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Peter RiegertActor Peter Riegert has been well-respected in the industry for nearly 40 years, and he’s especially revered for his iconic roles in Animal House, Local Hero, and Crossing Delancey.

His latest role is as Matt Damon’s boss in the family film, We Bought a Zoo, directed by Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire). In theaters today, the movie also stars Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, and Elle Fanning. Riegert and I had lunch in New York last week, during which we talked about his prestigious career and the challenges of ageism in Hollywood.

Cameron Crowe sees We Bought a Zoo as a descendant of 1983’s Local Hero, in which Riegert starred with Burt Lancaster. So, Crowe specifically asked Riegert to join the cast of Zoo and even had a replica of the bar in Local Hero built for the set.

“In a sense, I’m an homage because I’m in the movie,” Riegert says. “I was very flattered to be asked to be an homage in somebody’s movie. I’ve never been an homage. So, yes, I’m old enough to have admitted that as an accomplishment.”

He enjoyed the experience of working with Crowe and Damon. “Matt is a treat. I never worked with him before, so that was great. And it’s the beauty of working for a studio. We spent an entire day shooting two and a half pages of script,” he says.

Crowe also allowed the actors to experiment. “All the best directors hire you for not your talent alone. It’s for your imagination, for your intellect, and he [Crowe] includes everybody in that process. I’m fond of that, and Matt is the same way as an actor,” Riegert says.

We Bought a Zoo
Matt Damon and Cameron Crowe filming We Bought a Zoo | 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

This “luxury of time” is the main difference Riegert finds between big studio films and independent films. Otherwise, the “cushy” atmosphere of a studio film set doesn’t seem to matter much to him. “It’s different in all the obvious ways. I mean, you get more money for a studio film, you have more time, the stakes are financially higher, but nobody knows what movie is going to make the money,” he says, pointing out that while it’s usually more difficult for an independent film to achieve financial success, a studio film can have such a large budget that it’s even harder to recoup costs.

White Irish Drinkers
Peter Riegert and Nick Thurston in White Irish Drinkers | Vox Populi, Inc., 2010

Two of his most recent indies have not scored much time in the theaters. White Irish Drinkers was shot in a speedy 17 days. (See my interview with Riegert’s costar, Nick Thurston and writer/director John Gray, and my article about the film’s screening at the Manhattan Film Festival.) In that movie, which is [amazon_link id=”B004W5MHOG” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]now on DVD[/amazon_link], Riegert plays the owner of a theater in the 1970s who gives the story its twist. The other indie, Oka!, is the true story of ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno’s work in Central Africa. It had a short stint in New York in October and is opening this month in Charlotte, Maui, and Santa Fe.

Good films that struggle to find an audience are common in today’s movie industry, while meaty roles for actors over the age of 40 are scarce. This reality isn’t easy for an actor who has a great deal of experience under his belt and has proven himself many times over.

Local Hero,  Peter Capaldi and Peter Riegert
Peter Capaldi and Peter Riegert in Local Hero | Warner Bros., 1983

“If somebody has doubts about any of Darwin’s theories, go into show business. It’s survival of the fittest,” Riegert says.

But he remains practical about it. “It’s frustrating only because I’m as good or better at what I do as I’ve ever been,” he says, “[but] the stories are always about younger people. So, you have to come to terms with that. That’s the way it is, and I don’t want to drive myself crazy with complaining about the obvious.”

So, what do actors do when they don’t get as much work as they’d like in the kinds of roles they want? They become filmmakers. In 2000, Riegert made the short film By Courier, which landed him an Oscar nomination. In 2004, he co-wrote and directed an indie feature called King of the Corner. 

“I’m spending more time writing and trying to direct,” he says. “I optioned a murder mystery called A Field of Darkness by a writer named Cornelia Read. She’s very talented. While I’m trying to raise money for that, I’m trying to write another one.” The script for A Field of Darkness is finished, and he’s about two-thirds finished with the second screenplay, which is an original story.

Riegert enjoys the writing, but getting investors is another discouraging aspect of the business. He now believes distribution should be part of the initial budget of an independent film. “What I try to explain to potential investors is you want to give your movie a chance,” he says. “For $1 million, $1.5 million extra, you can get distribution and increase the possibilities of selling it in foreign markets or to different aspects of television or the Internet. What I tell them is if you don’t secure distribution, the odds are so terrible, you might as well take the investment and go to Las Vegas. That’s how goofy the odds are.”

Despite the challenges of being a 64-year-old actor in the 21st century film business, Riegert’s early years in the profession were somewhat charmed. He graduated from the University of Buffalo and started out as a social worker and teacher. At 23, he knew he wasn’t happy but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Then, the idea of acting came to him. “Basically I had an epiphany, where I woke up to the idea of wanting to do this, and I just followed through on it,” he says.

Peter Riegert in The Good Wife
Peter Riegert as Judge Harvey Winter in The Good Wife | CBS

He had done a couple of plays in school and fantasized about being a professional actor, but no one in his family knew anything about the business. Luckily, he had a few friends who were actors, so they told him about headshots, resumes, and trade newspapers. The day after his epiphany, he went to his first audition. Within weeks, he was working and became part of an improvisational workshop.

“I just got lucky and kept going,” he says. “I was too stupid to know how hard it was. That’s the beauty of starting things when you’re young, because as you get older, it’s easier to talk yourself out of trying something.”

When asked if he believes he was fated or destined to be an actor, he told me he isn’t sure, but he’s a firm believer in the importance of taking action and showing up. As for which roles to show up for? It all starts with what’s on the page, according to Riegert. If the writing is high quality, it will usually attract high quality people. Then, he says, “it’s who’s throwing the party, where is it, and do I need a black tie, or can I come in my sweatshirt?”

We Bought a Zoo, in theaters Dec. 23, 2011:

Melanie VotawMelanie Votaw is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York and the author of 12 non-fiction books. Visit her Web site, RuletheWord.com, and follow her on Twitter.

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