Dustin Hoffman’s new animated role fits him like a glove, he says
CANNES, France — In the 1982 comedy Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman played Michael Dorsey, an actor who was so much trouble that no one would hire him: cast to play a tomato in a commercial, he was fired because he wouldn’t sit down (“it’s not logical.”)
There was a lot of Hoffman himself in the part. He had a reputation as a demanding method actor who always had ideas for changes in the script and suggestions for his costars. The late Sydney Pollack, who won a New York Film Critics’ award for directing Tootsie, said, “I’d give it up if I could have back the nine months of my life I spent with Dustin Hoffman making it.”
At 70, Hoffman has mellowed, but he acknowledges that he is still fighting some of his demons. In his new film, the animated children’s adventure Kung Fu Panda, he does the voice of a small, largeeared animal named Master Shifu who is the martial arts guru to a fat panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black.) Hoffman says that Master Shifu captured his essence: “He’s intolerant, he’s not patient, he’s arrogant, he’s authoritative, and that sums me up to a T. It’s all the stuff you have in you.”
An animated character is the culmination of a career arc that sent him from his breakthrough role in The Graduate through such memorable turns as street hustler Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy and autistic savant Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man to such recent roles as the eccentric toy story owner in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and voices in kids’ movies (he has another one coming out at Christmas: a rat in The Tale of Despereaux). It’s part of a change in his professional choices.
“ The Graduate put me in a place where suddenly I could say, ‘Who’s the director? Is it a good script? Is it a good part? Do they have enough money to really give it the budget that it needs?’ I would look for something to fill all those criteria,” Hoffman said just before Kung Fu Panda had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Now, he says, even his wife encourages him to ask just one question: “Are you going to have a creative experience?’”
Some of that comes in smaller, independent projects, although Hoffman says that sometimes producers take it for granted that he won’t do those movies, and he’s not offered roles he would like. “You have to be very vigilant and make sure your agent didn’t get in the way . . . sometimes you’ll see an independent film and say, ‘ Why didn’t you ask me?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, no, we tried to get it to you, we couldn’t get it to you, or we didn’t think you’d want it’ and it’s painful that you’re not getting the stuff you want to do.”
And some of it comes in departures, such as Kung Fu Panda, which Hoffman calls an animated movie that tries to “dimensionalize” characters in a way he has never seen before. And while Master Shifu has been tailored to Hoffman’s personality, he doesn’t see himself as a guru, at least not if that is defined as a master of his art.
“I don’t understand it when people say they learned their craft, in any craft,” he says. “You remain a student of writing or acting or painting or whatever.”
Kung Fu Panda tells the story of how Po — a fat and lazy bear whose main desire in life is to eat — accidentally becomes the leader of a group of animals who must take on a treacherous snow leopard that threatens their village in ancient China. It’s heavy on slapstick and homages to classic martial arts movies, but when Hoffman talks about playing his role, he’s all business.
“I think all actors are trying to use themselves and your imagination and you create in your imagination a portrait as best you can,” he explains. “And that’s the external, which the audience sees. And I think behind that it’s yourself . . . You’re always filtering through that portrait.”
He quotes the French director Jean Renoir: “He said a magnificent thing. He said, ‘You don’t have to know everything. When you’re producing or directing or you’re acting. Just put out there what you know, what you feel. The audience is your co-writer. They will fill it in.’” He finds echoes of that philosophy in a Kung Fu Panda scene when Po battles Master Shifu to get food and begins to realize that, as lazy and clumsy and cookieobsessed as he is, he has the makings of a kung fu expert.