Los Angeles -- Fit and tan at 57, Dustin Hoffman is nonetheless starting to feel his age.
"As an aging movie star," he says, "I guess I've always been aware that there's been an element of, how much longer can I get away with this? And it's not unlike a hooker, in a sense that the public tires of having you in their bedroom."
Which led the two-time Oscar winner to try on something new -- his first action-thriller. "Outbreak," loosely inspired by Richard Preston's best seller "The Hot Zone," stars Mr. Hoffman as an Army virologist desperately racing to contain a deadly virus that gruesomely devastates a small Northern California town.
Last summer, the film was in a fierce race itself, to beat a competing virus movie, "Crisis in the Hot Zone," to theaters. "Outbreak" got the quick start, while "Crisis," which was to star Robert Redford and Jodie Foster, imploded on the drawing board.
That competition, however, sapped some of "Outbreak's" strength. Rushed into production, the shoot was shut down early because of script problems. Some wondered what role Mr. Hoffman, a legendary perfectionist when it comes to scripts, had in the decision.
Rene Russo, who plays Mr. Hoffman's ex-wife in "Outbreak," says, "Every time he put his foot down, he was right. He was right. He will do everything he can, he will scream as loud as he can, to make the film better."
Director Wolfgang Petersen, who made "In the Line of Fire" with Clint Eastwood and Ms. Russo, concurs.
"With Clint, you tell him, 'Walk from here to there and say this.' After take two, he'll say, 'Are we done? Good, let's play golf.' But Dustin will spend the night tossing and turning and calling me at 3 in the morning. I totally loved it.
"But is he exhausting? Oh, boy, you bet." According to Mr. Petersen, producer Arnold Kopelson initially resisted casting Mr. Hoffman, saying "Life's too short."
Mr. Hoffman, relaxed and contemplative after the first screening of the film (which, he reports conspiratorially, was delivered to the theater in its final form mere minutes before it was to be shown), munches on a bagel and sips on a diet cola while discussing his career, the perils of blockbuster-making -- and what he sees as an increasingly uncertain future.
Q: We haven't seen you in this kind of genre movie before. Is it because actors of your stature aren't considered for such roles?
A: I think it's more, an actor of my lack of stature [laughs].
Q: So how did you get involved?
A: Wolfgang mentioned it, and I said, "Why don't you send it to me?" I never got sent those kinds of scripts. He gave it to me and was intrigued with the idea of me doing it, but I was going to turn it down because I felt it needed actors familiar with that genre.
I didn't know how to do this generic type of movie. These so-called action movies are purposely two-dimensional. I remember when we did "All the President's Men," which was a thriller, we shot all these scenes [with Woodward and Bernstein's romantic interests], which were ultimately cut out of the movie. You only have a certain amount of time to tell an action story, so there's no time to go into, for example, why Rene Russo and I broke up or idiosyncrasies of character, because you can't stop that train from rolling.
I always wanted to play James Bond [smiles], precisely for the reason that it's amusing to you. I'm as amused as you are.
Q: There were a lot of rewrites for this script -- how did that affect the picture?
A: There was a rewrite by Ted Tally ["Silence of the Lambs"], then Jeb Stuart ["The Fugitive"] was hired. We were a week into shooting when we got that script and felt certain things weren't solved. Wolfgang had the rare courage, with a budget like this [$50-million-plus] to tell the studio, "Fire me, but I'm not shooting this."
In a few days, they found a new writer, Neal Jimenez ["Waterdance"], and started shooting, and we never stayed much ahead of the fax machine. We literally got up at 4:30 in the morning and gathered around the fax as it was being spit out.
It was not a dissimilar way that we worked on "Kramer Vs. Kramer," "Tootsie" or "Rain Man." If the pressure wasn't so great because of the budget, it's not a bad way to work. (Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool, who wrote the film's first draft, received final credit for the script.)
Q: Talk of a "Graduate" sequel surfaces from time to time. Are you interested?
A: I would like to do the "Graduate" sequel. I would like to be Mrs. Robinson [smiles], meaning that I would like to be having the affair with a younger girl because my youth is gone. Benjamin is like all of us -- he doesn't want to age.
Q: You mentioned the public tiring of you. How acutely aware are you of that? How would you counter that? Would you like to move on to smaller, more personal films?
A: That's my fantasy. I'm overdue -- I should have done that earlier. Writers are the genesis for what they do, they create it. The actor gets what you generate. So we're not the creator, you are. An actor reads what somebody else did, and moves where the director tells him to move. That's why actors have such trouble calling themselves artists, because we pick up what someone else started. Given that, you try to stretch yourself -- "I did a swan dive, now can I do a backward flip?"
For me, I feel honestly defensive about your question, because you nailed me where I am vulnerable, and that is: I simply haven't done what I would like to do. As you get older, and go through life's experiences, you change, and that's what you want to put on the canvas. You want to see how that's affecting you. . .
Tolstoy said, in his 70s, "I am at the stage now where I have nothing to look forward to except death." I read that, and it stopped me cold. That's the most compelling thing on the minds of people of a certain age. And the time becomes precious.
I can sit outside my shoes, and say to myself, "Man, if I was him, I'd do this. . ." And I haven't done it yet. I've been trying to do a certain project for over two years, and I can't get it right. I can't solve this project, I want to get it exactly right.
There is no joy like that. To see it [he claps his hands for emphasis] right! To see it done right supersedes everything.