Interview Date: 03/10/2011
Run Date: 03/15/2011
Peter Riegert may have slipped comfortably into an acting career where he’s often identified as “that guy I saw on that show” – most recently, he’s had recurring roles on “One Tree Hill” and “The Good Wife,” and you’ve also seen him turn up on “Damages,” “Law & Order: SVU,” and “The Sopranos” – but he first came to fame on the big screen, courtesy of one of the funniest films of all time: “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” Riegert still keeps his eyes open for quality movie work even now, which is how he came to play a part in the small but still outstanding “White Irish Drinkers,” in which he reunites – albeit without actually sharing any screen time with her – with his “Animal House” girlfriend, Karen Allen. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Riegert about both of these films, a few others as well, and asked him how he’s able to switch between big and small screens so successfully.
Bullz-Eye: Well, I was able to watch “White Irish Drinkers” yesterday...
Peter Riegert: Oh, good! (Hesitates) On a DVD, you mean…?
BE: Yes, exactly. They sent me a screener.
BE: ..and it was a great movie. I really had not heard a lot of buzz about it until I got the press release for it, but…
PR: Yeah, it’s a classic independent film, you know? Small distribution company, and we’re going to have to get lucky and use all the social networking stuff we can do, interviews like this and word of mouth, and we’ll see what we can do.
BE: I’m certainly glad to do my part. So how did you come aboard the film? Did they approach you?
PR: Yeah, I got a call from the director through my agent, and I read the script and liked it very much and said “yes.” I’m doing this 40 years, so that’s basically the way it works. Either they ask you, or you’ve got to go and convince them to ask you. So in this case, John (Gray) had thought of me for the part, and I’m a pretty good reader of material, at least from my point of view, and I think he’s a very talented writer, and he’s got skills as a director, so I’m very happy with the results.
BE: To keep things under wraps for those who haven’t yet seen the film, I’m just curious if, as you were reading the script, you were able to see the direction of your character’s plot arc coming?
PR: No. It’s a different thing when you’re reading it, you know. I’m judging the material. How is it written? How’s the writing? I know this is the character I’m playing, so I just go where it takes me. So I was surprised, also, but I thought the events… (Hesitates) I kind of got the idea where this might go, only ‘cause it’s my own sense of storytelling. Obviously, it was an option. But I wasn’t sure. But I didn’t see it coming just as an audience member, and that was the challenge for me as an actor, to play it convincingly knowing what I know.
BE: It’s a really solid ensemble as well, a lot of up-and-comers as well as some decidedly established names.
PR: Well, of a kind. (Laughs)
BE: (Laughs) Well, familiar faces, then. How’s that?
PR: Sure, sure!
BE: And even though you didn’t actually have any scenes together, it was still pretty weird to see you and Karen in a film together again.
PR: Yeah, it’s hard to imagine that 34 years has gone by, but it’s a long time since we did “Animal House.”
BE: Even more bizarre, “White Irish Drinkers” takes place not so terribly long before you guys were filming “Animal House.”
PR: Yeah, only two or three years, I think. It’s quite strange. I thought John did a very good job capturing the neighborhood and the times without going to great expense, if you know what I mean, and I think he really caught the hunger coming out of that neighborhood, what that neighborhood was like, and the demands on Nick’s character. Very imaginative. And I agree with you: I think the director did a great job of hiring all these new faces. I mean, they were terrific.
BE: And as far as the script, something I always appreciate with period pieces is that he didn’t offer too many heavy-handed lines talking about the future, where it’s, like, “Ah, that’s gonna be around forever!”
PR: (Laughs) No, and that’s why I think…I mean, it’s pretty amazing that we’re talking about, what, 33 years ago? Is that right? I mean, the world is the same but different. But it’s so shocking, you know, that there’s no cell phones, there’s no nothing. Cable is just barely beginning, so it’s on the horizon, but it’s not really evident. There’s none of that Facebook / Twitter stuff. No modernity. It’s extraordinary. Yeah, I agree with you. There was nothing glib about it. It was just very practical, a group of working-class guys who are looking to get benefits from their union jobs, which is kind of timely in a way, seeing what’s going on around the country.
