There are many reasons Dennis Quaid has been such a durable movie star—his gruff Texan masculinity, his athleticism, his musicianship—but most of all it's that famous grin, a sly and disarming gesture from an actor who usually plays it straight. After his older brother Randy started to make a career for himself in Hollywood, Quaid dropped out of college and pursued acting, eventually landing a key role in the 1979 sleeper hit Breaking Away. From there, he slowly moved up the marquee in the '80s, joining an impressive ensemble as a cocky astronaut in 1983's The Right Stuff, then landing lead roles in such hits as Enemy Mine, Innerspace, and The Big Easy. As Jerry Lee Lewis in 1989's Great Balls Of Fire!, Quaid was at the center of a critical and commercial fiasco, but few could deny his fevered performance or his musical chops, which lead to him fronting an ongoing musical side project called D.Q. And The Sharks. A string of flops and personal setbacks hampered him throughout much of the '90s, but Quaid has come back strong in the last decade, with major roles in Frequency, Traffic, The Rookie, Far From Heaven, The Day After Tomorrow, In Good Company, American Dreamz, and Vantage Point.
Based on the true story of running back Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, Quaid's new film The Express casts him as Coach Ben Schwartzwalder, the hard-nosed head coach of the Syracuse Orangemen football team. At a time of racial discord, Schwartzwalder recruited greats like Jim Brown and Davis, who had to overcome enormous prejudice from inside and outside the program. Quaid recently spoke to The A.V. Club about taking football notes from Jim Brown, and rebooting his career at the end of the '90s.
The A.V. Club: How would you characterize the relationship between Coach Schwartzwalder and Ernie Davis?
Dennis Quaid: Ben Schwartzwalder was a tough-as-nails old-school coach. We're talking about 1959. Ernie was a very graceful human being, naïve in a lot of ways, I think. It's set during a time of racial turmoil, before the Civil Rights movement really kicked in. Their relationship embodies the movie. Ben was a man of his times. You would label him a bigot, even though he was a groundbreaker as far as being one of the first coaches to actively recruit African-Americans players to his team. But he was a man of his time. So he lived by the rules of segregation, and in a way didn't care to change things. I think Ernie changed him, not in an argumentative way. I think just in who Ernie was and the way he grew to love Ernie. Ben had had Jim Brown [as his running back] before that, and they butted heads. It was a very abrasive relationship. Ernie and Ben wound up really becoming father and son.
AVC: You're talking about Jim Brown and their relationship being abrasive. But the film implies that there was some sort of respect, some sort of willingness on Jim Brown's part to assist him in recruiting David.
DQ: Jim had great respect for Ben. And hence Ben had great respect for Jim as well, as far as his ability, and Jim for Ben when it comes to coaching because Ben made him a better player. Jim Brown was a really good friend of mine before this movie, and he was my greatest resource. I talked to him about who Ben was, and who Ernie was too. Jim Brown saw the movie, and he's a straight-talker. [Laughs.] He said he really found a new respect for Ben, after seeing the film, and realizing who he was in the context of the times.
AVC: What did Jim have to say specifically about Ben? About working with him? What sort of troubles did they have?
DQ: Ben was an obsessive coach, even when he wasn't on the football field. On the bus, he would still be doing X's and O's. Coming up with new plays, his mind he lived, ate, and slept football. He only cared about what was going on on that field. He didn't really see anything about the difficulties of the African-American players on his team, nor really care to know anything about them. He just didn't want any of that coming on to his team.
AVC: It was all about W's.
DQ: Yeah, exactly.
AVC: Did you talk to his wife?
DQ: I didn't talk to his wife at the time. I really used Jim Brown, and watched film of Ernie. I would have liked to have gone to Syracuse to meet her, but I had just came off another movie and jumped into this one. Ben's wife, Reggie, she's 96. She was my date at the premiere in Syracuse. She loved the film. She said she didn't want it to end.
AVC: Along with Everybody's All American and Any Given Sunday, this is the third film you've made about football. How well to you understand the Xs and Os of the game at this point? What sort of temperament do you think it takes to coach?
DQ: This is my first time really playing a football coach. Usually I've been a player. It's much easier to be a coach. You don't have to stand around in the pads all day. Movies are very tedious and with a lot of takes, you're out there 14 hours sometimes, especially in 1959 cleats. That's kinda tough. But I definitely have an understanding of the game. I didn't play football in school, but I've been a fan of football all my life. I have a fair understanding of it. Doing movies about it really helps because you know what makes them work and what doesn't.
AVC: Do you have a sense of the impact a coach can have on football compared to the impact a coach has on other sports?
DQ: It's absolutely everything. It really is, because it's the coach who does the recruiting. We're talking about college football here, but it's the coach who does the recruiting. It's the coach who really takes this raw talent and molds it into that next level, before the pros. Molding the team and getting these individuals to work as a team—that takes knowledge and that takes time. It takes a strategy. Also, the coach is there for calling plays, having a strategy on how to beat another team, what their weaknesses are, and clock management. It's a huge thing. That's why you see coaches over the years who have winning seasons as opposed to somebody else who comes in with the same team, and, well, it's downhill from there.
AVC: Schwartzwalder was also a war hero. He served in Normandy. Do those sorts of details, that kind of background, inform how you play a character like him?
