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Interview with actor Richard Dreyfuss

January 26, 2019

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Throughout his expansive career, veteran actor Richard Dreyfuss has given cinema some indelible performances that he is certainly recognized for around the world. Chief among them are Matt Hooper and Roy Neary, the characters from 1975’s “Jaws” and 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, respectively, the two blockbusters he made with director Steven Spielberg. What if you had the chance to meet him in person? This week presents an opportunities for moviegoers to do just that as the actor embarks on a six-city event tour called Jawing with Richard Dreyfuss where he’ll discuss his expansive career and most likely one of those iconic movies during a Q&A session prior to a screening of, you guessed it, “Jaws”.

In anticipation of Dreyfuss coming to town – my hometown of Downers Grove, a suburb of Chicago, to be precise – I had the unique opportunity to chat with him over the phone.

This was indeed a level-up opportunity in my film critic endeavors, one that I was quite excited and anxious about. I grew up watching his films, especially those two Spielberg movies, as well as George Lucas’ 1973 film, “American Graffiti”, so the chance to talk with Dreyfuss was an absolute thrill. If only my dad were still alive to

In case you were unaware, Dreyfuss won a Best Actor Oscar at age thirty in 1978 for his work in Herbert Ross’ “The Goodbye Girl” (he also won a Golden Globe that year for the role), which had come out months after “Jaws”. Clearly, 1977 was a good year for the actor. That award gave him the distinction of being the youngest actor to win in that category at the time. That title was usurped when Adrien Brody won in for “The Pianist” in 2003, but that’s still a heck of a long run.

Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see where his career took him after such an early win. In  1986 he starred in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Stand By Me” and then “Nuts”, “Tin Men” and “Stakeout” the following year. He would reunite with Spielberg again in 1989’s “Always”, a movie I have a fondness for, despite being considered a lesser work of the director. In the 90’s, he starred in “Once Around”, “What About Bob?”, “The American President” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, for which he received his second Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Throughout his filmography, Dreyfuss has shown his wide range in roles that called for dramatic leads or ones that asked for his indisputable comedic side. Whoever he’s played – whether they’re sketchy characters, political figures or hard-working stand-up guys –  Dreyfuss has always been a memorable presence in the films he’s starred in. One thing I’ve noticed as I caught up on some of Dreyfuss’ performances in preparation for this interview is how he’s always 100% in anything he’s in (at least everything I’ve seen him in), meaning he’s present and committed in whatever role he takes and has an uncanny chemistry alongside his costars.

Last year, Dreyfuss had a fun turn in “Book Club”, in which he hooked up with Candice Bergen and he can currently be seen in the new Netflix film “The Last Laugh”, alongside Chevy Chase and Andie MacDowell.

If you’re interested in attending the special event on Thursday, January 31st at the beautiful Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove, click here for additional information and a breakdown of ticket prices.

 

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A little preface to the phone interview you’re about to read. It took place last Sunday afternoon when Dreyfuss was scheduled back to back with other interviewers. We wound up starting a little late, which was fine. So, naturally I allotted a certain amount of time to tack onto the tail end of our promised time frame. Hopefully, I wasn’t too much of an annoyance as I wedged in a couple more questions before we had to end, but I figured I may only get once at this.

Ultimately, I found Richard Dreyfuss to be funny, gracious and straightforward. It was a pleasure to hear his boisterous trademark laugh. Below you can read AND listen to my chat with the legendary actor…

 

 

 

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DJF: Hello, this is David Fowlie with Keeping It Reel, here in Chicago. Is this  Richard Dreyfuss?

RD: This is Richard Dreyfuss and I’m so excited…

DJF: You’re excited? I’m excited!

RD: No, YOU’RE excited! (both laugh) Well, no I’M excited!

DJF: It’s an absolute honor and a real thrill to get to chat with you. 

RD: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. You have extraordinary taste and I think we should hang up now since we’re doing so well.

DJF: That sounds good. Alright, goodbye. (both laugh)

I’d like to start off by mentioning that you’ve stated in other interviews that you’re proud of your film career and rightly so, but are there certain performances that you’re particularly proud of that you wish would receive more recognition when your work is discussed?

