The long-standing show-biz clichÃ© about actors is that they all want to direct, but most actors would kill to have had Peter Riegert’s career. His very first screen role—as Boon in 1978’s Animal House—made him instantly recognizable. For 25 years, from film roles in Local Hero to a recurring part as a corrupt state assemblyman on The Sopranos, Riegert has had steady work with quality material.
But times change, and Riegert is wise enough to realize it. “I’m 57 years old,” Riegert said in a phone interview. “I have to be realistic about my career as an actor.”
So Riegert turned to the director’s chair for his first feature, King of the Corner. Adapting the short story collection Bad Jews and Other Stories along with its author, Gerald Shapiro, Riegert cast himself in the role of Leo Spivak, a New York marketing executive facing a mid-life struggle that affects his identity as a father, as a husband and as a son.
Riegert can see the connections between the role and the shift in his own path, captured in a comment he made in an earlier interview that he was “losing his love of acting.” “I think it’s a common condition for people to get exhausted on the particular journey they’re on,” he said. “Maybe in a way [King of the Corner] struck a chord that I hadn’t even thought about.”
Riegert came to his first feature-directing job with more cause than most to think he could handle it. After all, he had already snagged an Academy Award nomination as a director, for his 2000 short By Courier. Still, he needed sage advice from his cinematographer, Mauricio Rubinstein (Casa de los Babys) during a moment of frustration on the first day of shooting King of the Corner.
“[Mauricio] said, ‘You can’t direct your 10th movie on your first movie; enjoy the fact that you’re going to make mistakes,’” Riegert recalled. “It was very calming advice. So I kind of relaxed, and I had to find a way to make it simple so that I didn’t compound my problems.”
It certainly helped a first-time director that he was working with a wonderful, veteran group of actors—Eli Wallach, Beverly D’Angelo, Eric Bogosian and The Sopranos’ Dominic Chianese were among those who committed to the project after an early script reading, with Rita Moreno and Isabella Rossellini eventually joining the cast as well. He also had his own years of experience working with directors like Bill Forsyth and Steven Soderbergh to guide him. Yet he thinks an experience outside the entertainment industry may have been just as important a tool on the set. “I used to be a social worker,” Riegert said, “so I’m aware of how groups work—which in some ways was more important than filmmaking experience. Filmmaking is a kind of social work.”
Making the film is also only half the struggle in the world of independent production. Unable to make a theatrical-distribution deal he found fair and satisfactory, Riegert opted to take King of the Corner on the road (“It’s something I have available to do in lieu of money,” he noted). He pulls into Salt Lake City this week enjoying the experience of watching viewers enjoy his movie, learning “to be patient with people and let them have the experience they had. I made the movie, but now it belongs to the audience.”
And if he has his way, he’ll be making more movies to give to audiences, because being behind the camera has reinvigorated him. “Woody Allen’s line was that 80 percent of success is showing up,” Riegert said. “The lesson I learned is the same one I’ve learned and relearned my whole life, which is that passivity is its own negative force.”
In other words, even when he’s directing, what Peter Riegert really wants to do is act.
PETER RIEGERT Broadway Centre Cinemas. Post-film Q & A April 8 & 9. Call theater for showtimes: 321-0310