Movie Interviews
10:53 am
Wed January 16, 2013

'Quartet': Dustin Hoffman, Behind The Camera

Originally published on Thu January 17, 2013 3:08 pm

In December, the actor Dustin Hoffman sat in a box seat at the Kennedy Center as his old friend, Robert De Niro, saluted him at a celebration marking one of the highest accolades for an artist in the United States: a Kennedy Center Honor.

It was a recognition of Hoffman's decades-long career as an actor, during which he has played some of the silver screen's most memorable characters: Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie, Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, Carl Bernstein in All The President's Men. And the list goes on.

Now, at age 75, Hoffman has added "director" to his resume. His directorial debut, Quartet, opens in wide release on Jan. 25. The film, which stars Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly, tells the story of a quartet of aging opera singers who put on a concert in honor of Verdi's birthday at the retirement home where they live.

The film explores the lives of older artists — the way memory wanes and the high notes may recede into the distance — and how the point is to remember the value of those memories, the friendships and the time remaining.

"If we can put on the screen those feelings we have, the ups the downs," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "that's what I'm looking for."


Interview Highlights

On why he refuses to hold a gun onscreen

"I've always trusted that what I think is funny they will laugh at, what I think is moving will move them, what feels ... interesting [to me], they will find interesting. I don't find anything interesting about a gun. A gun is there to threaten or kill. ... A gun is rarely used in film in a way that feels like ... life."

On getting visibly teary at the Kennedy Center Honors

"What hit me — and it did hit me very hard ... [was] De Niro is announced, he comes out on the stage, and he starts talking about me and I realized, 'Oh, I guess I'm first up.' And ... I've known him for years and we're very good friends. I think we've always felt there's like a brotherhood between us ... but, you know, actors don't talk to each other about acting. ... But suddenly, in this speech he gave, what he said about me, he had never said. And it just got me, his feelings toward me as an actor. And I called him the next day ... and I told him over the phone how deeply it hit me, and he said to me midconversation, 'Dustin, stop,' he says, 'you're making me cry.' And even talking about it now, that was the highest moment for me, with all due respect to the president and the first lady."

On being praised for breaking the mold of the leading man

"I didn't change or alter the image of what a leading actor should look like. It was Mike Nichols. That part [in The Graduate] was written from a book by Charles Webb. ... The character Benjamin Braddock was identified in the book as being about 6 foot tall, blond hair, blue-eyed — interchangeable with Robert Redford, if you will, who also tested, and it was Mike who went against casting. And I must say that I went back to New York to go back on unemployment while they were cutting the film, and when they finished cutting the film, they showed it to people [who] had screening rooms in their homes in Beverly Hills, and they said later ... that people came up to them and said, 'What a great film you would have had if you had not miscast the lead,' and that was the feeling even after it was finished."

On creating the character of Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie

"Before we started shooting, I said ... 'Well, the first thing that comes to mind is, I'm not a very attractive man, nor have I ever been. And if I looked like this as a woman I would have [had] a lot of trouble.' And I really felt that the men I would be attracted to would not be attracted to me, and then ... I would not get married and compromise on some guy just to be married. I would probably give my life to my art. And that was the beginning of this character named Dorothy Michaels."

On being named after the silent movie star Dustin Farnum

"[M]y mother was in ... [the] hospital and she had a room with other people, and every day they would come in and say, 'You have to name your son.' And [my parents] couldn't get around to picking a name. And one morning, [the staff] said, 'We need it now,' and there was a magazine on the next bed ... a movie magazine, and there was the name 'Dustin Farnum.' And she picked 'Dustin,' and that was it."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Dustin Hoffman, received one of America's highest accolades for artists last month: a Kennedy Center Honor. And this month directs his directorial debut with the release of his film "Quartet." We're going to talk about "Quartet" and abut Hoffman's long career, which includes starring roles in such films as "The Graduate," "Midnight Cowboy," "All the President's Men," "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Tootsie," "Rain Man," "I Heart Huckabees" and "Meet the Fockers."

Last year, he starred in the HBO series "Luck," which was set in the world of horse racing. Let's start with a scene from "Quartet." It's set at a retirement home for aging opera singers and musicians. Each year, for the home's fundraising gala, the retired performers put on a show.

As they're preparing for the gala, a new resident arrives: a long-retired opera star played by Maggie Smith. Her arrival is a shock to one of the residents, played by Tom Courtenay, who used to be her husband and is bitter about the way they parted years ago. He's been trying to avoid her. She's been trying to talk with him. And when she does and attempts to apologize for the past, he responds curtly. She begins to cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "QUARTET")

TOM COURTENAY: (As Reginald Paget) I can't ever remember you crying.

MAGGIE SMITH: (As Jean Horton) I don't remember you being religious.

COURTENAY: (As Reginald) I'm not. I was trying to avoid you.

SMITH: (As Jean) I apologize for hurting you. Please be kind. We were different people then.

