Mr. Hoffman, in "Moonlight Mile", you play a role that is part of the director's autobiography. It's a very emotional story. It's about loss, grief, love, hate. Was that difficult?
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.
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?
Maybe if you played more winners than losers you might not have such anxiety.
Oh, I think I'd have more anxiety playing a winner. I know a really good dirty joke about a winner, by the way.
Let's hear it.
I think it's a good joke. I think good jokes are very profound. If I could ask God for three, four, five, six things I wanted now that I've reached heaven, up on my list would be to meet the writers of certain jokes. Because they have to exist, you know? So this joke, I think, is an essence of power. An essence of the corruption of power. And the most powerful are the winners. We don't think of the gardener as a winner.
A woman gets on the elevator. She's alone, a very attractive woman. Goes up a floor, the door opens and Donald Trump gets on. And she goes like this [wide-eyed] and it's just the two of them. The elevator continues up and reaches the floor and she holds her hand on the button. She says, "I'm sorry, but -- just, if you have one second," and he says, "Yes," and she says, "You are the most attractive, most exciting man I have ever met in my life. You're so imaginative, you're so sexy, you're so handsome, I've got every book you've ever written, your pictures are all over my wall, I've been having fantasies about you, I can't stop them and no matter what man I'm with, if I'm sleeping with him, I'm thinking of you. You are everything. I will never have this chance again. Can I give you a blowjob right now?" And he looks at her and says, "Well, what's in it for me?"
[Laughing] Good joke. That's an important joke. A very good joke. If I could play that kind of winner? That kind of winner interests me. [laughs]
Is it harder to play a really funny character than a sad one?
Yes. Comedy is the most difficult but also the least recognized and the least respected. Chaplin never got an Oscar.
Why is that?
Because people in your own business -- you know, it's a myth. Sometimes actors get awards and they say, "Oh, this means so much to me. Because it was my peers that gave it to me." And, no disrespect, but your peers aren't that much. There are very few of us that really, you know, appreciate good stuff. So, somehow, the majority of people, even in your own art form don't understand. I mean, comedy is the most profound, hits the deepest note, if done right, in a human being. It hits the same place as music. Much more so. There's a joke, I don't know who it came from, so many people have been given credit for it. It goes, He's dying. And someone says to him, "It's tough, isn't it? It's tough, dying." And he says, "Yeah, but comedy's tougher." It's true.
If you could get a prize from someone, who would it be?
That's a good question. That's a good question. What kind of prize?
Well, for your work, of course.
You women know it. Because, unfortunately, what's the first thing a man says after he makes love to you? The first thing he says. "Was I good?"
I've never heard that.
[Laughs] They're not even that sensitive! Well. I know it has happened in my life, but I've gotten it and it wasn't in the form of a statue. I was once on the elevator and a sculpture who I admired, he's since died, George Segal -- I don't know if you know his work. He did the very realistic sculptures of people that almost look like people in a park or whatever. I didn't recognize him because you never know what artists look like, but he recognized me, and I said, "Yes," and like always, you say [mumbling], "Yes, thanks. Thanks very much," and something made me say, "What's your name?" And he said, "George Segal." And I said, "You're not..." And he said, "Yeah." And I thought, My God.
And Brando called me up once and it's that kind of thing. In any art form... when it has reached a place you still want to reach. I still like the question, though. There are some dead people I could start right off with right now. You know, Tolstoy. I'd like him to say, "Hey, you know, you were good in Rain Man." [laughs] That's it. That's all you need. Right? I mean, come on. Sylvia Plath? "Boy, terrific job you did." [laughs]
Thinking back to when you started your career, has your opinion of acting changed? How important is it for you now, being a star?
These are good questions. Look. The truth is, I never expected to be a movie star. I happen to have two friends who also never expected it. Both older, but Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, we hung out together. If someone were to say to us when we were hanging out for ten years and I was waiting on tables and Duvall was working 12 to 8 in the post office andHackman was going off and moving furniture on his back. Refrigerators, you know, on sixth floor walkups. I mean, if anyone said, you know, it would have been a big laugh.