BE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of other projects you’ve worked on over the years, and since I mentioned “Animal House” offhandedly, were you surprised that it became such a huge mainstream hit as quickly as it did? That type of comedy really wasn’t considered the norm at the time.
PR: Well, I think nobody ever really knows, although today movies are so much more designed to make fortunes. Remember, the summer of ’75 was “Jaws,” so the idea of blockbuster movies was just being born…and sequels also, by the way. “Animal House” was a movie that cost less than three million dollars to make, Universal sent us up to Oregon. They didn’t even want to have us on the lot, you know? They wanted us out of town. I don’t think anybody could have foreseen its success. It was a new look at comedy, which, you know, has spawned movie after movie after movie. I don’t just mean about college but in terms of its raucousness and raunchiness. “Animal House” almost looks tame compared to some movies.
BE: Are there any other college comedies that you’ve seen come out that actually felt like an heir apparent?
PR: Not really. I mean, they all basically follow in the wake of that movie. The advantage we have is that we didn’t do a sequel, you know? We weren’t even thinking about it. By the time Belushi died, which was ’82, that was four years later. That’s an eternity! So, you know, it’s just essentially the same. It’s being young and crazy. What was nice about “Animal House” was that the writers were so smart, and it really had a political overtone to it, and the genius of it was that it was a period piece. Remember, it was set in 1962, so it had a mythological quality to it beyond the story. It wasn’t about its time. I mean, it was about another time, one that was very innocent: before Kennedy was killed, before Vietnam, before the modern women’s movement. It’s pretty extraordinary. So all of that stuff was bubbling out of the story, and it was speaking to a generation that was just coming into its own financial power, in terms of going to the movies.
BE: To talk of you and Karen in the film, I re-watched it last night, and I had forgotten just how cute it was when the two of you crooned “Hey Paula.”
PR: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s my big link to rock ‘n’ roll. That was actually…we worked with Donald Sutherland that day, and I’d never met him ‘til that day. That was my first movie, “Animal House,” so I was really thrilled to meet him, and Karen and I were just having a ball, pretending to be stoned and singing rock ‘n’ roll songs in a bathtub. How bad can that be? (Laughs)
BE: You know, your second movie was finally released on DVD not long ago.
PR: Which one?
PR: Oh, my God. Oy vey. Well, I learned a lot from that, but… (Long pause) A very interesting experience. That’s a longer conversation. (Laughs)
BE: When I put on Facebook that I was going to talk to you, I learned something that I didn’t expect: the mothers of a lot of my friends still have crushes on you as a result of your work in “Crossing Delancey.”
PR: The mothers of a lot of your friends? So you must be…28?
BE: (Laughs) Let’s say I am.
PR: (Laughs) Okay! Well, all my best to your friends’ mothers. You know, it’s almost an iconic kind of part. It’s fascinating. I’ll tell you, when the movie came out, which was 1988, I’ve never been more propositioned in my life. I had a girlfriend at the time, and I was an honorable man, but it was amazing. I’m talking about grandmothers to sisters. It just was extraordinary. And it was a lot of fun to see how magical that character was. Another classical set-up: the right guy versus the wrong guy. That’s a dilemma. So, yeah, I’m always thrilled when somebody likes that!
BE: You made a very successful transition from film into television. I mean, you’re all over the place, from “Damages” to “The Good Wife” to “One Tree Hill.” Was that something that you made a conscious decision to do, or was it a case where that’s simply where the parts were?
PR: Well, you know, when I started, which was 1971, it was a completely different time. In my day, the conversation amongst actors was very snobbish in a certain way. If you wanted a serious acting career, you didn’t do television. You didn’t do commercials, you didn’t do soap operas, you didn’t do series. You just didn’t do it. But it doesn’t matter anymore. It probably never mattered back then, but…you were tarred a little bit if you appeared in television, because the cliché was that you were a small-screen actor. But you’re noticing a lot of movie stars in television series for economic reasons. There’s not enough movies made anymore! Also, as you get older, the parts become fewer. This is what “Animal House,” “Jaws,” and “Star Wars” brought about: the lowering of the age of who goes to the movies. Movies are made for very young people, so, logically, you get older and you age yourself out of your prime. But the good news is that because of cable and the lesser restrictions in terms of what you can say and do, some of the most imaginative writing, directing, and acting is now on cable…and that’s affecting network television to a degree, too. But things like “The Sopranos” or “Damages,” you know, that’s pretty challenging stuff. For me, I’ve tried to always go where the best material was, I never said “never,” and I’ve always tried to keep my options open. You go where the work is, and I’m lucky enough to still do all three: movies, television, and theater. Theater a little less, unfortunately, but going back and forth between movies and television is fine with me, as long as I’m either enjoying myself aesthetically or I’m being overpaid so I can keep my rent paid. (Laughs) Everybody likes to be able to be overpaid!