COURTENAY: (As Reginald) You know, you just said that, Jean. You're repeating yourself.

SMITH: (As Jean) God. Why do we have to get old?

COURTENAY: (As Reginald) That's what people do.

SMITH: (As Jean) We have to come to some arrangement.

COURTENAY: (As Reginald) I don't want to talk about it. You're here. I'm here, trapped.

SMITH: (As Jean) So what are we going to do?

COURTENAY: (As Reginald) Grin and bear it.

SMITH: (As Jean) What happened to forgive and forget?

GROSS: Dustin Hoffman, welcome to FRESH AIR. So here it is, your first outing as a director, although I think you did some directing on "Straight Time." So it's a perfect opportunity to mentor young actors as you direct, and of course most of the leads are older than you are in this movie. And, I mean, the actors you're directing are so exceptional. You know, Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay have had long careers. So what's an example of direction you gave them?

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: Well, I mean, the truth is the better the actor, the less work you have to do. An important part of it is talking before you even start shooting. I didn't know Maggie. I'd met her once when I went backstage in London years ago. She had done "Three Tall Women," I think it was, by Albee, and she was so brilliant in it.

But when I first talked to Maggie in person, you know, I told her some of my feelings, and I said this is kind of what I'm looking for. I said: Maggie, I said, you know, you're in your 70s. I'm in my 70s. Tom is. Billy keeps saying he's the youngest because he hasn't touched 70 yet, but Pauline Collins is.

And I said: If we can put on the screen, all of us, those feelings we have now at this point in our career, you know, the ups, the downs, you know, the fears and now that we can see that, you know, the end of the tunnel. I said: That's what I'm looking for. And she was in agreement.

As a matter of fact, I did Google these actors and read every interview I could come up with. And Maggie had said in a London Times interview she gave years ago, she had been undergoing - you know, she made no secret of it - chemotherapy and radiation at that time. I think she was in her early 70s. And she said in the interview, that's it. She said: I don't have the energy. I don't have the drive. I don't have the passion. This has just taken everything out of me. I'm not going to act anymore.

And the interviewer said: But you have your future. And she says: Most of it's been, or been. And when I quoted that to her, I said: I want that in the movie. And, in fact, it is. Toward the end of the film, Pauline Collins says: You have your whole future. And she says: Most of it's been.

You know, that was a feeling that I wanted her to come in with. She did quit acting then, and two, three years later, she started again, and she hasn't quit.

GROSS: I'll say. I think she's more popular now than ever with "Downton Abbey," and now your film. So...

HOFFMAN: And she was going back and forth between this film and "Downton Alley."

GROSS: Abbey.

HOFFMAN: Abbey - I call it "Downtown Alley."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: The American urban version.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So working with actors in their 70s, with you being in your mid-70s, did you want to take things at a slower pace out of respect for the fact that everybody was a little older and maybe might want a little more time? And were there memory issues on the set? I mean, memory is a big issue within the movie for the characters. Was it an issue on the set?

HOFFMAN: Well, you know, there's two groups in this film. There's the principal actors, and no there really wasn't there. And then there's the surrounding actors, which I always felt should be in the foreground, like Fellini used to - I always felt, took background and made them foreground.

And those surrounding members were - I mean, that was the most extraordinary part of the experience, because once they agreed to let me use real singers and real musicians, Lucy Bevin, who was the casting director, scoured the U.K. finding these people. And they - yes.

GROSS: Yeah, let me just explain again, that all the retired musicians and singers in this retirement home that's at the center of the movie, they're all real retired opera singers and musicians, a couple of them from, you know, orchestra musicians from the BBC Orchestra, people who'd sung with, you know, operas in London and a trumpeter who toured with Frank Sinatra when Sinatra toured Europe. So these are really interesting people.

HOFFMAN: Yes, and using the trumpet player, he represented everyone else that was retired. No one had rung their phone in 20, 30, at least, years. And he still has his chops. So there is that extraordinary phenomena of: Why does the society choose at some point to make us invisible, regardless of our talent?

And these people, all in their 70s, 80s, 90s, came to work every day, six in the morning, quite chilly, worked long hours, because it was a low-budget film. They had so much passion, so much gratitude, so much energy, if you will, that they kind of were the opposite of almost what the question, you know, your question implies. I wish most actors that I work with had so much focus and passion and clarity.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dustin Hoffman, and he directed the new movie "Quartet."

Is it ever difficult for you to find scripts that you like now? You know, in your 70s, I don't know, women are always complaining about after the age of 30 or 40 there's, you know, there's nothing. So has that been an issue for you as an actor?

HOFFMAN: Yes, of course it has. I mean, I was - my own phenomena, I had, you know, I had waited tables for the first 12 years, taking acting classes, and then basically "The Graduate," I always felt, was a freak accident. You know, suddenly, the light is switched on, and I'm working with the greatest American director at the time.

