I Took An Acting Class With Dustin Hoffman — & This Is What Happened

Photo: Courtesy of MasterClass.
When you get an offer to try an acting class taught by Dustin Hoffman, you don’t say no.

The man who has brought to life Ben Braddock, Carl Bernstein, Tootsie, Rain Man, and Bernie Focker teaches as part of MasterClass, a site that unites maestros in various fields with students of all skill levels. James Patterson gives a course on writing and Usher schools in the art of performance. The allure is the promise of learning from the best of the best. You rate and review the work of your peers, and they’ll do the same for you. Some students even receive online feedback from the teacher (in my case, a two-time Oscar winner) if they upload samples of their work — all for $90.

The class consists of 24 video lessons, which are about 10 to 12 minutes each. About half of them are Hoffman lecturing. The other half show him workshopping a scene with two actors. There’s also a collection of printable resources, including scripts and lesson plans. Not listed on the package, though available in abundance, are moments of Hoffman in his IDGAF glory, scenes so uncomfortable they might as well be family therapy sessions, and some hard-truth lessons about what it really takes to be an actor.

Lessons One Through Eight: Hoffman No Longer Gives A Shit
It’s not that I ever assumed Hoffman was a stuffy guy — an Ac-tor. I was just surprised to see him so casually blunt about everything. Right off the bat, he wants you to know we are lazy humans. All of us. It’s unattractive, but it’s the truth. Hoffman beseeches us to show all sides of our humanity — even the bad stuff — when we’re acting. “We’re all mean bastards,” he says in lesson one. “We’re all lying, deceptive people. We’re all chicken shit.” He’s begun wearing a beaded bracelet that I can’t stop looking at. It goes well with his suit. His shoes remain out of sight for now, but I have a feeling they’re probably incredible. My takeaway: Hoffman has entered his “I don’t give a fuck” phase, and it looks quite good on him.

Now that we all understand we’re terrible people, we move right into scene work with actors Nick and Molly, who have never met before and will be acting out that “It’s my fault” scene from Jerry Maguire, where Dorothy is trying to end things with Jerry. This is where we see Hoffman in his element. He pushes them to find a personal connection to the material. “Reveal, reveal, reveal yourself to each other,” he tells them. “Text is the last fucking thing that’s gonna do that.” He encourages them to just say the lines, maybe even make up some lines along the way. These improv moments, he assures them, are often what makes it into the film.

This is where it gets interesting. Hoffman, having noticed Nick was a bit smitten with Molly, asks Nick if he was disappointed when he learned his scene partner had a boyfriend. He admits he was, a bit. Hoffman’s getting real now. “We bullshit each other,” he tells the actors. “We bullshit ourselves. The hardest thing to do is not bullshit ourselves.” There’s an uncomfortable silence, almost like we're all in trouble. “If we don’t bullshit ourselves on some level, it’s too painful not to be alive.” This is one of many moments where it’s unclear if Hoffman may tear up a bit.

Then, just like that, we’re back to fun Hoffman. He’s whispering directions into one actor’s ear, leaving the other one in the dark. It’s like watching a game show. He starts talking about how you go into acting for the babes. I find myself really into his devil-may-care attitude.

Wedged between his stories about Robert Duvall and shouting at acting coaches, Hoffman’s dropping some real, practical advice. Turning to us, his rapt, unseen audience, he tells us to audit acting classes until we find the coach who really thinks we’ve got something. He addresses the imposter syndrome many actors feel after getting so many rejections. He talks about method acting, the Strassberg relaxation exercise, and managing your ego. He recommends writing out your lines. Hoffman, for all of his unpredictability, shares the wisdom.
Photo: Courtesy of MasterClass.
Lessons Nine Through 14: My Acting Video, The Man Bracelet, & Hoffman’s Wild Stories
Now it’s time to show what I’ve learned. We the students are asked to upload a video in which we perform another scene from Jerry Maguire — the "Who's coming with me?" one where Jerry leaves his job and takes his goldfish with him. Because I don't have a goldfish on hand, I use a toy boat. Close enough, right? I film my scene at Refinery29’s in-house studio. Michael, who runs R29’s Twitter account, graciously agrees to record my performance. (This is a true show of friendship.)

I've reviewed several classmates’ videos, and my own has been up for nearly two months, but no one has reviewed it. I contact the publicist to request that Hoffman review my footage personally. Alas, no dice.

I didn’t sign up for Hoffman’s Master Class because I’m an aspiring actor yearning to hone my craft. But, I do a fair amount of on-camera work as part of my job at Refinery29, I write and star in a web series called Five Phases, and I often do woman-on-the-street-style videos that require me to think on my feet. So, I was hoping for some feedback.

As I sit here wondering what it will take to get Hoffman to give me some pointers, I return to the video lessons. And, as if aware of my waning interest, he transitions into lecturing on comedy. Now we're talking.

