Richard Dreyfuss on ‘Lightkeepers,’ leaving the Screen Actor’s Guild, and lasting in Hollywood

By Todd Gilchrist For most entertainment journalists, there are only a handful of times when an actor or filmmaker is unguarded enough or unafraid to tell the truth about their experiences in Hollywood. Mind you, it’s understandable that these folks would not want to bad-mouth projects or jeopardize future plans, but as a result, things can occasionally get a bit prosaic on the reporting side. But at a roundtable this week for the new film The Lightkeepers, iconic actor Richard Dreyfuss offered a wealth of unvarnished truth about himself, his career, and the industry at large.

Speaking to the actor during a roundtable in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dreyfuss was passionate, perhaps slightly unfocused, but always amazingly candid as he talked about his experiences on past films, his current obsessions including a civic initiative, his feelings about the Screen Actor’s Guild, and his future in and out of show business.

[Note: Although “Hollywood News” is used to distinguish questions from answers in the text below, our journalist was just one of many reporters asking questions of the filmmakers.]

Hollywood News: Are you at all like your character in The Lightkeepers, who doesn’t like to be asked or answer questions?

Richard Dreyfuss: It’s the difference between me and the character, because I have opinions about things I know nothing about. I always feel a kind of blessed relief when I don’t have an opinion. It’s like an addiction that’s finally gone away. Really, I have opinions about just about everything.

Hollywood News: This is a film very much about the dynamic between men and women – men want to escape them but can’t live without them. How much could you relate to the character you play?

Dreyfuss: In those days, there was a society of men – academics and professors – who were so shy and anti-social that they didn’t know how to deal with women. They were the original ancestors of nerds. They became known as women-haters, but they were never women-haters. They were just men who didn’t know how to ask a woman out on a date. That’s it. At the same time that this story happens, in one town over, was the Provincetown Revolution of Eugene O’Neill and John Reed, the journalist who’s buried in the Kremlin. That’s where Mamie Gummer’s character comes from. She’s a modernist, and she would take the same offense at women-hating as any woman now would.

Hollywood News: It’s like when we’re kids, we went to hang out with our friends. Then, we grow up and want to hang out with the opposite sex.

Dreyfuss: Well, it’s based on a betrayal, and the betrayal is both ways and it’s completely understood. When you’re a young child, you play with your friends. And then, one day, some of your friends begin to act funny. Either they grow breasts or they start to bully you around, or something. Girls resent the betrayal of boys, and boys resent the betrayal of girls, and so, you have this thing happen. Also, it’s an odd truth that, probably at a time when certain societies didn’t know the existence of other societies, all men seem to have come to the same conclusion that these people have got to be corralled because they were obviously magical and powerful. They could give birth and they had multiple orgasms, and no man could keep up with them. No man can keep up with a woman’s sexual appetite and that breeds resentment. Whether you were an Eskimo or an Ecuadorian king, you created institutions that made women stupid and deprived them of their self-esteem because they were terrified that if women felt their own power, they would become subjugated.

Hollywood News: Is it difficult to digest or ignore that historical perspective when you’re playing a character who is not self-aware?

Dreyfuss: George Lucas gave me a choice to play either Curt or Charlie Martin Smith’s character, Terry, in American Graffiti, and I chose Curt. He said, “Why?,” and I said, “Because Curt is self-aware and you know that Curt, 15 years later, will remember that night and remember, on that night, he remembered that he thought about remembering that night, 15 years later.” I loved playing that. It would be pretty hard for me to play someone who was uneducated like that, even though I’m not educated. I didn’t go past high school. I educated myself afterwards. But, my constituency, in a sense, is upper-Westside college grads who are either wise-asses or nerds.

Hollywood News: How did you approach the accent for this role, particular in terms of avoiding caricature?

Dreyfuss: Right before we started the first reading, I turned to [writer-director] Dan [Adams] and said, “I have no idea what’s going to come out of my mouth and whatever it is, is going to be the accent.” I could probably break it down for you in hindsight: There’s a little Portuguese in it. There’s a lot of Northeastern in it. But, it’s really a take that’s collected from old movies of Spencer Tracy’s. It’s my mythological connection to the accent. It’s not meant to be a Maine accent. At the time, I said, “Well, he’s from Maine, but he spent most of his life in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Hollywood News: Would you say that fame and success are a lonely place, like a lighthouse?

