The series, which began airing in the US last month and starts in the UK on Sky Atlantic next weekend, revolves around a disparate group of jockeys, trainers, horse owners and gamblers connected to a racetrack in southern California. Luck has a strong film pedigree: the pilot episode was directed by Mann of Heat and Collateral fame. The tone, says Hoffman, was set by Mann, who produced the series, and the directors he enlisted for each episode. “He’s an actor’s dream ... to get the authenticity that he wants, he asks you to go ‘under’, whereas a lot of directors might ask you to pull the wallpaper down.” I ask him to explain. “He wants the performance to be more like life,” he says. “Actors use the word ‘pushing’ ... [but] going under means not pushing to hit a note.”
Hoffman’s compelling performance as Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a steely former bookmaker fresh out of prison, presented him with an unfamiliar challenge: playing a character over 12 episodes. “In the theatre, after the third week of rehearsal, you might say, ‘Eureka! I think I’ve found it.’ In the third week of making a movie, if you say, ‘Eureka!’, the director looks at you and says, ‘That’s nice but you have to match the first three weeks.’ You can’t change the character because you’re not shooting sequentially. With Luck, it’s evolving, we’re being led by what we did and we’re discarding what doesn’t work.” A second series has already been announced.
His film career, which began with his breakthrough role of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, almost never happened. “It was written for Robert Redford,” he recalls. “When you read the character in the book, he was blond-haired, good-looking, on the track team. I told Mike Nichols [the director], ‘I just don’t think I’m right for this.’ ” Even after Nichols persuaded him to take the role, the responses at early screenings were poor. “At every screening people were coming up to Larry Turman, the producer, saying, ‘It’s a shame, you had a great film here and you miscast the lead.’”
The Graduate, in which Hoffman’s character is seduced by an older woman, Anne Bancroft’s Mrs Robinson, went on to become one of the defining films of its era. But Hoffman says he didn’t particularly enjoy the experience – or the aftermath – and says he would have gone back to stage work had he not landed the part in Midnight Cowboy. “I was surprised at some of the vehemence of the reviews for The Graduate. Some of them I almost thought were veiled anti-Semitic remarks. You know, ‘Big nose’, ‘High nasal voice’, ‘How could you cast this funny-looking short Jew to play Benjamin Braddock, the ultra-Wasp?’ ” Nichols deserves credit, he says. “He went against casting ... that was one of the points he was trying to make.”
By now my salad is almost finished and Hoffman has polished off several pieces of crudo. Our waitress appears and tells us she still has two plates left but Hoffman has had enough, so she brings them for me instead.
I ask if he has experienced anti-Semitism at other times in his career. He is quiet for a moment, thinking. “I don’t know if it’s a projection on my own part or reality ... ” He is interrupted by the return of our server, who deposits more plates of scallops and tuna, before silently gliding away. He is quiet again. “I don’t know,” he says, after a while. “In a sense, a movie star represents a large segment of society because you want as many people as possible going to the theatre identifying with that person. There are six billion people in the world and 17 million are Jews, so you do the math. You can’t go wrong with Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but you might be gambling if you go another way.”
Most people think of Hoffman as a New Yorker but he was actually born, in 1937, in Los Angeles. His father was a furniture salesman and the family was constantly on the move. “The lower middle class was always looking upward,” Hoffman recalls. “He was a salesman, always trying to live above his standard of living. I lived in six different locations in the first 18 years of my life because he was always moving upward but falling short of the rent, so we’d have to move back to where we shouldn’t have left.”
Hoffman always felt a pull to New York, fuelled by seeing East Side Kids, a 1940s black-and-white movie serial about a ramshackle group of young boys from the Manhattan tenements. “When I used to see them on the Saturday matinee, that’s all I wanted to be,” he says.
His first trip to New York didn’t happen until 1958. “It took 13 hours on a propeller plane. I was about 20 and I remember I took a bus from the terminal to ... ” Our waitress is at the table again, taking empty plates away. “I can put these there,” he says, picking up two rolls from his plate and transferring them to mine. “Don’t tell him I touched them with my fingers,” he says to the waitress, who giggles.
“Anyway, I got off the bus at Second Avenue and 34th Street and, in front of me across the street, there is a guy pissing on a bus tyre, in full view of everyone walking by. I remember my first thought,” he says, pausing for a moment. “And it was, ‘I’m home.’ I loved New York from then on.”