Elliott Gould makes a stranger feel like his psychiatrist.
Ask him what he's been up to lately, he'll tell you how he felt as a fetus. Inquire about his new film, he'll turn the topic to religion. He bares his soul without even being asked.
"I've been so busy," he says.
"No, really, what've you been doing?"
"Worrying. All my life I've been worrying."
Elliott Gould worried his way through movies like "M*A*S*H," "Getting Straight" and "I Love My Wife." He was the quintessential brooder, perfect for the late '60s and early '70s - the sensitive, searching Modern Man, a little quirky, a little unkempt, above all human. Definitely not your plastic untouchable matinee idol.
But somehow the all-suffering persona typified by actors like Gould has been eclipsed in the last few years. America has tired of self-confession. Enter the New Neurotic Hero, equally sensitive but not so serious: Richard Dreyfuss.
Now Gould is back with "Capricorn One," as a crusading investigative reporter who uncovers a giant Space Agency hoax against the American public. It is hard to say whether he regains his semi-glorious past, as Warner Brothers has refused to allow critics the customary advance screening.
Nor does Gould feel much like discussing it; he'd rather talk about his head.
This is Gould's first big movie in a couple of years, but he hasn't been forgotten. He still has groupies. Midway through soul'n'tell in a Washington hotel room, three giggling high-school girls from Brooklyn knock on the door.
Gould gets up from the couch. They huddle for 15 minutes. "You're a fabulous girl, just be more open from here on in," he counsels. "Now if you have a problem write to me and I'll think about it. And don't let anybody read your diary . . ."
This sort of thing happens all the time. Unlike other fan-mobbed movie stars, Elliott Gould doesn't seem to mind. His soul's an open book.
Oddly enough, this openness doesn't extend to his career. He sloughs off the four films he's made in the last year in a bored sort of way. Children matter most.
He has three kids of his own. He says he's just getting to know them: Jason, 11, from his first marriage to actress Barbra Streisand; and Molly, six, and Sam, five from his second marriage.
"I'm here for kids," he says emphatically.
"That's all. As far as I'm concerned I'm not interested in being a human being without having the spirit of a child. We're all like Mark Twain said, we have one thing in common - we were all babies.
"I'm 39 years old and the infant in me makes demands that are not terribly realistic. It's been very, very difficult . . . to take care of . . . the infant in my life."
It's been a lot easier tending to his own children, who have provided a constant anchor for the uncertainties and quirks of an actor's up-and-down career.
Four years ago his daughter Molly had heart surgery. She came out of the operating room, Gould says, humming a song.
"She said to me when she was five, 'It doesn't matter how long you live as long as you know you're living, right, Dad?' I don't think anybody could tell me anything more profound or anything more meaningful. Being alive and knowing it - this life is a privilege."
The time is up. Gould stands, wanders around a moment with shoes and socks in hand, stopping from time to time to crack the psyche an inch more. He disappears into the bedroom, popping out at one point in boxer shorts, at ease, uninhibited.
He would like to be a Charles Kuralt. That is, he'd like to do on-the-street interviews in New York at the same time he's performing in the theater.
"I want to get a little truck and travel around. If I see some kids playing basketball they'd be my guests. Or we'd go into a delicatessen. This interview would be part of the show."