Dreyfuss: It can be.

Hollywood News: Was it for you?

Dreyfuss: Yeah, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I realized that, when you achieve a certain success which, by definition, isolates you from the rest of humanity and takes from you your right of privacy and your right to walk down the street crying because of a fight you had with your kid, I made a very clear decision not to do that, and I backed off.

Hollywood News: When was that?

Dreyfuss: In the early ‘80s.

Hollywood News: How did you get back into the business?

Dreyfuss: What I did was that I just didn’t do the roles that, at that moment, I was being asked to do, like All That Jazz. I knew that if I did All That Jazz that I was going to join that group of people who ended up never leaving their homes.

Hollywood News: Is it true that you have no memory of filming Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Dreyfuss: No, I remember being loaded. What I said was that I don’t take credit for it because I was loaded. Whatever performance I gave was marred by my being loaded all the time, so I don’t list it among the performances that I evaluate, in the same way.

Hollywood News: You said you wanted to quit doing films, but you’re back. Why did you change your mind?

Dreyfuss: I did. I had this fantasy that, one day, I was going to take an ad out in Variety and say, “Thanks for the 40 years. Bye,” and never come back. And then, as we all do, we went through divorces and life’s losses, and I couldn’t afford to quit. I didn’t have the money. I couldn’t say goodbye because I had to occasionally have an income coming from the one thing I knew how to do. So, I could never take the ad out, but what I did was stop being actor-centric. I was no longer seeking work and I was no longer trying to produce films or pitch projects, and I left. I take work now, for the most part, for two reasons: One is because, if you turn it down, you’re an idiot, and this role is one of those roles. And the other reason is money. So, when people asked me why I took Poseidon, which was a piece of crap, I said it was because they were willing to pay me the salary that I used to get paid.

Hollywood News: Do you find it more difficult to find roles that continue to challenge you, or is there an enjoyment that you derive out of immersing yourself in a character?

Dreyfuss: Hollywood is so f*cking corrupt that people would answer that question lying, like it’s some kind of honorable thing. But, the fact is that, for everything, there’s a season. I am not the person I was, I’m not the star I was, I’m not offered the roles I was and I’m not offered the salary that I was, so I take less parts and less salaries and there’s no love affair going on. So, making a movie now comes a clear second to the civic initiative that I’m involved in. It’s like a spiral downward because the less you do, it gets less and less. The liberation of it is that I really don’t give a shit about what people think of me, so the people that you suck up to for 35 years, you no longer have to suck up to.

Hollywood News: Do you have a barometer for what satisfies you? For example, if you do a movie and you think it’s not that great, can you just be happy with your performance and that’s enough?

Dreyfuss: It changes for each thing. I looked forward to playing [Dick] Cheney [in W], until I met Oliver [Stone]. Then, I looked forward to humiliating Oliver as much as I could. I loved the character in this film, and I liked Dan a lot. Each one is different. I am surprised that I did spend a strange interlude playing Republican cabinet members. Where did that come from? I don’t know. But, I ask for a relaxed and creative atmosphere so that it’s fun to make a film and you’re working with people who you enjoy. And, for the most part, directors don’t know the difference between the word “director” and the word “boss.” Those directors who really misunderstand the difference abuse that.

Hollywood News: How did Steven Spielberg rank?

Dreyfuss: Steven is his own bird. Steven is the only one of his generation who, in a sense, as a director, did what I did, as an actor. He clearly aimed for variation in his body of work, whereas most of the other directors of that era made one great film and then repeated it, over and over again. I had no interest in doing that and, apparently, neither did Steven, although we’ve never talked about it.

Hollywood News: What memories do you have of shooting Jaws?

