Dustin Hoffman

Dustin Hoffman is a Hollywood legend but is jealous of Hugh Grant. What other insecurities does he have? Nigel Farndale meets him

On a cloudy afternoon in London, I show Dustin Hoffman a newspaper headline. He feels in his pocket for steel-rimmed glasses, slips them on and tilts his head back. ” ‘Hugh, you’re a prick,’ ” he reads out loud in that chewy, gravelly voice.

“I hadn’t seen it. Does it hurt me?” he says.

The news story is about how Hoffman insulted Hugh Grant at the Empire magazine film awards – calling him “a real prick” when he seemed to suppress a yawn during Hoffman’s acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award. Hoffman’s reaction to the story seems chillingly self-centred, given that the insult was meant affectionately.

“I guess they took it out of context,” he says, folding his glasses away. “I just meant Hugh is so good-looking he didn’t have to get into acting to pick up girls, like I had to. All my painful adolescence I dreamed of looking like he does.”

That sounds a frivolous reason for becoming an actor, I suggest, considering that Dustin Hoffman is famously serious about what he does: the fretting over rehearsal time, the method acting, the demands for retakes. By way of an answer to my point, he embarks on a 10-minute, free-associating anecdote about a proctologist he knows, who examines rectums for a living because it pays better than any other branch of medicine.

So, I ask when he has finished, Hoffman was drawn to acting by the money, not the girls? No, that’s not it either. And off he goes on another tangent.

On the set of The Marathon Man in 1976, when Hoffman was insisting on “total immersion” in his role, an exasperated Laurence Olivier was driven to ask: “Why doesn’t the boy just act? Why does he go through all this sturm und drang?” And when the director Sidney Pollack was congratulated for winning an Oscar for Tootsie in 1982, he said: “I’d give it up if I could have back the nine months of my life I spent with Dustin making it.”

It occurs to me that one reason directors and fellow actors have found him difficult to work with over the years is that he can’t stick to the point. He has a desultory mind. He fusses over his answers, deviating, qualifying pointlessly, making even a sympathetic listener feel impatient.

“How did we get on to this?” he says eventually. I remind him.

“Right, right.” He grins. “That was why I was a bad student. I would never concentrate. Always staring out of windows, daydreaming, drifting off. You used the word ‘frivolous’ earlier. The real reason was even more frivolous than girls.

“I barely got through high school. At junior college a friend suggested I take acting class just to try and get the grades I needed, because no one ever flunked acting. It was either that or end up working at a fast food joint, or joining the army.”

So it was neither the girls nor the money, but the grades? “Grades and girls,” he corrects. “I was shy, short, had bad acne and suddenly, when I was acting, girls looked at me differently. They noticed me, for one thing. I was assigned an attractive girl to act a scene with and she gave me a look I had never gotten before. She looked at me like I was attractive. That felt good. I’d never felt attractive before.”

At 65, with his thick hair frosting at the temples, his laughter lines, his kind eyes and his warm grin, Hoffman is not, in fact, an unattractive man physically. And his personality is attractive enough: he’s friendly to the point of being ingratiating, he tells funny stories and does animated impersonations.

But before he became a Hollywood star, the first things women would notice about him were his puffin nose, his height (5ft 6in), his pitted skin – superficial things. I think that’s his point. Has he been suspicious of beautiful women who have been attracted to him since he became famous?

“Parts of it never changed for me, because if I was at a Hollywood party in my heyday, after The Graduate, say, and people like Jack Nicholson or Warren Beatty were there, men who were much more handsome than me, the best-looking girls, the models, gravitated to them first. Believe me.

“The feeling I got was the same as I had in school. I would only ever attract female versions of me. Female celebrities like Janis Joplin, who no man found attractive before she became famous.”

In fact, Hoffman has said in the past: “If anyone thinks that I got laid less than Warren Beatty, they’re wrong.”

Given that he felt insecure about his looks, wasn’t it masochistic of him to want to be scrutinised on a big screen? “Absolutely, that’s why I didn’t want to be a film star, I wanted to be a stage actor. That’s why Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall and I all fled to New York [where they lived together as young, undiscovered actors].

“We didn’t believe we had a chance to make it in movies, not against all those walking surfboards. We were on the stage as character actors, so it didn’t matter what we looked like.”

Dustin Hoffman has often drawn on his own experiences for his roles. While making Kramer vs Kramer, for which he won his first Oscar in 1979, he was going through a messy divorce, as was his character in the film. He won another Oscar for Rain Man in 1988, and to prepare for that role he spent a full year getting to know autistic people.

In Moonlight Mile, his first film for three years, which is out this week, he plays a man whose daughter dies in a random shooting. I ask whether he drew on his relationships with his own children (he has two from his first marriage, four from his second) for that role. Did he try to imagine how he would feel if one of his children was murdered?

“Sort of. I’m not a physically violent person. Out of practicality. I’m no dummy – I knew I wasn’t going to win many fights. But a few things have given me the feeling that I could kill, and it’s always to do with protecting children.

