By Sam McDonald

The actor known for playing the lead in the films “RoboCop” and “Buckaroo Banzai …” refuses to be sanitized, shrunk and crammed into a familiar box.

Peter Weller is multi-dimensional to the extreme.

His mind and soul reach out in a dozen directions, toward television, theater, jazz music, Renaissance art and beyond.

A successful actor and director who earned his doctorate in art history at UCLA, Weller argues that fields of study — like people — shouldn’t be siloed. He’s eager to blast through artificial barriers and help the world find understanding through connection.

“You can’t separate this stuff out,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “You can’t say, ‘I’m going to study American history and not study jazz.’ What? Are you kidding? It’s all the same thing! They should be intertwined.”

Which is why Weller — the scholarly movie star — will take part in Old Dominion University’s 46th annual Literary Festival, set for Oct. 1-5.

He’ll give a lecture at 6 p.m. Oct. 3 titled “Image-Thought-Word-Image-Thought” about how words and ideas are translated into images. That will be followed by a screening of his 1994 film “The New Age.” The festival programs take place at the University Theatre unless otherwise noted and are open to the community. Admission is free.

Weller embodies the “Connections” theme of this year’s festival.

“Writing or reading, performing or viewing, we reach beyond ourselves and in that process are forever changed,” reads the festival’s mission statement. “We celebrate poets, novelists, memoirists, actors, directors and all those who tell the stories that link us together and change the way we understand ourselves and our world.”

A personal connection brings Weller to Norfolk.

Weller earned a master’s degree in art history at Syracuse University in Florence, Italy. Another product of that program is Anne Muraoka, who directs ODU’s Institute for the Humanities. They share an interest in artists like Caravaggio and Giotto and have forged a lasting friendship.

“We’re on the same page, in the same profession,” Weller said. “She has a great sense of humor. She’s got great ideas. I just love working with her. I’m all in.”

The Literary Festival is Weller’s second visit to ODU. In 2019, he gave a pair of lectures — “Why the Renaissance Matters” and “Why School? My Ph.D. and Me.”

“He is not only a talented actor, director, and art historian, but he is a masterful storyteller, so erudite and funny, personable ... just an all-around extraordinary human being,” Muraoka said after Weller’s 2019 visit. “I cannot say enough good things about him and the impact he made here at ODU.”

This time around, Weller will focus attention on “The New Age,” because it asks important, eternal questions.

“It’s a movie about morality and loss of soul, actually loss of dignity,” Weller said. “How do you find your personal dignity? It’s been an American theme for a very long time.”

Like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” or Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” “The New Age” portrays characters stumbling toward personal fulfillment, Weller said.

“Greed can get in the way,” he said. “If you’re living only for material wealth, then something’s lost.”

Weller describes “The New Age” as a highlight of his acting career, along with his roles in movies “Naked Lunch,” “Shadow Hours,” “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” and a recent episode of “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.”

“‘The New Age’ has got maybe my favorite cast, and I’ve worked with a bunch of powerhouses,” Weller said. “There’s a kinetic element in its theme of moral destitution in the midst of commercial America, specifically Los Angeles.

“I loved doing it, and I love the movie.”

“The New Age” was written and directed by Michael Tolkin, who also wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman’s “The Player.”

Kris King of the Naro Expanded Video Collection will serve as a co-host for the ODU screening.

Separate from the festival, Weller will give an informal lecture, “Renaissance Art to the ACTION Movie,” on Oct. 4. That will take place 6 p.m. at ODU’s Darden College of Education and Professional Studies, Room 1106.

Along with acting, directing and art history, jazz is one of Weller’s passions. He credits the music with inspiring his life of creativity.

As a young man, he studied trumpet at what is now the University of North Texas, a school with a long, proud jazz tradition.

“It is Black American music that led me into the dynamic of self-expression,” Weller acknowledged. “Like Amiri Baraka said, the soul of America is Black music. I’m sorry, it’s not the Mayflower. It’s not bourbon. It’s Black American music. That’s the thing that grabbed me as a kid. It still grabs me.”

Soon after he speaks at Old Dominion University, he’ll travel to Texas, where his group, Fly Naked, is performing at the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival.

Weller has recently been finishing an article on the late trumpeter Miles Davis for a book called, “Jazz and Literature.”

In acting, directing, scholarship, music and writing, determination and tenacity have paid off for Weller.

“What you don’t know, you can learn,” he said. “If you have the tenacity to stick with it, you can learn and get better.”

Below is the programming schedule for the festival. All events except the opening reception will be livestreamed on Facebook @ODULitFest. To learn more about each event, visit the festival’s website.

Sunday, Oct. 1:

  • 4 p.m. Opening reception at The Green Onion Restaurant, 1603 Colley Ave.

Monday, Oct. 2:

  • Noon Chauna Craig & Jerri Dickseski Award Presentation
  • 4 p.m. Faculty Readings: Marianne Chan and Jane Alberdeston
  • 7 p.m. Brian Turner

Tuesday, Oct. 3:

  • Noon Virginie Beauregard D., with Peter Schulman.
  • 6 p.m. Peter Weller
  • 7:30 p.m. Screening of film “The New Age” (1994), with Peter Weller and Kris King of the Naro Expanded Video Collection

Wednesday, Oct. 4:

  • Noon Michael Patrick Pearson
  • 4 p.m. Alumni Reading: Amanda Galvan Huynh, Richard Leise, Bob Kunzinger, Tracy Rice Weber, Van Vaneendenburg
  • 7 p.m. S.A. Cosby

Thursday, Oct. 5:

7 p.m. Andrew Joseph White