One mid-June day 10 years ago, Dustin Hoffman sat down in front of a group of students at The Actors Studio.
“Failing is not the worst,” he told them. “Committing a sin is worse.”
By sin, he didn’t mean any old transgression. He had something very specific in mind.
“Putting something out there that is safe. That you think, ‘Well, I won’t get hurt. It’s derivative. It’s worked before.'” He spoke slowly and evenly, looking into those upper registers of vision our eyes go to when we’re trying to set a feeling to words.
Playing it safe’s a sin, he said, “because you’re denying yourself your gift.”
You’re gonna fail, he told the students. I fail. Then his voice changed, getting louder and frustrated. “Everything is success! Success! Success! Success!” He threw his arms up again and again.
“But give me something that is-” he jabbed the air hard with his hand and, not finding a word big enough for what he felt, blurted, “OOOOOOHH!” the muscles of his neck and face springing to life.
“Let the film not work! Let the actor not even be consistent!” he pounded the words out hard and fast, “but OOOOOOHH! Put me in there,” he sounded almost desperate, “in that place with somebody.” That real, live, playing it unsafe place.
Mr. Hoffman ran a hand through his hair, as if to slow himself down. Then said: “And that’s worth everything.”