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Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium - Dustin Hoffman interview

Dustin Hoffman in Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DUSTIN Hoffman talks about finding the eccentric – and elderly – lead character of Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and the relief of not having to wear too much make-up…

He also talks about the possibility of returning to the stage, why finding his character in Rainman presented him with one of his biggest challenges, and how he now goes about choosing his projects…

They say never work with children or animals – and yet there are both in Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium? Any regrets?
Dustin Hoffman: I think that must be WC Fields. I think it’s more for a director. I’ve worked on a movie where the director used a cat and a dog the first week, and was behind schedule a week by the end of the first week. Kids I don’t feel that about. Maybe you think they’re going to upstage you, maybe. Animals don’t tend to do what they’re meant to do. On Meet The Fockers we had two babies, twins, and that was an awful experience. They were like 14 months old. When one saw the camera he would start crying. In America they always have uniformed people to make sure the animals are being treated humanely, but not babies!

I gather your wife suggested the ostrich joke as a way of finding the character? What was the joke?
Dustin Hoffman: I could tell it but it would take up half the interview. I’ve been with Lisa for 31 years, and when I read this, I thought: “Yeah, I want to play this part, and I want to use a lot of make-up,” but I didn’t know about the sound of him, how do you sound 243-years-old? The director Zach Helm and I made the decision that you couldn’t put prosthetics on, you don’t literally want to look like a zombie coming back from the dead. So if you could create a character that has an eccentricity about him, in which you believe that he believes that he’s 243, then we’ve done it. But nothing was coming to me about his voice. Lisa said if you really want to do this movie, I’m going to read the script, she kept hearing the voice you use in the ostrich joke. So I began practising and that was the kick-off, the voice I use in the ostrich joke. It has a swear word in it, but it’s a great joke. It’s actually more exaggerated in the joke than it is here.

He’s an old man but very youthful at the same time – brought out the child in you?
Dustin Hoffman: I think what the movie wants to be about – the idea is that the child in us is the child that was, and has diminished as we get older. The child is the most pure part of ourselves, the most unadulterated. It’s the individual that never existed before, and presumably will never exist again. Ain’t no one else like you but you! The child is fully that, I believe – I’ve raised six kids! At a certain point, that starts to have diminishing returns, because the oddball is then placed on him, defines him, because he’s individual, and in school he doesn’t fit in – and so we start to lose him, and let go of that most invaluable part, because we want to fit in. And the more you fit in, the more you are generic.

So, the child in us is the intrinsic desire to not let that be taken away from me. The best way I can put it is, I knew a painter years ago, and when my 36-year-old was three or four – he was a very good abstract painter, and he came in the house and saw the painting that Jenna had done on the wall, and he said in passing: “I can’t do that anymore. I wish I could do that.” And I knew what he was talking about.

Did your decision not to use prosthetic make-up come as some relief after the arduous experience of Little Big Man?
Dustin Hoffman: Mercifully enough it was just three days as I remember – whereas for Little Big Man, who was 121, it was about six hours. Dick Smith, who was the genius make-up man of his time, I think it was the first time prosthetics was used, and it was an inordinate amount of time. Many times when you read something, you’ve got to meet with the director, especially in this case when the director’s written it. You tend to talk about what you don’t want.

The first thing we both agreed on was, we didn’t want him in prosthetics. It was a literal approach, and if you’re going to do it realistically, it’s a zombie movie – what are you going to do, exhume this guy? Somehow, what we hit on was, if I could believe that he believes it, then I’ve solved it – and that means he has to have a certain amount of eccentricity – just to free the character. The child in him was more important than the literal age. Can we retain that part of ourselves for our entire life? You reach a point where you say, I want to be me in my third act.

What toys did you play with as a kid?
Dustin Hoffman: The first one I remember was a spin top. I just have a vivid memory of that. I didn’t understand how it could work, and it made a sound [mimics]. It’s interesting that it still exists today, we had them on the set. The other thing is that they were made of metal. It was during the Second World War – and this tells you how old I am – and we were asked to go down to the corner and give it to the war effort, because it was metal. There was a big stack at the gas station, all the kids had come down and given their toys to the war effort. I think my spin top turned the corner, and that’s why we won.

What are you own favourite children’s films?
Dustin Hoffman: Maybe The Blair Witch Project [laughs]! It’s odd but my brain goes to Dumbo – which I loved when I saw it, so I don’t know how it holds up now.

