Dustin Hoffman: Meet the parent

Dustin Hoffman, devoted family man, is perfectly cast in Meet the Fockers. No 'method' necessary, he tells Simmy Richman
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The Independent Culture

Anyone who's seen his recent television chat-show appearances will find it difficult to reconcile the easygoing man-of-the-world Dustin Hoffman has become with the actor described as "diffident" by Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion. In London for what the film company behind Meet the Fockers calls "international promotion" - Hoffman refers to it as "a junketty junk" - he's here, he says, because "De Niro is finishing a film, Ben Stiller is busier than anybody I ever met, and Barbra Streisand is building a house. Besides that," he adds, "I'm here because they asked me to come."

There are other, more important, reasons. While Hoffman has been turning on the charm for the procession of camera crews that have been lining up outside his Dorchester hotel suite since 7am, his wife of 25 years, Lisa, has been out shopping at "Marks and Sparks" for "great underwear and baby clothes for our new grandchild". Hoffman cannot conceal his pride as he adds this detail.

In fact, 2005 marks the beginning of a new era for the Hoffmans. "We have one kid left in the house and she's leaving us to study in four months' time. Then, for the first time in 35 years [Hoffman has an older daughter from his first marriage], we'll be free from regulating our lives around the school calendar. Thank God almighty, free at last."

It is this family man that the director of Meet the Fockers, Jay Roach, asked Hoffman to bring to the part of Bernie, Ben Stiller's touchy-feely father in the film. After "sitting down" together in Los Angeles, Roach said: "I listened to Dustin talk about his family. He's incredibly generous and open, and 10 minutes after you've met him, you feel like he'll tell you anything. After talking with Lisa, I realised that Dustin is the Jewish mother of his own family.

"Who Dustin is, and who Bernie came to be, were in perfect synchronicity. Dustin has no personal space issues; he'll eat the food off your plate and you can eat the food off his. And that dynamic is in direct contrast to De Niro's alpha male character in the film, who is not willing to relinquish control of his family."

Hoffman doesn't reject the comparison, but he's not entirely buying it. "Well, like all the parts I play, it's an extension, a magnification of a certain part of myself. I mean, I like to have a tactile relationship with my family. I like to kiss my kids and I like my kids, even my grown sons, to kiss me."

Did he have that kind of relationship with his own parents? "Oh, I know what you're doing..." he laughs, flashing an "are you trying to psychoanalyse me?" smile, before replying, simply: "No."

He continues: "But I don't think it was an intellectual decision for me to be tactile with my kids. I think it was visceral" - a word he uses half a dozen times in the interview. "If you're asking me from a therapist's point of view, I'd say that the first time I realised what kind of animal I was, was through my first dog. Talking to my dogs, playing and petting and taking them to bed. We had a tactile connection, a non-verbal communication."

It's intriguing that he should use this phrase. As an actor who created some of the most memorable characters in movie history, what Hoffman has that few others can reach is an ability to talk to the camera (and audience) without using words. The skill was always there: the final scene of The Graduate saw Hoffman sitting in silence at the back of a bus with Katharine Ross's Elaine. As the camera locks on to the couple, Hoffman's face slowly morphs from the cat that got the cream to the fears and hopes of the future. When people asked Mike Nichols, The Graduate's director, what happened to the couple when the camera stopped rolling, he'd reply: "They turned out to be their parents."

Hoffman describes filming the scene. "Nichols had a handheld MOS camera. You know what an MOS camera is? When one of the German directors fleeing the Nazis first came to Hollywood, he'd use what he called a 'mit out sound' camera. The name stuck. Anyway, Katharine and I were facing Nichols, and he said, 'Look back. Look forward,' but he never gave us emotional direction.

"He asked us how we felt rather than telling us what to feel. He said, 'Look at each other and think a specific thought, such as what you like about each other.' At the end, he said those magic words that few directors know: 'Don't do anything.' That way, whatever is going on is going to come out." And come out it did, turning Hoffman into an international star.

Hoffman would follow The Graduate with a string of films (Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Kramer vs Kramer, Tootsie and others) that demonstrated to the world how far the actor's craft had come under the famed "method" system.

He also gained a reputation as a tricky and troubled perfectionist. "Well, that came about because I had no agent or publicity person back then. I had an agent when I was waiting tables for 10 years; I figured that they didn't get me work when I needed it, so I didn't need them when I started getting good work.

