Richard Dreyfuss is a singular man in the Hollywood system. Having been born in Brooklyn and moved to L.A. at age 9 he still considers himself a native New Yorker, never truly feeling at home in California. He is not afraid to speak candidly on most issues, particularly those most close to his heart. When we caught up with the man in Dublin, as a guest of the Jameson International Film Festival, he is in buoyant mood. Having queued up two natural starting points for our conversation: His attendance at the Jameson Cult Film Club screening of Jaws three nights before, and his new film which sees him star in Jason Priestly’s directorial debut Cas & Dylan, opposite Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany, we feel well prepared…but nothing prepares you for Mr. Dreyfuss!
“Wow, you’re tall” he says acknowledging the elephant in the room that our 6’5″ frame dwarf’s his own. “I always seem to meet tall people. I was at a party…where was I…oh yes, in Whistler, with Jason. And you there’s a party, thousands of people, and then every once in a while there’d be a woman, who was like 7 feet tall, and gorgeous. And I would go [cups hands to mouth] “You’re gorgeous. *Louder* You’re gorgeous! [standing up Dreyfuss tilts his head back and shouts] You’re really pretty!” It was amazing.”
Instantly we fall into a natural conversation, all thoughts of questions about Jaws, Spielberg, Cas & Dylan, everything, go out the window and we settle into a chat with one of the most interesting and potentially controversial actors around. Continuing in the ‘tall’ vein Dreyfuss talks about dating a girl who was 6’2″. “When we walked down the street we looked like Mutt and Jeff. But then I discovered that when you’re horizontal you’re the same size.” he says with a wink in his eye.
“The ones that were surprising were…Humprey Bogart was quite short. He was 5’6″. I’m five six and a half. And when they did Casablanca Ingrid Bergman was 6’3″, and they made all of the sets 5/8ths size, and so he looked normal. He looked real size, 5’10”, 5’11”, whatever. Except for one shot, and you must look for this at home. He takes the letters of transit [Dreyfuss rises from his chair], and he goes to put them in the safe.” Now standing by the wall he continues “And he goes like this”. Dreyfuss reaches above his head miming opening a safe. We sit there enraptured while a man who has worked with Spielberg and Lucas recreates a scene from one of the most iconic films of all time and it’s magical. “And it’s still a great film” he casually remarks.
Sitting back down we attempt to steer the conversation back to the present by asking how he is enjoying his time in Dublin.”I’m a history buff, so this is a town that just bleeds history. The first time I arrived in Dublin the driver took me from the airport and he pointed out every bullet hole, and that’s when I first heard..and I have to ask you.. you’re Irish right?” Acknowledging that we are he continues “What did they expect in 1916, did they expect everyone to rise up, or did they just know they were going do this?”. Having not expected to be asked about the Easter Rising in a film interview we are thrown a little off-guard and acknowledge that the intent was to probably to provide the spark to light the revolution, but that they knew that they’d likely die.
“I have to tell you this”, Dreyfuss continues, now firmly in history teacher mode, “His name is Oisin. I was at the museum, in the prison [presumably Kilmainham], with, you know, a bunch of tourists. And all of a sudden I heard this voice, singing. And it was a beautiful baritone. Beautiful baritone. And I turned, and there was this young man. And his hands were in his pockets and he was singing a ‘Rising’ song. So it was half Gaelic, half English. It was a privilege to stand there and listen. And he sang it…perfectly. It sang it with the happiness, and the joy, and the grief. And at one point one of the guides kind of made a gesture, and was like “Okay”, and he went like this”. Dreyfuss now back out of his seat stands, squares himself and points forward in a gesture of defiance “And he went on, and I started to applaud. I went over to him and I said thank you. It was so…And then he came over and he thanked me. And we’ve exchanged emails. It was the perfect thing in that place to hear. You heard the resistance of 300 years”.
Turning to his love of Shakespeare Dreyfuss then talks about how a Shakespearian teacher once said that “Shakespeare wrote England into existence.” “I believe that. I believe that before the Tudors, they were just a bunch of thugs putting crowns on one other. And then the Tudors were a criminal dynasty. And I think that Elizabeth knew that, which is why she was the virgin queen, why she didn’t plan her successor. She wanted the Tudors to die. Because she knew that her family had killed the rightful King, and that they were gangsters.”
Scrambling to bring the conversation back to film we speak about how the British gave both the US and Ireland a common language and a common grounds for love of art, especially film. However Dreyfuss seizes on this as an opportunity to continue his Irish history lesson/education. “I’ve always wondered, at the beginning when I started reading it, about the fact that the Irish had this strange quality of hating the English and shooting at them, and then going off and joining their army.” Laughing he continues “In America, about which I have lectured, that the reason why there was a rising in America, was because the colonists were perfect British citizens. They were not there for the rotten boroughs. They were not there for all the corruption. They were there on a level of enormous respect for the British citizen that never existed, except in the colonies. And so they thought it was an insult to be treated any other way.Of course as everyone thinks, in the 20th century had Gandhi had to face Hitler he wouldn’t have succeeded in any way. He would’ve been killed. And if we had not of come from Britain to the extent that we did we would be a totally different country.”
Finding a groove now Dreyfuss turns to another of his favourite subjects, the US Civil War. “I’m writing a book now, about the Civil War, and in it this European professor, a veteran of the rising of 1848 when everyone was killed. And he comes to America and this colonel says to him “Sergeant are you giving history classes to my men“, and he says “oh no no it’s just a misunderstanding”, and he says “are you telling my men that we are here to free the n****r? We’re not. We’re here for the Union. And if I thought that we were here to free the n*****r I’d be at home”. And the professor says “You know there is another interpretation of the word slave, and it is called Europe. And there is another interpretation of the word aristocracy, which is called Europe. This is the first time that there has been a nation who fights for fair. And the rebels fight for the aristocracy. And so I come.” And it was the first time, the very first time that the government fought for fairness and the rebels fought for slavery.”
Attempting to educate us on the US Civil Ear he encourages us to read the Confederates pre-war literature. “If you read only the Confederates, you don’t have to read the Union’s, it’s all for slavery. And then after the war they said, “Slavery? That had nothing to do with it.” But it was for slavery and that’s all it was.They said States’ Rights except when the Northern states attempted to use States’ Rights and they said “You can’t do that, that’s Federal government.” It was simply a lie of history, and it was done by specific men, Jubal Early and others, who in trying to hide their fuck ups during the war, raised up Robert E. Lee and others to the lost cause. And the lost cause had to be a noble one, and it couldn’t be about slavery. When really it was about slavery, pal!” With us feeling chastened he continues “And what was really curious about Americans, or curious about people, was that white poor people fought that war. And there was no gain in it for them. None. They were going to stay white and poor, but they fought anyway.”
Our time in the company of Richard Dreyfuss was brief, but it was anything but boring and we left having gained new insight into the man himself, if not into his body of work.
Cas & Dylan, which is a well crafted and superbly acted road movie, is out in Irish cinemas later this year, with the Scannain review to be posted shortly.