Dustin Hoffman Wants to Teach You How to Act

We talk with David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen, founders of MasterClass.

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David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen have been learning a lot from their talks with Dustin Hoffman on acting. But they’re not actors, or directors, or even journalists. They’ve also been learning a lot about tennis from Serena Williams, and about writing from James Patterson. Next on their plate is getting coached on stage performance from Usher, and brushing up on their photography with Annie Leibovitz. And they want you to joint them.

Rogier and Rasmussen are the entrepreneurs behind MasterClass, a program that taps into the emerging world of distance learning by giving students access to world-class performers and artists and professionals. And the “faculty” contribute not only canned video responses, but to one-on-one coaching—all over the magic of the Internet. “In my MasterClass, I try to unearth all the things I would have found useful when I was starting out. I have a career-long bank of tips and tricks, and now a perfect forum to share them with others,” said James Patterson. “I wanted to make my class feel as though you’re right there on the court with me. It’s like getting a private lesson,” said Serena Williams.

But Dustin Hoffman may have put it best: “We’re students. The first year. The first five years, the first 10 years. We’re students after 50 years. I never like to give advice, but I wanted to teach what I wish someone had taught me.”

Rogier and Rasmussen joined us recently to discuss how they met, how the idea got started, and how to start a major business and still maintain a friendship.

Paste Magazine: First, tell me about how the two of you met.
Aaron Rasmussen: A mutual friend set us up on a “friend date.” Our friend said that I was a creative guy with respect for business, and David was a business guy with respect for creative, and we should meet each other. We hit it off immediately.

Paste: How did the idea for MasterClass come about?
David Rogier: Aaron and I had wanted to start a business together for some time, but had not struck on an idea that was right for both of us. Neither of us had a great school experience growing up. I was always getting in trouble for asking too many questions, and Aaron kept running out of classes to take in the tiny town he grew up in. We wanted to make classes that we wanted to take—classes with riveting lessons taught by the world’s best.
Rasmussen: When we realized that this level of instructor also wanted to teach, we were amazed. What if we could make it so anyone in the world could learn from the absolute best? That idea really excited us.

Paste: Can you describe what a MasterClass, in its current iteration, will entail?
Rogier: A MasterClass is an online class where masters like Dustin Hoffman and James Patterson teach the things they wish someone had taught them. Each class includes 10-25 video lessons from the instructor, interactive exercises (like: act out scenes from Dustin’s class with other students), instructor Q&A, extra learning materials (like a copy of James’s original outline for his bestselling book The Honeymoon) and a workbook. Curriculums are developed individually by each instructor to reflect their own unique approach to their craft.
Rasmussen: Each MasterClass instructor also conducts office hours where they provide feedback on assignments and answer questions from some of their students. We actually just announced Dustin’s next office hours for June 2nd! Students taking his class can upload video of themselves doing scenes, and Dustin is going to select several to give feedback on and discuss with the class.

Paste: David, I know you have a background with angel investing; did you take the lead in finding the funding? You probably have the highest paid faculty in the country!
Rogier: (Laughs) We’ve never thought about it that way, but we probably have the most recognized faculty in the country. They’re really incredible people who have devoted their lives to their craft; it’s been amazing to be their student.

Paste: Aaron, given some of your background, I hope we’ll be seeing a robotics class soon? Or perhaps a class taught by robots? Are all these current professors actually robots?
Rasmussen: (Laughs) We don’t have any plans for a robotics class yet, whether it’s taught by or about “them.”

Paste: What do each of you hope this first round of classes accomplishes?
Rogier: We want our classes to be a real turning point for people. We hope each class makes something click inside the people taking it that helps them accomplish goals and improve at the craft.

Paste: What are your goals for the next stage of classes?
Rogier: Right now we’re focused on our first classes with Dustin Hoffman, James Patterson and Serena Williams, and delivering a great experience for our students. We’re also getting ready to launch two new classes, with Usher teaching the art of performance, and Annie Leibovitz teaching photography.

Paste: Long term, where do you see this project going?
Rasmussen: We want to make more classes with more masters. Our long-term dream is that someone takes a MasterClass, then goes on to become a master himself or herself, and returns to teach their own MasterClass.

Paste: What do you think will be the biggest challenges you’ll face?
Rasmussen: We really want to push the envelope of what an online class can be and how you learn online. There are so many amazing instructors we want to create classes with, and only so much time to do it in. One question for you, if you could take a MasterClass from anyone who would it be?

Paste: It would probably have to be Martin Scorcese … What’s the most personally rewarding thing about the project for each of you?
Rogier: When you hear that a student not only loved the class, but is also using the lessons to achieve something amazing. Last week, one of Serena’s students told Serena that she applied her advice in a match, and because of it she was able to win a match against a higher ranked opponent she’d never beaten before! That’s why we wanted to start MasterClass.
Rasmussen: For me, the best thing about MasterClass is not only that we get to work with fantastically talented people to create classes, but that we also get to take those classes and learn from them ourselves.

Paste: Has your friendship survived the launch of MasterClass?
Rogier: It has! We’ve also learned everything about each other’s quirks! We had never worked together before, but I love working with Aaron. I think we did two things that seemed to really help: 1) We made sure not to put our desks next to each other in the office. Aaron sits with the content and engineering teams, and I’m with the marketing team; 2) At 3 PM every day, no matter how busy we are, we go for a walk-and-talk where we get out of the office, walk around the block, get a smoothie (or second cup of coffee) and catch up.

Note: I’ll be taking Dustin Hoffman’s class, and I want readers to join me! New students that register before Sunday, May 31 can submit scenework or questions to Hoffman directly for him to possibly choose and answer. Go here for details.


Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater , a New York Times Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative Producer for the “Sarasota Film Festival”:www.sarasotafilmfestival.com; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter.

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