BE: And I know you’ve got another interview coming up after we finish talking…
PR: Go ahead, you’re fine!
BE: Well, I was just wondering if you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved.
PR: You know, it’s really… (Hesitates) That’s a complicated question. The movie that to me represented the greatest of all experiences, only because it was so magical and fulfilling, was a movie called “Local Hero,” which I did with Burt Lancaster, by the Scottish director Bill Forsyth. It received tremendous esteem, but it never made the money that you would’ve liked for it to make, because the more money a movie makes, the better chance you have of getting another movie like that. That’s just the business part of it. So that’s probably one example. But I did a movie called “Utz,” based on a Bruce Chatwin novel, that I thought was really interesting. That barely got recognized. I did a movie called “Coldblooded” with Jason Priestley that was written and directed by Wally Walodarski. That was really interesting. I directed a film myself that I co-wrote called “King of the Corner.” I started writing and directing, or adding it to my life, about 10 years ago. I started with a short film called “By Courier,” which is an O. Henry short story, and that got nominated for a Live Action Short Academy Award. That was kind of fun. And then a feature called “King of the Corner” with myself and Isabella Rossellini, Eli Wallach, Eric Bogosian, Beverly D’Angelo, Rita Moreno, and I took it around the country by myself for seven months. The Landmark Theaters put it in their theaters, as well as some other independents around the country. That didn’t get hardly any information. But these things exist, you know? In DVD form or cable form, or some form. And I’m hopeful that I’ve done some stuff that will get rediscovered as time goes by. There are the ones that succeed in your day, and… (Trails off)
I’m really proud of this “White Irish Drinkers.” I think it has a lot of magical stuff in it, and…we’ll see. I mean, I think it’s passionate, it’s about something, and…you know, what’s kind of funny is that you mentioned “Animal House,” and this isn’t “Animal House” in the regard that we were talking about it, but it’s got that unbridled passion to it, you know? It’s about struggling as a young person to make your mark, to break away from your neighborhood or your community or your family or your background, to strike out on your own. That’s never an easy deal. And I thought John captured that really well. So I’d say… (Hesitates) You always want everything to make a fortune. I’d be an idiot to think otherwise. But that’s how competitive the business is. It’s just Darwinian. It’s extraordinary. It’s amazing anything gets made, let alone anything good, you know? But I love doing it, and I love finding the material and meeting new actors. I thought Karen just did a fantastic job, almost unrecognizable in the way she looks. And Stephen Lang, he’s a very brave actor. I mean, look, here’s a perfect example of an actor’s story: this guy does a movie called “Avatar” which made, like, two billion dollars, and cost three hundred million dollars to make, then he goes and does a movie like this, which I’m sure in his mind’s eye…I mean, he’s not an idiot. He knows the difference in terms of its power, with regards to his career, but he chose it as an actor, and…it’s a half a million dollar movie. It’s just shocking. But nobody leaves a movie, I don’t think, going, “Wow, that was really worth it for the budget!” You pay your money and you want an experience. I think that’s a very magical part about the business. I’d love to be in a science fiction movie…or any movie!...where they spent three hundred million dollars. The doughnut budget on “Avatar” alone was probably more than our entire budget for “White Irish Drinkers”! (Laughs) But, anyway, I’m glad you took a look at it and liked it.
BE: And, in fact, Karen should be calling me any minute.
PR: Oh, good!
BE: But it’s been a real pleasure talking to you…and one of these days I’ll have to get that full “Americathon” story from you!PR: (Uncertainly) Uh, yes, another day. (Laughs) Thanks very much, Will!