"Sphere." Starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio. Produced by Barry Levinson, Michael Crichton and Andrew Wald. A Warner release. Sci-fi/thriller. Opens Feb. 13.
He's in a meeting-but he'd like you to go in," Dustin Hoffman's assistant informs BOXOFFICE with a slightly puzzled tone in her voice. Sure, it's not the normal etiquette, but Hoffman soon makes it evident he's not one to stand on formalities. We're at Hoffman's Brentwood, Calif.-based Punch Productions offices, named for the famed oft-battered puppet. ("I always thought that I was like Punch," explains Hoffman. "I've got a big nose, bad posture. Got whacked around when I was in school.")
"Are you comfy-wumfy?" Hoffman queries as BOXOFFICE settles onto a couch. It's becoming more and more apparent that this isn't going to be your typical celebrity interview. Actor Adrien Brody, the person whose meeting is being interloped, is introduced. "Now he's who you should be interviewing," says Hoffman. As it turns out, that is exactly what happens, as the young star of the upcoming Terrence Malick-helmed "The Thin Red Line" is invited to stay and take part in the proceedings.
The intended topic at hand is the Hoffman starrer "Sphere," Warner's sci-fi thriller based on Michael Crichton's novel about a team of scientists investigating a spacecraft that's been submerged underwater for hundreds of years. Keeping on this subject, however, turns out to be nearly impossible. Hoffman's mile-a-minute mind juggles multitudinous subjects, philosophies, book recommendations, and even hangover remedies with Tesla-caliber simultaneity, while BOXOFFICE and Brody race to keep up. ("I have to take notes!" Brody cries at one point.) We learn of Hoffman's past employment as a psychiatric hospital attendant (his job was to hold people down while they received shock treatment); we hear tell of his children and their exploits in acting, writing, music and painting; we're enlightened with scientific and esoteric musings; we're paternally admonished for not having read this book or seen that movie; and we're told a few unforgettably twisted jokes, all frequently punctuated with that quick, quirky Hoffman smile.
An actor with one of the most renowned and diverse character repertoires in film history, Hoffman seems to be a culmination of his character studies, demonstrating a passion for analysis, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a mentor-like desire to share his knowledge with others. This unique interview scenario affords the opportunity to view the two-time Oscar winner in one of his most astounding roles-himself.
The conversation begins before the tape recorder's even rolling. Hoffman is recoiling as he is offered a copy of BOXOFFICE's "Mad City" article. Before a single question can be asked, Hoffman's off and running on the subject of the business side of filmmaking.
DUSTIN HOFFMAN: It's alarming. It's not the first movie that didn't do well. But it's alarming because when I was his age [indicating Brody], it was a different business. Less of a business. Adrien's 24. So when I was 24, that was '61. I'm 60. In 1961, there was no such thing as Number 1, 2, 3 at the boxoffice. The public knows it now. [Before it was] never in the papers, what the grosses were. Only studio heads talked about those things. It was the inside. There's no inside anymore. ["Sphere" director Barry Levinson said], "When my mother in Boca Raton, Florida knows what something grossed, there's no inside." So if it's 1, 2, 3, and you don't make 1, 2, 3, you don't make 4, you don't make 5. It's the first weekend. That didn't exist. That never existed before. If you don't open the first weekend, you're gone.
BRODY: The problem for me is [choosing career-making roles or interesting roles].
HOFFMAN: Here's the rub. Now you have a stronger pull than you had when I was your age. Now it's deciding between a career and a life of your work.
BOXOFFICE: Yet you made some very interesting choices that would not necessarily have been career-makers, but that's what they turned out to be. For example, who would have thought a film like "Midnight Cowboy" would become such a success?
HOFFMAN: People called me up, including ["The Graduate" director] Mike Nichols, and said "You're crazy. He's not an attractive guy, and it's a supporting role. You can't do it." You have to go after what brought you into it to begin with.
BOXOFFICE: Is that what you're doing with your production company?
HOFFMAN: One of the reasons I want to produce now is, as I get older now and I see material, I say "Oop, too old to play that. Oop, can't do that." So, it hurts to realize that as you get older it becomes narrow. I could play older, I could play younger. Now I can only play older! [laughs] I can't play younger. The parts narrow. Having a company that produces material you can no longer act in because you're too old is saying, "Don't tell me I can't do this movie!" [laughs] That's the philosophy. [laughs]
BOXOFFICE: Though you of all people should know the powers of prosthetic makeup. I remember a quote of yours about how you wanted your tombstone to read...
