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Star power converges in 'Meet the Fockers'

/ Source: Dateline NBC

It's one of the biggest constellations of stars you'll see all year and one of the biggest surprises on the screen: three of Hollywood's most honored dramatic icons doing anything for a laugh. Streisand. Hoffman. DeNiro. They're the nuts and bolts of the screwball comedy "Meet the Fockers," the film from NBC's parent company NBC Universal, that's a follow-up to the hit "Meet the Parents."

The movie's a sequel, but our conversation is a first. NBC’s Matt Lauer sat down with the entire cast for their only television interview together. And it was quickly clear that this comedy is all about chemistry.

Talk about your raucous reunions, this is the first time this cast has gotten together as a group since filming, and there's no director here to yell cut. There's a lot of Hollywood clout sitting on these couches. Among this group, you can count 18 Academy Award nominations, six Oscars, and billions of dollars in box office. We brought them all back to the Focker family living room where these two movie clans first meet. Actually we brought the set to them.

Hoffman: “This is a set from the film. And there's a lot of things that aren't here because I stole them.”

Stiller: “Like real family photos up on the wall.”

Hoffman: “There's this one here of Barbara right over here.”

Lauer: “Right.”

Stiller: “That's Barbara and her son. And then, there's my bar mitzvah shots, which are always fun to have broadcast nationally.”

"Meet the Fockers" is the sequel to the hugely successful "Meet the Parents," which first followed the struggles of Ben Stiller's character, Gaylord Greg Focker, as he  desperately tries to win over his fiancée’s by-the-book dad, Jack Byrne, as played by Robert DeNiro.

The movie ends with one thought left hanging in the air – that the two sets of parents have to meet.

"Meet the Fockers" picks it up right there, and little does Jack Byrne know what he's in for, and what in-laws they are. Getting Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman to play Roz and Bernie Focker was indeed a casting coup for the ages.

Lauer: “When you first heard the name Barbra Streisand, did you say, she's a Focker?”

Stiller: “When the idea of Barbra for Roz Focker came up, immediately I thought well that's the best idea in the world and we'll never get her…I never thought in a million years that Barbara, you would actually do it.

Streisand: “So how come you called me to do it if you never thought in a million year?“

Stiller: “Jay the director had been talking to you for a while. And he said that you were kind of on the fence and it looked like you weren't going to do it. And he said, hey, maybe you want to give her a call."

Streisand: “It sure worked.”

Stiller: “It was really the scariest call of my life.”

But it wasn't an easy sell. The last movie Streisand made was "The Mirror has Two Faces" back in 1996.

Lauer: “Well, you hadn't done a movie in eight years right?”

Streisand: “Right.”

Lauer: “So what was it that you were looking for to get you back into a movie?”

Streisand: “Anything funny.”

You want funny? Roz Focker is a sex therapist for senior citizens. You can make your own joke here. And it may surprise you how Streisand says she was able to get in touch with her maternal side to play Ben Stiller's mom.

Streisand: “But you know what's so funny? I've just realized because I have my dog Sammy here.”

Hoffman: “Oh my god.”

Streisand: “He hates my dog. But she's the most loveable, the most beautiful animal that—“

Hoffman: “Yeah. She's incredible.”

Streisand: “Anyway, the point is that-- what was the point about? Yeah, the way I thought the best mother I could be to you was the way I am with my dog. The way I am with Sammy.

Stiller: “You'll walk me twice a day. And I've been neutered.”

Hoffman: “He just peed on the couch.”

And then there was the role of Bernie Focker, the free-spirited, if not a bit kooky, dad. Director Jay Roach had one actor in mind.

DeNiro: “I mean Jay was talking to him a lot. And all I knew that Jay was saying, I got to deal with him.  He's a pain in the ass. But I'm going to get him in the movie."

Lauer: “When they came to you, how quickly did you agree to be in this one?”

Hoffman: “As soon as they asked me to do it.”

Lauer: “Why?”

Hoffman: “I had been asked by friends of two year or three years-- when did it come out? ‘Meet the Parents?’”

Stiller: “2000.”

Hoffman: “Yeah, so after it came out, a year after, when you first started stuff in the press about there being a sequel, friends would say to me, oh, you got to play Mr. Focker.  Oh, that's a natural, blah, blah, blah. And I immediately put it out of my head because, I mean, no matter how successful you are, you always think you're not going work again. So I thought, well, they won't ask me. They'll find somebody else because I don't want to want it and then not get it. So, I put it out of my head. So, when I found out actually that Ben, you know, wanted me to be his dad, I was quite flattered. And you know, the downside was that I had to work with DeNiro again. But—“

DeNiro: “And that's not what he told me.”

"Meet the Fockers" is the third film DeNiro and Hoffman have worked on together. The first time was in the 1996 drama "Sleepers.” And then a year later, the dark comedy. "Wag the Dog.” Now they're going for the laughs again with DeNiro playing Hoffman's perfect straight man. DeNiro is not just an actor on this. He was one of the producers this film and “Meet the Parent's.”

