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Dustin Hoffman Makes a Magical Turn

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Dustin Hoffman stars in “Mr. Margorium’s Wonder Emporium.”

Dustin Hoffman

Makes a Magical Turn

by Brad Balfour

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.

Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman star in "Mr. Margorium's Wonder Emporium."

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?

Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman star in "Mr. Margorium's Wonder Emporium."

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.

Why do so many children's films have such dark themes? Well I was talking to my friend this morning, Cindy, the one that runs a preschool. And we were talking about that. She said, "This film does not have violence, as compared to Bambi. That's the first film I remember seeing. That mother died in flames." Wow. And Pinocchio fell asleep and his legs burned off. It's extraordinary how violent children's themes are. There's a sinister aspect to it. I don't know why. She liked very much death was a part of this film. She said, "Because death is a part of life. My kids are in preschool, and they want the truth somehow. It's dealt with simply in this film. Parents many times sugarcoat for children, and they should not." Acting is essentially playing. This film gives actors a genuine opportunity to play. Is that a different experience for you as an actor, than working on a screenplay that is more serious and has more violence? No. I work the same all the time. It's funny when you said "play." When I did this film with Johnny Depp [Finding Neverland], I had a couple of scenes with him and so before he came over and we talked over the scenes. I'm a producer of his play, which flops. He's a writer of the play and I was the producer. In talking about the scene, somehow Arthur Miller's name came up and I had worked with Arthur Miller on a "Death of a Salesman" revival. He said it's a play. A play. The critics just destroy the very meaning and essence. It's just play. They're the ones who put a serious stamp. And he loves that; in the film it becomes dialogue in the film.

Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman star in "Mr. Margorium's Wonder Emporium."

It's play. It's pretend, but my own feeling is that I don't think that I do, or actors do anything differently because we all do that. We all act. We all play, we all put on a face for whatever it's for whether it be our mother, or our boyfriend, or dentist, or what day it is, what clothing we're wearing. We're not ourselves. Ourselves are very private beings that we usually reserve for only a few. The rest is [mock cheerfulness] "Hey, how are you?" So I always think that what differentiates actors from everyone else is that we observe the way other people act and we try to find a craft in which we recreate it. That's what I do. I did have a lot of fun doing this [film], but not as much fun as Fockers, [Meet the Fockers] because in Fockers, I could just cut loose. I could improvise. Here I had to say what the director had me say. In Fockers, I would come home to my kids, and they said that I finally played myself. And that's a side that I do at home. I'm kind of crazy. They say to people, when they ask them, "What's your dad like?" they say, "We have a great dad but he's crazy. He's crazy." What are those scenes you have described as "freebies?" "Freebies" are just... Well, directors are directors, and they have a vision. They want to hit the note they want to hit. You make sure that you are comfortable with hitting that note and you obliged to do their vision. But many times when you work with them and do takes, you get impulses and I always... I think it started with the second movie I did – Midnight Cowboy – and that is the "freebie." Sometimes a director would say, "Well wait a minute, what are you going to do?" Well It's like writing, you know what you're going to write, but you don't know until you write it. So I would tell the director to let me just do the scene [the way I want to do it], I have this idea... let me just do it and that's a "freebie." There's many examples of it. In Tootsie, [director] Sydney Pollack wanted me to walk across the park; it was after I was disclosed and I wasn't a woman, and Charlie Durning's feelings are hurt, and I realize I have to apologize to Durning. So he had me walk up this bridge – there's mood music – and there's a mime in the background doing mime stuff. I say to [Sydney], can I have a "freebie?" And he says, "Okay," so I said, "I don't need sound." I went up to the actor and I said, "The next take, I'm just going to come up to you and I just want you to fall over." And that was a "freebie." And it wound up being in the movie. I didn't know what was going to happen – it was a "freebie." This film seems to be about mentors and protégés. During your career did you have mentors and are you mentor? This could be a long answer. I wanted to be a jazz pianist, but I wasn't good enough. I got into city college [in Santa Monica] because I didn't have the grades to get into university. I took acting because it was a way to get three credits. I just needed three credits and my friend told me to take acting because it was like gym – nobody fails you. I took it. And that's literally how I got involved in acting.