HOFFMAN: "I knew this was going to happen."
BRODY: That's good! Lighten the mood every time someone comes to visit.
HOFFMAN: He knows. His response is an actor's response. Because that's what we're put here for. To give you a kick.
BRODY: Still invoke a reaction, even when you die. You want the right reaction. "Let's not visit Mom, let's visit Dustin!"
BOXOFFICE: In "Sphere," you play a psychologist. Was it your predilection for examining people's minds and motivations that drew you to the project?
HOFFMAN: No, not initially. Barry Levinson is the one director that I've done the most movies with. I've done four movies with him ["Rain Man," "Sleepers," "Wag the Dog" and "Sphere"]. If he's directing, I automatically say "Is there a part for me?" Arthur Miller once talked about how cruel critics can be sometimes. He said, "They forget what it's called. It's called a play. If it's a play, why are we making something so serious about it?" We get on stage and we play. It shouldn't be work, it should be play. Not just is it going to be a hit, career, this, that. So when you work with a director, I can say, "Yeah, I like to play with Barry."
BOXOFFICE: Describe what your character is about in "Sphere."
HOFFMAN: There are three roles, myself and Samuel Jackson and Sharon Stone. And Liev Schreiber's in it, and Peter Coyote. And we shot it up north. I got my scuba license.
BOXOFFICE: Was the scuba certification for "Sphere"?
HOFFMAN: Yes, they wouldn't insure you otherwise.
BOXOFFICE: What sort of activities were you doing underwater?
HOFFMAN: Going down, 20, 30 feet, for the underwater shooting when we're entering this capsule...but I don't like to say. I don't understand this age we live in now. I know that when that movie opened, "Twister," the morning it opened, there was the director on one of those shows saying "Now this is real, but that car that's going up isn't...," and I thought, "My god! The magician's giving away his tricks!"
BRODY: I used to be a magician.
HOFFMAN: Ah! So was Woody Allen!
BRODY: He was, really?
HOFFMAN: Yes! All right, where are we? Come on, we have to do this now. [to Brody]: You're tangenting all over the place!
BOXOFFICE: [to Brody]: It's all you!
BRODY: Yeah, it is all me.
BOXOFFICE: So I guess you don't want to tell me about any of the special effects used to create the creatures in "Sphere."
HOFFMAN: I don't even know, because I know they're doing it now. They're CGIing it. But I don't know how they're doing it.
BOXOFFICE: The book had some intriguing descriptions of some unique sea creatures that were mutations created by the mind.
HOFFMAN: Nice idea, isn't it? What you manifest becomes real. That's what psychosis is. I think that's what interested Barry. That the monsters and fear are the things that we create.
BOXOFFICE: You were saying that you basically were interested in this material because Barry Levinson was involved.
HOFFMAN: That was the first thought for me to do it. Then I read the book, and I had never read a Michael Crichton book. And I was surprised that it had an interesting spine. And I guess I believe in what it's postulating. Human beings have something no other-as far as we know, we don't know about dolphins-we have something no other organism has: the ability to imagine. That's where everything starts from. And what we've done with that gift is imagine things that hurt us.
[The book also brings to mind the fact that] our country has spent more money, trillions, in terms of outer space, and what it costs to make a toilet in a spacecraft, we have spent less than what it costs to make a toilet on undersea exploration, which is the majority of our planet. We don't know dick about what goes on down there. We're not investigating it. So that's kind of fascinating. We haven't explored. This is our planet! We're out there, and we don't seem to be interested [in our own planet].
BOXOFFICE: The cast of "Sphere" is interestingly eclectic: you, Sharon Stone, Samuel L. Jackson, Queen Latifah...Can you describe that whole dynamic?
HOFFMAN: It's just like any other movie. We're actors and we come to work and we work. It was a wonderful acting experience. A terrible experience for other reasons. I had hayfever, and you don't want to go to Napa Valley in the springtime. I didn't know it was the hayfever hell capital of the world. I had to have steroids finally.
BOXOFFICE: I hope you didn't have hayfever when you had to do the scuba part.
