Dustin Hoffman Makes a Magical Turn
by Brad Balfour
Originally posted on November 15, 2007.
Dustin Hoffman’s work has been on the American cinematic landscape for so long that you could call him an icon without blinking. Perusing the list of benchmark films Hoffman has been in — from his early films such as The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and Little Big Man on to films like Straw Dogs, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Rain Man and Wag The Dog — you realize how many important films he’s made.
But the list goes on well beyond the above. Unquestionably one of America’s finest actors, Hoffman’s history has been a part of our cultural wallpaper.
His own story started in Los Angeles on August 8th, 1937. When the 5′ 7″ Dustin Lee Hoffman graduated from LA High in ’55, he went to Santa Monica City College where he dropped out after a year. But, he started acting after he took an acting course before he left because he did not want to work or go into the service. Trained at The Pasadena Playhouse, it took him almost a decade more before he hit with his award-winning, acclaimed feature The Graduate. In that film he played a confused young man at the crucial start of his adult life.
Now in his latest film, Mr. Magorium’s Magic Emporium, the 60-year-old actor plays a 243-year-old wizard (and avid shoe-wearer) at the end of his earthly life, passing on his fantastical toy store and legacy on to young and dismayed protégé Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman).
You’re known as an obsessive perfectionist regarding your characters. How do you research someone who’s supposed to be over 200 years old?
I visited a lot of graveyards [laughs]. Succinct answer. When the writer and director [Zach Helm] met with me on this, we agreed what we didn’t want to do, first, prosthetics. Once we agreed not to do that, we said, “How do we handle it?” I thought the only way to handle it was to try to present a character that the people in the film, as well as the movie audience, would believe that HE would believe was that age. So there was nothing to research then. If you meet people and they say something, it doesn’t matter if they’re lying or not, what’s important is if they believe it.
Then what did you do mentally to bring this character to life?
Well… Norman Mailer just died. I was on a computer earlier this morning and I reading his last interview. In this interview he was mentioning Warren Beatty, out of all people, and he said that when he saw Bugsy, he was asking Warren how he brought out the violence that he never had shown in a film. He liked what Warren said.
Warren had said, “All you have to do is have 5% of the character in you and the rest you can do.” Mailer, as a novelist, thought that was true. All you have to have is 5% of a character and you just expand. In this case, I think the essence was this was not hard for me, I always say that with a caveat, that I did good work because that’s not for me to say, but I’ve always felt that I’m subjected to being a “non-grown up” my whole life. I’ve never been able to grow up. I look forward to it some point.
Though this character is an adult, he’s not a grown-up. “Grown-up” means you kind of pretend. You pretend to be other people. He’s what a kid is. That’s the idea. A kid is there to believe, a kid believes as long as you let him believe, and once you start to kick that out of them… I think a kid looks at an adult for hope and if you don’t give a kid hope then they feel hopeless around you. And that’s what I think the movie tries to be about.
Kids make a decision about people very quickly. “Are you safe?” “Can I trust you?” I’ve always been very close to kids. I yearn to find that more and more in my life.
I’ll quote somebody else — [Francis Ford] Coppola. I’ve read recently he was saying that in the first years of your life, psychologists say that you develop a sense of self. This infant or child suddenly realizes there’s a “self” there. Then for a period of time, up until age five, there’s a purity. They are completely individualistic externally. We all are internally. But something happens in school that deprives you or censor your own individuality, so if you don’t mix in, you’re odd. And we’re all odd. So there’s a desire to retain that.
And I think as journalists and writers, you know, what does it mean to have your own voice? You have it and you had it, but society can kick the shit out of you. For reasons I’ve never understood. And that’s what I think the movie tries to convey. So when I say “believe” or “magic,” “magic” is just the individuality of what you feel you can do.
You’ve said in the past that you wanted to play Willy Wonka. This new film is similar to that movie. Why would you want to play such a character and how do these stories relate?
You want the truth? No, you want a good story [laughs]. This might be a good story. I never read Willy Wonka and I never saw it. So when I said that I wanted to play it, I heard the original was really good. Everyone said that it would be a good part for me, right around the time that Gene Wilder did it. I said, “Oh, maybe I’ll get that part.” But Gene Wilder got it, so I put that out of my mind.
When they did the remake, I asked my agent to see if he could get me for it, but he said no, they wanted a younger star. So I can’t tell you anything about it. I hear that in Willy Wonka, somebody’s evil, or somebody’s unkind. At the end of the story there’s a sinister character?
It depends on which version.
A friend of mine was telling me about the Wonka story.
There’s the one where Christopher Lee is evil [Charlie and The Chocolate Factory].
Oh, maybe that’s was the one she was talking about. The same friend, she teaches at a preschool, she said she thought I was the “good wizard” in this film. This film did not have a sinister figure and most children’s works have a sinister figure but this one didn’t. That’s the truth and I know it’s not a good story.