In the first minutes of a quick sitdown with Dustin Hoffman, the sprightly icon of 20th-century cinema manages to reference Ireland, James Joyce, “Ulysses,” waiting tables, Henri Cartier-Bresson and tortoise shell glasses.
The publicist warns that you have only 10 or 15 minutes tops with Hoffman, who, at 75, has just directed his first feature. But it’s 10 or 15 action-packed, free-associative minutes not to be missed.
Hoffman is in Toronto, showing off “Quartet,” a charmer of a comedy with Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins as four friends in a stately retirement home in the English countryside.
They are, or were, rather celebrated opera singers, and now they are together again, carrying old memories and old wounds up the grand stairs of Beecham House, and also forgetting important meetings (Collins’ character) and having to go to the bathroom a lot (Connolly’s).
The film opens locally on Friday.
So why has it taken Hoffman so long to get behind the camera? Ben Affleck already has three pictures under his director’s cap.
“I’ve contemplated directing — more than contemplated,” Hoffman said. “I’m like ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin.’ ”
He declares that he already was directing in his head, and aloud, when he was 19, in his first acting classes. “I intuitively started to direct,” he explains. “And I would help friends out, and I had a feel for it. They said, ‘Hey, you could be the next Kazan. ...’ He was the big director then.”
Hoffman, of course, did not go on to be the next Elia Kazan. He went on to be Dustin Hoffman, and he has the Academy Awards and the (recent) Kennedy Center Honor to prove it.
But he did direct theater way back when:
“When I was trying to make a living in New York for 10 years (the late ’50s, the early ’60s) you would see on the bulletin board in the Actors’ Equity offices, you could direct community theater in New Jersey. You could take the bus there. And I took that job, and it was an extraordinary experience and I directed a play. Then there was one in Fargo, N.D., and I flew there and I did ‘Two for the Seesaw’ and ‘The Time of Your Life.’ And when I look back, they are among the richest experiences I’ve ever had.”
Looking back at rich experiences is a theme in “Quartet,” but also having rich experiences in the here and now. Hoffman cast his film with real-life musicians from the worlds of opera, classical music and jazz. Most of the roles, apart from the biggies, belong to these folks.
“I mean, that guy playing the trumpet, he’s still got his chops, but nobody calls him because he’s 83,” said Hoffman, speaking of Ronnie Hughes, who actually still get gigs tooting his horn. “These people worked 14-plus hours a day. These people are in their 70s, 80s, 90s. The woman in the wheelchair who sings at the beginning of the film — she confesses to being 86, and ... we all know she’s fibbing.”
Hoffman, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Lisa, said he expects that he will direct again soon. And he has been rumored to star in films opposite Channing Tatum (“The Contortionist’s Handbook”) and Anthony Hopkins (“The Song of Names”).
He shared his philosophy about filmmaking, and maybe about life: “All you’re trying to do is each day look back and be able to say, ‘I couldn’t have tried harder.’
“When you wake up in the morning: ‘Could I have tried harder?’ And if you say, ‘Yeah ... well, that I’ve never done.”
And he credits that work ethic to Mike Nichols, the director who gave Hoffman his first big break: the role of Benjamin Braddock in a little 1967 film called “The Graduate.”
“He took me aside one day on the set, I was very tired, I was 29 years old, and he said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I stayed up late.’
“And he looked at me very closely — Mike was only about 35 — and he says, ‘You’re never going to get another chance to do this scene. And it’s going to be up there for your life, at least.’ He didn’t know it was going to turn out the way it did, ‘The Graduate.’ But I’ve never forgotten that. This is your chance to do this, you’ll never be able to do this again.”
Hoffman looks out across the room and smiles. “So the challenge is not only to try as hard as you can, but to find it in the most alive way. And not to leave until you feel it’s alive. Even if it falls short of being what you thought it should be in terms of the elements that you wanted in it, it’s alive.
“That aliveness is all-important.”
And while we’re citing wise words from famous directors, here are some more:
“Billy Wlder once said something that I wrote down in the front of the script for ‘Quartet,’ and I looked at it every day of the production,” Hoffman notes. “He said, ‘If you’re trying to tell the truth to the audience, you better be funny or they’ll kill you.’
“That’s good, isn’t it?”