HOFFMAN: Well, it was a concern. Anyway, everybody got the flu because we were working in water. It was a sick film-I hope that doesn't get distorted. Everybody was sick. [laughs] The acting was the best thing because it was acting. It wasn't like doing an action film. It was drama set underwater. We're actors, all in a room. It was almost like doing a play.
BOXOFFICE: Have you seen any footage?
HOFFMAN: No. I looped it, and you see a little, but no.
BOXOFFICE: Do you have any impressions about the film?
HOFFMAN: I've never been able to tell [if a movie will be successful or not]. We had a producer [who had seen footage from "Rain Man" during production] who said it was a disaster. We were so depressed, we didn't want to finish the movie. "It was terrible and we made a big mistake; Cruise's character is too unsympathetic." So you never really know. "Midnight Cowboy," I was sitting in a screening, rows of people walked out. In blocks! Jon Voight, Bob Balaban has oral sex with him in the bathroom-whoosh!
BOXOFFICE: Do you feel any excitement about being in a big sci-fi epic Crichton movie?
HOFFMAN: I don't have any excitement. I've never had any excitement about that part of it. The only memory I have is "The Graduate." My first wife and I [went to the screening], and I'd never seen it, and I sat in the dark, and my teeth were chattering. Once it started, my face, I remember, a close-up of me was the first shot of the film. I'd never seen my face on film! And my teeth started chattering, and I didn't stop chattering till the movie was over. The excitement! And my heart was pounding! There was this incredible excitement about it, it's going to open soon, what's going to happen to me. I remember that feeling. I'm nervous. You're always nervous. But it's the excitement when you're working.
BRODY: Finding a moment.
HOFFMAN: "I know! You know how this scene should play? I know what you should do!"
BOXOFFICE: Isn't it exciting to you to anticipate seeing those moments working?
HOFFMAN: You know what's exciting? Is after it's over. If it's successful. Then you can sneak in two days later in the back of the house, and you know that thing's going to get a laugh, and you wait till it hits.
BRODY: I think there's too much dread probably [prior to a movie's opening].
HOFFMAN: The dread gets in the way. A lot of D.E.-Dread Excitement. [Affects streetwise hip voice:] Gotta lot of 'D goin'.
BOXOFFICE: What sort of research did you do for your character in "Sphere"?
HOFFMAN: That's not...you're not...you see, that's a bad word. You're not researching. You're painting. You're sketching. Actors have that commonality. We love to pick up every little thing you do. We don't know why, but we just can sit there and just pick up every little thing you do all day long. [laughs]
A wonderful tool for being an actor today [that wasn't available] when I was his age [indicating Brody] is that you have tapes now. You can do research and it's so much quicker. I got tapes on crisis, that was the first tape I was interested in. Because this character, before he [is summoned to investigate the submerged spacecraft], he's a crisis-I forget what they're called now, but when there's a crisis, they send a psychologist there to deal with the trauma of the survivors. So I did some reading, I got literature on that, and I got some great energies from people who had that job. Then your imagination kicks in, because then you say, "Ooh, that's interesting. So that's what he does well. And if he does that well, he probably likes it." And there's a comfort to that, I've always thought. It's like being in the ER unit of a hospital. You're in a crisis, and you're not in trouble. If you deal with stuff like that, where people die, there's kind of an unconscious feeling that "as long as I help people, then it won't happen to me." So I made that decision for the character. And then I thought maybe when he himself was in the position that the other people were in, how was he then?
BOXOFFICE: Being so analytical yourself, it's interesting...
HOFFMAN: I don't think I'm that analytical.
BOXOFFICE: Not analytical in a dry sense. You have a very colorful, enthusiastic, insightful way of perceiving things.
HOFFMAN: I'm very analytical in a very wet way.
BOXOFFICE: What does that mean?
HOFFMAN: I just like the sound of it. You said not in a dry way.
BOXOFFICE: Oh! [laughs]
HOFFMAN: I like that. I'm very...
HOFFMAN: Moist! I like that word a lot. I'm very analytically moist. Moistly analytical. [Laughs heartily]. Moistly, I'm mostly moistly analytical! Miles Davis said a great line. He said "Don't play what's there, play what's not there." And you know, in life, some of us are interested in what's not there, or what's not on the surface. What's most interesting to us is what isn't said, what's disguised. [Trying to figure that out,] I've never been bored. I've been depressed, but I've never been bored.