RD: Well, yeah. I think all of them. (laughs) I’m proud of all of them and I think they should receive far more recognition. Not really, though. I’m proud of the work and that’s the way I did as I did it…was to be happy in the work choices I made. Like the films I did and move on and after a good hunk of time – you know, we’re talking about half a century or something – you begin to say, “Okay, what else you got?” (laughs)

DJF: Now, did that question come from getting the same type of roles or you wanted to change things up and do something different?

RD: Yeah, I wanted to do something outside of acting, because I think that one of the things that I had aimed for and succeeded at was having a diverse portfolio of jobs so that the characters were not just one kind of character. And after a while of having a successful film career and losing it and gaining it and losing it and gaining it…and you say after a while, “How many times do you have to win in order to win?” So, when I got to my mid-fifties, I thought, “Well, let me see, what do I really believe here? I really believe that I’m an agnostic, I don’t really know if there’s an afterlife (and to what depth that there probably isn’t), and since this is probably my only one life, is there anything else I should be paying attention to?

And there was. So, I retired. And there’s actually a law in California that says you’re not allowed to retire…

DJF: …in California or Hollywood?

RD: …in Hollywood (both laugh) So, people would say to me “Don’t use that word, don’t use it”, and I would say, “No, but I’m through.” And I went to school and I started paying attention to this other passion of mine, which is America. And I would have these funny conversations with friends. I remember this one singer turning to me and saying, “So, Richard, what are you doing now?” And I would said, “Well, I’ve retired. I’m in education.” And she would say, “No no no, seriously. What? What are you doing?” And I said, “No, that’s what I’m doing. I’m running a non-profit to bring the teaching of civics back to grade school and high school education.” And she looked at me and said, “Richard…What are you doing?” And I looked at her and I said, “Okay, I’m sorry. I’m going for the Nobel.” And then went, “Oh!” (both laugh) as if that was a hip thing.

DJF: I assume she probably thought you were teaching film or something…

RD: Well, yeah. Periodically, that’s what people assume. And it’s amazing, I was watching last night on the internet, everyone you’ve ever heard of is now teaching – great writers are teaching writing classes and actors are teaching acting classes…

DJF: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen that.

RD: …masters are teaching masters classes and they’re all on the internet and you think, “Well, golly! Why aren’t I doing that?” Well, maybe because you didn’t want to. Oh, that’s right! (both laugh)

DJF: You came to mind recently while I was on a family vacation on Oahu and maybe you know where I’m going with this…I was on a movie tour at Kualoa Ranch and the guide there asked if anyone had seen “Krippendorf’s Tribe”….

RD: Had seen what?

DJF: “Krippendorf’s Tribe”

RD: Ah, uh huh…

DJF: …on this packed bus, I was the only person who raised their hand. I was proud to raise it. I got a kick out of that movie, even though it’s not considered the best. But, I was thinking in such an experience like that, when you’re filming on a beautiful Hawaiian island, can you at least walk away from the film appreciated the location?

RD: Well, we never went to Hawaii.

DJF: Really?

RD: We shot the movie all in L.A.

DJF: The whole thing? They’re saying that it was shot at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu. (laughs)

RD: Really?

DJF: That’s hilarious. 

RD: Can you tell me their name and maybe a name of an attorney? (both laugh)

DJF: Yeah, really. Not a bad idea. It’s called Kualoa Ranch. They have a whole section dedicated to “Krippendorf’s Tribe”, stating that’s where it was shot…

RD: (hearty laughter) REALLY??

DJF: (laughing) I’m serious! You can look it up. Anyway…

RD:  Well, I’m just trying to think. I mean, I have major major holes in my memory. And I’m thinking, did I forget that I went to Hawaii and shot a movie?

DJF: Well, look, you have a long career, so that’s understandable. 

RD: (both laugh) Thank you. Thank you. Who am I? Oh yes, oh yes…

DJF: You’re Matt Hooper. Okay, let’s pretend that you can go back in time and you’re backstage at the Oscars watching yourself accept the Academy Award. Okay?

RD: Yep.

DJF: What goes through your mind as you watch yourself and what would be some of the things you would say to yourself, knowing what you know now about acting and the filmmaking business? 

