Dustin Hoffman's longish stay in Berlin was undoubtedly one of the great highlights of this year's Berlinale. One night, he'd be deadly serious, warning the audience at the "Cinema for Peace" gala about the dangers of the coming war in Iraq. The next night, he'd party til dawn and bound into a room the next day where a handful of journalists waited to pelt him with questions with, "Oh, I've been having a great time. Last night, I got drunk with Otto."
And even while he's still laughing, someone notices his copy of a collection of poems by Rilke and, in a flash, he's deadly serious again: "It's my bible. Someone gave it to me when I started acting. I read it over and over again." Hoffman will interrupt himself when he notices one of the journalists has a cold and asks her what she's taking. With the next breath, he sends an assistant upstairs for his own homeopathic cold medicine, which he insists she try out right then and there. Singing, laughing and crying, whispering and shouting, he barrels on, furious when the allotted time runs out. For the record, he squeezed another five minutes out of his handlers.
Let's start with the classic opening question: What attracted you to the role of Ben Floss in Moonlight Mile?
I joined a new agency a couple of years ago, the Endeavor Agency. And they said, "We want to introduce you to all the directors around, and we have a client, Brad Silberling," and I said, "Oh, sure, I'll meet him." We talk, and after an hour, I ask, "So, what are you doing now?" And he gives me an ironic smile and says, "I'm still trying to do the project you've turned down twice."
I had no memory that I'd turned it down. Even after he explained it, I said, "Yeah, sounds familiar." It was called "Baby's in Black," from a lyric in a Beatles song. So I reread it and I told him now I remembered why I turned it down. I said, "I don't feel right for the part. It doesn't feel right." The guy lives up in Boston, has a kind of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethic. And he said, "No, I wrote it with you in mind," blah-blah-blah. Then he started to tell me about his girlfriend and how she was murdered and about why he wanted to tell this story. I was looking at him and thought, "My God. I've never worked on a project with someone who was coming from that personal a place." That was the reason. Not the part. Nothing else. Just that.
Was it difficult playing a role that was part of the director's autobiography? It's a very emotional story. It's about loss, grief, love, hate.
It wasn't hard. One never knows why some parts are and some aren't. Tootsie was hard. Every part of it. [laughs] That was hard.
Jake Gyllenhaal played the autobiographical part. I played the girl's father. Whose name was Ben, by the way. That was his name. I decided to do no research. I am a father of six children. I know a couple of people who, I thought, are very much like the character he had written. Brad was explaining to me the avoidance. We know when we're like that ourselves. The most painful thing happens and we can sometimes block it so successfully it's almost unbelievable to realize that the unconscious is so strong. This character was someone who could block it. Completely. I thought that was interesting. His daughter could die. They come to the house. And he cannot allow himself to grieve. And instead, he's saying, "You got a drink, everything ok?"
And then we learn that he didn't get along with his daughter. We don't know why. And that she died before that could be resolved. And it makes me cry. Because that's sad. [Crying] There's no more painful thing than to have someone die, whether it's your parent, your friend, whatever. And you love them and you like them and you have not resolved something. There's nothing worse than that. So what he does, this character -- and I think he doesn't know it; I didn't write it, Brad wrote it -- the boy, who isn't even blood, but he's like a son-in-law, suddenly the boy unconsciously becomes the daughter. And everything he couldn't do with her, he wants to do with the boy. That gets me.
Brad Silberling has said that he doesn't believe that there's such a thing as closure. It's always so widely advertised...
[Whispering] I told him. That's my line.
[Laughing] No, he doesn't remember. I said, "There's no such thing as closure." There isn't. It's a great word we use now. We all use it in America: "They want to go to the execution because that person killed their whatever, and they want to see him killed so that they can have a sense of closure." And then, they always say the same thing afterwards: "It didn't give them the closure."
I think that what we're looking for is the opposite. We are looking for opening. An opening. To open the part of us and grieve for that person. We have all lost people. And if you've lost someone close to you... Who are you thinking about?
Three years ago.
Does it not surprise you that sometimes when you're walking down the street, you're not even thinking about her and boom! You see something or whatever and you're gone.
It doesn't surprise me, but yes, it's like that. So here's the second obvious question. Who were you thinking of? You've got six children. Did you think about what you would do --
Don't! Don't! I don't, I can't even, no. No. Yes, of course. But no, I ran from there.