“When I see a car speeding in a neighbourhood full of children, I start screaming, ‘Slow down!’ If I had a baseball bat in my hand I would be capable of whacking the driver with it. It infuriates me because bad drivers are really fucking around with the lives of children.

“And I’m aggressive verbally in Central Park. Sometimes when I see parents pull their children up by the hair, say, I find myself shouting, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey! Stop that!’ ”

I ask about a scene in Moonlight Mile in which his character breaks down and cries – it was very convincing. How did he do it?

“It was an accident. It wasn’t written like that. We were waiting for the next set-up and I was talking about a time two years ago, when my son Max, then 16, suffered his first bereavement. A friend of his had been killed in an auto accident. It devastated Max. I don’t think he has ever gotten over it. Even now I feel emotional thinking about it.”

Hoffman pauses. He sucks in air between gritted teeth. His eyes fill up. If this were the cinema I, too, would be blinking back tears. But face to face, it is an oddly unmoving performance, as if this old pro, this skilled seducer, is tweaking his one-man audience with practised fingers.

“The thing I hate most about war,” he says abruptly, his voice still wavering, “what really frightens me, is that it has become such an abstraction. You have to have gone through loss yourself to understand what happens when one country drops three thousand bombs on another country in 40 minutes.

“It kills all the powerless sacrificial goats. It is stunning that, as human beings, we can’t take that reality in. We have that mental block in order to survive. I think there is something else afoot. I think America’s collective grief over September 11 is being manipulated and politicised for nothing more than hegemony, power and oil.”

In the past couple of weeks Dustin Hoffman has become Hollywood’s most high-profile campaigner against the war in Iraq. I ask if he feels ashamed to be an American. “You can be pro-American and anti its administration.”

Hoffman’s father, Harry, the Chicago-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, wasn’t anti-American either. In fact, he tried to realise the American dream. Indeed, when Dustin Hoffman played Willy Loman in a celebrated stage version of Death of a Salesman in 1985, he based the role on his father.

“My father moved out West in the 1930s with $50 in his pocket and at first he dug ditches – shirt off, shovel in hand. But he was ambitious and got a job as a props man in a film studio, hoping to become a producer. Then he was made redundant at the time I was born. We had cornflakes for dinner a lot.”

Does Hoffman think his childhood poverty coloured his attitude to money when he became a wealthy adult?

“The first big lump sum I got was $150,000 for Midnight Cowboy in 1969 and I remember walking down a street and looking at shop windows full of stereos and cameras and realising suddenly I could buy them all if I wanted to. That was an extraordinary feeling.”

Did he feel guilty about earning a lot of money when his father had to work so much harder for so much less?

“No.” He shakes his head and purses his lips. “No, because I still bought my father’s lie then that he was successful, which he had never been. It took me years to find out that he would borrow money from friends and give it to other people just so as people would think Harry Hoffman was rich.”

The actor does think, though, that his father felt impotent when usurped by his successful son as the family breadwinner. “I remember he was very angry at me for one reason: he wanted to be my business manager when I became successful, and I refused because I knew that would be a doomed project. I don’t think he ever forgave me for that.”

Ahard edge creeps into Hoffman’s voice when he talks about his father, and this is much more affecting than his actorly tears. “My father had been a bankrupt a few times,” he says slowly. “We were always moving house, every year or so. He would start a furniture store and it would go bust, but I never heard him use the actual word ‘bust’.

“There was once a bailiff came to the house and my mother started crying and my father found out. He was a little guy, 5ft 2in, but he went down to the repo company and beat the shit out of the boss there for going to my mother and not to him. He was a proud man. Tragic, in a way. The funny thing was, it didn’t hurt his pride to accept a Rolls-Royce from me or to go on cruises which I had paid for.”

Does he ever catch his father’s reflection in the mirror? “All the time. We mock what we are to become. God, yes. I was born on his birthday. When he was 80, I was 50 and we went for a walk on a beach, and he said: ‘Half a century, kid.’ And then he said: ‘I have to leave you something.’ I said, ‘You gotta stop worrying about me, Dad, just enjoy the time you have left.’ But he had this fantasy that he would leave a million dollars to his kids. He never did, of course. He died soon after that.”

I suspect that Harry Hoffman did leave his son a legacy – his insecurity. That and the ambition of a short man who has to push himself forward; who never feels he is attractive enough, or successful enough; who, despite being a Hollywood legend, worries still that a silly newspaper story might hurt him; a perfectionist who fears being exposed as a fraud if he turns in what he believes is a second-rate performance; a man who is genuinely, not just jokingly, jealous of people such as Hugh Grant who have the natural advantages in life he never had.

I ask if his father ever did stop worrying about him. “Not really. That day on the beach, when we finished our walk, we sat down on the sand. My kids, his grandchildren, were running around. He should have been happy, but suddenly he said: ‘Dusty, old boy, it’s all bullshit. It’s all bullshit.’ A whole lifetime had come to that.”

Does he feel the same, 15 years on? He grins, shakes his head and mouths the word no. “But ask me again when I’m 80.”