Some roles don't come easy for Dustin Hoffman. He struggled with "Midnight Cowboy" and "Tootsie." And "Rain Man," for which he won his second Academy Award for best actor, started shooting before he was quite ready.
Mr. Hoffman's latest picture, "Hero," which opened Friday, is no exception. He had just finished "Hook" when he began working on it, and there was no time for rehearsals. He felt so uncertain at one point that he told the director to replace him.
"I'm just not very fast," Mr. Hoffman said over the phone from Los Angeles. "You slowly work your way into some roles. You just don't create them instantaneously. I had trouble finding the key to this one. I knew the character had to be amusing or it wouldn't work."
The movie is a return to the concerns of such 1940s classics as Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe" and Preston Sturges' "Hail the Conquering Hero," both of which deal with a media-created hero who either knows or believes he's a fraud.
But "Hero" complicates the formula by having two hero-frauds: a thief and felon named Bernie (Mr. Hoffman) who appears to go against his nature by rescuing 54 passengers from a burning plane, and a much nicer, possibly less brave guy (Andy Garcia) who ends up getting all the glory for Mr. Hoffman's feat and feels suicidally guilty about it.
"The notion of a lowlife being the real hero -- I was surprised the writer [David Peoples] had that in mind," said the 55-year-old Hoffman, who played memorable lowlifes in "Straight Time" (one of his neglected favorites) and "Midnight Cowboy."
"He based the character on a couple of people he knew, and Bernie was established as a middle-class husband and father. But I didn't know what had happened in those early years. Something broke him early, he was damaged goods, like that character in 'Lil Abner' who walks around with a black cloud over his head."
In "Straight Time," Mr. Hoffman got the key to portraying a more dangerous criminal when an ex-convict suggested he play the man as if he were always looking for the nearest potential murder weapon.
"Actors are always looking for things to obsess the character," said Mr. Hoffman. "The guy in 'Hero' is never as threatening as the character in 'Straight Time,' but they're both criminals, and they're both thinking as criminals."
Mr. Hoffman was never considered for the Garcia role, because the filmmakers wanted a conventionally handsome leading man, someone who looks the part of a hero. Mr. Hoffman thinks Mr. Garcia has "a silent-movie look, like John Gilbert," and that helps makes his character acceptable.
"It's unsettling to find yourself rooting for a fraud, but we've all been had by people who look like heroes, and we continue to be had," said Mr. Hoffman, who is especially fond of the script's mixture of sentiment and satire. "The writer hit several different levels, and the picture plays differently with different audiences."
Mr. Hoffman recently saw "Hero" with a film-school audience that laughed hardest at a secondary character, a television cameraman who's obsessed with lenses and exposures and divorced from life (Kevin O'Connor). Although Mr. Hoffman doesn't regard the movie as an attack on the media, he's afraid that some audiences will take it that way.
Early in the movie, Mr. O'Connor tapes a spectacular suicide and the reporter working with him (Geena Davis) says, "Did you get that?" -- immediately followed by "I can't believe I said that." Mr. Hoffman fears audiences will hear the first line and miss the second one.
"Reporters get that line, but I'm not sure everyone else will," said Mr. Hoffman. "The material is deceptively difficult. You have to find a balance between satire and realism."
Both Mr. Hoffman and his director, Stephen Frears ("The Grifters"), had rejected an earlier version of the script because they felt the second half needed to be strengthened. Some reshooting was done, partly because the filmmakers didn't feel they'd found that balance, partly because Mr. Hoffman had not found the character in a few early scenes.
Mr. Hoffman said Mr. Frears is good because he doesn't lie: "He's an actor's friend because he's never diplomatic. Movies have no time for that. He's not afraid to say 'That's dreadful.' He was rough at the beginning, and so strict that I asked him, 'Why don't you let me quit? I'm just not doing a very good job.' But it got very easy after that."
In some ways, the stage-trained Mr. Hoffman prefers live audiences because there's more time to make mistakes, the audience is smaller, and the mistakes aren't permanent: "When you work on stage you can tell people not to come see you until you've been doing the play for six weeks, until you're really 'in there.'
"With movies I'm always looking for ways to cheat, like costume tests where you can start to get into the role. If you're lucky you can try stuff out, go to the rushes, decide what you don't like, and discard the stuff that makes you throw up."