Dustin Hoffman's online acting class: What it's like to learn from the master

The last time Adam Lusher was on stage, he played a Christmas tree - but that was without the help of a legend and his new online thespian course...

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The Independent Culture

I remember the bright lights, the stage. I remember how they all agreed (after only moderate prodding) that in that glorious St Matthew’s Primary School play of 1978 I made a damned fine Christmas tree.

But the Hollywood talent spotters must have been inexplicably out of town (Ipswich), that night. Because there were no calls from directors, no agents knocking at the door. Stardom failed to beckon.

Until now. Because now I have discovered MasterClass.com, “access to genius”. 

Newly launched by a pair of San Francisco technology entrepreneurs, it promises “the best online education in the world, from the best people in the world”.

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Masterclass.com promises “the best online education in the world, from the best people in the world

You can learn writing with James Patterson, best- selling author of the Alex Cross detective novels.

Coming soon are photography with Annie Leibovitz and performance with pop star Usher.

And most eye-popping of all there is “Dustin Hoffman teaches acting”: “In his first ever online class, the two-time Academy Award-winning star of The Graduate, Tootsie and Rain Man teaches you everything he’s learned during his 50-year career.”

At just $90 (£58), this surely was the moderately priced path to stardom cruelly denied me in 1978.

I signed up. I got access to the video classes: “Dustin imparts his wisdom and tips in 24 lessons”.

I got the class workbook and homework (“interactive assignments”, some to be completed by acting with fellow students, in person or via Skype).

I got a lovely email from a chap called Brad, the “community manager”, inviting me to “reach out” and sign up to the Facebook group and Twitter feed.

(Brad didn’t bother with the formality of a surname, but given the celebrity-packed nature of MasterClass, I wasn’t discounting the possibility it was Pitt.)

Best of all, I got Dustin himself, online, on video, telling me: “Hi, my name is Dustin Hoffman, welcome to my master class.”

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Actress Anne Bancroft staring alongside actor Dustin Hoffman in the movie "The Graduate

He was in his armchair, looking relaxed, much younger than his 77 years and, frankly, with the swimming pool behind him, rich. What more motivation did a budding actor need?

And that was before the wisdom and tips.

“The whole idea of the unconscious,” said Dustin, “is that it’s unconscious. So it’s slippery. You can’t find it.”

How true. How very true.

And apparently life is like a hot furnace.

“I liken life to a hot furnace. If you are coming too close to some realisation about yourself that is painful, it’s like sitting on a hot furnace: you jump off.”

But Dustin’s big take-home message was still to come: “I don’t want to see someone being a prick without showing the prick in them … Admit it’s part of yourself. Yeah, that’s me. That prick is me!”

So it was all about embracing your inner prick? This was going to be much easier than I thought.

Because I had worried about the effort involved in emulating Dustin’s legendary method acting: that story about him staying awake for three nights to play a man who had stayed awake for three nights – and being told by his co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier: “Try acting, dear boy, it’s much easier.”

That, I was relieved to learn, was a myth. Olivier was actually advising Hoffman, compensating for a stressful divorce with all-night partying, to change his lifestyle not his acting method.

No wonder I and my fellow students were so excited after our first lesson.

“I love what Dustin Hoffman has to say about playing characters versus playing three-dimensional HUMANS!” said “a fellow actress”, “a lifelong learner/dreamer” from Los Angeles on the lesson discussion message board.

“Love that gold nugget in this lesson!” added Joanna Ke, a “storyteller”, also from Los Angeles.

And then an email pinged in my inbox. It was Brad, with thrilling news: “Dustin is critiquing student work! He’ll pick examples he thinks the class can benefit from most… submit your video… film yourself performing scenes from the Jerry Maguire script at the bottom of the lesson plan – ‘You Complete Me’ or ‘I Love Him’.”

Dustin may have missed my Christmas tree, but there was no way he was missing my prick-embracing ‘You Complete Me’.

