At 71, Dustin Hoffman is having a moment. The legendary actor just landed his 13th Golden Globe nomination for his role as Harvey Shine in Last Chance Harvey. Hoffman plays a lonely commercial jingle writer who gets one more opportunity for romance when he ventures to London as a semiwelcome guest at his daughter’s wedding. Hoffman, playing opposite Emma Thompson, says ‘Harvey’ is about two ”stuck” people who need each other to get moving again. The film opened in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day, and expands nationwide on Jan. 16.
EW You and Emma had a couple of nice scenes in the Will Ferrell movie Stranger Than Fiction. Had you been wanting to reunite?
Hoffman Actors usually get along, but when we first met in Chicago on Stranger Than Fiction, it was different. It went a little deeper. There was something strangely similar about us, which is weird because we are so different: visually, ethnically. But we both love dirty jokes. We both see the sexual innuendos in life. We were both interested in each other.
EW The director, Joel Hopkins, actually wrote Harvey with the two of you in mind, right?
Hoffman Yes, but he knew Emma. They were friends. He didn’t know me, so my role had to be reworked. He’s British, and it’s a different culture. He had Harvey going door-to-door selling commemorative plates from wars. I said, ”Maybe we should just talk, and I’ll tell you about myself so you have a level of intimacy with me like you had with Emma.” I play jazz piano, so that’s all true. And if Harvey really wanted to be a jazz pianist, and he’s writing jingles — then it kinda works.
EW Hopkins had only directed one film before this. Did allowing you two to improvise make him nervous?
Hoffman Yes, it had to come at the beginning as an agreement. I told him, ”It’s not the first time I’ve worked this way.” There has to be something left for the actors. Rain Man was done with two cameras, and we were always improvising. With Kramer vs. Kramer, my relationship with my son — that’s all improvised, and Meryl [Streep] wrote her own courtroom stuff. It’s actually a good thing when you have a writer-director. He’s more in control than just a director, who is so fearful of straying from what he’s already agreed upon.
EW It’s been a while since you’ve been so integrally involved in a movie.
Hoffman Yes. But on Meet the Fockers, Barbra [Streisand] and I worked a lot on the part. We’ve known each other since she was 18 years old. I went out with her roommate. Once I asked her why we didn’t ever get married, and she said, ”Because we would have killed each other.” So with Fockers, I said, ”This is how it could work: She’s the breadwinner, and I’m Mr. Mom, and the fun of it is that I’m still Mr. Mom even though the kid’s not there anymore.”
EW For the last decade, you’ve taken supporting parts in films with young directors. Was that a conscious decision?
Hoffman It was put on me. In this country, the leads are in their 20s, 30s, 40s. What happens in their 50s, their 60s? Unless you make your own project or you’re an action star — people are more forgiving if you have a gun — you’re supporting the lead. And I love working. I don’t mind doing supporting parts. It has its rewards.
EW Jack Nicholson once said that he started taking supporting roles earlier in his career because he knew that one day he wouldn’t be able to play the lead, and he didn’t want it to look like a defeat.
Hoffman I always knew he was smarter than me. I never thought of it. I wish he would have imparted that to me. It’s his way of saying, ”You can’t fire me, I quit.” There was a time when I felt if I could double my age, then I didn’t feel like I was getting older: ”Okay, I can double it. I can live to be 90.”
EW So what does that mean now?
Hoffman It depends on medicine. I have a pact with my kids. My youngest is 21, and I said, ”I want to be there for your 50th birthday,” which means I have to be 100. I’m not retiring. I’m against the concept. You retire from a job you don’t like, but you never retire from your work. I’m not in my third act. I’m finally in my first act, because of a lack of insight and a lack of living as fully as I wish I had during my first two acts. I think I was among the majority of people who don’t really feel they deserve a life, on some level.
EW How important is your legacy to you?
Hoffman It’s always been difficult for me. The moment I stopped working was the moment I got home from receiving the AFI Life Achievement Award. I had never known what a panic attack was before. I understand what people mean now, because you just want to jump out the window. And I stopped working for over two years.
EW How does an award cause a panic attack?
Hoffman A lifetime achievement award means somehow that you’ve lived a lifetime. And I felt that I hadn’t lived my life. You constantly live in doubt, whether you are successful or not. Am I a fraud? Am I doing good work, or am I fooling people? The very word legacy is not a word I like. It sounds like the past tense. I really enjoy the chance to go on — and that means you don’t stop to take a look. Watch out once you stop to take a look. It’s dangerous.