He echoes my own personal sentiment, which is that you can’t teach a sense of humor. For those who struggle to infuse the funny into their work, he recommends jotting down amusing moments from your own life. He starts to tell a series of cheesy jokes that get the camera crew cracking up. Then he starts telling a story about buying condoms as a youngster, and how he and his friends referred to them as Kotex. Hoffman’s brought me back. “Comedy is a disguise for the profound,” he says.


Later, he transitions into a lesson about staying in the moment. That’s when I notice his beaded bracelet is gone. He’s making a vague analogy about how fruit slowly becomes alcohol. Contrary to the point of the lesson, I am unable to be present. I’m distracted thinking about the location of his bracelet and how his face is several shades tanner than his hands. When I bring my thoughts back to his attention, he’s abandoned the funny condom stories for an account of Marlon Brando picking up a glove. He chokes up.

A title card appears, signaling a change in topic. “React To Everything,” it reads. But, Hoffman instead talks about the first time he touched a woman’s boobs in school. I can’t get enough of his stories. They’re raw and honest and they seem to come out of nowhere.

Keeping the candid spirit alive, he adds that when people say they’ve wanted to be an actor since the age of five, they’re full of shit. Really, it’s just that they’ve always had an inner voice shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!” Personally, I find myself more into listening than watching. My ears are open for the next wild Hoffman tale.
Photo: Courtesy of MasterClass.
Lessons 15 - 20: Good Will Hunting & More Uncomfortable Workshops
Now we’re gonna do more scene work. This time, two male actors, Nick and Graham, will do one of the final scenes from Good Will Hunting, in which Chuckie is trying to explain to Will why he needs to get out of Boston, man. I began wishing these actors would use really bad, fake Boston accents — and my wish comes true. It's equal parts cringey and glorious. Wicked bad.

The big difference between this scene work and the Jerry Maguire session is that the new actors know each other really well. They were on a softball team together. Hoffman delights in this information and uses it to mess with their heads. “We’re fuckin’ around,” he tells the actors, “literally fuckin’ around because this ain’t gonna be a movie.” Let your freak flag fly, Dusty!

Hoffman asks the men how they feel having still not “made it” as actors — a touchy subject that makes the situation feel a bit like a therapy session. He wants them to use that vulnerability in the scene as an improvisation tool. He then likens their dreams of stardom to...a penis at full attention. “That’s a hard on,” Hoffman tells them. “That’s an erection. And that erection can’t go away.”

After a few takes, these men are acting their butts off. It’s like a textbook about acting come to life. Now that Hoffman’s broken down their real issues and has made them yell at each other, they’ve loosened up. It’s like that point in an episode of Bar Rescue when you realize Jon Taffer fixes more than just failing bars — he heals families.

The camera pulls back for a wide shot that reveals Hoffman’s lower half for the first time. That’s when we see: He’s been wearing sneakers with his suit the whole time. I feel like on some level I always knew he must be, but seeing it is joyous.
Photo: Courtesy of MasterClass.
Lesson 21: What To Do If You Suck
Okay. Hoffman doesn’t come outright and say this, but the implication is: If you’re not getting work, here’s what you can do to keep your spirits up and your craft sharp.

You’re going to get rejected — a lot. It’s not because you’re terrible. You can have a great audition and simply not have the “look” they want. Hoffman goes on record to say he disagrees with this industry problem. “It’s like falling in love with someone you’ve never met,” he says.

Then he talks about the time he auditioned for The Graduate and, in an attempt to “loosen her up,” he pinched Katharine Ross’ ass. She promptly and firmly told him to never do that again.

I encourage you to not dwell on that anecdote so as to preserve your love of Hoffman.

He has some soothing sentiments for actors. He addresses the despair many actors feel when they’ve received nothing but rejections. “How do you stop the candle from going out inside you?” he says, adding that he knows plenty of talented people who gave up because they just couldn’t take it anymore, people who let the criticism get to them and let themselves believe they weren’t talented after all. In this case, Hoffman advises to make a film, write a script. There’s no excuse not to do this in this digital age. It takes just one person to give you a chance. Finding that person is the challenge.

Make mistakes. Practice your craft. It’s only appropriate that, as we draw to the end of the class, Hoffman takes on the carpe diem tone of a valedictorian’s speech. “Don’t allow yourself to be in a passive position,” he says. “Don’t wait for an agent to call.”

So, Is MasterClass Worth It?
People will take Hoffman's MasterClass for a lot of reasons. They want answers. They want help. The allure of having even a remote connection to a Hollywood legend appeals to the aspiring actor desperate for a way into the business — a way to interact with greatness.

Many comments from students on the video lessons include plugs of who they’ve worked with and links to their reels and personal web sites. That seems like a losing battle — at least in this context. The whole point of the course is to do something you’re passionate about. Anyone seeking something other than the satisfaction of having studied under a Master will be disappointed. As Hoffman says during one of the final lessons, “If you don’t love this as much as you love getting laid, you’re in the wrong place.”


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