Talking Greek Gods and 'Astronaut' with Richard Dreyfuss

We try to talk with the actor about his new film 'Astronaut,' but we quickly sidetrack into a philosophical exploration of the only rageful gods humanity deserves.

Astronaut
Quiver Distribution

Some conversations you cannot predict. The plan is to chat with an actor about their upcoming movie, gain a little insight into their motivation or influence feeding the role, and dip out. The discussions are often enjoyable, somewhat predictable, and fleeting. That’s not what happened here. Richard Dreyfuss is not interested in B.S. smalltalk or advertising his latest flick, Astronaut. He’s trapped on the phone with me, and if he’s forced into this situation as part of his promotional obligation, then he’s going to conflab about what he wants to conflab about. Fair enough.

I came prepared with a barrage of questions; most geared to spotlight Astronaut, and several others eager to weasel into hopefully unexplored areas of Jaws. After the first question, all that went out the window. Dreyfuss had Greek gods on the brain and if that’s where he wanted to go, why should I deny him the pleasure? I leaned in. We had some fun.

Astronaut is a warm introspection of dreams that refuse to wither. Dreyfuss plays Angus; a widower shuffled away by his family into a senior living warehouse who is ultimately encouraged by his grandson to enter a golden ticket program to board the first commercial space flight. Angus once yearned to flee orbit, but the blunt realities of life grounded him to our surface doldrums. Writer/director Shelagh McLeod concocts one of Dreyfuss’ most significant roles in recent memory, offering the actor exhilarating attacks towards life’s little absurdities. He does grouch better than anyone, but Angus is more than just a grumpy old man. He’s a character reawakened, refusing to succumb to the laws of adulthood.

Again, we talk very little about that down below. Instead, Dreyfuss prefers to dig into another obsession. We humans are a cantankerous bunch of squabblers that don’t deserve omnipotent deities that radiate light. The Ancient Greeks had it right. Whatever gods that looked down upon us would be as petty and reckless as we are. Rather than exploring man’s longing for the far reaches of space, Dreyfuss desires to contemplate the only mythology that makes sense to him. Guys, I’m not here to deny Richard Dreyfuss but don’t worry, we work in a little Steven Spielberg chatter.

Here is our conversation in full:

Hi, Richard. How are you today?

I’m pretty good. How are you?

I’m doing well. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.

How is the weather there?

Uh, the weather here is okay. It’s sunny and warm. I need to get outside at some point, I think.

Yeah. You got to take advantage of the few days that are great in New York. Yeah. Good idea.

For sure. I really liked the film. I’m so happy to see a movie addressing exploration and the final frontier on the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. Do you share that same sense of wonder and desire for exploration as your character?

Me? Yeah, No.

No? Really?

No. I don’t.

Well, so-

I tend to find a subject that fascinates me. And then I drill down and stay with it for about as long as anyone can breathe underwater. So, for instance, someone who reads a lot of history instead of knowing all kinds of things about history. I actually know certain subjects within history that just fascinate me. I move very slowly from one subject to another.

Huh. Ok…

At the beginning of my life, I was absolutely fascinated by, not theology but the gods of Greece. At one point, when I was a child, I knew every myth and every other interpretation of every myth. I knew nothing about the Norse gods and everything about the Greek. I wasn’t moved to become an expert on the gods of the Norse mythology. I loved the stories that I read, and the different interpretations of those stories, and everything about Greek pantheon. That was my stuff. And I moved quite slowly away from that. I guess I’ve gone from one specialty to another in an almost glacial case. Ha, I’m going to remember that I said that.

For me, it then took on meaning that I don’t know is still intended. I became a believer, a follower. I was enthralled by how the Greeks had created for themselves the perfect religion, because they had created gods and goddesses who were really, really like them. Even to this day, there’s no more human-like bunch of goofy, wacky, wise, and silly, childish people to worship than the Greeks. They actually designed their gods to have the same flaws that they had.

Yeah. Absolutely. We are fighting on Earth. So, the gods above must be fighting, as well. I’ve always been drawn to that idea. The all-powerful squabblers.

Yeah. You’re one of mind — that you’re wrapped up in following a bunch of gods who are perfect in every way, and capable of change. You know. I want them to screw up. I want to see them become about as silly as a group of immortal people can.

