Richard Dreyfuss on Spielberg and Stone, Hollywood and the almighty dollar
Still the curmudgeon after all these years, Richard Dreyfuss - who's in Dublin this week for the JDIFF - hasn’t lost any of his appetite for bashing Hollywood and colleagues who irritate him.
Richard Dreyfuss: “Everyone who has worked above the line knows money interferes with every creative act. They are only interested in what they can monetise. It makes you want to vomit after a while”
It seems that Richard Dreyfuss has lost little of his youthful energy. Nor has he softened. Having appeared in a film that, for a year or two, was the most successful of all time (something about a shark, as I recall), he knows a thing or two about the commercial end of Hollywood.
That doesn’t mean he’s comfortable with the corrupting influence of the dollar.
“I once said to a young woman I knew: ‘You know that LA chews you up and spits you out? Get out of here!’ She did and she made a life for herself,” he splutters. “Everyone who has worked above the line knows money interferes with every creative act. They are only interested in what they can monetise. It makes you want to vomit after a while.”
Now 66, fluid and articulate, Dreyfuss offers an arresting combination of warmth and irascibility. That half-chuckle in his voice is still there. But you get the strong sense that he is not a man to be trifled with.
The veteran actor is at this year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival to receive a Volta Award for lifetime achievement and to attend a screening of his new film, Cas & Dylan . He will also be on hand for a showing of Steven Spielberg’s indestructible Jaws .
“I was in Dublin to shoot Oliver Twist a few years back,” he muses. “I had the most amazing driver. I remember him showing me all the bullet holes. An amazing time.”
There’s a lot to celebrate. Richard Dreyfuss was among those talented, off-centre actors – one thinks also of Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman – who profited from the shift away to less-classical Hollywood modes in the early 1970s. Though not an obvious choice for leading man, he burnt up the screen in American Graffiti, Jaws and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind . An Oscar came his way in 1977 for The Goodbye Girl . In recent years, when not arguing for liberal causes such as the proper teaching of civics in US schools, he has taken strong roles in pictures such as Oliver Stone’s W.
“Well actually, I was hired because I was the best actor,” Dreyfuss says with no sense of reprove. “I don’t want to put Oliver down but, once he took all the politics out and made it about a contest between father and son, there was no story left. There are no historical legs. Oliver and I were at loggerheads about that and we still are. He screamed that I was the worst actor he’s ever worked with. I’d held up the production and so on.”
Dreyfuss is establishing some momentum here.
“I told him he had made one strategic error: the press junket is yet to come. I told the press exactly what I told you.”
But Stone enjoys that sort of fight. Does he not?
Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone's 'W'
“Oh, no, no. He called my agent and said: ‘He’d better stop this because we’re planning an Oscar campaign.’ And she said: ‘What? For the worst actor you’ve ever worked with.’ Ha ha!
Anyway, where were we?
Dreyfuss spent the first nine years of life in Brooklyn and Queens. His father then moved the family to Los Angeles, where he attended Beverly Hills High School and San Fernando Valley State College. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he picked up a few small roles on TV and in the theatre while working in a hospital. Like a great many actors, he still retains his enthusiasm for the stage.
It’s slightly surprising to be reminded that Dreyfuss spent so many of his formative years in LA. With that angular voice and caustic sense of humour, he still seems every inch the New Yorker.
“Yeah and I am,” he says with a smidgeon of pride. “I learned to be very wary of three cities in America: New York, DC and LA. But LA is far worse than DC or New York. Sure, in those towns you have to be sophisticated and connected. In LA you have to be careful, because what Hitchcock thought of as the MacGuffin is real. You can work for two years and make a billion dollars. If that is true, then watch out for your soul.”
Which leads us to Dreyfuss’s breakout years in the mid-1970s. Between 1973, when he made American Graffiti and 1975, when Jaws emerged, he went from being a jobbing, modestly successful player to an avatar of the new (well, newish by that stage) Hollywood.
Jaws changed everything. Released on an unusually large number of screens, the film rapidly became a phenomenon and propelled Spielberg (not yet 30, astonishingly) to the top of the heap. But the story goes that the shoot was a disaster. The mechanical shark wouldn’t work. The financiers were hovering. Did anybody know they were working on a smash?
“Everyone felt that way except me,” Dreyfuss laughs. “I though it was going to tank because I didn’t understand anything about film-making. I once asked Steven how he set out to make this film and he said it was easy. You just agreed to a four-million budget and then you spent 14 million.”
One wonders how Spielberg – who had made just one theatrical feature to this point – managed to assert himself on set. Dreyfuss, who was playing the young oceanographer, recalls strolling about the neighbouring area and hearing chatter on walkie-talkies about the shark not working. There must have been mutterings of discontent.
“Well, he had had enough experience and, remember, he had been anointed by higher ups in the studio. But it is true: you wouldn’t necessarily be able to spot the authority figure if you walked on set. By Close Encounters , he was like General Patton. Steven never raised his voice. But if you were a department head and you had screwed up he would look hard at you. That person would quail. He was a prince before you had ever heard of him.”
Dreyfuss has always been frank about the grimmer turns in his life. Part of his suspicion of Los Angeles must, surely, stem from his own dangerous experiences during those heady years. Just as Close Encounters of the Third Kind was confirming his place in the pantheon, Dreyfuss found himself swept up in the snowstorm of cocaine that was blowing through Hollywood. Reports suggest that it took four years for him to pull himself free. Was his addiction just an irresistible result of being in that business at that time?
“It was to do with being around people,” he says sardonically. “Everyone was doing it. I remember being in a restaurant and seeing two heads of a studio doing a plate. I remember being in another restaurant where I saw the owner came up with the big amount and say: ‘Compliments of the management’. It was everywhere. I did it. I was an asshole and I stopped.”
What persuaded him to make the change?
“In my case, I had a very bad car accident and it was my fault,” he says. “But I also remember being with some coke people and one of the girls made the mistake of letting me see how much she hated herself. I walked out the back door and never did it again.”
Dreyfuss has spent the last few years shifting between politics, teaching and the old profession. He took time out to serve as a senior associate member of St Antony’s College, Oxford. He speaks out about the need to vote. Along the way, he married twice and divorced twice before settling down with Svetlana Erokhin, his current wife, in 2006. Last year, he turned up opposite Harrison Ford in the routine thriller Paranoia . But Cas & Dylan feels more like a labour of love.
Directed by Jason Priestley, former star of Beverly Hills, 90210 , the picture casts Dreyfuss as a dying doctor who sets off across Canada with an uninhibited young woman. It’s a touching piece that makes good use of Dreyfuss and female lead Tatiana Maslany.
“I liked the script very much,’ he says. “It’s a gentle story and the crux of it is deeply moving. I met Tatiana and that was enough to get me into the film. She is fantastic. We bonded under fire.”
I sense that Dreyfuss is still somewhat divided about his industry. When I ask him if Hollywood has improved since the days of the cocaine storms, he notes that if any studio boss behaved like those snorters in the restaurant they would now be fired. But another, possibly worse problem has set in.
“In the old times, character and dialogue were essential tools in the film-makers kit,” he says. “Now they are the last things they consider after special effects and car chases.”
Yet he is still willing to seek out projects such as Cas & Dylan . For all his reservations, Richard Dreyfuss doesn’t seem ready for retirement just yet.
“I made that mistake a few years ago. I went to Oxford and I said to people I had retired. But there is a law in LA: you cannot quit showbusiness. So, I learned to say: ‘I stepped away’.”
Fair enough. It’s nice that he steps back once in a while.