It’s not too often that one gets to speak with an Oscar-winning actor, but Richard Dreyfuss decided to put up with me for a bit. Dreyfuss added a few more credits, to his already stellar resume, this year by starring in The Lightkeepers. On Friday, the actor ventures into the water once again to battle a man-eating menace in Piranha 3D. Later this year, he will star alongside Bruce Willis and John Malkovich in Red. Richard went into great detail on why he chose to be a part of these projects and what the stories mean to him. From there, we touched on the current state of the movie industry along with his current passion outside the biz. He even entertained a JAWS question, which I’m sure he’s had enough of over the years. Here’s a few highlights of our chat:
Having seen The Lightkeepers, one thing’s for sure…Richard enjoyed playing the lead character “Seth Atkins.” I asked how he transformed into the character and how much of what we see on screen is his take from the written word.
“Yes, Atkins was a fun character to play. For the most part, I brought Atkins to life, with some collaboration from Daniel Adams (writer/director). In my experience, it’s usually up to the actor how a character is portrayed. Daniel is a smart man, who truly understands the old values of filmmaking. He let me read the story and about two-thirds of the way through, it came to me how to do the character.”
Richard knew it would be interesting for a guy like him to portray an old-stubborn seaman in 1912 America. As he thought more of the story, he realized that the time period of the movie is really close to the modern America we live in. Except the values have completely flipped.
“In Lightkeepers, the characters believe in values and oaths that no longer exist in today’s society. Do you remember when taking an Oath meant something? It doesn’t exist in our country anymore and that has to change. That is why Lightkeepers is a unique story that can open our eyes in seeing how much we’ve changed as a country regarding our characteristics and priorities. In 100 years, our thinking has transformed America. I’m hoping enough people will see this movie for we are the only ones that can change this present situation.”
Just a hint of research on Richard’s interests outside of film, will help in understanding his perception regarding the above statement. After hearing that, I probed Richard’s other true passion. Bringing civics back to American schools.
“We need to get back to reasoning and thinking things through. The future generation is being brought up in greed and without a true understanding of civics. There is no more emphasis on knowledge and time. As a society we need to process ideas and understand what certain principles are based upon. In The Lightkeepers, the time period shown is symbolic of what we’re missing today. When you have Bruce Dern’s character in the movie, and he represents today’s standard. And he plays the gristly, bad guy in the movie. Today he would be considered the norm. That is not what we need in this country. We have to turn it around.”
And what is he doing about it?
“I consider this a real honor that the San Diego High School education system is allowing me to author curriculum for civics to be taught in the district. I also have a website that should be completed by the end of this month. We do have a some information up, but more will be coming. TheDreyfussInitiative.org.”
We segue into the notion of having too much and still not being satisfied, and how that translates into the movie industry. Richard completed work on Piranha 3D. He began that project right after The Lightkeepers. Lightkeepers is clearly a traditional piece of filmmaking. A delivery that isn’t used all that much these days. I asked Richard if this new 3D craze will end up hurting the art of filmmaking…
“Damn right it will. It is just more toys studios have to play with. What we have is a battle between commerce vs. art. Everyone wants it faster despite faults in the product. Instant gratification is a theme in our country. It goes back to no one thinking things through and not seeing the big picture. On the set of Piranha, I believe I was there for a total of 30 seconds. I originally said no to the project multiple times but the producer (Bob Weinstein) spoke with me and understood my position on why I didn’t want the role.”
After Richard gave his view points to the producer stemming from his beliefs in civics…
“They wrote me a $50,000 check and it all went toward my initiative to get ethics back in schools.”
It must be nice. Richard then told me how he never really acted for the money.
“The happiest I ever been was when I was a struggling actor. I’ve had big houses and small houses. I always had work available for most of my career. When I actually had to find jobs to make money, that’s when I was happy.”
Speaking of one those jobs, that probably had a hand in getting him a big house, I had to ask about JAWS. I’ve always said that if I was an actor I would make a career doing horror films (and I would be broke). My question was whether he had genuine fear when face-to-face with the 25ft. mechanical shark. I was very descriptive in telling Richard what would happen in my pants if I was in his scenes. In other words, did he have to act in those scenes?
“Being on the set of JAWS was mostly us standing around and hoping the shark would work. When it did, we had to make sure all these sailboats were out of the shot. So the set was dull at times. In scenes with the shark, there was some acting done on my part. The funny thing is that I saw it over a year later and forgot that it was me in the movie. After remembering, I still won’t go in the water.”
Dreyfuss’ role in Piranha 3D is rumored to be a reprise “Dr. Matt Hooper” from the above mentioned classic. Whether they will directly reference this in the flick is unknown but it will add some nice nostalgia to the 3D bloodfest. We stayed on the topic of his career and a common question I always ask is if there’s any role out that he would like to play?
“I never had a role that I set out for. I always wanted to have a body of work that I’m proud of. Save for two projects, which will never pass my lips, I’m happy with what I’ve done.”
(I tried to get those two projects out of him, but it wasn’t happening. For all I know it could have been JAWS.)
We then came back to The Lightkeepers and we traded thoughts on why people will enjoy seeing this traditional film.
“Daniel (writer/director) is really trying to capture this time period of America in a traditional manner. He is an excellent writer and perhaps enough people will see The Lightkeepers to appreciate that. The story shows how two old people can find love. A topic that may gross out certain generations for they feel its like thinking about your parents having sex. People are used to seeing the young 20 year olds in film, but seeing people in their 50s and 60s is a rarity. What the film shows is that you can find true love at any stage in life. Staying true to an oath is an underlying theme that everyone needs to learn once again…
Or it is “death” for us all.”
Aside from the expected movie biz chatter, Richard Dreyfuss and I spoke at length about his civics movement in schools. He is semi-retired from the acting world, and civics in America is definitely his muse these days. Everyone should check out the links in the article as well as below. Thanks to Richard for having an in-depth conversation and opening up about his passion both in and out of the acting realm. It was a pleasure!
An article Richard Dreyfuss wrote about civics in 2008.
The Dreyfuss Initiative