Film

Richard Dreyfuss: "Donald Trump? He's just a comedy television series"

Cinema icon Richard Dreyfuss on his close encounters with Hamlet, Homer... and Donald Trump  

Richard Dreyfuss

There is a line in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead said by the character you play: “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!” What does that mean to you?

It means that Tom [Stoppard] wrote it. Hahaha. That was mean. To me it’s a lead in so people can understand where actors stand in the culture – it’s the kind of question you write so that you ask other questions.

Is wondering where actors stand in the culture a question you ask yourself?

Let’s put it this way. An actor is walking down the street and they’re recognised by some old lady. The old lady walks over to Jeremy Irons, or whoever, and says: “Are you Jeremy Irons?” He says: “Yes.” She says: “Thank you.” And walks away. People don’t say thank you like that to their neurosurgeons, their divorce lawyers or their rabbis. They say it to actors because only actors can show a mirror that allows people to see their own behaviour. I take that very seriously.

How can acting achieve realism when at the end of the day it is just pretend?

Well, the key word I’d take out of what you said is “just”. It’s an amount of pretence that adds up to truth. In the context of Rosencrantz, it’s the first time an audience – if it’s awake – has the advantage of an interlocutor saying, this is what we mean, pay attention! This is what the theatre is all about! And what they’re being asked to pay attention to is the knowledge of their own death.

The performances in Rosencrantz are over-the-top. Is it the equivalent of impressionist painting being able to show something a photograph cannot?

I’d never use the phrase ‘over-the-top acting’ but you’re right. Tom’s message has to be impressionistic and personal, as does Arthur Miller’s impression of the United States. We have to pay attention to Miller and not just take a series of photographs of the post-war era.

Rosencrantz riffs on Hamlet – more than 400 years after it was written. Is it still relevant because it still gets to a truth?

I would say yes or else we’ve been wasting our time and children have been really punished for 400 years. I think there’s a lot to be learned, not only from 400-year-old artists but 3,000-year-old narrative poets like Homer. That’s why we try to protect the best of our past and cherish it. I would put it to you the question – which is the greatest narrative poem, The Iliad or The Odyssey? – is still an extraordinarily important question.

You stepped away from acting a few years ago to focus on the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative.

I’m trying to bring back a discussion and understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For a while I said, as urgently as possible, Isis is coming. Then I realised that that was out of date and now I have to say, Isis is here. If we don’t know civic authority, if we don’t understand the series of values we stand for, we’re going to die.

What one thing do people need to remember most about the Constitution, given the heated political landscape in America?

Nothing. No, there’s not something about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that’s separate and apart. If we don’t continue to teach it all, we’re going to lose.

Does someone like Donald Trump not realise the substance of these documents is about establishing justice and promoting the welfare of all?

Oh Donald Trump is just a television series – a comedy television series. He’s been picked up for another season and we’ll all chuckle and if not then he’ll have a car accident. Donald Trump is carrying that message – he doesn’t know it and he’s not for it but in reality he’s the actual message. We have to learn that if we don’t teach the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, THAT – with an arm pointing at Donald Trump – THAT is what you get.

The 25th Anniversary edition of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is out on DVD from RLJ Entertainment

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