Right. Because how else would you explain the world we have?

Yeah. You realize that, at a certain point, the only way to explain the chaos and madness of the divinities that are worshiped in Greece is simply that they really couldn’t do anything else. They were just as subject to goofy immaturity as we are. It makes me feel better. We’re not turning ourselves over to the perfect gods and goddesses. I mean, Zeus eats his children. That’s the kind of thing I think deserves a sacrifice. But everyone also really does believe that the ones we really cherish, and the ones we really drift toward are the ones that are more like us than the ones that aren’t.

Hmm. So, what is this desire in our fiction and in our religion to look upwards? Why do we need these answers? Why can’t we look down, or straight ahead to where we are living?

It’s funny. You just reminded me that when we did Close Encounters [of the Third Kind], which is not Astronaut, Steven [Spielberg] felt so strongly about this that during his first attempt at ad copy he said, “There’s nothing to fear by looking up.” Why bother to walk around God-fearing? God-fearing! That’s easy. You know? Turn your children to salt, or send them to Hades, and you’ll get better behavior? Well, not really. It’s a tough thing to be human, and especially in a world of madness. So the Greeks, at least, had the ability to say, “Well, we’re pretty nuts. But so are they.” And what else could they do? They couldn’t create a nation or a worldview that made sense, and so they created a world that didn’t make sense, just like them. So, it made sense to me.

When you get a screenplay like Astronaut, is this what you’re connecting to? The looking upwards? Or was there some other motivation?

I asked Penny Marshall once why she had taken up crocheting. Her answer was, “It keeps my hands away from my throat.” And I would say that for the most part, I’m an actor. I like to act. I love to act. And so, why not find it in the work that you do, and not have to stretch yourself into invisibility? You find it. It’s there. It’s just if you read the Bible, for instance, you’re going to find some pretty wacky stories in there. And that’s what you should find. The Greeks delivered such craziness by the bushel. And I enjoy that. I enjoyed finding that the gods that we really do worship are in desperate need of therapy, as are we all.

And in a character like this one — to your point, you love to drill down, playing many characters with very specific jobs. Do you lose yourself in the research as you lost yourself to mythology as a child?

Well, yeah. You can’t really tell a story of humanity without finding pretty quickly the humanity that you’re dwelling within. The humanity that you find right away is pretty nutsy. If you want to find the whys and wherefores of that, you don’t have to go very far. The gods are crazy, and so are we. As I said, that makes me feel slightly better.

Has this always been your same philosophy?

Let’s put it this way; you can find your own behavior in the stories of the mythologies of the gods. It really doesn’t take a lot of effort. It’s not a long-distance between where you are and where they are. You realize that they’re subject to the same narcissistic, crazy jealousies that mankind has. And then, you realize that’s exactly what the point of it all is. The point of storytelling and the point of religion is the confirmation that you’re talking the same language, whether it’s weekend churchgoing or not. You are really visiting your cousins who are at Betty Ford clinic. (Laughter) I’m cracking me up. So, what we got here is that film, Astronaut, and also the idea that only struck me within the last year or so, that I can actually say I’ve been doing something I passionately love doing for 60 years. That’s a lot.

Yeah, that’s no small feat.

That thing, I’m incredibly proud of. I can’t take away from it. I don’t want to take anything away from it. I think I’ve been one of the luckiest people on Earth, because I get to do what I love doing. I get to be paid for it. I get people to praise my work. There are very few negatives in that. I don’t know of many people who would say that they love the work that they put into their pursuit of passion. And so, that’s something I’m very aware of. I asked a guy today, this morning, whether he found that I stuck pretty closely to films that were really identical, in that I am playing certain themes over and over again. I hope that anyone who looks at my work would find the same thing. You know?

Sure, when… 

They know, they go to see a Dreyfuss film, they’re seeing certain ideas, certain themes, certain characteristics that are going to be common. And why not? You know? That’s great.

Well, Richard, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I did not expect to be chatting mythology and the nature of belief with you, and I really appreciate it.

Well, then, put that in the headline of the article.

(Laughter) I will.

All right. Thanks.


Astronaut is now playing in select theaters and on VOD and Digital.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.