And I have this instant stardom, and I did start to get many scripts. I didn't like them. So I said, you know, I don't really like film that much. I'm going back to the theater. And a year later, I did read "Midnight Cowboy," which was, albeit, a supporting part. And I did do that.

But because I was this, you know, immediate star, I got all the scripts for people in my age range before anybody else did, and that was a luxury that continued through my - well, I was 29 when I did "The Graduate," even though I supposed to be 21, but it continued through my 30s, 40s.

Somewhere in there, in your 50s, if you're not holding a gun, and that I've always...

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: ...I've always refused to do, then suddenly this person who was an immediate leading - had leading roles suddenly started getting offered supporting parts. And then you get into your 60s and 70s, and those supporting parts are even less frequent. And suddenly you're being offered - lack of a better word - cameos, meaning that you die before the first act of the film is over. You have ailments. So, yes.

GROSS: So you refuse - you've refused to hold a gun throughout your career?

HOFFMAN: Yes, I did. I think I...

GROSS: That eliminates about 90 percent of movies.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Yes, it does. I did. I mean, there's - I mean, in "Little Big Man" I did, but it was for a comic effect. And in "Straw Dogs," the late Sam Peckinpah, we had a disagreement on what that film was about. So I think that was the last time I wanted to use a gun, because as you say, not only does it eliminate 90 percent of the films, it disallows a gratuitous element in the film. And it's very easy to make a point, you know, for - because the script is lacking something, by just pulling a gun out.

GROSS: So tell me why you refused to hold a gun.

HOFFMAN: I've just always felt passionate about the fact that the audience is identifying in a very fraudulent way. The idea is is that you bring an audience into a film, and what you're feeling, you know, strongly about, that the audience will feel the same way. I've always trusted that. What I think is funny, they will laugh. What I think is moving will move them. What I feel is interesting, they will find interesting.

I don't find anything interesting about a gun. A gun is there to threaten or kill. I've never really been on that end of it. I was on the other end of it at one point, and I have often said I don't think people understand what it's like to have a gun pointed at you. I remember when it happened to me, I think Kennedy had just been assassinated.

I was in - I was doing stock in Boston. And I remember the first thing I thought is: I'm going to take a hit. And every split second, you're feeling the bullet go right through you, and you're preparing for it. You're in immediate shock. And I was aware of how easy that finger is to just touch this thing called a trigger, and it's all over. I've never forgotten that feeling.

GROSS: But so you were afraid you were going to be shot? Is that what you were saying?

HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah. Like, oh, my God, yes. It was pointed at me, and the guy was - and...

GROSS: Oh. Was he trying to hold you up, or what?

HOFFMAN: No, no, it was a guy who was a part of a theater company on the producing end, and did not want his wife even to have it. So, you know, I was over at the house with a character actor friend. We were just beginning the season. And he had kind of lost his bottle, and he came out and pointed this gun.

I don't know much about guns, but I think it was a German Lugar, because the hole was so big in front. And I've never - you don't forget anything like that. A gun is never - is rarely used in film in a way that it is - feels like in life. It's simplified, basically, into being a cartoon experience.

GROSS: My guest is Dustin Hoffman. He makes his directorial debut with the new film "Quartet." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Dustin Hoffman. He's just directed his first film, "Quartet." Last month, he received a Kennedy Center Honor.

I enjoyed seeing you get the Kennedy Center Honor. You had tears in your eyes. You were sitting, I think, right in front of the Obamas. And as, you know, Robert De Niro and Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts, you know, spoke about your work and, you know, presented the award, you seemed to really be tearing up. Do you do that easily? Do you tear up easily, or was this just a particularly extraordinary moment for you?

HOFFMAN: Both.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: The older I get, the - you know, my kids always say if I make a toast at the table for - they say dad, don't cry, you know, because it seems to get more frequent. I didn't expect it here. And I think what got me was - what hit me, and it did hit me very hard, is when - because they don't tell you who's going to be there. I didn't even know if I was going to be the first, you know, of the four of us.

But De Niro is announced. He comes out on the stage, and he starts talking about me, and I realized: Oh, I guess I'm first up. And I've known him for years, and we're very good friends. I think we've always felt there's like a brotherhood between us. We just have this, you know, emotional bond. But, you know, actors don't talk to each other about acting or their performances.

And suddenly, in this speech he gave, what he said about me, he had never said, and it just got me. It - you know, his feelings toward me as an actor. And I called him the next day. He had actually flown out from Atlanta to Washington just to do this, and then had to fly back to Atlanta to continue shooting.

And I told him over the phone how deeply it hit me, and he said to me, mid-conversation: Dustin, stop. He says: You're making me cry. And even talking about it now, it's - that was the highest moment for me, with all due respect to the president and first lady.

GROSS: One of the things De Niro said was that the first time he met you, you were his waiter.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Yes.

GROSS: That's true?

