Tuchman: If I were to make an analogy between what you do and something else, it would be Paul Muni. Even when he played a role that was a contemporary person, he seemed to play it as a character actor.
Hoffman: After THE GRADUATE, everyone said, "Well, Mike Nichols has got this guy who's just playing himself." I got so upset when I read that, I couldn't wait to prove it wrong, and when I chose to do MIDNIGHT COWBOY, Nichols called up at one point and said, "Are you sure you want to play Ratso Rizzo? It's not even the star role. You're secondary and it's such an unattractive role and you could kill the career that you established with THE GRADUATE--you should play Joe Buck." But I was out to show that I was a character actor--and, in fact, Benjamin was as much a character as any part that I had done--and that I was not just this nebbish kid that Nichols found.
I was very affected by Lee Strasberg when I studied with him; he would say over and over again, "There is no such thing as a juvenile or an ingenue or a villain or a hero or a leading man. We're all characters." I was maybe twenty-one years old, I'd just come to New York to study, and it hit me very strong, because I was a victim of casting. Even today, casting people can kill you. Because you sit down, and before you say a word they're going to look at you and without knowing anything about you tell you, "Well, you're not a leading man. You're not a juvenile. We'll cast you as a doctor, or a scientist, maybe." What's much more fun is to get to know someone, and then to see a way of casting that most people wouldn't cast them as. You start to see something coming out that is what they are underneath.
When I was a younger actor, I kept being told I was a "character juvenile"--they meant juvenile delinquent. I was always told by people, "Once you mature, once you get into your forties, you'll start to get character roles." Now, I think that, like everybody else, I want to stay young-looking as long as I can. Aside from my own narcissism, I want to keep the range open. I want to keep that range as wide as I can. One of the reasons I did Marathon Man is because I said to myself, This is my last chance to be in college. I just could feel it. I was closing in on forty at that time.
Tuchman: How do you prepare?
Hoffman: I have a disagreement with some directors--I say actors shouldn't have to "act"; the scene should be constructed in such a way that you don't have to. When I did Ratso Rizzo, an actor told me, "Once you get the limp right, why don't you put rocks in your shoe? You'll never have to think about limping. It will be there; you won't have to worry about it." And I think that's one of the greatest things that anybody ever said, 'cause you shouldn't have to "act." It should be there, like butter--all the work should have been done before-hand--so you don't have to sit there and start jerking up emotion. It should flow.
Brando went out and did research in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and found out that when you die from burns you die from shock, and he found out what shock was like. It was like being encased in water. So when he came to do the shot, he put himself in a bathtub on the ship. When it got time for the close-up, he was in the bathtub filled with ice. So he didn't have to "act" it. That's an extreme example. But I admire his imagination.
God knows I've done enough crap in my life to grow a few flowers, but one of the things that constantly hits me is that when I go outside on the street, what I see is not what I see on the screen, and I never stop thinking about that. I turn on the television, and what I see on the screen is not what I see in real life. It bothers me. I want to get closer to what I see in life. I love to see hair out of place. I love to see people without makeup, or at least with their own blush showing, their own pimples, and their own specific behavior. It's like when you go to New York to shoot, everyone says, "We've got to get the real life of New York City." Well, the minute you rope off a street, you alter it. Movies tend to take out life, and then put back a substitute for it. I think television news has had an incredible impact on film. You see every human emotion in any twenty-four-hour period. When you turn on the television sometimes, you say, "Is this a documentary?" That's the way you want it to be on film. But, at the same time, you don't want it to be pure documentary, because it's art; you want it to be condensed, subtly heightened.
Fellini took background and made it foreground, and once he did that, I was in love with him. He does two things, in other words, at his best: He shows you life the way it really is, and yet as we don't always see it. Movies are not plays. With plays, you sit in the audience, and the first five rows of the orchestra really get to see the actors, like in a movie. Outside of that, no one gets to see anything. The words are carrying you. In a movie, everyone has a front-row seat, so the words, in a sense, become secondary.
Generally speaking, this is a very young art form. We're constantly playing with it. In THE GRADUATE, some of the most wonderful moments were accidents. The same is true in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, TOOTSIE, KRAMER--they're accidents. It's interesting to me what an audience remembers. They don't remember anything differently than they remember from their own lives. What do you remember of your life? This incident, that one, boom, boom--these vivid colors--the rest is like a blur. Of the films that I've done, by and large, people point to the same moments all the time, and they don't remember the rest of the film. They just remember these moments. And a lot of them were improvised, a lot of them were accidents. Banging on the taxi in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, "I'm walking here," that was an accident. That was a hidden camera, and it was a cab that almost ran us over. Schlesinger left it in, but many directors wouldn't have.
Tuchman: Are you hopeful for better-made movies out of this system?
Hoffman: If you have truth, if you have honesty, if you do your work beforehand, if they give you the money--and if you get very lucky--how are you ever going to miss making a good film? You study acting until you're blue in the face and you go out there and it's got nothing to do with what you studied: "Here's your script, here are your lines, here's your mark, hit that, hit that, do this--and that's it. Good-bye and good luck." And you say, "What did I learn? What was I spending ten years learning for?" But, you know, it's not our money; it's their money. If only they would give you the time--but they don't. It seems too expensive. I understand; but I wish it were different. I wish I could convince them that it doesn't have to be more expensive; that rehearsal isn't a dirty word, but a concept that can save money; that rewriting doesn't mean the picture will never be made, just that it will be built on a solid structure; that doing your work in advance even if that preparation takes longer--will save time and money in the end and, more important, will give you far better odds of success. Well, who knows, maybe someday we'll convince them--whoever "they" are.
Tuchman: If making movies is frequently a frustrating process that ends up with a disappointing result, where is the gratification?
Hoffman: I have great gratification and satisfaction on the finished product of TOOTSIE. I also do with KRAMER. I do with a lot of films that I've done. But you always want to go back and change certain things. It's like taking an easel out--you've been looking at this countryside, and one day you take your easel out, and you find a spot, and you put it out there, and you've got your canvas up, and you've got your palette, and you start painting. You're now three hours into it, and suddenly you happen to look down and you hear a noise far off, a train--you look down, and you've put your easel on a railroad track, and you start painting it just a teeny bit faster, and the train now is coming a little bit faster, and you don't want to paint faster, but you have to. And suddenly the train's getting faster and you're painting faster and faster so that just before the train hits, you jump off with the easel, and the canvas and the palette knife go flying all over, and you're just holding on to that canvas as the train rushes past you, and that's the movie.