In a career that has now spanned six decades, Richard Dreyfuss has one of the most varied film careers of anyone in the industry. In only his third film, Dreyfuss won an Oscar in 1977 at the age 30 for his portrayal of a struggling actor in Mike Nichols’ film adaptation of Neil Simon’s classic comedy The Goodbye Girl. His acting credits have seen him work with dozens of Hollywood’s finest directors and actors – Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Barry Levinson, and Rob Reiner, to name a few – since his cameo in 1967’s The Graduate. Dreyfuss spoke with New Europe’s Federico Grandesso while the 71-year-old was in Taormina for the annual film festival to discuss his long career.
New Europe (NE): Tell me what you think about winning an Oscar at such a young age?
Richard Dreyfuss (RD): Everybody asks me if I think I won the Oscar too soon. Well, if I see it from the perspective of my professional background, back then…yes, I think it was given to me too soon. It’s the highest honour for someone who made only three films prior that, but there must be something more to it. There should be. Somebody asked me once what would be the name of my autobiography and I said it would be called The Hunt, because I’m much more comfortable on the hunt than cheating. The Oscar was great, I don’t deny that, but it lacked the life experience that an actor should have before actually deserving one. Ideally, if I were to get the Oscar now that I’m 71-years-old, it would mean a great deal for me because your work has finally been rewarded…appreciated.
NE: How was it working with Steven Spielberg on his sci-fi film Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977)?
RD: When Steven told me what his next film was going to be about, I knew that it was the only movie I ever encountered that had nobility. In his idea, there was something noble. And when Steven first started thinking about the film he thought that his headline, his head-copy, would be “there is no reason to fear looking up”. That’s when I decided that I was going to play that character no matter what, and so I badmouthed every actor in Hollywood. I would just deliberately walk by his office and say, “(Al) Pacino has no sense of humour,” or “(Robert) De Niro is not funny.” I named everyone. I went to every single actor. And then one day I said to him, “Steven, you need a child.” And he looked up and said, “You got the part.”
NE: What do you think about iconic filmmakers like Spielberg and George Lucas?
RD: Steven is a great director. He is probably the most versatile director that exists today. He can do film in any genre. George, now, is a great conceiver. He’s actually the only person that I’ve ever met who doesn’t like directing. It bores him and he gets impatient with it, but he can envision (an idea as brilliant as) Star Wars, he can see things that we can’t. That’s why when he made Star Wars, he directed the first one and then he jobbed it out as soon as he could because he had no interest in doing that again and again. People say to me, “Why don’t you direct?” and I know the reason is I’ll get bored. Can you imagine me having to concentrate on one thing for three years? Oh my god, I’d rather die. But I think George has an undeniable bit of talent. When he was in school, he was known as the guy who’d probably be the best production designer and who knew he could do that. By directing his first film, he proved that he could be a production designer. He was able to tap into the zeitgeist – the thing the culture has within itself but people don’t even realise that they have and then they have this desire or love for some specific part of the culture. George knows that, better than anybody. He just did that with the first Star Wars film, but doing franchise films like Star Wars is, for him, probably the most irritating thing in this few life.
NE: For you, what was experience like to act in other popular thrillers like Jaws (1975)?
RD: I embodied the role. I could portray it and hopefully made people believe it. But then I could shed it. I could take it off like a costume and walk away. The character has to be inside me, but the others also could find it. That’s the form of it. You know, there are certain actors who have in the past thousands years, and yet still are, unable to shed a character. Sometimes it’s impossible for them to shed their own evil. Actually now that I think of it, it would be just as dramatic and just as a good film to make about an actor who cannot shed his own goodness – that would be something. There was a story once made into a film where the actor was playing a comedy and was the happiest guy in the world and everyone loved him, and then he played Othello. He (the character) then killed his wife because he didn’t know how to control the character from taking over. And I remember it was Ronald Colman who was a great actor in the 1930’s-1940’s, he played that. And it’s a terrifying thing for an actor to see because you see he can’t get his balance so he gives in.
NE: Do you prefer doing films or TV works?
RD: TV series, for the most part, is worse than films. The television industry is the kind of business that tries to sell anything that is so white-bread and banal by polishing and putting it into the spotlight and makes everybody believe it’s worth of something. I’ll be frank, nobody goes to do a TV job voluntarily. You know what they say, “it’s either TV or not having any employment at all”.
NE: What do you think about modern the film industry’s evolution in Hollywood?
RD: In the old days, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, a director had a tool kit. In the tool kit, the most important tools were writers, story, and dialogue. Form there, the actors who could fulfill and invigorate those things were chosen. At the bottom of the tool kit was editing and special effects, something like that. Nowadays, it’s the other way around. They first think about the editing, CGI, special effects, and at the bottom…there’s the story, dialogue, etc. So, this is what you’ve got in the movie theaters now.
NE: What do you think about American politics these days?
RD: I don’t think in terms of pessimism. I think life is such an extraordinary gamble and an extraordinary balancing act that we could easily fall just as easily we can prevail. For me, the idea of America is one of the most beautiful ideas ever and I think too few people know it well and remember it well and they can’t really say they would agree with me because they don’t have any memory of what it was, but America gave more hope and saved us from more evil things than anyone ever did. And yes, we’ve lost our way in being “America”. We could just as easily fall into the pit of being like everybody else, but America was always not like everybody else. It wasn’t meant to be any way else…wasn’t intended to be. It took the world a hundred years, actually less than that, before the people of Europe stood up and said, “We want what they’ve got!” When you have a villain like Hitler who made it very clear, it was easy for us to say “If you’re asking us to submit to you or be killed, then the answer is NO.” America led that charge. We, at least in the past, have done great things. What we lack in our politics right now is the right kind of anger – the kind of anger that will keep us from giving up, giving in. The anger that makes America unlike any other country.