And then, it happens. Freak accident. And we still talk about it. I just did a film with Hackman. First time we've worked together. And we still talk about how it's a dream. I mean, you feel like,
you're going to wake up with two tubes connected to you, you've been a coma for fifty years, and they say, "Hi, how do you feel?" And you're still the unemployed actor. "No! No, I'm a star!" "No, you've been in a coma." [laughs]
The other side of that is: It. Fucks. You. Up. Success is corrupting. No way out of it. You can try to reduce it as much as you want, you can hope you have gotten a low dose of the radiation, but it's radioactive. Because it's seductive. It's not what it does to you. It's what it makes you do to yourself.
What's the worst thing it has ever done to you?
I do The Graduate. The Graduate is over. I'd never made $3000 in a year. I've waited on tables for ten, twelve years. I've never made that much money in a year. Suddenly, I have $3000 from The Graduate. $600 a week! I put it in the bank, and it's, like, so much money.
And then I get scripts. And I still have my... my ethics. I keep turning the scripts down and they keep telling me, "Oh, you can get this, you can get that." "No, I don't like the script." And then, Midnight Cowboy comes along and I say, "I like that," and they say, "Oh, you can't do that, it's a supporting part. You're a big star now." "No, I still have my ethics." So I do it.
And then, I meet a girl, a ballerina at the New York City Ballet. And we go together. And we think we're going to get married. And my manager -- I've never had a manager, suddenly, I have a manager -- says, "Do that picture." I say, "No, that's terrible." He says, "That townhouse you want to buy. You can buy that townhouse if you do that picture." Ok.
That's the first time.
You've won four Golden Globes, two Oscars. What keeps you going--
Oh, stop it! [laughs] Oh, stop it, stop it! You're young! Are you seduced by all that vanity?!
Yes, I am.
Is that all there is?!
No, no, calm down. You could relax and say, "I can't spend the rest of my life--"
Spending time with your family, for example.
[Shouting] My family is grown up and all moved out of the house, for God's sake! I've got grandchildren! [laughs]
No, no! Wait'll you hit my age, man! There's only two ways to go! Yes, either you go the way you're saying, or you say, "I'm at the beginning." At the beginning. It's all relative. You have your idols. You have your idols, and they change. I've got my idols: Buñuel, who was directing into his 80s. Picasso, who was painting into his 90s. Come on! It's my friend, Sam, who's been masturbating into his 60s. These are people I look up to! You didn't see that one coming, did you? [laughs]
What happens when you hear "Mrs. Robinson" on the radio?
Aw, that's good. That's a good one. It runs right through you. Yeah. It runs right through you. But you know what gets to me more?
I'm telling you, I had no money. No money whatsoever. And they didn't like me because they wanted me to sign a contract when I did The Graduate which promised three pictures with the director, three pictures with the producer, three pictures with the studio, I said, "No, I won't do it." My agent said, "You'll lose the job! Everybody wants this job!" "No, I won't do it."
"Why?" "Because I'm an actor, man, and the best part about being an actor is that nobody tells me what the fuck I have to do. I have my freedom. That's the most powerful thing I have." I was 30 years old.
Best move I ever made. They got so angry with me that they only gave me minimum, which was $600 a week. They wouldn't pay per deum. So I had to pay my own rented car, I had to pay for my own hotel in Los Angeles, I still had to pay for my apartment in New York. I was in the hole when that picture was over. And all I remembered was, in that Camaro, rented, I would drive myself to the studio every day, and I remember the songs on the radio. And that gets me more.
Buh-buh-buh-buh-bah-BAH-buh-buh-buh-buh... [to the tune of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?"] "You will be a star!" I will never forget that. Dianne Warwick. Every single day. And the other one, [singing], "Up, up and away! In my beautiful, my beautiful ballooon!" Those were the songs. I heard them every single day. They get me.