HOFFMAN: Yes. And he didn't - and, you know, I've worked him four or five different films over the years, and the last time I worked with him was one of these Focker movies, and in the middle of the take, he - or at the end of a take, waiting for another setup, he comes up to me and, you know, to caricaturize - Bob, he always seems to start out with so - as if he's continuing a conversation that maybe he started the day before.

So, you remember 1969? I said kind of. He says: Remember, I think you were supporting McCarthy running for president. There was a restaurant. You - everyone was there. It was some kind of benefit. I said: on Second Avenue. He says, yeah, I kind of remember. And I'm looking at him quizzically, why are you bringing this up now, Bob? He says: I was your waiter.

GROSS: Oh, he was your waiter, right. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Yeah. And I said: Why did you just suddenly tell me this now? He says: I don't know. And then at the Kennedy Center he, you know, he expanded, and then he said the first thing I ever said to him was: How's the flounder?

GROSS: Right.

HOFFMAN: Which I think was a line he wrote.

GROSS: So one of the things that was said at the Kennedy Center Honors about you is that you redefined the movie's idea of a leading man, which of course you did with "The Graduate." And you expected to have a hard time, as somebody who looked ethnic, Jewish, and was also short.

So if you add up, like, the Jewish and the short, which was more of the obstacle early on? Or did they come together to make it, you know, like...

HOFFMAN: Oh, they were all there from the start. I mean, I was never - I was a peripheral person, you know, growing up, you know. And in junior high school and high school and even, you know, one year I went to college, junior college, I just was considered, you know, short, unattractive and a kind of good, healthy case of acne on me. So that feeling about myself stuck.

GROSS: If you were insecure about the way you looked, did that translate to your ability to give a good audition?

HOFFMAN: No. We didn't give a good audition for another reason.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: I say we meaning I hung out with Bob Duvall and Gene Hackman. And if you're a musician, or if you're a singer or a dancer and you audition, you sing, or you, you know, you play the piano, or you perform in some way. But if you're an actor, you don't know what that character is. We study and had studied for years and years and years with these giants of acting in those days, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler.

And there was a craft and an art to acting, and one of the conditions or the precepts were is that when you first start, you don't do anything. You let - see what happens. And the character takes time to build, just like in painting or in writing. And so at an audition, they want the performance.

And my roommate Bob Duvall used to see this, you know who gets these parts? He says, the people that what-you-see-is-what-you-get. And, in other words, what they did in the audition, they wound up doing four weeks later when the play opened, because they - you know, the directors and the producers, they want to see the character. And that's a kind of a contradiction to what we do, you know, for a living.

We actually would take our eight-by-10 glossies - is what you bring with you - and slip it under the door of the casting person, knock once or twice and leave, because we just couldn't take it anymore.

GROSS: Did Mike Nichols have you - I know he saw you in a play and was pretty confident he wanted you for "The Graduate," but did he have you do an audition?

HOFFMAN: Yes. He wasn't confident that he wanted me. He auditioned me. I was with Katharine Ross. I think he had been looking for at least a year and a half, and we were at the end of the list. I really do believe that if we had been in the first week of people he was screen-testing, we wouldn't have gotten it.

I was told later that Larry Turman, the producer, when they looked at the test - which went very badly - you know, they turned to each other, and Larry says, well, you know, that's it. There's nobody else I can think of that we should - we can test. You know, either we go with them, or we don't do it.

And I think it was a resigned feeling that they go with us. And if I may say, I didn't change the - or alter the image of what a leading actor should look like. It was Mike Nichols. That part was written from a book by Charles Webb called "The Graduate." The character, Benjamin Braddock, was identified in the book as being about six feet tall, blond hair, blue-eyed, I mean, interchangeable with Robert Redford, if you will, who also tested.

And it was Mike who went against casting. And I must say that when the film was finished, I went back to New York to go back on unemployment while they were cutting the film. And when they finished cutting the film, they showed it to people who had screening rooms in their homes, Beverly Hills. And they said later - both Turman and Nichols in interviews - that people came up to them and said what a great film you would have had if you had not miscast the lead.

And that was the feeling, even after it was finished.

GROSS: Dustin Hoffman will be back in the second half of the show. He directed the new film "Quartet," starring Maggie Smith. It's opened in New York and L.A., and opens more widely at the end of this month. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dustin Hoffman. He made his directorial debut this month with the release of the film "Quartet," starring Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay, as residents of a home for aging opera singers and musicians.

When we left off, we were talking about being cast by director Mike Nichols as the star of the 1967 film "The Graduate."

So, let me just introduce a scene from the film. "The Graduate" is about, you know, you've graduated college. You've come back. You're living with your parents in their suburban home. You don't have a job. You don't know what your future looks like, and you've started having an affair with the unhappy suburban woman. She is also the mother of the woman you end up marrying at the end of the movie.

So you're having this affair with her that's really just all about sex, and it's kind of driven, in a large way, by her boredom and your young sexual appetite. So you're in bed, and you get out of bed after having sex. You turn on a light, and you basically think maybe it's time to actually say something to each other. So here's that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GRADUATE")

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Look, for months, all we've done is come up here and leap into bed together.

