A Minute With: Dustin Hoffman on his directing debut

LOS ANGELES Wed Jan 23, 2013 3:31pm IST

U.S. actor Dustin Hoffman reacts after being presented with a Donostia Award for lifetime achievement at the Kursaal Centre on the final night of the 60th San Sebastian Film Festival September 29, 2012. REUTERS/Vincent West

U.S. actor Dustin Hoffman reacts after being presented with a Donostia Award for lifetime achievement at the Kursaal Centre on the final night of the 60th San Sebastian Film Festival September 29, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Vincent West

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman stepped behind the camera for his directing debut with the British film "Quartet" about a group of retired opera singers. It opens in U.S. theaters in Wednesday.

The film, which stars Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Tom Courtenay, tells the story of former members of a famous quartet who live in a retirement home for musicians. Old rivalries come to the surface when the fourth member, played by actress Maggie Smith, moves in.

Hoffman, 75, spoke to Reuters about directing, opera and why it took him so long to venture behind the camera.

Q: You tried to make your directorial debut on the 1978 crime drama "Straight Time." What happened?

A: "I cast it, started shooting and was acting and directing. But we didn't have playback. I couldn't wait two days to see how I did, so I fired myself as a director and a friend of mine (Ulu Grosbard) took it over. It's one of the best films I've been in and one of the best acting jobs I've done, but (to fire myself from directing) was a mistake that I regret."

Q: What do you regret about it?

A: "I should have kept at it. I should have done it because I probably would have continued to direct. But it just kind of spooked me and I hung up the directing hat. I over-doubted myself for some reason. It took a long time for me to come to terms with. I still don't have an easy answer. One has their demons and I guess that was one of mine."

Q: And now you are a first-time director at the age of 75. What drew you to this project in particular?

A: "I liked the idea of people who were no longer in their prime, who were once at their peak of excellence. I learned that the writer of (the script) was inspired by a documentary called 'Tosca's Kiss' about a home for retired opera singers and musicians in Milan. It was so poignant because they couldn't do what they had once done so brilliantly. Now they were in a retirement home and they refused to retire in a spiritual way -that got me."

Q: Did you feel it paralleled or mirrored your own life in some way?

A: "Not specifically. So far, stamina hasn't left me. In fact, the proof of that is that directing takes a lot of stamina. But I jokingly say things like, 'Okay, I don't do nights. I don't do cold. I don't do wet. I've done all that.' I won't sit in a river of freezing water all night as I did in one film. And yet, if a script came along that had all of that and was a great part, I'm sure I would do it."

Q: Did you know much about opera before taking on the subject in "Quartet?"

A: "No, I didn't, but one of my first roommates was Robert Duvall. We were both struggling actors for years in New York and we needed to get more roommates to pay the rent. He had a brother who was an aspiring opera singer who had a couple of friends who were opera singers. So all of a sudden there I am living with three opera singers. So I got to know them."

Q: What did you learn about them?

A: "I remembered their instrument is so fragile and so problematic that they would actually call it in the third person, like, 'I woke up this morning and the voice is not very good today.' They are not like actors, who can fake it. You're either an opera singer or you're not. There are great ones, but there is no such thing as a bad one."

Q: Having now officially made your directing debut, how do you feel?

A: "When you reach three-quarters of a century having lived, there's something offensive about it from a societal standpoint. 'It's over.' That's the attitude. I'm not sure the culture has caught up with the individuals who, as far as we're concerned, we are still in our second act. What's interesting is that the feeling doesn't limit itself to saying, 'Hey maybe I'll direct or maybe I'll run a marathon.' Everything opens up. Everything becomes not just a possibility, but a stone's throw from a reality."

Q: You ventured into television for the first time with last year's HBO horse racing series "Luck." It was canceled after one season after it was reported that three horses died during production. Would you ever return to TV?

A: "They closed us down like a guillotine. The facts were so distorted that it frightened HBO into making that hasty decision. It really was a freak accident ... But I was so glad I had done it (television). And I would do it again." (Reporting By Zorianna Kit; editing by Patricia Reaney and Stacey Joyce)

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