Lauer: “Were you instantly interested in doing a sequel?”

DeNiro: “Yeah, I was. I thought it would work?”

Lauer: “Why? Business wise or acting wise?”

DeNiro: “For all, all reasons, I thought it was a big success and I said, let's try and do it. And I felt we could do it. It's just if there's the will, there's a way. Everybody'll commit to it.”                        

Lauer: “I went to a lot of movies watching you in more serious roles. You know, from ‘Godfather,’ ‘Good Fellas’ and all those. And, now, it seems you're most talked about as of late for ‘Analyze This,’ ‘Analyze That.’ And ‘Meet the Fockers’ and ‘Meet the Parents’ and the voice in ‘Shark Tale.’ You're doing a lot of comedies these days. And I'm curious is that because the other roles aren't juicy? That they-- you aren't seeing the scripts you want in the other area? Or you're just kind of having' a better time with this?”

DeNiro: “I'm just happy to be surviving. And I'm working through generations thank God. And kids know who I am now. So, I'm happy.”

DeNiro and Hoffman may be Hollywood legends, but they are well aware how important it is these days to get those 18-34 years movie-goers into the theatres. And it's that young audience that's helped make Ben Stiller one of the most successful actors out there. This year alone he's had three of the top 25 grossing films. But box office success didn't make Ben Stiller any more at ease when we sat the three male stars together to talk.

Lauer: “Talk to me a little about your level of comfort. I mean, you're sitting on a couch and you got DeNiro on one side and you got Hoffman on the other.”

Stiller: “I was sort of just thinking about that while everybody was talking.”

Lauer: “You said to me once before you were intimidated working with him the first time.”

Stiller: “One of these things doesn't belong with the other. I mean, these are guys who, you know, have just -- when you look at the body of work and especially, I guess, for someone from my generation, these are the people who I, you know, watched and wanted to, you know—“

Hoffman: “Does it make you feel old when he talks?”

Stiller: “Well, I don't know mean to make it sound like, you know, I grew up watching you, because I'm not that young. I mean, you know, look at our hair.”

DeNiro: “He puts the gray in for the interviews so we don't feel bad.”

Stiller: “To make them feel comfortable.”

But Hoffman, the most senior of the group, with 40 years of acting under his belt, says that ironically this film made him feel like he was starting his career all over again.

Hoffman: “it was a rare experience. Everyone said, whoa, my God, all these egos. But, I swear it was not the case. We were in a room together and it's like it was this atmosphere that existed when we were beginning actors and everyone's on parity with each other. You say, I don't agree. I don't agree. And blah, blah, blah.  And we're just all working. It was as if we were working the way we worked when we first started working.”

For Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, working together on "Meet the Fockers" was a first and a reunion all at the same time. Although they've never co-starred in a film, Hoffman and Streisand did study together when they first started out back in the 60s.

Hoffman: “Barbra and I have a history. We started in acting school. We started broke. We started without a dime, you know, and we went the way that all of us have gone. We have an affection for each, you know, though we had never worked with-- there's something about the fact that you know someone for over 30 years or whatever it is and we'd never worked together.”

Lauer: “Right. And the story goes that you had heard that she was a pretty good actress. She was a great actress. And she was a pretty good singer as well.”

Hoffman: “No --her old roommate which was a girl I started going with said, you got to hear Barbra sing. And I said, come on, you know. She's got a good voice. And she goes on Mike Wallace—“

Streisand: “He only knew me as an actress, an acting student.”

Hoffman: “Yeah, in acting class. She goes on, he says she's going to be on Mike Wallace Friday.  This is whatever, 1960, Mike Wallace had a black and white local New York City—“

Streisand: “He had a show, right?”

Hoffman: “What's it called?”

Streisand: “PM East.”

Hoffman: “He had a TV show.

Streisand: “They erased the tapes. They don't have them. Because they used them over and over again.”

Hoffman: “And she comes on and she's chewing. I mean, she's always a smart actor. She knows how to get your attention. She's chewing about five wads, you know, an entire thing of gum in her mouth.”

Streisand: “I like gum.”

Hoffman: “And then she opens her mouth. And then this kid who I've seen in acting class. And she starts to sing, you know. I just wept.”
Lauer: “What do you remember about him from that time?”

Streisand: “Well, I remember that he was the janitor. That he used to—“

Hoffman: “Clean the toilets.”

Streisand: “Clean the toilets in exchange for acting classes.”

Hoffman: “They call it a scholarship.”

Streisand: “Yes, a janitorial scholarship.  And I used to baby-sit to pay for my acting classes.  So we were both very poor. But it was great. Those days were so great.“

Hoffman: “Nothing wrong with that.”

And how's this for ancient history? Dustin Hoffman first crossed paths with Robert DeNiro back in the 60s although Hoffman didn't know it at the time. He was just getting his first taste of fame with   the release of "The Graduate," while DeNiro was still waiting tables, trying to get his big break.

Hoffman: “I was helping McCarthy when he was running for president.”

