Sydney Pollack is an actor-turned-director who doesn’t mind returning to other side of the camera.
After Dustin Hoffman goaded him to perform double duty and play his exasperated agent while directing “Tootsie,” Pollack since has appeared in Robert Altman’s “The Player,” Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”
The reason? It’s “an excuse to spy on other directors,” he said. “Directors are very territorial. They’re like lions, urinating on every corner of the stage.”
The 70-year-old Oscar winner discussed his career before a packed auditorium at the start of the Tribeca Film Festival, where his latest movie, “The Interpreter” (in which he makes several appearances), premiered opening night.
Growing up in Indiana, Pollack had dreams of New York stage stardom. He studied with Sanford Meisner and briefly taught acting before moving to Hollywood to direct television series including “Ben Casey” and “The Fugitive” — and he admits he learned on the job.
“I worked on it like it was Chekhov,” Pollack said, sparking laughs. “I broke it down into beats and moments and what is my task?”
Since then, Pollack has built a long and varied career, which includes best-picture and best-director Oscars for 1985’s “Out of Africa” and Academy Award nominations for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and “Tootsie.”
Clips from those films and several others were shown during the two-hour Tribeca Talks event, with Pollack providing verbose, animated anecdotes in between.
“The Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969). The tale of a grueling dance marathon, his fifth film, was the first serious role for Jane Fonda, who was best known for the campy “Barbarella.” He described it as “a movie in which nothing gets different, except it gets slower . ... It was a real challenge to keep it visually interesting.”
“Jeremiah Johnson” (1972). One of his many collaborations with Robert Redford, this was the first Western to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, although Pollack said, “It’s not really a Western, in my opinion, but it’s an outdoor picture so I guess it’s lumped in.”
“Absence of Malice” (1981). Sally Field and Paul Newman star in this drama about a reporter who’s set up with a false story. “It was the first film that sort of dethroned the press. ... The press were our great heroes, they were exposers of corruption, they turned the light on in the dark places and nobody ever talked about corruption.” He said the media ripped him for it, but Mike Wallace came to his defense.
“Tootsie” (1982). Hoffman plays a demanding actor who pretends to be a woman and lands a role on a soap opera. “I didn’t think anyone would believe him as a woman,” Pollack said. “But the world did, they went crazy.” ... “It’s an old gimmick. Guys dressing up as women has been going on since Shakespeare,” he added. “The challenge in making the picture was to make it about something.”
As for his own role in that movie, Pollack said Hoffman talked him into it by repeatedly sending him roses with a note reading, “Please be my agent. Love, Dorothy.” At that point, he hadn’t acted in 20 years.
“Most of the great directors that I know of were not actors, so I can’t tell you it’s a requirement,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s an enormous help.”