Richard Dreyfuss on 'Complicit'

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Richard Dreyfuss finds his way to the clitoris – via the decline of Western civilisation, setting rivals up with underage girls and the power of the American dream. Time Out tries to keep up

  • Richard Dreyfuss on 'Complicit'

    Richard Dreyfuss takes the double-caffeine breakfast option © Ed Marshall

  • Richard Dreyfuss is playing a journalist on stage, which seems like a good idea. After all, actors and journalists both manipulate words – and Dreyfuss, unlike many in his profession, doesn’t require anyone else’s words to manipulate. The man can talk, although he’s too smart not to be well aware that in the interview situation, the journalist has the advantage. The roles are reversed: his words are my raw materials.

    This is probably why Dreyfuss usually starts interviews by warning journalists that he’s ‘a book, not an article’. We’re most of us books, at least in our own internal libraries, but Dreyfuss, a bestseller since ‘Jaws’ came out in 1975, is worried he’ll be taken for a beach read.

    Why? Granted, he’s made films for the dough (‘Poseidon’ certainly wasn’t made for the greater good of mankind) and his last London theatre venture ended badly before it had officially begun, when he was replaced as Max Bialystock in ‘The Producers’ in 2004. And if you want to dig up old dirt, there was a cocaine addiction in the late 1970s and a couple of failed marriages. But his CV is long and frequently glorious, from ‘Jaws’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ via a Best Actor Oscar for ‘The Goodbye Girl’ to another nomination, two decades later, for ‘Mr Holland’s Opus’. He has acted with great success on Broadway, he has comedy chops and mimic credentials, he has raised his brow to civics research at Oxford University in an attempt to teach American children about politics before they’re old enough to become indifferent. He’s 61 years old, and although he looks good, if the breakfast I watched him eat is anything to go by (jacket potato with mince, Starbucks coffee and two full-fat Cokes) he needs to look after himself. What’s left to prove?

    Part of the answer lies with this play, in which Dreyfuss is directed by Kevin Spacey. Dreyfuss’s political engagement overflows into his work (‘W.’, ‘Silver City’). ‘Complicit’ author Joe Sutton is best known for ‘Voir Dire’, an examination of courtroom prejudice, and this play also has serious political ambitions, heading back to the courtroom with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ben Kritzer (Dreyfuss), who must defend his honour or lose his soul. ‘My character is being forced to give up a source,’ says Dreyfuss. ‘He’s being told he can still be a respectable man if he’s bought and paid for.’ So we’re watching a debate about free speech, which can be a difficult topic for a celebrity but is clearly recognised by Dreyfuss as a subject of far greater importance. ‘It’s about a set of individual values, about acknowledging that a monarch is the servant of the people,’ he says. ‘We, the people, are the only sovereign in training that doesn’t get a tutor.’ This partly explains his loathing of Rupert Murdoch, who he holds responsible for the destruction of Western civilisation. ‘It’s decaying at a cartoon-animation rate,’ maintains the actor, his fierceness slightly diluted by an excellent Roadrunner impression. His anger is proprietary: America, he believes, is a great country, or should be. ‘The United States offered something singular, without which the human race would be a different and much darker experience. Because no one had ever offered people the opportunity of opportunity. Never in human history had a civilisation said to its poor, “Rise with your ability”. And so when they heard there was a country being born that offered the possibility of rising by talent alone, not only did they come in droves but they continued to come and will never stop coming.’

    Dreyfuss acknowledges that this dream is tarnished, that the reputation of America has changed in the past ten years, that there are hierarchies and flaws. But he’s hoping that Obama will signify the return of the adults to American administration. ‘They obviously went to a sanatorium on some island somewhere for a few years, thinking: How much damage could the kids do over the weekend?’ he speculates. ‘And then – whoof!’

    But Dreyfuss is undaunted. ‘In the Old World, there’s a wall a thousand feet high, and those who arrived, raped, pillaged and stole early are looking down from it and snickering at the ones trying to get in. In America there’s no such wall. In our country, we sat down and actually wrote out a description of the goal of our moral character. “This is who we choose to be.” And then we had the chutzpah to put it up, so every single person in the world knows when we fail and when we succeed. We allowed ourselves to be judged by that.’

    He seems to view his country rather like a talented actor, who has had a career lull, some bad choices and worse reviews, but is all in line for a comeback. I’m not saying he’s wrong, but despite his intelligence there is something simple, even childlike, about his reasoning. Dreyfuss might disagree, but he does acknowledge having something of the child about him. I quote Spielberg’s beautiful comment, on being asked why he hired the legendary French director François Truffaut (who spoke almost no English) for ‘Close Encounters’, that he wanted a man with the soul of a child. ‘I think he would say the same thing about me,’ says the actor. ‘I mean, he needed a child-man. [That character] had to have many qualities that we equate with some kind of awkward discoverable childlike look on the world. At the same time he has to be an adult, to have responsibilities.’

    The trademark wicked grin appears, along with a fine display of the qualities he’s talking about. ‘I would badmouth all these other actors, you know, I felt it was my obligation and duty. I would go by Spielberg’s office every day and say, “Nicholson’s crazy.” Or I would say, “Al Pacino has no sense of humour.” I was going to get that part regardless, even if it meant setting actors up with underage women and getting them sent to prison. And then one day I said, “Steven, you need a child”. He smiled at me and he said, “You got it”.’

    He is profoundly honest, too, which is a quality we associate with children even though perhaps we shouldn’t. He admits to wanting adulation (‘Most actors won’t admit it! You know what being an actor is? It’s having people come up to you on the street and say “thank you”. They don’t say that to their neurosurgeons or their divorce lawyers. Only to actors’). He acknowledges that he refused to make the ‘Jaws’ sequel not because he thought it would be bad (it was) but because nobody had thought to pay him, Roy Scheider or Robert Shaw any extra when the box office went stratospheric and the film became the first ever blockbuster. And it may be nerves, or tiredness (I meet him the morning after the first preview performance) but he chatters a little like a child, swerving from subject to subject as the whim takes him.

    Somehow, we get from ‘Jaws’ to the clitoris to men’s fear of women to the imperfectibility of mankind and the saving grace that is human ecstasy, in one response – by the end of which, I can’t remember what the question was. He wants to do a show called ‘The Dreyfuss Clitoral Theory of History’ which, judging from the sneak preview I got, would be a lot more fun than any political play, although Dreyfuss’s presenting style might give a producer a nervous breakdown. ‘When you place ecstasy in the system, then Frenchmen will fuck Germans even though they hate them,’ he explains, which means, I think, that no matter how bad things get, the imperative to communicate pulls us through eventually.

    We are back at freedom of speech, courtesy of a speech that ran as free as a mountain stream. Dreyfuss, like his character in ‘Complicit’, evidently believes in the right to say what you want, when you want, with a minimum of manipulation by hacks, actors or anyone else. And that is surely worth fighting for.

    ‘Complicit’ is at the Old Vic until Feb 21.

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