BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Dustin Hoffman seems to be picking roles that show great wisdom comes with age. In “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” he played a wise and slightly mystical 243-year-old toy store owner. In his latest role in “Kung Fu Panda,” he plays an aged animated martial arts master who is wise and slightly mystical.
Looks like a pattern.
The 70-year-old Hoffman says that’s not the case.
“I’m just taking what’s being sent my way, like any actor,” says Hoffman during an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
For a man who has won two Oscars, Hoffman’s unassuming. At times he is his own toughest critic. When he speaks, he talks in a tone just low enough to require listeners to pay close attention or they will miss what he has to say.
“I guess the truth of it is that someone my age, unless you develop the part yourself, you’ve reached the point where you’re not going to get the leading roles because the leading roles are written for people in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s,” Hoffman says. “Then, after your 50s, 60s, you start to become the supporting actor, generally speaking, unless you’re Sean Connery or some kind of signature action person maybe like Harrison Ford, and I’m none of those people.”
Granted, he’s no Connery. Who is? But Hoffman has two Oscar wins out of seven nominations. That’s twice Connery’s Oscar wins and seven times Ford’s nominations. And Hoffman has appeared in some of the top movies - with audiences, critics and at the box office - ever made: “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Graduate,” “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Rain Man.” (Sure, he was in “Ishtar,” one of the biggest bombs ever, but everyone is allowed one monumental mistake.)
And now Hoffman has a first-rate animated film to his credit. Hoffman provides the voice of Shifu, a martial arts master who trains a slacker panda (voiced by Jack Black) to be the savior of a country. Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Ian McShane also provide voices.
Hoffman had been a professional actor almost a decade before Black was born. That, stresses Hoffman, did not create a life-imitates-art situation of master/student with any of this cast or any other.
“My honest answer, and some people just don’t believe it and some do, is I don’t feel I’m a master. Most artists I know don’t feel they’re masters. You don’t want to feel that. You want to feel that you’re a student for your lifetime,” Hoffman says. “I’m going to continue to learn about myself until the last moment.”
“Kung Fu Panda” was a learning experience. Hoffman says work on the animated movie was more difficult than on a live-action film. That’s because he never felt he had enough time to develop his character, despite the four years it took to produce the movie. The possibility that scared him most was that the character might come across as two-dimensional. It was a real concern for the veteran actor.
Those concerns are exactly why co-director Mark Osborne wanted Hoffman for the voice of Shifu. He says Hoffman brought a gravitas to the film that was needed to honor the martial arts genre while still having fun.
“Creating the characters is an evolution. We have an idea. Then we bring someone like Dustin in to help us really author the character,” Osborne says of casting Hoffman in “Kung Fu Panda.”
Hoffman’s no stranger to family films. His credits include movies from “Racing Stripes” to “Hook.”
It was during the filming of “Hook” in 1991 that Hoffman first met “Kung Fu Panda” co-star Angelina Jolie. It started with a call from “Midnight Cowboy” co-star Jon Voight.
“He called me up and said `My kids are dying to meet Captain Hook. Are you in costume? Can I come over with the kids?’ `Yes, sure. Come over,’” Hoffman says. “So he brings over his kids. I’m introduced to his son and his daughter and she’s this tall, thin, gawky looking girl with a mouth full of braces and he introduces us.
“`This is Angelina.’ I was just making conversation. `So do you guys have any idea what you want to do?’ And she gave me a laser-like intensity look and she says, `I’m going to be an actress.’ And I went home to my wife and I said, `I don’t think this kid has any idea what a tough road she’s got.’”