ANNE BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) Are you tired of it?

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) I'm not. No. But do you think we could liven it up with a little conversation for a change?

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson)Well, what do you want to talk about?

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Anything. Anything at all.

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) Do you want to tell me about some of your college experiences?

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Oh, my God. Think of another topic.

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) How about art?

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Art. That's a good subject. You start it off.

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) You start it off. I don't know anything about it.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Well, what do you want to know about it? Are you interested more in modern art or in classical art?

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) Neither.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) You're not interested in art?

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) No.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Then why do you want to talk about it?

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) I don't.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Now, look, we're going to do this thing. We're going to have a conversation. Tell me what you did today.

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) I got up.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Hmm.

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) I fixed breakfast for my husband.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) There. There's something we could have a conversation about: your husband.

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) Oh. Him.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) I mean, everything. I don't know anything about how you work this. What do you say to him when you leave the house at night?

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) Nothing. He's asleep.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Always? Doesn't he wake up when you come home?

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) We have separate bedrooms.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Oh, I see. So you don't - I mean, I don't like to seem like I'm prying, but I guess you don't sleep together or anything.

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) No, we don't.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Well, how long has this been going on?

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) For God's sake, let's drop this.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Well, wait a minute. Why did you marry him?

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) See if you can guess.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) Well, I can't.

BANCROFT: (as Mrs. Robinson) Think real hard, Benjamin.

HOFFMAN: (as Ben) I can't see why you did, unless - you didn't have to marry him or anything, did you?

GROSS: That's Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in a scene from "The Graduate."

So was it awkward for you, your first time in a movie, to be in bed with Anne Bancroft, who's already a star because of her role in "The Miracle Worker"?

HOFFMAN: No. It was - the hardest part was to be in bed with playing a lead that was supposed to be handsome, just getting the part. When he first called me and asked me to test, I read it and I said to him: I don't want to test. I don't think I'm right for it. I feel awkward trying to pretend that I'm anywhere near someone looking like Robert Redford. And he convinced me. And so, you know, I went into it reluctant from the beginning. And I think he felt a reluctance as we were shooting. You know, have I made a mistake? It was a huge piece of miscasting. Working with Anne Bancroft was one of the great parts of the experience, because she is a great actor. Ironically, she lived on the same street as I did with Mel Brooks, and he was my idol. And...

GROSS: I know - I - wait. No. I had read that you actually turned down a part in "The Producers" in order to do "The Graduate." Is that true?

HOFFMAN: Yes. Mel Brooks gave me what I thought was going to be the start to my career, because he had seen me Off-Off-Broadway, offered me a part in "The Producers." I said yes, a thousand times, yes. And then I get "The Graduate," and I had to, you know, call him and say I can't do it. I got this other part. And being in bed with Anne Bancroft, it's just working. It's just making movies. It was not difficult. It was more difficult...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. And it was - it's Mel Brooks' wife, Anne Bancroft.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Yes. And it was more difficult for him, because Anne told me that he used to call up every other day, because he was in New York and we were in L.A. And he would always start the conversation off with: Did he kiss you yet?

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: He was a little jealous.

GROSS: So that's how you thanked him for offering you a role? Turning it down and going to bed with his wife.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So, "Kramer vs. Kramer," one of your big movies. You won an Oscar for it. You know, you're married to Meryl Streep in the beginning, and you're so obsessed with your job in an advertising agency that you're really hardly paying attention to her or your son. And she tells you that she's breaking up with you, and you don't even hear her at first. And when she walks out the door you kind of notice what's going on and you think she's going to come back, but she doesn't. And so you're in the position of being the single parent with your son, and you have to reshape your whole life. And it's a long series of discoveries about your son and parenthood and the meaning of work in your life and so on.

So let me just play a brief scene here. And this is the famous French toast scene, where it's the first morning after your wife has left and you're making French toast for your son, and you have no idea how to make it and he's kind of directing you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "KRAMER VS. KRAMER")

HOFFMAN: (as Ted Kramer) Now, where does Mommy keep the...

JUSTIN HENRY: (as Billy Kramer) It's in the stove.

HOFFMAN: (as Ted Kramer) ...pan? Stove. OK. First thing we need is a nice, hot fire. No, you're not doing it right. Come here. Come here. Come here. You're not doing it right. Look, you have to do it fast. See. The wrist. It's the wrist. So the gunky part gets dissolved. Then you take the bread, and we - we - we - we fold it. That's what we do. We fold the French toast.

HENRY: (as Billy Kramer) I think you forgot the milk.

HOFFMAN: (as Ted Kramer) I didn't. Milk comes last. You always got to put the milk in last. When you're having a good time, you forget the most important thing, right? I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. It's been a long time since I made this. That's fun, isn't it? When's the last time Mommy let you in the kitchen?

HENRY: (as Billy Kramer) I don't like it when it's in pieces.

