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'Station' Agent

'Station' Agent
Photo Source: Vincenzo Pinto
Michael Hoffman began his career as an actor, spending time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and studying at Oxford, before "stumbling" into filmmaking. With films like "Soapdish" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on his résumé, the writer-director felt ready to tackle his most ambitious project yet: an adaptation of "The Last Station," the 1990 biographical novel about Leo Tolstoy by Jay Parini. Starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, the film chronicles the Russian literary giant's final days as battle over his fortune rages between his strong-willed wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), and his acolyte, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). James McAvoy plays Tolstoy's private secretary, Valentin Bulgakov, who is caught up in the machinations. Hoffman spoke to Back Stage about his experience as an actor, how that shaped his skills as a director, and his work with the cast of "The Last Station."

Back Stage: Would you say your experience as an actor helped you to be a better director?

Michael Hoffman: I don't know how I would direct if I hadn't acted. It is the foundation of everything I know how to do as a dramatic storyteller.  It is the foundation of everything I know about dramatic writing. Everything comes from that acting experience: understanding how to structure a scene and trying to make the most of any negotiation.

People tell me they like that my films have a lot of characters in them and they all seem to have a life. I'm really committed to the inner life of all the characters, and I think that's because of the acting thing. Remember in that movie "The Purple Rose of Cairo," when someone says, "Well, what's this film about?" All the characters in the film-within-a-film step forward and say that it's a story about their character? I know what that feels like. I understand when you are writing and directing that you are responsible to make sure that everybody could step forward and say, "This is a story about a maid," or "This is a story about a butler, banker…"

Back Stage: "The Last Station" isn't just about one character. Everyone has a story. So much so that I wasn't sure whom I was supposed to root for and whom to hate. Like, with Chertkov, I couldn't figure out whether he was a good guy or a bad guy.

Hoffman: I think he is a needy person looking for the love and approval of a father, and he is using his dogmatic fanaticism to try to control the "father" and guarantee that he becomes the heir to the father's legacy. So whether that's likable or not likable I don't know, but I think it's human and recognizable. It's like Johnny in "On the Waterfront." You don't like him, but after that speech he gives early on about where he came from and why he does what he does and why he thinks the best defense is a good offense, you understand him. I think that's an important thing. I mean, I don't know if you are supposed to like Sofya. Some might or might not. Some people might find Tolstoy sweet but passive-aggressive. I don't think any of them are perfect.

Back Stage: Can you tell us about your casting process?

Hoffman: On this movie, I didn't employ a casting director until very late in the process, because I just worked with my close friend Laura Kennedy, head of casting at Warner Bros., in her spare time, and she was just endlessly helpful.

Back Stage: Do you enjoy the casting process?

Hoffman: I really do. And I do feel confident in the casting process. Maybe it is because as an actor you trust that you can do a lot of different things, so I really try to think outside the box with casting. At one time, Meryl Streep was attached to the script, and that was a version of Sofya I understood very well. But then when the schedules were not going to work out and there was a possibility that Helen Mirren might be interested and available, it wasn't that I needed to rewrite it; it was just that I needed to rethink how I would approach it with a very different kind of actress. Now I can't imagine anyone else doing it.

Back Stage: I read that you and McAvoy had spoken about working together on "The Last Station" for years.

Hoffman: I couldn't figure out how to make the movie without him. I was baffled how I was going to do that if he ended up doing another movie. I believe that his performance is the glue that makes everything work. He has an incredible gift: An audience is willing to give themselves over to him and trust him to allow him to be their heart and soul and mind in the story. That is incredibly rare.

Helen told me that when the costume designer was handing her dresses, saying, "This is the dress you wear when you try to make love to your husband; this is the dress for when you have thrown yourself in off the balcony; this is the dress you wear when you try to commit suicide in the pond…," Helen was like, "You know, this is a pretty fucking good part." But with James, you can't say that about his role. It's pretty passive. And those are the hardest roles to play, and everybody knows that.

Back Stage: He's the observer.

Hoffman: Exactly. But he's so present. Every moment is so full. His work is so incredibly full. He's so concentrated. He works so hard. He's so truthful and emotionally available. I admire him so much as an actor.

Back Stage: When you are working with a legend like Mirren or Plummer, how much direction do you give them? Do you just trust them and let them do their own thing?

Hoffman: We have responsibilities as storytellers. Everybody: the actors and the director. There is a story you are trying to tell and a central theme that needs to be respected. I think, as a director, you need to be really clear up front about what it is we are trying to get done here. This is the narrative building block. From there, we can experiment and try things. There are always adjustments to make. I have tried over the years to be better about not giving too many adjustments all at the same time; I think it's a mistake. I remember Robert Redford saying to me one time, "No, no, no, you can only give an actor three notes after any take." [Laughs.] That seemed to be really arbitrary because different actors process input differently than other actors, but it's not a bad rule of thumb, to limit yourself. When actors are trying to find their feet, it's really easy for a director to sit back and say, "No, no, okay, do this, fix that," but a lot of that stuff by take three will work itself out anyway. A lot of it is the actor finding their feet. Everyone is different. Every process is different. But that's my experience: Relax, try to choose the major point that will have a narrative impact, don't fiddle, don't worry about a dropped word, don't give a line reading, and you will find your way toward the same place.

Back Stage: Actors often get the note from teachers to make strong choices, especially in auditions. What are your thoughts on that? 

Hoffman: Well, I think that particularly when auditioning for television it shows people that you've done the work and that you could show up on a set and be relied on to quickly get to a result. I think there are upsides and downsides to it in the feature world, because when you have a little bit more time, sometimes the really strong choice can get in the way of the exploration you can do. But if you are willing to make the strong choice and do it and then let it go and continue to explore, then I think it's great. It's not as crucial with film. But it's still great when someone is prepared. I've been on a lot of sets and been frustrated with certain actors who know they have the time and they waste it by not being as prepared as they could be.

Back Stage: What do you expect of an actor on the set?

Hoffman: I like actors to come with a point of view. I like actors who are not afraid to ask questions. I like actors who know that it is okay to make a mistake. The nightmares are when people chase their tails because they get tense. Tension is the greatest enemy of creativity. What I want is for people to know how to find that relaxed place to work from or to tell me what they need to find that relaxed place to work from.

Back Stage: So what is your best advice for struggling actors?

: Work every chance you get. If you live in L.A., don't be afraid to do theater. Don't worry that you're going to miss an opportunity; just work, work, work and do things that you love. Always be prepared to seize the opportunity the moment that it comes.

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