I heard that the day you read for the part of “Dorfman,” screenwriter Wendy Kout had a rather animated freak-out over meeting you. Are you used to that by now?
Oy vesmir. Wendy is very enthusiastic.
I was also told that when recent USC graduate Brad Leong, the director of the film, asked you about what working processes have suited you in the past, you answered by discussing your experiences working with Ingmar Bergman, Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman and Steven Soderbergh. That must have been pretty intimidating to a 24-year-old first time director.
I completely believe in modesty and humility and being forthcoming and honest.
At 73, your film resume is extensive. Do you have any idea how many films you’ve actually appeared in?
I’m not in denial about it. When I accepted a presentation at the 25th Annual Haifa International Film Festival I said, ‘I’ve been in a great many films; some are better.’ The audience laughed and that made me feel good. I’ve lived through all of this and I’m still working.
You seem to have a very “Zen” attitude about life.
We are at war with ignorance, desperation and fear. I couldn’t have imagined nor believed that one like me, born Elliott Goldstein, 6801 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn, New York, PS 247, Seth Low Jr. High and the Professional Childrens’ School could get to the front and I’m there. I used to think it was about being talented and now I know that it’s more about character. And I want to invest this character wherever it could do some good.
You sound like a very spiritual person. What are the sources of your life philosophy? Therapy? Judaism?
This family is so deep, it’s deeper than can be measured. I don’t nor can I deny my roots. I know what I am and I know about our culture. Although I’m not as observant as some of us would have me be.
In “Dorfman” you play an overtly Jewish character.
I don’t see that so much. I didn’t think that was as fleshed out as it might have been.
In the film, a central relationship is the one between your character, Burt Dorfman, and his daughter, Deb. What have you learned from your own relationship with your daughter that you could draw upon for the role?
It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to see our individual patterns and how we close ourselves off, how we protect ourselves, how we continue to perpetuate certain thoughts, even certain routines in life—and then to have an opportunity or to realize that it’s essential for us to evolve, that we don’t lose anything but we can gain something.
In the film, father is extremely dependent upon his daughter. Could you relate?
My daughter, Molly, I learn everything from her. She’s everything to me. She’s my daughter; she’s my mother; she’s life.
You wouldn’t say that about your sons?
The male is different. No one can be smarter than our daughters.
That’s nice to hear.
The mother comes from the daughter. And I believe that western culture is predicated on the child and his mother. I was not a very good parent to begin with; anyone can be a parent, that’s nature in life. [Parenting] is not just a matter of being responsible for another but to be able to take responsibility for yourself. And that has been a lifelong process and journey for me since I was so frightened. So frightened.
The character Burt Dorfman is suffering deep grief from the loss of his wife. After having been married several times, could you understand the loss of such an ultimate relationship?
He’s holding on. He’s crippled. He’s not functional. He’s not the way his late wife would want him to be, but he knew no other way. So we play roles.
Do you believe that at this point in your life you’ve figured out relationships?
I’m an idealist and I can be incredibly confused by people who would practice religion on all levels and not live it. Some of us are even atheists which really blows my mind. For me the concept of Gd is the ultimate ideal and I accept. It opens everything up. I don’t have an argument with anyone; it’s so beautiful to be alive.
You sound pretty accepting, but I read a comment you made about your former wife, Barbra Streisand, during an interview with AISH.com in which you talked about her becoming an icon and you said, “I had no understanding of why anybody would want to make themselves into something that isn’t real. Why would anybody want an identity that makes itself an illusion bigger than life? Nothing is bigger in life other than God. And none of us is God.” I found that edgy.
It is edgy! It’s all somewhat edgy! We’re conscious! I don’t lie. I don’t have to be so serious any longer; I know I’m honest. I don’t want politics to come into this. I need to calm myself down because it is essential for me to stay calm.
As a Jewish person, does playing a Jewish character feel any different than playing any other character?
Being that we have nearly 6,000 years of written history, it’s very deep and therefore there’s something more perhaps, to call on. Some people resent me and certain aspects of how I reflect and project. I was in a picture called American History X and I played a Jewish teacher in an environment of great anti-Semitism and the JDL [Jewish Defense League] attacked me for it, attacked me for changing my name from Goldstein to Gould.
In a 2007 profile of you in The Village Voice, J. Hoberman counted you as part of “Hollywood’s Jew Wave” and said you popularized the “leading man as schlemiel.” What did you make of that?
I thought that was cruel of him. He probably thought of himself as a schlemiel.
You’re about to turn 74. What has it been like to age in an industry that overly prizes youth?
It’s such a privilege. It’s part of evolving and I wouldn’t change anything. My spirit is.. oh the spirit is so breathtaking… ohmigod. How does it feel? It’s such a privilege to know, to know, you know? Just to know. It’s all so moving to me. At one point I let a great part of my career go. I had to give it back because I knew it wasn’t about being somebody. And I didn’t want to be beholden to this great success. And I didn’t want to have to be fearful that I would lose it. Because [life] is about seeing, it’s about being, it’s about living, it’s about sharing, it’s about not being afraid but accepting whatever reality is. So if that’s what it means to be a Jew, that makes it all the better.