingness to let his actors improvise. "He says, 'Say whatever you want, just make it real,'" Hoffman says. "I prefer that." (He once got the call to be in an Allen film, by the way. "But I said no when I should have said yes.")
Periodically during the interview, we reporters try to steer Hoffman onto other topics, and he throws us a few bones. He wishes he had the talent to be a musician: "If God tapped me on the shoulder now and said, 'No more acting or directing, but you can be a decent jazz pianist,' I'd do it. I love it more than anything." He swears that "there are great parts to aging. Being around longer than other people, you can't help but have a certain amount of wisdom." He pauses, then deadpans, "You look like you don't quite believe me."
But nearly every answer circles back to actors versus directors; it's clearly Hoffman's preferred subject of the day. "There's no such thing as perfection in the arts," he sums up. "Picasso, as his stuff was being hung in galleries, would go in and paint, add things. I don't think you're ever finished. You just keep trying to chip away what doesn't feel real." And if you're Hoffman, you don't let anyone tell you, or ask you, different.