HOFFMAN: (as Ted Kramer) Look, French toast tastes the same whether it's in pieces or whether it's whole. I mean, bread is bread, you know? Besides, what you don't know is just that French toast is always folded. You go into the best restaurants anywhere in the world and you see folded French toast. You get more bites that way, right?

(as Ted Kramer) Meanwhile, that's going, Daddy is going to make a little bit of coffee for himself. You having a good time? Are you? All right. We're having a great time. I don't remember the last time I ever had such a good time. Daddy is going to make himself a little coffee.

HENRY: (as Billy Kramer) It's too much coffee.

HOFFMAN: (as Ted Kramer) No, no, no. I like it strong. Your Mommy always makes it too weak.

HENRY: (as Billy Kramer) Can I have some orange juice?

HOFFMAN: (as Ted Kramer) Orange juice. Right. All right. One OJ coming up for the kid.

HENRY: (as Billy Kramer) Daddy, it's burning. It's burning.

HOFFMAN: (as Ted Kramer) What?

HENRY: (as Billy Kramer) It's burning.

HOFFMAN: (as Ted Kramer) Ouch. Dammit. Goddamn her.

GROSS: That's Dustin Hoffman in a scene from "Kramer vs. Kramer." You were already divorced or separated when - from your first wife when you made the film. You had a child. Were you relating to the character when you made it?

HOFFMAN: You know, I was actually separated, you know, which led in the - kind of in the midst of getting a divorce. And my first wife had brought a child into the marriage, and we had biologically our own kid. So, yes, we had two kids. And I was aware that this was the first time that I was ever making a film or doing any kind of an acting job of what I was going through in life, I was going to work to pretend to be doing. And people said to me at that time, you know, was it painful? Was it difficult? And I said, no, it's actually quite liberating.

And I was aware then that, you know, actors aren't really creators. We're re-creators of what someone else has written. And this was the first time I could feel like a creator. And the director, Bob Benton, who also wrote it, allowed me to alter things based on what I was feeling on the day. There was a great deal of improvisation. And on that scene, there was also - I might add that Justin Henry, who was so wonderful in it, first started coming...

GROSS: He played your son. Yeah.

HOFFMAN: Yes. He first started coming to work, I think he had been kind of "directed," quote-unquote, by his parents the day before or days before. So he kind of was set in the way he would say things. And it wasn't like he was in life. And I said, Justin, you know - right in the first week - Justin, you don't talk like that when we talk together. Why are you acting like quote, "a kid" out of some TV sitcom or something? I said to just, you know, be yourself.

And Benton and I agreed that we would not tell his parents what scene we were shooting on the day, so that we would literally find it that particular day and we would improvise it, and then narrow it down in terms of what choices we would use for the takes. But his performance, as was mine, was basically improvised, so that he didn't try to do a kid. He just - he played himself. And we did have an emotional bond between each other which I, you know, you really can't act. That either exists, or it doesn't.

GROSS: My guest is Dustin Hoffman. He made his directorial debut this month with the release of the film "Quartet," starring Maggie Smith.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Dustin Hoffman. He directed the new film "Quartet." He's won Oscars for his performances in "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Rain Man." Last year, he starred in the HBO series "Luck."

You know, we've talked a lot about acting. You taught acting when you were in your 20s, before you were even in a movie. When you look back at what you taught when you were in your 20s, would you stand by any of that?

HOFFMAN: Yeah, because I wasn't teaching movie acting. I was teaching acting as best as I could, and it was after a few years of studying with Strasberg. So I felt I understood how to teach it. In "Tootsie" there's a scene where I am teaching actors. And I improvised that scene, and basically, that was a real classroom of actors that my friend, Jack Waltzer, who was a teacher, I called him up the day before. I said, send over your class tomorrow morning at 6:30. I finally had been allowed to shoot this scene.

And those are real actors, and I'm just doing what I did on the days I taught acting, and it's right there, of what it's about. It's - basically, it's don't follow the derivative. Unfortunately, it's the derivative that usually gets hired. When you have an original feeling, it's usually because you yourself are a unique person, so your questions are your questions about the character, just as you, Ms. Gross, your questions - I would bet - are your questions, and not someone else telling you to ask these questions.

GROSS: True.

HOFFMAN: And that's what I started with.

GROSS: So you mentioned "Tootsie." There's that famous scene in "Tootsie" where Sydney Pollack, the director of the film, is playing your agent. And you go in and you're complaining that you're not getting parts, and that you sent him your roommate's play and you want to be in that play. And Sydney Pollack, your agent, hasn't done anything with it, and you're angry with him. I want to just play that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOOTSIE")

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) Look, I don't want to argue about it, OK? I'm going to raise the $8,000 myself so I can produce his play, and I want you to send me up for anything. I don't care what it I. I will do dog commercials on television. I will do radio voiceovers.

SYDNEY POLLACK: (as George Fields) Michael, I can't put you up for any of that.

