‘Luck’: Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte Are Off to the Races in New HBO Series

by | January 27, 2012 at 11:09 AM | HBO, Interviews, Luck

Dustin Hoffman in Luck (HBO)

Luck” has all the ingredients for must-see premium TV. The HBO drama was created and written by David Milch (“Deadwood“), directed by Michael Mann (“Heat“), its marquee boasts Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte, both genuine movie stars if not legends, and finally it’s set in the corrupt and addictive, big money and high risk world of horseracing.

And if that’s not enough – hey, this is HBO – there’s a gallery of talented ensemble players – Dennis Farina, Joan Allen, Jill Hennessy, Richard Kind, and Kevin Dunn. But it’s impossible to take your eyes off of Hoffman, in the role of Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a recently released convict who returns to the racetrack to exact revenge on those responsible for putting him behind bars. Dustin “was always our first choice,” Milch admits of casting Hoffman.

How’d he convince Hoffman to do TV? It wasn’t easy. Hoffman had trouble getting through the opening episode’s slow pacing, inside baseball sensibility and at times incomprehensible dialogue. Hoffman jokes he “liked the parts I understood,” but those parts were limited. Time with Milch and Mann provided an understanding of where the series was headed. But it was a trip to the racetrack with Milch that finally sealed the deal. “I’d never really been to the track,” says Hoffman. “But you observe. They make their bet and they watch the race on television, and right out there, it’s happening. It’s extraordinary.”

To set the stage for “Luck,” which premieres Sunday, Jan. 29 at 9/8c, Milch, Mann, Hoffman and Nolte sat down with a small handful of reporters at the Television Critics Association Press Tour earlier this month. The chat, which took place in a suite at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, was relaxed – thanks in no small part to Nolte’s choice of attire: socks, sweatpants and a loose-fitting button-down. The highlights and a video preview, below:

Go Behind The Scenes of “Luck”:

On how Hoffman decides to pick a role — and why he chose this one:
Hoffman: I always look for the reason not to do it! I’ve turned down a lot of good movies with a lot of good directors, so I’m trying to get away from that. Michael Mann called me and said, “I know you don’t want to do television … you’re not gonna do this, but this is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. Would you just read it?” So I read it…I don’t know anything about television, and I’d never seen David’s work. I took a meeting with both of them, and just listening to the way they were talking — I said, “Who was your first choice?”

Mann: I said I hadn’t seen him play this kind of a role. That’s always great territory, to bring an actor into something he hasn’t done. In many of Dustin’s great roles, he’s been reactive — reactive to other characters, reactive to circumstances. And he’s brilliant. This character is very different. This character is proactive.  He’s the man with the plan. He’s the architect. And consequently, when you know where you’re going, and you know what’s happening and you’re able to predict other people’s reactions before they react, what that brings to Dustin work,  is a power in stillness. He’s still quite often, and you feel the power located within him.

Hoffman: There’s certain instruments set up, which I didn’t see when I read the script, because the script is kind of an amorphous thing. A movie’s either better or not as good as the script: It’s there to jump off from. To begin to see the elements that these guys set up … Here are these beautiful horses that have, in generations, abstracted themselves down to only winning and losing.

On developing horses as their own characters within the story:
Mann: We try to tell you a lot of things subliminally — not in the opening credits stuff that’s cut to Massive Attack, but after Ace is released from prison, that first horse montage. We’re trying to tell you lots and lots and lots of messages subliminally. One is that the horses have personality. They’re characters. There’s a life around them.

Hoffman: Look at what our society does: They have a winner and a loser, and it’s by a nose. Whether it’s Phelps in a pool or racing horses — how extraordinary that we have to do that.

On what makes doing television an attractive option for an actor:
Nolte: It’s a great way to work, if you have great material. It’s better than film and I’ll tell you why. Film, you know the beginning, the middle and the end. You can really focus and create a very interesting character, make the transition seamless and everything else, but you’ve got the end. In this, when we’re handed a script every two weeks, some of the actors go, “Oh my god!” It’s a surprise! It’s a challenge  — and it’s creatively challenging.”

On Hoffman’s biggest surprise moment in the first season:
Hoffman: My biggest surprise moment, is that it’s the closest thing to life I’ve ever done. I’ve always felt that acting was a bastard art form because you’re supposed to be able to get up in the morning and paint what’s inside you — your demons or whatever — or write. And actors have to get something delivered, and then you try to do what the originator wanted you to do. When I did “Kramer vs. Kramer,” it was the first time I was like, “Oh, thank God. I get to work on a man getting a divorce as I’m getting a divorce in real life. Now it makes sense!” The best way to say it is that you hear yourself on a tape recorder and you think, “Do I sound like that? I don’t sound like that.” We don’t know what we look like at this very moment. We don’t know the information that the person that’s looking at us is getting. We can assume we know, but we don’t know. So that’s the closest thing that I have been able to equate to working 45 years trying to learn this f–king racket. I am learning about this character as I am learning about myself. That’s the biggest revelation, not to know, really, who am I going to be in a year? We’ve lived so many different lives. Being a human being is a frightening experience! I say, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know who this guy is.” And they always say, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”

On how the people at Santa Anita racetrack responded to the series:
Milch: It’s like the way people are protective of family, and you don’t tell any secrets outside the family. I think that it becomes our responsibility to be truthful in our portrayal. And if someone is going to get upset, that becomes their business. I think that Michael was so responsible in his evocation of that world, and in the authenticity of Nick’s and Dustin’s performance, that that goes beyond the superficial correspondence to any kind of lived character.

“Luck” premieres Sunday, Jan. 29 at 9/8c on HBO. Immediately following the premiere, return to XfinityTV.com to watch the second episode in its entirety.