It’s been some time since Richard Dreyfuss was a huge box office draw (in the span of five years, the actor had added the holy trinity of American Graffiti, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to his resume) but the Oscar-winning 68 year-old has had a steady and plentiful career for five decades now.
Always leaving an authoritative stamp and creating a credible performance regardless of role size, this is very much evident in a small but memorable turn in the Patrick Wilson-headlining political suspense thriller, Reckless
We managed to grab some time with the prolific actor recently to chat about the film and he was more than happy to indulge us when asked about his earlier, iconic work, most notably the aforementioned brush with benevolent extra terrestrials.
HeyUGuys: Presumably you still get sent a variety of projects. What was it about Reckless that encouraged you to sign on?
Richard Dreyfuss: It was a well-written role and they paid me a lot of money. It came at a good time when I was building myself up before taking on a lead role again (with recent ABC mini-series of American fraudster Bernie Madoff).
It might look like a standard erotic thriller on the surface, but the political power play at the heart of Reckless is actually pretty interesting and intriguing.
It’s an understated film. Probably a little too understated for an American audience. I think all they wanted to see was the naked girls, but I liked the subtler elements of the film and how it gets reducing down to the problems between Patrick Wilson’s character and his wife.
Looking at some of your recent choices, you seem to veer towards more politically-minded films. Are you consciously on the outlook for that type of material?
It doesn’t have to be overtly political. Bernie wasn’t. Certainly films that are discussions of value are the kind of projects I like.
You’ve had a long and varied career in both ensembles, like Reckless, and as the lead. Do you have a preference?
Yes, I like the starring role. I like being the star because that position means you have power. Being a supporting player means you only have power by the grace of god, or the grace of the film’s star. I’d much rather be allowed into all the rooms and not have to beg for entry.
But it’s always nice to see your name crop up in credits as part of the supporting cast. Regardless of the quality of the project, it seems like you try to bring something interesting each time. I guess that can be quite appealing too?
That’s true. I like the idea that I can find ways of doing roles that can be unexpected and surprising. I’m very proud of some of those. I don’t think you can always predict what Richard Dreyfuss is going to bring to a role.
I hope you don’t mind if I jump back several decades. Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Did you have an inkling at all during the shoot that you were making something that is recognised as being in the pantheon of sci-fi cinema?
I knew at the time that it was going to be a film which would outlive us all. It was a project I was a complete devotee of before it was even made and it was also the noblest idea for a movie, ever. It turned out to be just that.
If it had opened six months before Star Wars instead of six months after I think it would have been riffed on throughout all of filmdom since and people of great and serious literary quality would be writing films about space and aliens and such. That scheduling was unfortunate, but I take nothing away from George [Lucas], however. He made the film for kids.
That does tie into whole infantilisation of Hollywood, post-Star Wars debate. It would have been interesting to see what kind of trajectory the film might have taken in different circumstances.
Even those it had a higher ambition, Close Encounters was an also-ran. The great thing that Steven [Spielberg] did was say, “there is nothing to fear when looking up to the stars”.
That has certainly changed in the recent cluster of sci-fi films. There’s now fearfulness where hopefulness existed in Close Encounters.
Yeah, and it’s too bad. We did Independence Day, but let’s make it again!
Do you look back at the Close Encounters era with a great fondness?
No, I don’t. I find that people ask me questions about the seventies like that’s all there was. It gets a little boring, as I’m very proud of all the films I made in the eighties and nineties. They may not have been as financially successful as the earlier works, but they were wonderful movies.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a great film from that later period. It’s a shame because it did well at the box office but it doesn’t get the kind of recognition it deserves.
Those kinds of films can get lost.
Another underappreciated film of yours from a little later on was Always, your third collaboration with Spielberg. It was an attempt to do an old-fashioned tear-jerker and it really succeeds in doing so.
Steven can never be accused of staying in one genre. He’s really the only one of his generation who has spread out as much as he has. I’d like to see him do a simple adult love story. Steven likes to populate his brain with fire trucks, aeroplanes and panzer divisions, and I’d like to see him do a film which has just actors and a script.
Last question – your first IMDb credit is Valley of the Dolls. Can you talk a little about it? Was it a fairly brief appearance?
I had the distinction of being in the both the best and worst films of 1967 – The Graduate and Valley of the Dolls. I had one line in each. If I didn’t like you I would just say rent Valley of the Dolls and you’d discover I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made.
What did family and friends think about this at the time?
First of all, I never had such a conversation with anybody, and you never know when you’re doing a film just how bad it will be, although I guess I did know with Valley. It was all part of my apprenticeship. I was a very happy, unemployed actor in LA for 12 years, long before I did a feature, and I knew I was in no rush. I was learning from everything I did and didn’t do. Those were two films that I learned a lot from.
Reckless is out on DVD now.