Dreyfuss: A million. There were more anecdotes attached to that film than all the other films combined. There’s just no time. One day, I’ll write a book that’s either called, Steven, Have They Figured Out Yet What I’m Looking Up In Awe At? or So Many Beginnings. I’m an ADD, OCD, manic depressive, crazy lunatic, and I’m also the smartest actor I know. I had hundreds of great ideas, and great ideas are cheap. Finishing a project is rare. I try to tell that to my son, all the time. I began a thousand films, scripts, novels, ideas, undertakings and endeavors, and the only one I’ve stayed with is civics because it was backed up by a foundation. We all either have or don’t have an ethical foundation to stand on. In America, we have a known ethical foundation, and you can read and see about it, because we had the guts to put up the Bill of Rights and make it public so that every time we fail it, the whole world knows. And, every time we succeed at it, the whole world knows, which means, for about 200 years, we were the most admired nation in the world. We’ve overdrawn on that account, and we have no ethical foundation and we do not retain the admiration of the world. I want to bring them both back.

Hollywood News: How important was it for you to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? When was the last time you passed by it?

Dreyfuss: I don’t think I’ve ever passed by it. My kids have. How important was it? It was never an ambition of mine to win an Oscar. It was an ambition to become a movie star. As the Chinese say, “Be very careful what you want because someday you may get it.” When I got it, I realized that, what I had really wanted was to be a movie star of the ‘30s and ‘40s, which is different and impossible to achieve. I didn’t have one role I had to play. I didn’t have one award I had to win. I wanted the life, and I had it. For 50 years, I had it. For some strange reason that is more neurotic in the world than it is in me, show business is the only profession that you’re not allowed to quit. When you say you want to quit show business, people go, “Come on!” I had this actress friend of mine say, “What are you doing?,” and I said, “I retired.” She said, “No, really?,” and I said, “No, I mean it, I retired. I’m involved in education. I’m developing civics for the American public school system.” She said, “Richard, tell me what you are really doing,” and I took a deep breath and I said, “I’m going for the Nobel.” And, she said, “Oh,” like that was perfectly fine.

Hollywood News: With all the films you’ve made, how many bad experiences have you had?

Dreyfuss: However many films I’ve done, I’ve only had two bad experiences. The overwhelming time spent making films was spent on material I liked with people I loved. I loved every aspect. When I was a new celebrity in the ‘70s, I taught a class in how to be an unemployed actor in L.A. It was in front of 500 kids, and the only thing that I asked was that they already be members of the Guild. Then I taught them how to schmooze casting directors, how to make your agent your best friend, how to make them wake up in the middle of the night and say, “I’ve got to get Richard a job!” I was the happiest unemployed actor in the world. I knew if I made two jobs a year, I could support myself. In the old days, in real money in 1963, if you were a guest lead on a show, you made $12,000. Now, you make $4,800, not including inflation. That’s due to the lunacy of the Screen Actors Guild and the voracious and unashamed greed of the Powers That Be. The Guild was the healthiest, sanest and strongest guild in America, and now it’s run by complete loons and the opposition is made up of complete loons, so the Guild has destroyed itself, and in so doing, has achieved the Powers That Be’s greatest goal, which is to extract every illegal penny that they can from their own work force and deny them the ability of collective power. I said when I quite the Guild board, “I have three recommendations. One, anyone who seeks office in the Guild or has office in the Guild should not be allowed to have office in the Guild. Two, the staff who runs the Guild should find an island and go and learn to be human again. And three, remember that now you’re on a clock, because there’s some young drunken journalist at Elaine’s in New York who’s going to wake up one day and realize that the finest union in the world is now being run from an insane asylum and everyone is saying lunatic things, and they’re all famous. He’s going to win the Pulitzer for a series in the New Yorker and you’re going to look even more stupid than you look now.” So, they said thank you, and then of course went back to their warfare, and that’s too bad.

Hollywood News: What was it like working on the set with the ensemble for this particular film?

Dreyfuss: It was a reunion for me and Blythe [Danner]. It was a revelation because of Mamie [Gummer]. I don’t know how everyone evaluates in the manner they do, but I looked at her, she said 10 words, and I said to myself, “That’s Meryl Streep’s daughter.” I think she’s a great actress. And, I loved working with Tom [Wisdom] because we just enjoyed one another. There was nothing wrong with the shooting of the film. There was just not enough money to shoot it as well as we all would have liked.



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One Comment

  • May 26, 2010 | Permalink |

    For a man without proper academic attainment, as what he claimed he is, he sure is smart and honest. Hollywood should be filled with more and more people like him.

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