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) Why not?

POLLACK: (as George Fields) Because no one will hire you.

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) Oh, that's not true, man. I bust my ass to get a part right, and you know I do.

POLLACK: (as George Fields) Yes, and you bust everybody else's ass, too. That's what you do. A guy's got four weeks to put on a play, you think he wants to sit and argue about whether or not Tolstoy can walk when he's dying, or walk when he's talking, or sing when he's walking or...

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) Oh, please, that was two years ago, and that guy is an idiot. And...

POLLACK: (as George Fields) They can't all be idiots, Michael. You argue with everybody. You've got one of the worst reputations in this town, Michael. Nobody will hire you.

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) Are you saying that nobody in New York will work with me?

POLLACK: (as George Fields) Oh no, that's too limited. Nobody in Hollywood wants to work with you, either. I can't even send you up for a commercial. You played a tomato for 30 seconds, they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn't sit down.

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) Yes. It wasn't logical.

POLLACK: (as George Fields) You were a tomato. A tomato doesn't have logic. A tomato can't move.

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) That's what I said. So if he can't move, how's he going to sit down, George? I was a stand-up tomato, a juicy, sexy beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables Off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber. I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.

POLLACK: (as George Fields) Michael, I'm trying to stay calm, here. You are a wonderful actor.

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) Thank you.

POLLACK: (as George Fields) But you're too much trouble. Get some therapy.

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) OK, thanks. I'm going to raise $8,000, and I'm going to do Jeff's play.

POLLACK: (as George Fields) Michael? You're not going to raise 25 cents. No one will hire you.

HOFFMAN: (as Michael Dorsey) Oh, yeah?

GROSS: That's Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack in a scene from "Tootsie."

I think a lot of people have wondered how much were you playing yourself or Sydney Pollack's vision of you in that scene, and did this reflect your working relationship at all?

HOFFMAN: Yes to all those questions, is the short answer. "Tootsie" was originated by myself and Murray Schisgal, a friend of mine at the time - which is another story - where we actually asked each other one day, you know, we all know what if feels like when we say, you know, what would it be like to be the opposite sex? But we had never asked: Would our personalities be different if were we the opposite sex. And that was really the beginning of "Tootsie."

And we went and spent two years writing drafts of it. The real answer to your question is, you know, a comedy is, I think, is no different than life. There's a serious underside to comedy. And every actor that I know that saw that film saw the underside, saw the contradiction of when you study your craft for years and then when you go out and get a job, it's two different animals.

The people want you to do it fast. They're not interested in you being specific. They're not interested in you, you know, going for the details. Say the lines, you know, hit your mark and get off the stage. Or get fired. In this scene I am saying but a tomato doesn't have legs. A tomato can't move. And that's exactly what we would then try to solve in acting class.

And we don't just play a tomato. It's specific. A painter doesn't just paint a tomato. It's specific. What kind is it? But in film acting everything was kind of made more general and in a sense less of an art form. So actors understood it on a level that no one else did. I still maintain, I mean, yes, if you were doing that scene, I don't feel any differently.

Someone would say, you know, move. You say, I can't move. I'm a tomato. A tomato doesn't have legs. And then you would find a way to roll, or to do something where you couldn't use your legs. That's acting.

GROSS: So did you, when you were making "Tootsie" and helping to write "Tootsie," think a lot about who you would be if you were a woman?

HOFFMAN: Yes. That's all I did. The first thing before we started shooting, I said to Murray, I said, well, the first thing that comes to mind is, I'm not a very attractive man, nor have I ever been. And if I looked like this as a woman, I would have a lot of trouble.

And I really felt that the men I would be attracted to would not be attracted to me, and then I - I mean, you make up your own back-story. Well, then I would not get married and compromise on, you know, some guy just to be married. I would probably give my life to my art. And that was the beginning of this character named Dorothy Michaels.

And I saw myself as that unattractive but, you know, nevertheless, you know, very strongly self-willed person.

GROSS: Did it make you rethink the kind of woman you were attracted to after thinking of yourself as an unattractive woman?

HOFFMAN: Say again?

GROSS: OK. So many men, even if they think they're not attractive, really feel this desire that they have to, you know, be a partner with a beautiful woman.

HOFFMAN: Yes.

GROSS: And they won't look twice at a woman who they don't think is beautiful.

HOFFMAN: Yes.

GROSS: So having played the role of a woman who isn't beautiful, did it make you reconsider...

HOFFMAN: It hurts. Just to hear you say that still hurts.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Yes. Yes. I actually - do you know that when we were doing the movie, a crew guy came up to me, and I looked like a woman - it was very successful - in the lighting. And you know, it took almost a year to get the makeup and everything right. The idea was that if I walked down the street, I didn't want the public to think that they would turn and look and say: Who's that guy in drag?

