The occasion of my meeting with him is to talk about his new film, Silver City, directed by John Sayles, which takes a deft peek at political intrigue and double-dealing, pointing its principled digit at the Bush administration. Dreyfuss plays Chuck Raven, a corrupt and supremely irritating campaign manager, who would swim through an ocean of excrement to have his client Dickie Pilager (beautifully rendered by Chris Cooper) elected governor. Dreyfuss, as usual, does a mean take on extremely suspect, slipping around like a carnival sideshow python, and comes away with flying colours.
"You're here to talk about Silver City," the actor barks when I throw in a few pleasantries to break the ice. On the back foot, I suggest that we might talk about this, that and the other. "Well, we'll see about that," he replies, affecting the tone of a patronising headmaster. "Let's take it just one step at a time, shall we?"
"Yes," I reply, crossing out a whole page of questions regarding the well-publicised cocaine habit that stymied him for years, his difficult reputation and his recent and controversial departure from the London stage production of The Producers.
"I have always admired John Sayles' work," Dreyfuss says. "He is truly independent. I just love so many of his films." After a pause, I ask Dreyfuss, who, once noted for his political voice, was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war, if he was attracted to the movie because of its obvious and damning comparison to today's US administration. "No, not really," he replies dryly. "I just wanted to work with him, come what might."
Throughout his long career, Dreyfuss has bravely portrayed an endless procession of nauseating creeps; his performance as Baby Face Nelson in John Milius' Dillinger in 1972 was a triumph, and as Bill Babowsky, opposite Danny DeVito, in Tin Men, he was superb; so I ask him what he looks for in a role. "I don't have any criteria any longer," he says. "If the character has any inner sensibility; if he is a swine; if he is not funny for a purpose; if he can have fun, I would look at it, but I no longer have a checklist."
Going nowhere fast, I try the flattery angle, and ask if there are any good-quality roles for actors of his calibre left in a Hollywood that today seems to cater to an unthinking, unquestioning youth with a love of special effects and loud noises. "No, there aren't. But there never have been," he answers, completely missing my point. "But putting a spotlight on ageism is like putting a spotlight on nature. It is nothing to be shocked by. That is what people do, and as actors get older, people's attentions turn to younger actors."
I suggest that, for actors such as him, the future may lie in the independent film market, whose directors are at times driven by a love of film and not financial greed. "You know, this whole subject is so fraught with cliché and misunderstanding," he says, his tone rich in condescension. "I don't know anyone who is not interested in art and commerce. Everyone is out to make money."
I know a brick wall when I see one, and that's what I have just hit. I ask him if it is possible to reconcile art and commerce, and if there is any director he has worked with who can achieve that seemingly impossible task. "Steven Spielberg," he answers, possibly angling for a job. "He is one of those people who seems to have been living a life of quiet triumph, and I get very suspicious every time I see him. He is a recognised genius and has reintroduced the concept of awe into our lives."
Dreyfuss then talks about why he feels unable to do interviews any more. "It is this insistence on being reduced to just a few pages," he moans. "You just cannot make me fit into a small box."
I try to enthuse the diminutive actor and ask him about his beginnings in The Graduate and Valley of the Dolls. "I was just apprenticing then," he explains, as if talking to a child. "They were small roles, and I made some money, and it was interesting and it was fun, and they did exactly what they were supposed to do. End of the story."
Scouring my beleaguered brain in search of something that might elicit a warm response, I ask him about the Oscar he received for The Goodbye Girl and how it felt being the youngest-ever recipient of the award, aged 30. "Receiving that was thrilling and vivid and terrifying." Mmmm, OK. I ask him how he handled the fame at such a young age. "Oh!" he groans. "That is too big a subject to talk about."
As I hear myself stuttering nervously, I resort to cliché, and ask what it's like being Richard Dreyfuss today, wincing as I do so. "I am very proud of my body of work," he answers. "I am very proud that I have prevailed for 35 years, but now I want to find something else to do."
'Silver City' is on general release
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