DeNiro: “You and I were working at this place where Dustin was for McCarthy.”

Hoffman: “So in the middle of shooting told me, ‘I was waiting tables. I waited on them.’ He didn't tell me until—“

DeNiro: “Yeah, it was '67 and '67, '68.”

Streisand: “You mean he had made it already?”

Hoffman: “Yeah—“

DeNiro: “He was already—“

Hoffman: “I had just done ‘The Graduate.’”

Streisand: “Oh, you had just done ‘The Graduate,’ oh my God.”

Hoffman: “And he was a waiter.”

Streisand: “That's right. And that year I did ‘Funny Girl.’ Isn't that funny? That's funny, Dustin. I never realized that.”

Stiller: “I was two.”

Of course, DeNiro would go off to have one of the most respected careers in Hollywood history, with six Academy Award nominations and two Oscars for “Raging Bull” and “Godfather Two.” Notoriously shy, we decided to have some fun and watch him squirm as his fellow cast members did the one thing DeNiro hates -- talk all about him.

Lauer: “Dustin, tell me about Robert DeNiro, not the character, the guy.”

Hoffman: "Probably the single most interesting thing about him, he makes you emotional. He makes you feel emotional about him. When you finish working with him, he's family the way you feel emotional about your family I feel I want to hug this guy.”

Streisand: “I love his shyness, because there's a mystery behind the shyness. I always want to know more about what he's thinking.”

Stiller: “There's an incredible power to who Bob is that just sort of comes out.”

Teri Polo: “I felt so fortunate to be playing his daughter, because I felt he let me in. The other people he kind of kept away. Because that's who he was playing as a character. But I was able to sneak in and sit next to him and bug him on a daily basis and I felt such an amazing affection for him.”

Hoffman: “Before you go on, how many of us are sitting here? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Each one of us has a really demonstrable nose.”

With this group, it's easy to understand why, as Streisand put it, there was a lot of kibitzing on the set. But amidst the laughs they say there's also a message.

Lauer: ”This is a movie about families coming together. About two families, very different families, meeting and trying to survive that meeting. So let's talk about these families. Parents. How would you describe, Blythe, the Burns family?”

Blythe Danner: “Well, look at it. We're quiet and dignified…I mean you know we're the suburban sort of proper WASPy folks. And we're meeting the ethnic, passionate, open, freely spoken. And we're intimidated at first.  But we learn from them and we open up. And you have to go see the movie to see what happens.”

Lauer: “So describe the Fockers to me?”

Hoffman: ”Well, when we're working on the script sitting around the table, we're trying to figure, you know, they are by definition the foils. In other words, we are going to do something that's going to disrupt them.”

Lauer: “Is this the red states versus the blue states when it comes right down to it?”

Stiller: “Anything that could make us even more divided.”

Lauer: “That's your goal.”

Stiller: “Yeah, that's the goal. The goal, categorize it all.”

Hoffman: “This will be the big hit, but this country will be in a civil war.”

These actors say "Meet the Fockers" is really more about what brings families together. And what it takes to stick together through thick and thin.

Hoffman: “We're hitting on something, they're hitting on something when they did ‘Meet the Parents’ because it's not just a movie. It's not just a comedy, but it's hitting a note.

Lauer: “So by my count, among the six of you there are nine marriages, so how many similar scenes like this have been played out in your lives over the years, meeting in-laws, meeting families, things like that?”

Stiller: “I was meeting my in laws when we were shooting ‘Meet the Parents.’ I mean literally as that was happening, I had to go through the exact same experience.”

Lauer: “Have you had experiences like this?”

Hoffman: “Well, we play Jews in this little film.”

Lauer: “Thanks for sharing.”

Hoffman: “Yeah. But my daughter, Jenna, who happened to give birth this morning--”

Lauer: “Congratulations, by the way.”

Hoffman: “Thanks.”

Lauer: “New grandfather.”

Blythe Danner: “Grandfather. It's a great thing to be a grandparent.”

Hoffman: “-- married a Seamus Culligan.”

Streisand: “Oh my God.”

Hoffman: “And now Seamus Culligan is not particularly a Jewish name. Seamus Culligan and my daughter Jenna got married. They got married August seventh. And one of the last scenes we did I think was the wedding. So they got married two days afterwards. So we had our inter-ethnic marriage that was not that dissimilar.”

Lauer: “Same friction that's evident in this movie?”

Hoffman: “No, because we're not sick people.”

And what about this movie family? Will we see a Focker family reunion? And will we have to wait almost another decade to see a Barbra Streisand movie?

Lauer: “Eight years, you didn't make a movie. Now you've made a movie. And by every account it was a really nice experience. So, are you going to work again soon?”

Streisand: “Oh maybe. I just love my flowers. And I love designing my house. And I'm always busy. I don't seem to have time to do a lot of things.”

Lauer: “And if there's Meet the Little Focker, when the baby is born, who is involved, raise your hands.”

Streisand: “Meet the little Focker. Put your hand up.”