The Fretts on Film Interview: Dustin Hoffman
I had the pleasure of interviewing the great Dustin Hoffman about his directorial debut, Quartet, for a New York Daily News profile of costar Billy Connolly, who plays a lascivious opera singer living at a home for retired musicians in Britain. We got to talking about myriad other matters—from why he worships Google to how you “wind up on the crap pile.” Here are the outtakes from our chat.
What made you think of Billy Connolly for the role of Wilf?
When I got the project, it had already been through two directors over a period of time, and Ronald Harwood had written it originally with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney in mind because he had worked with them in a thing he had written called The Dresser. They had known each other from the beginning of their careers, 40 years or so. When I came on the project, Albert was not able to do it because of a health issue. In terms of main characters, I had two parts to cast, one was the Wilf character and the other was the Cissy character. Maggie [Smith] came with it also because the writer has known her for half a century or whatever. And I called Maggie Smith—I didn’t know her and I was working in Los Angeles—I asked her who she thought would be right for Cissy, and without missing a beat, she mentioned Pauline Collins. I had not seen her stuff and I went to see Shirley Valentine, which I thought was terrific, and then talked to her and met her and cast her.
As far as Wilf, I thought of Billy Connolly because I had originally seen him in Mrs. Brown, opposite Judi Dench, and I had seen some of his comedy, without knowing him—I didn’t go backstage or anything. I really liked him as a comedian. And I called him up years ago when I saw Mrs. Brown just to say to him that I thought he did an exceptional acting job. I said to him, ‘I’d love if we could work together one day.’ At the time I was thinking as actors. Then this came along, and I thought of him again, and went to see him. He happened to be in Los Angeles doing a one-man show, and it was odd because on the one hand, I thought he was too young and yet, he had finished a Route 66 thing—some kind of television thing where he was on a motorcycle—and shortly before he had done the show, I think he had fallen off the motorcycle and cracked some ribs. So when he did the show, he was older [laughing]. So I thought, ‘Oh, maybe he’s not too young!’
Did he take the part immediately?
The most interesting thing about him is he turned me down after he said, ‘Who else is in it?’ And I told him—‘Oh Christ, Maggie Smith, oh Christ! They’re real actors, they’re legends.’ And he was scared to death of being on the same screen as them and he had to be talked into it. I think he admits it, when he came to work, he was shaking like a leaf, and it took him a while to feel comfortable. It wasn’t too long before he did. But what he brought to the part, which wasn’t in the part—it was written pretty much as a crude character from the play, and what he brought to it was this other layer where he started instinctively to protect Pauline Collins. He was protective of her, and I said, ‘That’s good, keep that,’ and that, I think became the most interesting aspect of what he did, which was his love for her and his parenting for her, almost, in dementia. I thought it was a wonderful piece of luck to get him.
Well, he seems to have the ability in this role to say inappropriate things and still be likeable. Is it just the Scottish charm he has or how do you think he manages to do that?
Well, I think it’s because he comes through, and he’s not that. I don’t know if you know him very well. In life, he’s not unlike some comedians in a sense that I’ve met—and I’m thinking of Robin Williams—because they’re like a light switch, when they’re doing their work, you switch them on and they’re a completely different person in a way and a completely different energy. And when they’re not doing their act, they tend to be—he does and Robin does also—very shy, very introverted and remarkable listeners. He just loves to listen, and he listens to everything. There’s a stillness about him, and I think that’s what comes through, even in his act. He’s certainly not a womanizer, and he’s not a sexist. If I would define him as anything, he’s a startler [laughing]. And I think that’s what we love about him. He loves to startle.
I was not aware of his musical background until I started doing research for this piece. Did you know he had a singing background before you cast him?
Yes, I worship Google. I’ve never worshiped anything this much since Saran Wrap [laughing]. And I Googled all the people before I worked with them and it is amazing, that machine, that you can see him playing the banjo—it’s just remarkable. So that’s how I found out. It was a shock to me because there I am, just Googling, and you can get his acts—I showed people excerpts, which are on that machine.
He’s still primarily known as a comedian, though. Do you think he gets the respect he deserves as an actor because he has held his own with Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith now, and these are some of the greatest actors on the planet? But do you think the comedian thing holds him back in terms of people’s perceptions of him?
Well, I don’t know really what the perception of him is in this country. I don’t know how widely known he is. I know he’s beloved in Scotland, Ireland and the UK—they really love him, he’s a favorite. So I can’t speak about, I wasn’t around there at the time that Mrs. Brown came out. I was here so I didn’t hear people saying, ‘Oh my God, he can act.’ I was aware of it, I don’t think people that saw him here were aware of him as a comedian so I think he was simply an actor—‘Oh, who’s that guy? He’s good.’ And so I think that, unfortunately, his own perception of himself was based on what people thought of him. In other words, people thought of him as a comedian; therefore, it was hard for him to think of himself for anything but. And I think that this movie may, if it has any success at all, will certainly—I think that’s what you’re intimating—that will turn the axis maybe on people’s feelings about him.
I hope so.
I hope so too. It’s hard for him still to think of himself as an actor, but he does, I think, finally feel that he’s done a really wonderful job. I think he can finally, with great trepidation, acknowledge himself.
Do you think the movie is going to change the perception of you? It’s kind of unexpected that this would be your first directorial effort.
I don’t know. I haven’t even thought of it in that way. Usually, a movie does one thing or other—you wind up in the crap pile—so I always feel like it’s never that good, it’s simply a stay of execution [laughing]. If they don’t get me on this one, they’ll get me the next time.
Well, you’ve had a good run!
Well, they haven’t executed anybody in years [laughing].
I thought you did a wonderful job, and I know you’re pressed for time, but on a personal note, I loved the film because it kind of reminded me of my mother, who passed away last year. I think she would have really loved it.
Oh, that’s a shame. Wow. Aw, nuts. That’s a nuts.
And I think seeing Pauline Collins—my mother had dementia toward the end, and I thought it was really well-played and reminded me of her. I just thought it was perfectly captured.
That moves me that you say that. When I met Pauline Collins, I said to them all, ‘I don’t want you to think of yourselves as playing characters, I want you to be as close to yourself as you can and that will allow your own feelings about being the age you are to surface and that in itself will alter you enough. And her answer was, ‘I’d like to reference my mother because my mother is in the early stages of dementia,’ and I said, ‘Of course.’ And that’s what she did and I think that’s one of the things that really connected Billy to her because what she was doing was so specific and moving that he just allowed himself to be drawn to her. Oh, I’m sorry about your mother.
Thanks. It’s a testament to how good the film is. So I appreciate your work.
Well, thank you. Maybe you and I and Billy can have a drink in the Apple sometime. He truly is a wonderful man.
That would be great.
Tell him that I said the only way you’ll be able to tell if he likes you or not is if he invites you to his castle over the summer [laughing]. I’ve never gone yet, but every August he has a big castle party.
What’s your favorite Dustin Hoffman film? How could it be anything other than Tootsie? Or Kramer vs. Kramer? Or Rain Man? Or Little Big Man? Or All the President’s Men? Or Lenny? Or Kung Fu Panda? Or… Post a comment!