In those days, the hero, the mentor, was indisputably [Marlon] Brando. I don't think there's an actor today that tilted that axis the way Brando did. [He affected] Gene Hackman, Rob Duvall, James Dean, a whole generation of actors. There was something that he did that no one had seen before. A lot of people had been natural in their acting, a lot of people had been gifted, but he did a couple of things that were quite new. He hit a private spot that almost unbearable to watch sometimes. It was that private. There was a femininity in his masculinity that I don't think anyone had seen before. There was almost an androgynous sense sometimes in his acting. And it made him more masculine. He was the first mentor, and there was this teacher, Bobby Brown, who took me aside. He had 25 students, and I was one of them. I studied with him for two years and he had brought the method acting to Pasadena and they didn't like him. Those were the days of the "[House Committee on] Un-American Activities." They thought he was a communist. And he took me aside, and said, "You're a theater person, you're a theater animal. This is what you should do." He said, "Go to New York. Study in New York and nothing is probably going to happen at least ten years, so you've going to wait a lot of tables and you're going to get a lot of crap. You're a very strange type and you're going to have trouble getting work." He was absolutely correct, because it was 11 or 12 years later when I finally got the break for The Graduate. Mike Nichols became the next mentor. I was spoiled, and John Schlesinger followed on Midnight Cowboy. Both those directors brought theater rehearsal into film. They got permission from the studios. These directors somehow got three, four weeks of rehearsal [time] before shooting started. We were able to rehearse. We were able to build like you build a play. It's quite frustrating while you're shooting because you're trying to do this character in the third or fourth week, and you go to the director and say I've found him, he'll say it's too late because it's not going to match up with what you did those first three weeks. So they were mentors. I read stuff. I'm always affected by what I read. It doesn't matter whether they're painters or authors. I [had] just read this interview with Mailer, and he just talked about being older and one thing that was wonderful about it. He said, "You just reach a point where you win some and you lose some and you're not expecting a reward for everything you do. It's going to hit or not going to hit." Now I'm at the age where the mentor for me is the artist that survives. When I hear about a director like Sidney Lumet, who, at the age of 81, makes a film ["Before The Devil Knows You're Dead"]... I mean that's all you can ask for. There's this Portuguese director [Manoel de Oliveira] who came out with his latest film [O espelho mágico] at 97 years old. They are automatic mentors [laughs]. It has to do with that. Jason Bateman talked about how he admired you as an actor and a parent. What are your favorite memories of your kids? Parenting. The first thing I would advise is that you learn very quickly that they can out argue you. They start to understand your logic. They come back with "But why? But why? But why?" you cannot win it. It can go on forever. And one day, I just said, in great frustration, "Hey this is not a democracy. This is a dictatorship. There is no why. You're in bed by 9 o'clock. No discussion. I'm the dictator, when you get out of the house, you can have your democracy." I advise, as soon as you have your kids, you tell them this. [laughs] I mean that. You really start to hate them when you realize that they're brighter than you. How was your experience working with Natalie Portman? I met Natalie Portman years ago. I think she's about 26 now; I have a son about 26. The first break I got was in a Class Z summer spot, which meant there was no more than a hundred spots in New York. I got to play Peter in the "Diary of Anne Frank," which was {Anne's] boyfriend. When they did it on Broadway [in 1997], I went to go see it. I took my wife and saw Natalie Portman in it. So we went backstage to meet her. It's an image I won't forget. There she was in this room with her mother who was deciding to even let me and my wife in because she had Natalie sitting down doing finals. She did let us in and I did a very bad thing. I called up my son in Los Angeles and said, "I got her" [laughs]. He's hated me ever since, but I put him on the phone with Natalie and later he said, "Dad, don't pimp for me anymore." [laughs] And they talked and met a few times. But this was the first time I met with her, and Natalie's very bright, coming in every morning to make up doing a New York Times puzzle. She could do Monday and Tuesday very rapidly, but when you see her do Wednesday and Thursday and Friday...she strikes me as someone who belongs in that league, that short list of actors who try not to be seduced by stardom. I called her up after [I saw her in] Goya's Ghosts. It's a flawed film, but everything is flawed. There's some great stuff, some visually wonderful scenes between Javier Bardem and Natalie, and I saw a depth I hadn't seen in a work before. I called her up and said, "Holy cow!" It was kind of painful for her because the film didn't really open, and she put in all this work. She thanked me. She stays grounded. She tries her best. She's a professional. She's fun to work with. She really has a need for privacy. It's genuine. She has friends that she's kept since childhood. People that she hangs with since she was eight or nine years old. I wish her the best. You're making a film in London now? I did a film a year ago called Stranger than Fiction, with Emma Thompson [which incidentally was written by Mr. Magorium director Helm]. We had never met before, and we only did a couple of scenes in the movie. The director [Marc Forster] had to cut our scenes in half because he thought it distracted from Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal, so I said can I see the scenes you cut out? I saw them and thought, "Wow, Emma and me are cooking," so I sent her a copy and we vowed to find a way to work together. She found somebody that she knew over there, a filmmaker, who wrote a script with us in mind. Now we've got about two weeks left [to go]. It's a love story. Need I say for the boomers? [laughs] You never know if a film is going to be good or not, but you know if it's working day to day. It's called Last Chance Harvey about an American who's not in great shape. He writes jingles and the jingle days are over. It was big in the '60s, and '70s, and then, in the '80s, it kind of faded out. He's holding on with his fingertips, it's a new generation. So he goes to the wedding of his daughter that he's estranged from and meets his ex-wife that doesn't like him and as he goes there, he meets this woman on the airline: Emma. He asks her some questions and it becomes like a week-long relationship between the two. Emma is easily the most wonderful person to work with. She combines intelligence with a rare gift, which is intuitiveness. She's a very bright woman. She's exceptional and I'm lucky to work for her.

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: November 15, 2007.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2007. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2007. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2007. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2007. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

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