"Also, I was coming out of the 1960s and 1970s. It was the opposite of what things are like now. Nobody got dressed up, nobody went to the Golden Globes. Suddenly, I'm thrust into stardom and there is a climate - with the anti-war movement, and before that Kerouac and Ginsberg - when the conceit was to be anti-establishment. It was a time when you would not admit it if you did a commercial, you would not want anyone to know that you did a few days on a soap or a B-movie."

Beyond that cultural heritage, Hoffman has spent his life learning to trust his gut instincts. "I studied my art - and I use the word not in a fanciful sense - under these great teachers," he says. "That gave me the strength to say 'fuck you' when things did not feel right in the pit of my stomach. We wanted to work, but we would rather not work than do bad work.

"We did not want to be a part of the family of mediocrity, whether we were right or wrong. You know when you're doing something that's bullshit. It's like when you're with a girl and the only reason you're there is that you want to get laid. You know in the pit of your stomach that it's shit. Some people don't know, but if you do, you can't abide it. Can ... not... abide it. And anyway, 'fuck you' is an empowering phrase," he states firmly - even though, if he were to listen to some of the more unkind critics, it's a phrase he appears rather less willing to employ these days.

"You know," he says, "so much of what is written is bullshit. But people can't help but go by what they hear and what they read. And it becomes fact. Say it enough times, and it becomes fact. Goebbels was right, and the Bush campaign knows this. I'm no different myself. I believe everything I read. I'll be looking at something and I'll say, 'Hey Lisa, did you know that Brad Pitt...' We all do it."

To demonstrate, there's a story among the Hoffman legends that, when you ask the actor about it, turns out to be apocryphal at best and downright mischievous at worst. "Weren't you told to get a nose job or you couldn't have The Graduate?"

"Complete bullshit," he says. "There was a story about Peter O'Toole and Lawrence of Arabia, and that got mixed up, as these things do in this proliferation of media. But no one ever asked me to get my nose done."

To prove that journalism can contain truth, and that the purpose of a "celebrity profile" should be to get under the skin of a person in the same way that Hoffman strives to do, here is a verbatim account of where he stands politically - plus an illuminating example of how another "non-story" about him made the journey from London to New York and back.

"I realise now that there is a kind of art to the way journalists can create a good story," he says. "I was doing this junketty thing in America during the recent election campaign. Wasn't the Republicans' campaign masterful, by the way? They knew their stuff. They knew the hot points. Funny how during the campaign there was all that business with 'Yellow Alert today, Red Alert today'. What were we supposed to do? 'It's Red, but go and just do your thing, but be aware that it's a Red Alert today.' Funny that we don't have those any more. But it planted the notion that if you vote for John Kerry, we'll get hit, no question. They're coming at us and only Bush can stop al-Qa'ida.

"From whatever slim understanding I have on it, the World Trade Centre happened not because of the expertise of the terrorists, but because of complete ineptitude and incompetence on the side of the CIA and FBI. They didn't speak to each other. These guys were taking flying lessons, saying, 'We don't have to know how to land.' I mean, my god.

"Anyway, I was doing this junket and I don't like to say 'no comment' and I don't like mouthing off. It's so seductive. They ask you and you think you know the answers. Well, I don't know the answers. So I said that I feel this kind of technique is making people more fearful and that we know, historically, how that kind of fear is counterproductive and leads to extremism. At the end of that question, this guy - to change the subject - said, 'And what are you going to do now, Dustin?'

"I said, 'I've got a house in London (which I've had for 25 years), and that after 35 years of regulating our lives round the school calendar, for the first time we can do what we want, we can say we might go to London tomorrow. Next thing you know, there's a story I'm moving to London because of George Bush.

"My publicity agent - I have one now to minimise the treachery - called at 8am on a Sunday and told me that The New York Times had read the story in a British newspaper and wanted to know if it was true. She said to me, 'Do you have an answer?' I said, 'Yeah, it's kind of silly to think you can go anywhere in the world and get away from George Bush.'"

Over the course of this monologue, Hoffman has hardly sipped his glass of lager and is unaware that a representative from the Meet the Fockers' UK team has been gently trying to wrap up the interview by peeping in through the door. Unperturbed, Hoffman stands up, and continues chatting away to the film company representative, to me, and to anyone else who happens to spin into orbit. He chats away happily about the secret of relationships, the three-and-a-half years he took out of acting, and whether he might get a chance to take in the Raphael exhibition.

Those who say that Hoffman, at 67, is treading water can't have met the man. He is as committed and aware as Ben Stiller is busy. His wife shops at Marks & Spencer. He's a happily married Hollywood star who has brought up five children away from the glare of the camera he himself is master of. He's happy to send himself up, and he's still creating characters you can love and believe in.

'Meet the Fockers' opens today