Romantic tales of Dustin Hoffman

The star of 'The Graduate', 'Rain Man', and 'Meet the Fockers' tells Gill Pringle the best way to act a love story
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The Independent Culture

To say that Dustin Hoffman has "a bit of a crush" on Emma Thompson is putting it mildly. It's a crush that began four years ago when they co-starred in Stranger Than Fiction. It's a crush Hoffman insists is not only reciprocated but also encouraged by Lisa Gottsegen, his wife of almost 30 years: "Emma and I only had a couple of scenes in Stranger Than Fiction but we liked each other so much, we said, 'Why can't we find a whole movie to do together?' And she told a friend, Joel Hopkins, who wrote and directed his first movie, Jump Tomorrow, in 2001. And he came back a couple of months later and said he'd written this script with us both in mind which we both felt was well written. It's a love story for the baby boomers!" he says triumphantly.

"Baby boomers" might be stretching it given that Hoffman turns 72 in August. But you get the gist...

If today's movie-making wisdom dictates that romantic comedies are strictly for the kids, then Hoffman and Thompson, 50, prove them wrong with Last Chance Harvey, fondly reviewed by most major US film critics. As an ageing, divorced, jingle-writer from New York, Hoffman's Harvey Shine is running out of chances when he meets Thompson's disillusioned elder singleton while attending his daughter's wedding in London. Lovingly filmed in a variety of London locations, including Waterloo Bridge, Green Park, Somerset House, Heathrow Airport and the Millennium Dome, Last Chance Harvey is as much a romantic homage to the capital as it is to late-in-love love.

Hoffman reckons the script follows a time-honoured romantic formula: "They say when you do a love story, you hold off the kiss as long as you can. Start off when they don't like each other, and then they get to like each other, and the audience gets to like them, but you have to hold off the kiss as long as you can," he teases.

Having enjoyed his own early success with Papillon (1973), Straw Dogs (1971) and All The President's Men (1976) in a carefree era before celebrities were stalked by long lenses, he comments: "The whole paparazzi thing has really cut down the ability to feel free and spontaneous. For all of us, its going to get worse and worse. London, I think, has more paparazzi than anywhere right now, and every big city will match them. And they have more hidden cameras in London than anywhere else in the world, so you don't know. Someone can now put a camera on their button-hole, and they can walk into a bar and see some married man or whomever with his arm around a girl and that can feed live onto the internet."

With more than 50 films to his credit, Hoffman has no desire to retire: "At my age, I take anything I can get. I never stop working, and I never stop ageing either," he quips. With plans to reprise his role as Barbra Streisand's husband in Little Fockers next year, a spin-off from 2004's blockbuster comedy, Meet The Fockers, certainly nobody can accuse the two-time Oscar-winner of resting on his laurels: "The awards are nice but I've never paid them too much attention," says Hoffman who, along with Thompson, was nominated for a Golden Globe for Last Chance Harvey earlier this year. "For the longest time, I didn't even have my Oscars in house. They're in my study now but its only quite recently that I took them out of the closet," says the actor who took home Academy Awards for Rain Man (1988) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) as well as receiving nominations for The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Lenny (1974), Tootsie (1982) and Wag the Dog (1997).

On the day of our interview at a Beverly Hills hotel, Hoffman has come straight from a dental appointment. For anyone whose ever seen his 1976 Nazi war criminal thriller Marathon Man, where Laurence Olivier holds a drill, menacingly repeating, "Is it safe?", while Hoffman squirms in the dentist's seat, you have to wonder. But that was 33 years ago. Fast forward to today and two of his six children – Max, 24, and Jake, 28 – have since followed him into the movie business. Hoffman is ambivalent: "Obviously I'm proud of all my kids. Jake played Adam Sandler's son in Click, and he went to NYU Film school so he also wants to direct. But there was nary word from me when they were growing up. The worst thing you can do is discourage your kids because then they go the opposite way so I neither encouraged or discouraged. In fact, all of my kids have probably only seen one-third of the films that I've been in. There's nothing hanging on the wall, there's no posters... I've never said, 'you should see this...'

"So I am happy they're in the business," he says, sounding like he's trying to convince himself. "Because I think they're passionate about it. If anything, I'm faulted for reminding them how difficult it is. Because the odds are so great, even if they call you back a second or third time. It's a heartbreaking process. So many gifted actors that I've known over the years have just said, 'I can't do it. Its too painful'."

An ardent Anglophile with a house in Kensington, Hoffman's favourite time of the day when in Los Angeles is 4.30am when he wakes, slips downstairs, makes himself a coffee, and talks to his dogs and guinea pig. "I really believe on a daily basis that there's a line of communication between me and my dogs which we haven't defined yet. I really talk to them. And I also talk to my guinea pig, Mr James, every single morning. I sit and watch him on that wheel every day, trying to answer the question that is: 'Do they do it for exercise? Or do they think they're going to reach a destination?' Because that's a terrible metaphor for all of us. Because that's all life is perhaps? Nobody is gonna tell you the truth like I do."

'Last Chance Harvey' opens on 5 June