Dustin Hoffman finds a new calling

The Oscar-winning actor has conquered his own fear of failure and, finally, got round to directing a movie. He talks to James Mottram

It seems strange for an actor with a 45-year movie career and two Oscars on his shelf to be paralysed by fear of failure. Or, for that matter, to talk so openly about it. But Dustin Hoffman is different. "I didn't feel like a failure," he confides, leaning towards me. "I was a failure." Today, he looks anything but. Dressed in a pale blue shirt and dark trousers, his thick head of hair slicked-back and silver and his skin nut-brown, he radiates health. And no wonder. At 75, the star of The Graduate has finally graduated – making his directorial debut with Quartet.

Right now, we're discussing when he received an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. Old friends like Warren Beatty came to pay homage; it should've been a proud moment. Instead, he went home, got ready for bed and started to have a panic attack.

"And I never had one before. I understand now what it feels like because you want to jump out the window. It's a visceral pain, it's awful. You feel like you're eating yourself up. I felt the opposite of one being celebrated, because I felt that was it – it was like a eulogy and my life was over, and I felt I hadn't even begun to do what I wanted to do."

Was it his personal life? Hardly. Hoffman has fathered six children – two from his first marriage, and four from his now 32-year-long union to second wife, Lisa. He was baffled, and went straight into therapy "to discover" what caused this attack, a process that led to a work hiatus that didn't end until he returned with 2002's Moonlight Mile. "I think somehow it separated me from life, seeing all that work I had done. I couldn't think of the life I had lived while I was doing it. I think I came up with the expression, 'my life is Swiss cheese – filled with holes'."

Certainly, if there had been one thing gnawing away at him, it was that he'd never directed – something he has finally put right with Quartet. "I'm just a procrastinator," he shrugs. But there's more to it than that.

"I developed stuff on my own throughout the years and I always found an excuse to say, 'it's not ready, it's not right'." Beatty told him never to wait for a script to be right, because it never will be, but he carried on ducking projects. "That was neurotic, cowardly and self-destructive!"

With an impossible-to-shift reputation as a perfectionist on screen, the closest he ever came was directing Straight Time, the 1978 film in which he played an ex-con fresh out of jail. A pet project he initiated, he began the job of directing, only to "fire" himself after a few days and hire Ulu Grosbard. He never got close again. "Hollywood, like any other business, is reactive," he argues. "Unless you've proven yourself, they don't offer you anything to direct. They may offer yourself things to act in, if you've proven yourself, but not to direct."

The Los Angeles-born Hoffman, whose father was a prop supervisor and set decorator at Columbia Pictures, was always too busy proving himself on screen to commit to a project off it. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was Midnight Cowboy, All the President's Men and Kramer vs Kramer, his first Oscar win. In the 1980s, it was Tootsie and Rain Man, his second Oscar. More recently, he has flicked between off-beat comedies (like I Heart Huckabees and Barney's Version) to more mainstream affairs (Meet The Fockers, Kung Fu Panda).

Still, while his old friend and flatmate Robert Duvall directed, Hoffman never did. Until now. Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own play, Quartet is inspired by the 1984 documentary Tosca's Kiss, set around Casa Verdi in Milan, a mansion the famous composer built specifically to house retired opera singers.

"Why did I do this one? It was the one that was offered me," he states, bluntly. "They said, 'you have to say "yes" or "no" or we're moving on.' And I actually said, 'no'. And my wife said, 'no, no, no, you're going to do this.'"

Starring, among others, Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay, who play one-time musicians who decide to put on a concert, the film is rather quaint, evidently designed to cash in on the 50-plus crowd that went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This is not the Hoffman of his younger days, but the gentle soul from Last Chance Harvey. Understandably, he's made up at having squared up to his directorial demon. "It's the best revenge on mortality," he smiles. "Maybe as I progress through life from now on I can have fewer holes." We shift back onto the topic of failure, which – according to Hoffman – is a far more deep-seated fear than merely panicking after a Lifetime Achievement ceremony.

"I think that what you feel about yourself the first few years never leaves you. My brother was the 'A' student and the star athlete and I was neither. And I couldn't concentrate in school and I feel now that I should've loved school, because I loved learning and I loved reading, but I was programmed somehow to think he was a success, I was the failure, and it never left me. My childhood, my teenage years, are the worst memories I have in life." Hoffman, who might as well be lying on a couch at this point, tells me his breakthrough came in therapy.

"I never had a sense of myself, ever. I always felt fragmented, without knowing it consciously. And the first time I felt centred, ironically, was by playing someone else." While this may account for why Hoffman has been so damn good all these years, inhabiting other people's skins, it's a realisation that's finally let him unleash his inner director. Now he's hungry for more. He cites the 104-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira.

"That's the guy I look towards," he says. "He's still doing it!"

So this might just be the beginning of a whole new career for Dustin Hoffman.

'Quartet' opens on 1 January

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