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

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London