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Hoffman starring in Tootsie

I knew just the man to help me: Bryn Williams, 57, head of acting at London’s Sylvia Young Theatre School. It  was in his blood – his nine-times great-grandmother was Joan Shakespeare, sister of  William. 

He had taught a 12-year-old Nicole Kidman and a  14-year-old Heath Ledger. “You could see their talent immediately.”

Hoffman was one of his heroes: “An actor of his calibre has a plethora of stories, techniques which aren’t necessarily taught in any kind of drama school. It’s incredible he is passing this on.”

He agreed with embracing the inner prick, “drawing out the whole character rather than a one-dimensional hero or villain”.

And he wholeheartedly concurred when Dustin told two young actors, while coaching them through the roles played by Tom Cruise and Renée Zellweger in the original 1996 Jerry Maguire: “The great thing about acting is when you are there with a stranger and you are trying  to have that stranger help  you get to your essence,  as you are trying to help  that person.

“Yes, you are making love in the real sense.”

That, said Mr Williams, was “critical”.

“You may be with a total stranger, but you have to connect, make it look like you have known each other forever. Hoffman is encouraging them to find the truth in what they are saying and the situation they are in.”

Well, if it was like that, Bryn: I’m Cruise, you’re Zellweger, let’s make love.

But he didn’t want to move that fast. Before ‘You Complete Me’, Mr Williams apparently needed to teach me how to walk from point A to point B.

He quoted the great director Peter Brook: “A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

“All we are doing,” said Mr Williams, “is displacing air, but with a performer – when you displace the air, you own the space around it. That’s what makes people stand out: they own their space.”

After displacing air, lying down...

The weird thing was, this stuff actually worked. In improvised scenes, even I could tell I was getting more convincing. Mr Williams was pitching in with comments such as “Good work!”

For a professional journalistic sceptic, it would have been most disconcerting. But it was music to the ears of Tinseltown’s next great star.

I was ready for my ‘You Complete Me.’

And as I delivered the immortal line “I love you. You … complete me”, I felt, in the real sense, truly, deeply, 100 per cent connected to my inner prick.

But Mr Williams disagreed. “Wooden,” he said. “Very, very wooden.”

I decided against telling Mr Williams about my fantastic 1978 Christmas tree.

We tried again.

Now I wasn’t just wooden. I was “flatlining – using the same tone the whole way through”.

Once more, with too much feeling.

“If I were Renée Zellweger,” said Mr Williams, “I wouldn’t say: ‘You had me at hello.’ I would say ‘Fuck you” and walk off. You are on the attack. Make it gentler.”

We tried me saying it with my eyes closed, to concentrate on the sound of the words. We tried a bit of improv, with me inserting my own words into the script to inject some much-needed spontaneity into the delivery.

And after two hours of exercises and rehearsal… “It’s improving,” said Mr  Williams.

I thought so too. Which is why I had to ask: could I be a star?

Mr Williams is a polite man, a kind man. There was a long pause.

“It will be a long learning process.”

Watch and learn: Hoffman’s big roles

The Graduate (1967)

Awkward graduate Benjamin Braddock is seduced by Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft).

Hoffman, then a relatively unknown stage actor, played a character who in the novel had been a tall, blond, blue-eyed athlete in the Robert Redford mould.

Movie insiders who saw preview screenings told the producers: “What a great movie you almost had. If only you hadn’t miscast the lead.”

The film was a hit and Hoffman got a best actor Oscar nomination.

Tootsie (1982)

Struggling actor disguises himself as a woman to win a part in a soap opera.

Hoffman accepted the role only on condition that he could pass as a credible woman, insisting on a pre-production make-up test.

Voted the second funniest movie of all time (behind Some Like It Hot) by the American Film Institute.

Rain Man (1988)

Road-trip movie, with selfish Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) trying to get a share of the multimillion-dollar inheritance left to brother Raymond (Hoffman), an autistic savant with an incredible memory for airline-crash statistics  (“Qantas never crashed”).

Early on, Hoffman is said to have told director Barry Levinson he wanted to be replaced in the role “because this is the worst work of my life”. He won an Oscar.

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