Richard Dreyfuss Wants to Play Apartheid President F. W. de Klerk

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Richard Dreyfuss

The "Jaws" star insists the negotiations between South Africa's last president and Nelson Mandela saved a nation from civil war.

WHISTLER, B.C. - Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss knows playing Nelson Mandela is out of the question.

But the star of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the role of former South African president FW de Klerk, who shared a Nobel Prize with Mandela for transforming a post-apartheid nation?

"I couldn't play Mandela. So I'd play him (de Klerk)," Dreyfuss, who is at the Whistler Film Festival this week, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"The story of those two men, the white leader and Mandela, the story of how de Klerk maneuvered his country into as little bloodshed as they had, that was a remarkable story," the Oscar-winning actor says in the wake of a mourning South Africa getting set to bury Mandela on December 15.

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"It will take another 100 years until both groups are happy to live together. But at least they avoided a civil war," Dreyfuss adds.

The actor/activist knows he missed his chance after Michael Caine played de Klerk to Sidney Poitier's Mandela in the 1997 TV movie Mandela and de Klerk.

With his round face and broad forehead, Dreyfuss has the likeness for de Klerk, and pulled off playing a similar-looking Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone's 2008 film W., a Republican bad guy role that got in hot water in liberal circles.

"People said how could you have played him. I said, all of us have a little Cheney inside of us," he recalls.

Dreyfuss is in Whistler to promote the Canadian indie Cas & Dylan, where he plays dying man whose plans to check out on his own terms takes a reluctant detour when he winds up on the lam with a young woman, played by Tatiana Maslany.

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Jason Priestley (Call Me Fitz, Beverly Hills, 90210) directed Cas & Dylan from a script by Jessie Gabe.

For Dreyfuss, playing historical or political figures isn't just about acting.

Having launched the Dreyfuss Initiative, the actor is also thinking civics these days, with a live theater script competition that aims to prepare young Americans to be engaged citizens as adults.

"We Americans write history about as poorly as anyone ever has. We never think of our founding fathers as anything other than dead or in marble," Dreyfuss explained.

"And we lie, we revise history as much as the Soviets did," he added.

To build civic awareness and civility and work against partisan bickering in politics and debate, Dreyfuss wants to award $300,000 to playwrights and theater companies that produce a stage play that eschews myth and tells events in American history and the present as they happened.

"I believe a play that becomes a hit in regional theater then becomes a hit on Broadway, it becomes a feature film, it goes on television, it gets into the culture deeply and faster than anything else," he argues. "We need that because we don't know who the hell we are anymore," Dreyfuss added.

The Whistler Film Festival continues through Sunday.