Interview: Dustin Hoffman

  • Kung Fu Panda 3 is released on March 11
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Dustin Hoffman is in fine form, voicing Shifu in Kung Fu Panda 3. He talks to Keeley Bolger about racism, sexism and Donald Trump

The 88th Academy Awards have been doled out to the winners and a new chapter of Hollywood history has been written, but for Dustin Hoffman, the central problem of this year’s Oscars - the lack of diversity among the nominees - remains.

Like Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and director Spike Lee, Hoffman called out the committee for their all-white shortlist.

“I think we’re slow to change,” says the 78-year-old. “There is a racism that exists and will always exist. If it’s not black people, it’s another so-called minority. I think human beings have to feel that there’s someone beneath them and they don’t realise it’s because they have such little regard for themselves they feel that way.

“I mean, look at how long it’s taken women and they still haven’t gotten the same [money as men],” he says in his trademark rich drawl.

On the subject of the presidential race, the actor is similarly considered. “I don’t think Donald Trump is the phenomenon, the phenomena are the people that support him,” he says. “I think it’s not because they’re voting for Trump as much as they’re voting against the system. He just happened to fall in the middle of that.”

Contemplative, clued up and frequently very funny, Hoffman’s conversation doesn’t disappoint. Only a few years ago, he thrilled the audience of a Q&A about BBC One festive special Esio Trot by waltzing with co-star Dame Judi Dench.

Born in Los Angeles to a jazz pianist mother and prop supervisor father, he modestly refers to his success as a “freak accident”, but his performances suggest otherwise.

He started acting at the Pasadena Playhouse with Gene Hackman, and joined him in New York, where he studied at the Actors Studio.

Known for choosing parts wisely, it was his role as a confused college graduate opposite Anne Bancroft’s Mrs Robinson in The Graduate that set him up - 50 years old next year.

“I remember thinking I was lucky to be in a film that was so well made,” says the actor.

His name lends a mark of quality to the work he does, be it his Academy Award performances in Rain Man and Kramer Vs Kramer, his comedic turn in Meet The Fockers, and even animation, where he is currently delighting his grandchildren as the voice of Shifu, a wise elderly panda in Kung Fu Panda 3, alongside Jack Black.

The third film sees enthusiastic panda Po (Black) suffer a crisis of confidence when he has to defeat a new enemy. For Hoffman, working on the film meant a chance to bring his 11-year-old grandson Gus into the studio, where the crew let him record a voice for one of the cartoon children.

“I was sent the DVD and I watched it. They gave the actors’ credits at the end of the film and he was the last credit,” recalls Hoffman, who is married to businesswoman Lisa Gottsegen and has six children.

“I put the DVD on hold and took a photo and I sent it to Gus. He was over the moon. He showed it to everyone.”

Although Hoffman often plays supporting characters nowadays, he admits he and his great friend and former flatmate Hackman have never shaken the feeling that the next role will be their last.

When the two friends worked together for the first time in 2003’s Runaway Jury, they decamped to an Italian restaurant for a heart-to-heart.

“Gene looked at me and he said, ‘Do you ever think what I think when a film is over?’” says Hoffman, who adds that both friends felt “nervous” about acting in front of each other.

“And he’d made over a hundred of them and I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘You’ll never work again?’ and I said, ‘Yes’.”