A movie star has been coming to work in our neighborhood for the past year: Dustin Hoffman stars in the new HBO series Luck, a drama about horse racing and the people involved in it, which is set at and shot at Arcadia's
Hoffman, told reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour Friday that he also has a personal connection to the life of the legendary race track--through his wife.
Deadwood's David Milch is executive producer and creator of Luck, whose pilot was directed by executive producer and filmmaker Michael Mann. Luck premieres Jan. 29 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Following is an edited version of a Q&A with Hoffman by Patch and other reporters.
Are you learning about the history and culture of Santa Anita?
Hoffman: Through David [Milch]. David knows more about it than anything else. I shouldn’t say that, because my wife’s father was a "degenerate" [a nickname for a regular gambler], and my wife went to the track with him when she was 6 years old. My wife has told me everything I have to know about the track, because as a child, she’d learn it from her father, who was a degenerate. When my wife was 5 or 6 years old, she went out to Santa Anita every day with him, and she held a piece of paper and she would look at her dad and say, “See that horse? Write down KS," and she knew that stood for "kidney sweat" [a sign of a nervous or sick horse], and that was her job for about three years.
Is she helping you out with the show?
Hoffman: No, no, she wants no part of it.
How do you like working on location at the track, in the bar, in the restaurant? [Among other Arcadia locations, t]
Hoffman: It’s a nice location. It’s better than slogging around in the mud. It’s nice as locations go. It was extraordinary to see what he was talking about, David was talking about, to see 300 people in a place that used to have thousands and thousands. To see people that had just bet not going back to watch the race, but seeing it on TV, and they’re there at the track. That’s extraordinary, and it gives you chills.
Are you a horse guy at all?
Hoffman: No, and I’ve become a horse guy. Now I am, mainly because of what David has been doing with the material, and that is to focus on the animal as an animal, not as a symbol of making money.
What do you like about Chester? [Hoffman plays Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a deal maker involved with gambling enterprises who returns to Santa Anita after being released after serving three years in prison.]
Hoffman: I think he tells the truth, and yet he’s very intimidating. He’s not believed. In the world that he lives in, telling the truth is the last thing they’re going to believe. Paddy Chayefsky said to me many, many years ago when he was researching for The Godfather, he says, “I’ll take the mob any day, because if you don’t keep your word, they kill you. So you keep your word. I just got to know a little bit about Hollywood. There is no moral compass because no one keeps your word because no one’s going to kill them. They’re just going to get sued. Give me the mafia.”
What brought you to TV after such a career in film?
Hoffman: There’s no reason for me to butter up HBO. Contract’s done already, too late to fire me. I had not had this experience before. It’s very hard to do your best work, but you want a shot at it. You cannot get a shot at doing your best work in the studio system. You can’t. There’s committees, there’s meetings, you’re on the set, you don’t have to do that, they get involved in a quasi-creative way but they buck heads with people they shouldn’t be bucking heads with. With HBO, once they give a go, there’s no committee, no meetings. I was expecting 20 pages a day. I was expecting an atmosphere like making movies on cocaine or speed. It’s the opposite. We did the best we could with as much time as we could, and came back the next day. Michael [Mann] hired all film directors. There was no difference between making a movie, except he used digital and three cameras, which actors love because we don’t have to repeat.
If the show does well, how do you feel about being identified with the character for maybe five years?
Hoffman: I know. My wife and I never had a fight when I was doing Tootsie. She loves having a girlfriend. Movies are a bastard art form, period. Art, I would think, is the first day you don’t start with chapter 25, then jump to the beginning, then jump to the end, and it’s all set in concrete, and a script is never what the movie turns out to be. It’s either better or worse, but it’s a blueprint. When you’re painting a picture or writing, you know as well as anyone, you have the general feeling of it but it begins to tell you where it’s going. This is the first time I’ve ever had that opportunity. That is extraordinary. Michael said he looks at the work, and it starts to influence [him]: We could go there, we could go there, we could go there. I’ve never had that experience before. As far as it inhabiting me, it doesn’t. I don’t take the character [home], I’ve never really understood that personally. You’re pretending.
Did you do anything special to prepare for this role?
Hoffman: No. There's very little you have to do...You're altered immediately. You know what happens when you put the right dress on in the closet. You get a feeling.
Editor Natalie Ragus contributed to this story.