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Past Article

"Actors want to work": Peter Riegert
By Francine Taylor
August 12, 2005 - 1:37 AM PDT

"The need to be creative is much greater than an ability to understand the creative process."

Late summer in West Los Angeles, and I wander out of a screening of Bergman's Saraband to walk right into the crowd waiting for King of the Corner, starring and directed by Peter Riegert. It turns out to be serendipitous as Peter Riegert is in attendance for a Q&A following the film. This is the third of three nights that Riegert has attended, not that unusual in a Los Angeles art house theater. But what makes this situation unique is that Riegert is on a five month stretch of self-promoting his first feature film. (His very first film, By Courier [2000], was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Short Film, Live Action category.)

King of the Corner, a dramatic comedy about a man's mid-life crisis and subsequent interaction with his friends and family, was completed in 2003. As Riegert approached distributors, he got similar responses: "We love your movie but have no idea how to market it." With a budget of $400,000 and a shooting schedule of 20 days, the film was shot on Super 16mm, then converted to 35mm; yet the project attracted a versatile and wide-ranging cast that includes Riegert, Isabella Rossellini, Eli Wallach, Eric Bogosian, Beverly D'Angelo, Rita Moreno, Ashley Johnson, Jennifer Albano and Jake Hoffman.

Riegert initially became interested in making his own films when he realized five years ago that not only was he not landing as many roles as he used to, but he wasn't even getting many auditions. He felt his acting skills were at their peak - but he wasn't working. He took some inspiration from an O. Henry short story and made a short film which went to Telluride, then screened in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the theater where King of the Corner saw its world premiere. As he explained, "You can sit at home and ponder how talented you are and why you aren't getting work, or you can go out and do something new."

So, with Gerald Shapiro, he began writing the screenplay for King of the Corner, based on Shapiro's collection, Bad Jews and Other Stories. One of the first of many obstacles was that Riegert's financiers were skeptical of his ability to both direct his first feature film and to play a major part. When confronted with the decision to choose between the two, Riegert agreed to play the part and bow out as a director, surprising the powers that be. As he tells it, "I wasn't working as an actor and had more experience as an actor, so the choice seemed obvious."

The financiers then gave it second thought and decided that Riegert knew what he was doing. As Riegert explained at the Q&A, "An actor is always directing himself, even with another director present." And he felt he had enough support from his cast and crew to play the lead role of Leo Spivak convincingly. The wide emotional range of his performance is a testament to his instinct. Riegert's Spivak is a somewhat emotionally detached marketing executive, yet every scene conveys a deeper longing which has its denoument in a spontaneous outpouring during a funeral. This scene manages to be both humorous and deeply touching, which is not unlike most of the film, its many varying colors interwoven in the performances and script.

A member of the audience asked Riegert how he personally interprets the film; he replied that he doesn't really try to give a set interpretation of the film. Rather, he enjoys hearing what others think of it and cited a viewer's response at a prior screening comparing King of the Corner to Kafka's Metamorphosis. "The audience sees what they see," Riegert added. After acting for 25 years, Riegert has concluded that "the need to be creative is much greater than an ability to understand the creative process." At the same time, Riegert also sees the process of filmmaking in a more pragmatic way. Find the script, get it financed, cast it, make it. "Adjust to the doors that open and don't open and the materials eventually match the story."

Another audience member asked Riegert how he was able to attract such a stellar cast despite the budget restrictions. "Favors are strange things," Riegert answered. He didn't like the idea of having to return favors, so instead sought actors that were right for the parts and that he hoped would be attracted to the script. Many of them were people Riegert had worked with over the years. He emphasized that we would all be surprised that veteran actors are often thrilled to work on a project like King of the Corner; the biggest obstacle is usually just a matter of scheduling. "Actors want to work and often even the most experienced, talented actors are waiting for a call." Even for an independent film with little promise of financial reward.

Because King of the Corner hinges on a mid-life crisis, Riegert liked the idea of showing some kind of arc between Spivak's younger co-worker, Ed Shiffman (Jake Hoffman), to Spivak at mid-life, to Spivak's elderly father, Sol (Eli Wallach). Since Riegert was often referred to in his younger years as a Dustin Hoffman-type, Riegert suggested to his casting agent that she look for a "young Dustin Hoffman" for the role of Shiffman; he had no idea he'd actually end up working with the senior Hoffman's son, Jake - who, it turns out, is convincingly innocent and na´ve yet still somewhat Machevelian. Riegert's original description of the character compared him to a "Labrador puppy who is coming of age: cuddly, but capable of knocking down your door."

Peter Riegert and Isabella Rossellini in King of the Corner

D'Angelo shines as a former high school classmate who, in the course of a walk down the block, goes from someone who has no memory of Spivak to someone who suggests going to his hotel room. Eric Begosian underplays to his advantage a rather unorthodox rabbi who is somehow supportive to Spivak despite his blunders. Jennifer Albano is Spivak's wayward daughter, who needs to be reined in a bit but doesn't overplay her sass and independent spirit. Isabella Rossellini plays Spivak's independent and somewhat outspoken wife; she's frustrated with the marriage, but wants to make it work. And at the tender age of 90, Eli Wallach plays Leo's father, Sol, with sweetness, spunk and a touch of sadness.

Despite the challenge of self-marketing King of the Corner, Riegert seems to rise to it, evidently enjoying interacting with people all over the country and experiencing firsthand their responses to the movie. He has sensed a hunger among those he has met for films outside the usual multiplex fare, "people exhausted by corporate influence and missing the neighborhood store." I couldn't help thinking of Riegert's brilliant portrayal of the baffled company man Mac in Local Hero or the sweetly underplayed Sam Posner in Crossing Delancey, a story of finding love at the neighborhood store and not among the cold sophisticates of the big city.

Meanwhile, Riegert keeps on trekking across the country, conducting Q&As for each and every screening, winding down toward October with a DVD release of King of the Corner. In all: "The response has been good or better than I've expected." Self-promoting the film wouldn't necessarily have been his first choice, but he's been astounded at what a rich experience it's all turned out to be and what he hopes it will continue to be.

Peter Riegert will be appearing in David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, January 5 through February 5, 2006.

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"The need to be creative is much greater than an ability to understand the creative process."

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Francine Taylor
... has written plays and screenplays, fiction and poetry. She lives in Los Angeles.

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