I wanted to be able to fool the average person in the audience. That's what we were trying to do. And a crew member came up to me and said I brought a friend of mine. Can I introduce him to you as your character, Dorothy Michaels, see if we can fool him? And I said sure, go ahead. And he brought the guy over and the guy didn't know anything about the movie.

He knew that Jessica Lange was in it. And he looked me up and down in such a blunt, painful way. I felt like I was a Venetian blind.

You know, he just shut the blind and looked and said, you know, where's Jessica Lange? And that happened. Guys started to do that, with crew - crew guys with their friends. And I said to my wife after a few times, I said I cannot believe that men - and I included myself - could be that callous and in a sense erase a human being who didn't fulfill their ideas of what attractive is.

And my wife said to me - I remember in that conversation she says, what do you mean? I said, well, if I met myself at a party, I wouldn't have come up to me. And I think I'm a very interesting woman. And I got emotional at that moment.

GROSS: My guest is Dustin Hoffman. He made his directorial debut this month with the release of the film "Quartet," starring Maggie Smith. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Dustin Hoffman. He directed the new film "Quartet." When we spoke in 1999, after you had produced the film "Walk on the Moon," you talked about how when you were growing up, your father was basically an atheist. He might have described himself that way but he was very dismissive about religion, saying it was basically a lot of hooey.

But over the years it sounds like you've gotten more - that you have identified more with religion, practiced it more. You bar mitzvahed and bat mitzvahed your children. You never were bar mitzvahed, I think.

HOFFMAN: Correct.

GROSS: What changed?

HOFFMAN: My second wife.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: My second wife grew up in a more religious atmosphere than I did, and that's why our kids went to the Hebrew school and why they were both bar mitzvahed and bat mitzvahed and why we celebrated holidays. I didn't even know what those holidays were, frankly - Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah. I didn't have a clue.

And I don't speak the language. I spoke a little Yiddish because my Romanian grandmother lived with us and whenever the parents didn't want you to understand what they were talking about, they would speak Yiddish. And my mother could speak Yiddish. But yes, my father never called himself an atheist but he just thought it was a lot of hooey and there was no such thing as God.

And consequently I remember lying on the grass at night on my back every, you know, night. And I would talk to God and I would ask him questions and I would hear his answers. So I kind of made up my own God. In terms of feeling Jewish, yeah. I mean, yes, I do feel my ethnicity. I'm from Kiev, Russia, and from Iasi, Romania.

I love borscht. I think I understand what Jewish humor means. And I have a penchant for vodka. I'm a Jew, I think, in my bones.

GROSS: Is it gone from cultural to religious as well?

HOFFMAN: No. It hasn't. It's - otherwise I probably would have gotten myself bar mitzvahed. I don't know if it's correct to have it or not, but organized religion has always - I've kept a kind of distance from. And I don't think it has anything to do with your own personal feelings. And in order to please God or to do things moral, to have a morality in order to please God or get into heaven, I have always felt is kind of hypocritical.

I think your morality is your morality and you have it just because that's the way you want to live your life. Not to get a reward. The reward is in the living itself.

GROSS: So one more thing. Your father worked in movies before you were born. He was in the props department and the head of the props department at Columbia Pictures. And you were named after the silent screen actor Dustin Farnum. I don't think I've seen him in anything.

HOFFMAN: You're too young.

GROSS: Well, I've seen silent films but I don't believe I've seen him.

HOFFMAN: Right.

GROSS: But I don't know what films he's been in. I should have looked it up but I didn't. So did you go back and watch his films so you would know who is it I'm named after and what did he mean to my parents?

HOFFMAN: I'm ashamed to say I did not. He didn't mean anything to my parents. That I know. But now that there's the Internet, I probably could...

GROSS: So why did they name you after him if they...

HOFFMAN: Well, they expected a girl and my father was kind of a dogmatic guy. He bet people that I would be born on his birthday and it would be a girl. I was born on his birthday but I wasn't born as a girl. My mother - we were lower middle class. My mother was in a place called Los - in Los Angeles Angels Hospital, and she had a room with other people.

And every day they would come in and say you have to name your son. And they couldn't get around to picking a name. And one morning they said we need it now, and there was a magazine - on the next bed the woman was reading a movie magazine, and there was the name Dustin Farnum. And she picked Dustin, and I - and that was it.

And he was cowboy actor. He was a silent movie cowboy actor, he and his brother, William Farnum. And before that, I think they were Shakespearean actors. But now I will try to take - I've seen photos of him. But I'll tell you what's one of the great perks about having a successful career is the number of people that I now see and hear that are named Dustin.

GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah.

HOFFMAN: You know, particularly athletes.

GROSS: They're all named after Dustin Farnum. They don't want to tell you that.

HOFFMAN: You're right.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: You're right.

GROSS: Well, Dustin Hoffman, I want to thank you so much for talking with us again, and thank you for your movies.

HOFFMAN: Oh, thank you, Ms. Gross. May I just say that...

GROSS: Can you just call me Terry?

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Dustin Hoffman directed the new film "Quartet." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.