RD: Well, the only thing I would say, looking at that moment, was, “Why didn’t you have the brains to write out statement that made some articulate sense?” And that’s what I was really surprised at, because in a real sense, I knew I was going to win that award…at least I kind of sussed out the politics of all the other votes and I knew I was gonna win. And yet knowing I was gonna win, I hadn’t prepared anything. So, when I got up there I kinda fumbled around and that was a shockeroo. That was a big moment for me. There was a kind of disconnect between what I had been doing and paying attention to the details of my life. And so I thought about that moment for twenty years and I’m still thinking about it here on the phone with you. (laughs) I’m really old – and you’re old!

DJF: It’s true, here I am in my middle age…well, it’s funny because I watched your speech recently and I was wondering, “Is that the shortest acceptance speech?” 

RD: Yeah, I literally turned around and then realized – I didn’t even remember who to thank…

DJF: That’s understandable.

RD: …and then the next day, I took out an ad because the one name I didn’t mention was my agent, who I had the longest and strongest relationship with since I was eleven or twelve years-old and I had forgotten to mention him and I felt like shit.

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DJF: Let’s talk about you and Spielberg. Did starring in “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” create in you the same awe and wonder for ocean and outer space life (respectively) that it did for the fans of those movies?

RD: No.

DJF: No?

RD: No. I would say that – I don’t know about Steven in terms of the ocean – I didn’t ever really have an obsession with the ocean, but we shared an obsession about space.

DJF: Okay.

RD: There’s a rumor…I don’t even know if this is true, but Steven was the next civilian who was supposed to go up after the Challenger.

DJF: Wow!

RD: I’ve never asked him that, but I have heard that. We all had a very strong awareness of the possibility of life and actually at one point I remember thinking, “I don’t want them to land during the making of the movie! The movie would become a bust” (both laugh) You know, we thought we were raising the aliens, but in actuality we were just raising George Lucas…

DJF: Right, true. But, I consider that (“Star Wars”) to be a space fantasy and this is more of a straight-up science fiction story. 

RD: Well, I’ll tell you what it is and I’ll tell you what happened. It was a movie (“Star Wars”), a wonderful movie that was made for kids…

DJF: Right.

RD: …and Steven made a film for adults. And I’ve always contended that if Steven’s film had come out first – which was only a difference between four or six months or something – we would be making movies that had more adult themes about aliens. I don’t  mean XXX, I mean adult…

DJF: Right. 

RD: Hold on one minute…okay, I’m being told you’re to be killed.

 

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DJF: Well, I know that the last call had gone over, so we’ll go over just a tad too. 

So, back to “Jaws”. I consider it a perfect movie and watch it every year. Visiting it again recently, I was struck by the scene near the end when the cage is assembled and Hooper is getting in and he looks up from the water and tells Quint and Brody that he can produce any spit.

RD: Right.

DJF: It’s such a great moment because it conveys the right combination of courage, fear and anxiety. Could you share anything in particular about that scene?

RD: Yeah, I can tell you exactly because I said that line. The hatch fell into a locked position. The cage itself slipped underneath the water. I was trapped probable about two inches below the surface, but it had taken my air hose and my mask off and for about two seconds, which felt like a year, I was drowning underneath the water. But, the whole crew dove in and dragged it up and that’s what I remember about that moment. I normally remember and give proper credit to everyone involved. You know, Steven wrote most of every moment and that was my bit and that was his bit – I don’t remember, but I think that line was an improvised line.

DJF: So great. 

RD: Yeah, it was.

DJF: Lastly, last week a Netflix film came out called “The Last Laugh” and in that film you  play a podiatrist in a retirement community who decides to return to stand-up comedy after a fifty year absence, allowing for some great laughs on stage and even a fun musical number. If you were to take a shot at another career like that at this stage in life, what would it be?

RD: Um, probably I would be a nurse helper in Northern Africa among the white refugees – What are you crazy? I have no fucking idea!

DJF: (laughs) You actually had me going there…

RD: (laughs) Well, I really was describing Matt, uh, whatever his name is – you know, someone else’s career. I gotta do everything that Angelina Jolie is doing now. Okay, I gotta go…

DJF: Alright. I really appreciate your time. Thank you. 

RD: You’re welcome. Bye.

 

The Last Laugh

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