Very strange. I ran from there. But look. There are a couple of emotional moments I have in the movie. They were not written in the script. Ok? So, we decided that I would just play the surface of what the scene was about. But with a certain knowledge that I have, let's say, as an actor. What happens happens. So those emotional moments that happen in the movie just happened.
And the very unfortunate thing that took place soon after we started shooting was that my 18-year-old son, who was 16 then, came home and we learned that one of his good friends was killed. Midnight. In a car, with a friend, racing. Into a tree -- [snaps] -- like that. And we could never go to school or actually get away from it because any time that we went down a street that we always go down, which was where the tree was -- and there was a remarkably small dent there. You can really get killed without hurting a tree much. And there were flowers around it like Princess Di, a miniature of what happened after she died. And kids sitting there with candles. Every. Single. Day. For weeks. And months. And into the second year. Still. And that was enough.
That was enough. That was enough. If a human being ever feels that they're immortal, it's when they're young. People are not supposed to die when they're 15, 16, 17 years old. The way that resonated with my son was so devastating, it was... I could not shake it. Because I was dealing with material... It's some kind of closeness. I didn't have to do anything else. I didn't have to go near my own children. Thank God.
This is not an accident. This is a murder. You don't know that in the beginning, but you find out, and you realize, Oh, my God, we're in America. It's weird.
Yeah. Try to explain that to the NRA. The biggest lobby in the country. There's not another one that comes closer. There is no second best. The NRA is so far ahead of any other lobby, they have so much money. We are a gun culture. What did that one guy say in Bowling for Columbine? I think he's Canadian. He said, if it was true that guns protected you, we'd have the least amount of murders. But you have the most amount guns and the most amount of murders. I don't know why that is; I don't have a gun. Partly, I think, tobacco got us started. Tobacco got America started. When the first colonists came over from England, America didn't interest them and they went back. Some Indians sold them some tobacco, they brought it back to England and they said, Boy, this is good stuff. It was commerce. And slowly, within a few years, America got going because of that. So you can see how strong the tobacco industry is. It has its roots in the beginning of our culture. The Winchester came pretty soon after that. It's in Bowling for Columbine.
Do you ever take parts back home?
No, but I don't think I'm any different from anyone else. Do you switch it off when you're working intensely on one particular project?
Not at all.
No? Do you switch off a guy that you meet that you really like? Do you wake up and he's the first thing on your mind?
Depends. On the guy.
Well, with me, it depends on the part. [laughs] It's the same thing. It's true. After all, the real truth is that nothing wakes you up at night worse or has you have the same thing in your consciousness after you wake than anxiety. That's the killer. That's the one cloud we can't shake. Right? The thing we're anxious about. The worst feeling in the world. Just follows us around. Well, I think that when you're in the middle of a creative experience, that's the same anxiety. Because, when you're trying to write a book or a play or a screenplay or a great article, the feeling is that it won't come out as good as you want it to. Because you don't have the time that you want to have. You don't have enough talent for it. You don't have the this, you don't have the that. It's nothing but anxiety.
I've talked to people who do plays because I did a play a few years ago, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. All the actors, we all have the same feeling. Oh, it's so hard to make a movie. You make a movie, it's sixteen hours a day. Oh, let's do a play. Once you rehearse three or four weeks, it's a couple of hours a night. It's nothing. And it's not true. You wake up in the morning and you open your eyes and you feel like a tennis player at Wimbledon. You have a match that day. And all you can think about is, Am I going to have it tonight? Before you get out of bed in the morning: Am I going to have my instrument working? Am I going to connect with the part? Am I going to have the energy? Am I going to have a good performance or a shit performance tonight? And we know what a shit performance feels like. When you're doing a play, it's like a cloud that follows you around all day long.
Do you remember your worst performance?
I don't remember my worst performance. There's too many. [laughs] But you remember the great moments, and they were just moments. We did Death of a Salesman for about a year and a half. And there were about four performances, out of all those performances, when the curtain would come down after the first act and we would look at each other. John Malkovich and me and the other actors, and we'd go, "What was that?! What was that?!" It was like there had been magic on the stage. And you have no idea where it comes from. It's an extraordinary feeling. I always want to translate over to something... When you're writing and something takes over and you get zoned, it's wonderful! But it doesn't happen often, does it?