HOTSEAT- Riegert can't do that to our questionnaire! Only we can do that to our questionnaire!
Since emerging on screen thirty years ago as frat guy Boon in Animal House, Peter Riegert remains one of America's most deliciously wry actors. His eloquent sarcasm and his subtly expressive poker face have made memorable turns in The Mask (1994), cult favorite Local Hero (1983), and in stints on television including Seinfeld.
While his comedy might have made the Marx brothers proud– and, appropriately, his first Equity acting job was portraying Chico Marx– Riegert's talent has never restricted him, as the gravitas of his latest film, The Response, set at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, vividly reminds.
"I mean, I love shooting guns and screaming and yelling and breaking things" he laughs, "but there's other things too."
Among those other things are the complex issues at the heart of The Response, a tightly-wound film presenting Gitmo's legal process as murky and Kafkaesque, where vital evidence is often blurry at best, and the accused cannot be told his accuser's identity.
"The beauty of the American system and the Declaration of Independence," says Riegert, "is laws supersede men. Without oversight, human beings are unconstrained, and unfortunately human nature is such that it can do bad things for the right reasons."
The Response depicts a tribunal focused on classifying an Arab detainee (played by Daily Show regular Aasif Mandvi) at Guantanamo. Riegert's character, Colonel Jefferson, defines the film's central issue: "If 9/11 is the measuring stick, are we a great nation because of the blow we took or because of how we, as a country, respond to that blow? The response matters. Our response defines us."
When writer/director Sig Libowitz who, along with Kate Mulgrew, plays another military official overseeing the hearing, first approached Riegert about the piece, it just seemed like "good drama," says Riegert.
"I think the thing that affected me the most," he says, "was realizing how thin the line is between our freedom and prison, and that habeas corpus is the foundation upon which our country is built, and that the revolutionaries who fought against England were fighting for the very thing that takes place in this tribunal, which is representation and the opportunity to face your accuser."
When it comes to choosing his projects, it's all about the material is," says Riegert, "even though," he quips, "I'm more than happy to be paid too much money for something mediocre."
While Riegert's acting career continues, he has recently fulfilled a long-standing goal: writing and directing, something he admits he procrastinated on. That all changed after 2000, when his first short film, By Courier, recieved an Oscar nomination.
"I thought, 'My God, I've been on the wrong side of the camera for 30 years,'" he laughs.
Outstanding material, as in low-key films like Local Hero, have been a pivotal part of Riegert's work. Local Hero is "almost counter-Hollywood," he says.
"That's largely where the independent movie came from," says Riegert. "It was a reaction to the size of Hollywood movies. The overacting, the over-everything."
In his own work and in art in general, Riegert says there is one integral ingredient.
"Connection is everything," he says. "And if you can't connect on any level, then it's frivolous. I don't mean living like you've only got one day to live. I'm just talking about the joy in connecting, whether it's friends or family or work or what you do, the person connected is a person who's living. Otherwise, you're just on a time-clock."
Most overrated virtue? Blind loyalty.
People would be surprised to know about you: I have no idea.
What would you change about yourself? I don't know. There's too much to think of.
Proudest accomplishment? I think finishing my film King of the Corner and taking it around the country by myself for seven months.
People find most annoying about you: No comment.
Whom do you admire? I don't know the answer to that question.
Favorite book: It changes from day to day.
Subject that causes you to rant: Gibberish passing for knowledge. See: Sarah Palin.
Biggest 21st century thrill: Making King of the Corner.
Biggest 21st century creep-out: Sarah Palin.
What do you drive? A 2000 Camry.
In your car CD player right now: I have no memory of anything being in my CD player.
Next journey: I have to go somewhere in upstate New York to look at a location for this movie that I've written.
Most trouble you've ever gotten in: That's nobody's business.
Regret: Answering this questionnaire.
Favorite comfort food: Hot pastrami on rye with cole slaw and mustard.
Always in your refrigerator: I'm never in my refrigerator.
Must-see TV: I don't have anything.
Describe a perfect day: Not answering this questionnaire.
Walter Mitty Fantasy: [To be] Warren Buffett.
Who'd play you in the movie? John Garfield.
Most embarrassing moment? Answering this questionnaire.
Best advice you ever got: Learn how to say "I don't know."
Favorite bumper sticker: "Beware of Questionnaires."
Peter Riegert and writer/director/co-star Sib Libowitz will host a screening of The Response at 1 pm Saturday, November 1,t at the Regal DowntownTheater. Later that day, Riegert will host Bill Forsyth's Local Hero at 1 pm at UVa's Newcomb Hall Theater. On Sunday, November 2, Riegert will attend a double bill of his feature directorial debut, King of the Corner, followed by his By Courier, at 10:15 am at the Regal Downtown.