DQ: That explained a whole lot about him. He volunteered to go. He wasn't drafted. He was 30 years old, and went into the army. He was one of the soldiers that came off the ships and stormed the beach at Normandy. Told me a lot about him, and you know I think he brought that same kind of military discipline to his coaching.
AVC: How much of your career is owed to your athleticism and your ability to play music and other skill sets outside of acting? It seems like quite a bit.
DQ: Well, you use what you have. Let's put it that way: When you go in for the interview and they say, "Can you ride a horse?" you're always supposed to say, "Yeah, like the wind" whether you've been on a horse in your life or not. [Laughs.] Then you go out and learn.
AVC: How did you get involved in the film Far From Heaven?
DQ: Todd Haynes thought of me for that role, and I'm really glad he did. I think he chose me because my screen persona or whatever. You wouldn't think of me in that role, and that was why he wanted me. This was a guy who was pretending to be the straightest arrow there was in life, even though he wasn't, and just couldn't handle it.
AVC: Given the film's connection to the films of Douglas Sirk, and how much acting styles have changed for the movies since they were made, did you have to adjust your own style to fit the movie and what the movie was trying to do?
DQ: Well, there's two things I have criteria for doing a film: The script, which is the story, and the filmmaker, and it's a filmmaker's medium. I like really strong directors, and so when I do a film, I'm out there to serve the director, really, which is in turn to serve the script, to serve the director cause he's the one making the film. I relied on Todd Haynes for that.
AVC: Was it a challenge on your part? Because the acting style of a Douglas Sirk film is
AVC: Yeah. Much more theatrical than we see in movies today Did that take some getting used to?
DQ: Yeah, sure, but once you've been doing it for a couple of days, it's just fun, you know?
AVC: How did you go about playing the president in American Dreams?
DQ: I just had fun with it, really, to tell you the truth. You know, I'm from Texas, but the character wasn't Bush. It really wasn't Bush. Okay, it was Bush and it wasn't Bush. It was a parody, is what it was. It was a parody on America, not just on political figures, but on everybody. All of us. I had a ball doing it. It was with [writer-director] Paul Weitz, who I'd done In Good Company with as well. So I just had fun with it basically.
AVC: When you're playing a parody version of Bush—or "the President," anyway—and you're playing the buffoon, do you have to talk yourself out of thinking that you're a buffoon?
DQ: Well, I myself am a buffoon. You have something against buffoons? [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, the character maybe doesn't think of himself as a joke.
DQ: Right. That's the whole idea of parody. They don't think of themselves as a joke, the character doesn't think of himself as a joke. That's what makes it so funny, that people take themselves so seriously.
AVC: Do you have any wisdom about how to stick around in the industry as long as you have?
DQ: You have to have the ability to remake yourself. Whatever that is. Every several years Every five to 10 years. Because you're getting older and the parts are going to change, to make that transition. That's what I would say. Also you just have to stick to it. You have to have the fire in your belly. I'm having more fun now with acting than I did when I first started out, because I'm doing it just because I really enjoy it. I'm not trying to "make it" anymore. I'm not trying to be anything, you know? The biggest this and that for anybody. I'm just enjoying it.
AVC: You talked about being able to change and adjust. What are some of those pivotal roles for you?
DQ: Breaking Away would be the first, then from there would be The Right Stuff, and then from there, The Big Easy. Maybe from there Innerspace and Great Balls Of Fire. And from there we skip! [Laughs.] We skip another 10 years, or several years, to The Parent Trap. Then Frequency, and The Rookie.
AVC: About that skipping part. What was it like trying to get back in the game after dropping out for a bit?
DQ: I took one year off which turned into two. Hollywood has a very short memory. To get back in the game—the scripts were there, and I really liked some of those movies, but finding scripts was tough. It was Look, this is not a job. Actors do well. I hate to hear actors whine and complain. But artistically it was kind of struggle during part of the '90s.
AVC: Great Balls Of Fire is one of your major roles, if not your signature role. And the type of music that you play with [your band D.Q. And] The Sharks bears that out. Yet the movie itself had a troubled reception, not least from Jerry Lee Lewis. What are your thoughts on that whole experience, looking back?
DQ: Jerry Lee Lewis was right over my shoulder during the entire time we were shooting it. That was a fascinating time in my life, really. He was one of my piano teachers. By the time the film came out, to tell you the truth, I myself was not really happy with it. But the movie, it's strange—it's gotten better with age. I really like it now.
AVC: How so?
DQ: I don't know, maybe it's just because I've finally gotten away from it. People seem to really like the film. It's just fun to watch I guess.
AVC: You said that Jerry Lee Lewis was right over your shoulder. Was his reception—and the reception in general—to film awkward for you?
DQ: The reception it got when it came out was because the studio handled it like it was a summer movie. They tried to get the broadest possible audience for it, including kids. That's kind of tough to get when you have a movie, at its core, about the relationship between a 22-year old guy and a 12, 13-year old girl.
AVC: I don't remember seeing many movies this summer about that.
DQ: And cousin, too, by the way.
AVC: You've been acting quite a while. Are there roles you regret not getting, or conversely, roles that you were pleased to turn down?
DQ: Yeah, there's a ton of those, you know? But I have no regrets. There's only one real regret that I have, and that's that David Lean, who is my favorite director of all time, gave me the role of Nostromo in Nostromo. And I went over there to Nice and met with him and got to ask him every question there was, spent an afternoon with him. Unfortunately, he wound up dying of cancer before we could shoot the film. That's my only regret.