Your character, Mr Magorium, alludes to King Lear during the film. Do you have any wish to play Lear, or any other part on the London stage?
Dustin Hoffman: Well, I know Sir Ian McKellen’s doing it now. Yes, sure. I think when it was written he was only meant to be 50-years-old, but that would pass as the normal lifespan then. Yeah, I did Merchant of Venice here for almost a year, and my kids that are now grown all moved here, and had British accents after three weeks, which appalled me. I thought they’d never lose it. I’m surprised that so many years have passed since I’ve been back on the stage, but it all comes down to what you want to do more, and there’s a piece I’ve been working on for about four or five years and I think I’m finally going to be able to act and direct it. The tough thing about a play is that you don’t hold the actors, because they start to leave.

What’s been your most challenging role – and has it been on the stage or in film?
Dustin Hoffman: They’re different. On film, you get it right and it’s in the can and you don’t have to worry about it anymore. On stage, if you get it right, you then want to get it right again the next night but you don’t because you’re trying to do it the way you did it the night before. And it’s depressing because you feel you can’t have what you consider to be your golden moment all congealed as one. And on stage you’ve got to be real to the first row [of the theatre] and as real to the back row on the balcony. I remember I saw Vanessa Redgrave at The National and I couldn’t believe what she was doing. She had that sense of craft, she was so naked and raw and her performance had nothing stage-like about it, and yet she had the craft to somehow reach the whole audience.

I think that the hardest and most challenging stuff is the stuff that you can’t get. I couldn’t get Death Of A Salesman [on the stage] for a long time. My fellow actors would say: “Oh, you’re in that, I’ll come and see you, when do you open?” And I’d say: “Don’t come when I open; come a few weeks later…” And that’s because it took me that long to get the guy. On film you can’t do that. You can’t suddenly say: “I’ve found the character!” What are you going to do? Re-shoot the first three weeks of shooting? It’s very hard.

I researched Rainman for three years before I did it – I couldn’t have done any more research. But whatever came out that first week [of shooting] was awful and I struggled. I actually said to the director, Barry Levinson: “Get me out of here… please! I want to leave.” I really did, because I didn’t have it, I wasn’t even close. But he said: “Well, let’s go back and look over the material and you tell me if there’s a moment anywhere that you think you’re in [the character]. Just point to it…” But even though there were some [moments], I still didn’t feel I had it because I didn’t know when I was in there while I was doing it because I couldn’t look at anybody. I just didn’t know when I was in [character].

But then one day Tom Cruise and I were in the car in Cincinnati and the cameras were remote cameras and the director was in another vehicle watching the playback because there was no room for him in our vehicle. But he said: “Just drive. We’ll do the scene and I’ll say to you over the radio, ‘ok, we’ve got it’, and then if there’s more film left just fool around and improvise.”

So, after he said that we got it and then started to fool around and improvise. Tom was saying things to me [in character] that as I was processing them through my brain I didn’t know how this guy would answer. Brando once said that if you can think like the character, then you are the character. But I couldn’t figure out what this character would be thinking, or how he would respond to Tom. I just couldn’t get him! But then Barry rushed over and said: “You’ve got to see this, you’ve got to see the playback! I think you’ve got it, I think you’ve found it!” And we played it back and it was one of the most memorable moments for me, because every time Tom would say something, I’d go: “Yeah [in Rainman voice]” Because I didn’t know what to say, so I’d just fall into that.

Q. How do you go about picking your roles now?
Dustin Hoffman: Well, I was lucky enough to become a movie star, by a freak accident, and after The Graduate I get this crap load of scripts. So, suddenly I’m able to cherry pick the best of the worst, sometimes. As you get older, the volume of scripts diminishes, because the leads are written for guys in their 20s and 30s. At my age, there aren’t as many lead roles. So someone my age becomes the supporting actor – but there are some good parts there. There was a tilt, so I’ll just pick what I think will be fun to work on. I liked Marc Forster very, very much, I took a supporting part in [Finding] Neverland, your reasons become different – you go: “Oh, Johnny Depp? I really like his acting, and I get to do two or three scenes with him.” Then Marc Forster is doing Stranger Than Fiction, and he calls me up, and asked me if I wanted to do it. He’s brilliant. And that’s how I got to know Zach Helm, who wrote that.

b>Read our review of Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium