Dennis Quaid on ‘The Express’ to Happier Times
by Paul Fischer
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Dennis Quaid could best be the describe as the true actor’s actor. More thsan just a movie star, Quaid’s career has had its share of ups and downs, but has enjoyed a huge resurgence of late. Whether he plays a cynical teacher in the acclaimed Sundance favorite Smart People, the tough football coach in the true story of Ernie Davis in The Express, or just having a bsll in next summer’s G.I. Joe, Quaid has learned not to take the business of Hollywood too seriously. Now enjoying a second bout of fatherhood, life and career are doing very nicely. He talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Paul Fischer: When you look for a project now, Is it because you feel you’re more of an actor now than a movie star trying to prove himself in a business where there’s a lot of pressure?
Dennis Quaid: Yeah. Exactly. I’m not trying to be something. I’m just doing really the things that come along that I’m really interested in doing. And, you know, that includes supporting parts, and doing leads, and—you know, all kinds of different types of movies.
PF: With The Express, was it just the idea of doing something that meant something to you, or was it an emotional response to the overall material that attracted you?
DQ: It was an emotional response that I had to express. It—it hit me in a place, like I said, where I don’t have any words. It’s—and it’s about more than just football.
PF: Why this movie in particular?
DQ: It was the story. I didn’t really know about Ernie Davis to tell you the truth. I’d heard his name but I didn’t really know about him or Ben Schwartzwelder before. I read the script and the story hit me. The script hit me right in the gut and the heart, a place where I really don’t have words. It’s inspiring. Also, it’s about more than football. Even if you don’t like sports, I think there’s something in it for you because it is an inspiring story. You take The Rookie, movies that I do that are sport movies, they have to be about more than the sport. They have to transcend the sport. The Rookie was about second chances in life. The Express really I think is about living your life gracefully. If God’s grace is bestowed upon you, you live your life to its full effect. Ernie Davis really embodied that.
PF: I understand you didn’t do much research, you had Jim Brown as a kind of a template for that. What did he tell you about your character, this character that was able to fuel your performance?
DQ: Well, he told me about Ben Schwarzwalder’s military experience in World War Two, which he brought to his coaching technique, about how obsessed he was, and single-minded, about football and how contentious his own relationship was with Schwarzwalder, when it came to racial issues I think at the time. Ben really didn’t understand or really care to understand what was going on in the country outside of his world of the football field, so they butted heads quite a few times over that. After seeing the film—at the same time Jim thought he was a really good coach, and made him better and everything. And after seeing the film, he said he really had a newfound respect for Ben. Which I thought was quite something, because he kind of realized the perspective, what he was going through.
PF: Could you identify with the kind of tunnel-vision aspect of Ben’s personality?
DQ: At times in my life, yeah, sure, being single-minded. Certainly I’m kind of an obsessive person, that when I find something I like to do, I pretty much focus on that. Like golf. And—you know, my passions in life.
PF: Has golf been an ongoing passion of yours, or is it a recent—I don’t remember ever talking about golf.
DQ: Well, I started playing 18 years ago. It’s funny, when I quit cocaine, I started playing golf. [laughs]
PF: That’s interesting!
DQ: One obsession to the next.
PF: Was that a replacement?
DQ: That’s definitely a healthier replacement. Probably. You have to do something with your time.
PF: You’ve had a rather extraordinary career. It’s come in sort of acts, I suppose, and ups and downs, and obviously—
DQ: Just like life.
PF: Right. In fact, there’s parallels, I suppose, between your life and what’s been going on with you as an actor. What are you surprised about most about the way that your career has kind of turned out to be, and your life has turned out to be?
DQ: That—how much fruit that my career is bearing now and how much—and my life as well. You know, according to, like, the rules, it’s supposed to be really kind of your late 30s that really the sort of hottest part of your career, or whatever, but for me, I guess I’ve always been a late bloomer. It seems to be happening now for me. It’s so much fun doing it.
PF: And you’ve got this second opportunity at fatherhood, too, which seems to me that there are these really rather remarkable parallels between your personal life and your professional life. Are you kind of shocked by that?
DQ: I wouldn’t call it a do-over, but I love being a Dad. It’s one of the things that I just really love to do. I mean, being a parent is really the most fulfilling thing in life, as well as the most challenging thing in life. And I love having kids around and this time around, it’s actually easier. You know, I think I know what—I’ve been through it before. And so I’m a little bit more relaxed.
PF: How are the twins doing? About a year old?
DQ: Yeah, they’re 10½ months and doing really well. They’re completely healthy and happy and we’re really grateful about that. Could’ve been not good at all. We were very lucky. The same incident killed another set of twins in Corpus Christi just in June. I don’t know if you remember that.
PF: How are things going with the case?
DQ: Well, we have our ongoing case with Baxter, against Baxter as far as the labeling and packaging goes but it was a chain of events, of human error. Baxter was the first link in that chain. What we’re trying to facilitate and it’s coming anyway, just trying to facilitate is the introduction of bedside bar coding and electronic record keeping in hospitals. Medical errors kill 100,000 people a year in this country and their procedures and their record keeping is still stuck back in the 1920s where the doctors who write prescriptions, who can read a doctor’s writing? There’s a lot of soundalike, lookalike names on medicines. It’s just human error. Nurses get overworked. In aviation they have auto pilot and color radar and a lot of other instrumentation that is a backup for pilots. It’s really brought the incidents of plane crashes way down. Same thing ought to happen in the medical industry I think.
PF: It’s said about you in terms of your approach to acting that when go on set now, and you don’t seem to take it as seriously as you—maybe you once did.
DQ: Well, I take it very seriously, as far as—you know. Certainly give it my all, but. maybe I’ve been doing it for so long that—you know, I don’t angst about it as much as I used to.
PF: The first junket I ever attended when I was still living and Australia, and I was out here on holidays—the very first junket I attended—and I’m sure this will bring back so many happy memories for you—was Flesh and Bone. You look at that section of your career and look at you now as an actor, do you see the arc that has progressed from that period of your life to now?
DQ: Yeah. That period of—during Flesh and Bone, was really starting—you know, right after Great Balls of Fire. Then I took a year off which is when I quit cocaine. And took a year off, which turned into two. And then it was—Hollywood has a very short memory. Then it was—you know, all of a sudden it was tough. I was scrambling, really, in a way, to get jobs. It just wasn’t coming as easy as it had been a couple of years before. You know, when I was supposedly like the next thing, or whatever. And it was humbling. It was a humbling time for me, which turned out to be, in the end, a very good time in my life, as far as teaching you about life and about what’s really important. But I went through sort of—probably an eight-year period of that, where I was still working and everything, but I wasn’t the first choice for things that I was doing. It was maybe third or fourth choice. But I just kept on going. And then I think maybe starting with, oddly enough, The Parent Trap, and then really The Rookie was kind of the thing that very much paralleled my life, because The Rookie was about second chances in life and it very much paralleled mine.
PF: As a kid growing up in Houston, why did you strive, and why did you want to be an actor?
DQ: I come from a family, really, that’s really kind of show business. My great-grandfather was in vaudeville. My grandmother was a piano player and dancer. And my dad was a frustrated actor. My cousin’s Gene Autry, actually. And my sad was a frustrated actor, and I used to watch a lot of movies with him, and he would point out his favorite actors. And I think it kind of came up from that, then being in the drama department, and having an acting teacher. But when I would go to the movies when I was a kid, I would come out feeling like I was John Wayne, or I was Steve McQueen. Especially Steve McQueen.
PF: Did you ever want to be as cool as Steve McQueen?
DQ: Oh, everybody wanted to be as cool as Steve McQueen. Yeah.
PF: I hear they’re remaking Bullitt.
DQ: Really? God. Have they cast it yet? [laughs]
PF: That’d be cool.
PF: When you take on something like—I know you make fun of it a lot. But it is funny that you decided to do this G.I. Joe movie. Is part of the decision—and I ask this question to a lot of actors, who do a lot of character work in indie movies, and then they do something like a big tent pole film. Does part of the decision going into it—is part of it a business decision? Or is part of it, “You know, I just want to have fun and not think about what I’m doing?”
DQ: Well, I think it’s—it’s good to mix it up. For me. I mean, it’s always been—if I’ve had any kind of strategy. Which is hardly any. But one thing I have had is to try to do as many different types of genres, and as many different types of characters as I can. You know. And I think it’s part of my strength, and maybe part of my weakness, as well, in a business sense. Because, you know, it’s—maybe you kind of don’t know what you’re ever really gonna get in my films. But I think it’s good to keep remaking yourself, in a sense. As an actor, or as any kind of artist, every couple of years. To keep it fresh.
PF: I recently saw a picture of General Hawk online. What was it like wearing that costume?
DQ: Being Hawk Abernathy? It was really a lot of fun. It was sort of like playing a cross between General Patton and Hugh Heffner. He had supermodels as his aid du camps with briefcases. He’d say, “Knowing is half the battle.”
PF: Do you get to say that in the film?
DQ: Oh yeah.
PF: Is that like a whole other world?
DQ: Oh yeah, it was just a blast. What are you going to do?
PF: Do a lot of friends want to visit that set?
DQ: Yeah. When I got the script, I was like, “G.I. Joe,” because I’m of the generation that when G.I. Joe came out, it was basically a Ken doll in an army uniform.
PF: With a movie like G.I. Joe, it’s purely the imagination that you rely on for something like this, really. I mean, it’s such a fantasy world. Does it kind of remind you of why you became an actor, doing something like that?
DQ: Oh, yeah. Sure, of course. You know, it’s like playing army when you were a kid. [laughs] In that sense. It’s really kid’s stuff. You know? I mean, that’s why they call it a screenplay.
PF: Was it a lot of fun doing this movie?
DQ: Yeah. That was really a lot of fun.
PF: And you have signed up for umpteen sequels.
DQ: Well, I think probably two or three. And yeah, I’d be quite willing to do it. It was a lot of fun.
PF: Do you know what you’ll be doing next?
DQ: I just finished a film in Berlin called Pandorum, a science fiction film.
PF: Which is unusual. You haven’t done a science fiction film for a while, have you?
DQ: For a while, no. This was a very interesting story. It’s really a small type of film, within this genre, because basically, it takes place in one part of the ship for the entire time.
PF: Are you taking time off now?
DQ: I’m taking time off, yeah.
PF: Spend some time with the kids.
PF: Which is what you should be doing.
DQ: Well, right now I’m actually—every day out here with the press. But in a couple weeks, I’ll be able to take some time.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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