Interview: Dennis Quaid

Dennis Quaid  Picture: Debra Hurford BrownDennis Quaid  Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Dennis Quaid Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
This morning Dennis Quaid is like a dog with two tails. And why wouldn't he be? He's got a feel-good family friendly film out this week, an edgy, hit TV series that's been recommissioned and his band's about to go on tour with ZZ Top.

In the UK to promote his latest film, A Dog’s Purpose, the 63-year old actor is all over the media from The One Show to the Nightly Show with his Dick Van Dyke impressions and piano playing, and this morning he’s in high spirits, his voice a laid-back growly Texan drawl, pouring down the phone like bourbon on the rocks. He laughs often and loud, our conversation punctuated by laughs that rumble all the way up from his belly to split his chipmunk cheeks into a grin. With more than 50 films under his belt – he’s been in so many he can’t remember them all – he started attracting attention with Breaking Away (1979) and went on to rack up hits including The Right Stuff, The Big Easy and Great Balls of Fire! in which he played Jerry Lee Lewis. When the hell-raising pianist joined the set to advise, the young music fan Quaid was delighted. Did he give him any useful tips?

“Yeah. ‘You’re doin’ it wrong son!’”

In the late eighties and early nineties, Quaid’s career took a dip while he battled anorexia after losing three stone to play the tuberculosis-suffering Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner, and he’s also spoken openly about beating his addiction to cocaine. By the late 1990s he was back on track and in 2002 won awards for his role as a closeted gay man in Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore and was lauded for his portrayal of Bill Clinton, alongside Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in the 2010 film The Special Relationship.

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Dennis Quaid in A Dog's PurposeDennis Quaid in A Dog's Purpose
Dennis Quaid in A Dog's Purpose

“I became a “FOB, Friend of Bill, and visited the White House one weekend,” he says.

A long TV career includes CBS TV drama series Vegas, more recently art world drama The Art of More and this year Quaid stars in Fortitude, Sky Atlantic’s hit psychological thriller. But first he wants to tell me about A Dog’s Purpose, the story of a special bond between a child and his dog.

“It’s such a beautiful, beautiful story and I’m a dog person myself,” says Quaid, who’s had a lifelong love of dogs from his childhood bassett hound Gertrude right up to today’s canine companions, French bulldogs Batman and Gidget. He’s currently under pressure from his nine-year old twins Thomas and Zoe to add to the kennel with a pug.

“The great thing about pugs is they could be stuffed, they’re just a breathing pillow,” he says and laughs.

Dennis Quaid as Michael Lennox in Fortitude/Sky AtlanticDennis Quaid as Michael Lennox in Fortitude/Sky Atlantic
Dennis Quaid as Michael Lennox in Fortitude/Sky Atlantic

“I also wanted to do this film because it was Lasse Hallström directing, and I’ve worked with him before; he’s such a fabulous director and such a wonderful man.”

Hallström first directed Quaid over 20 years ago in Something To Talk About with Julia Roberts and this time round the director [My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale] describes his leading man as mellower and looser.

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If you’re of a sentimental bent or a dog lover, this film will have you filling up at the trailer, but don’t worry about losing it too much, as Quaid describes it, it’s “Old Yeller without the tragic ending.”

“When my agent told me the story he got a third of the way through, and I said ‘you have to stop! I’m going to do the movie, but I don’t want to get weepy.”

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Dennis Quaid in A Dog's PurposeDennis Quaid in A Dog's Purpose
Dennis Quaid in A Dog's Purpose

“This film appeals because dogs give us what we’re all looking for.”

Which is?

“Unconditional love. They touch inside of us, and are always there for you, no matter what foul mood you may have been in or what your day’s been like. They’re there to celebrate with you and they can feel you. I’m quite convinced they think in complete sentences. I think they know what we’re saying, but just don’t have vocal chords to talk back.

A Dog’s Purpose is about being in the moment of life and just feeling the wonderful feeling of being alive. It’s for everybody no matter what your age. We had our own opening for the film at home, and the twins invited their whole class around, and it was a blast.”

Dennis Quaid as Michael Lennox in Fortitude/Sky AtlanticDennis Quaid as Michael Lennox in Fortitude/Sky Atlantic
Dennis Quaid as Michael Lennox in Fortitude/Sky Atlantic

Quaid’s twins are with his third wife of 12 years, Kimberly, from whom he split last July, and his 24-year-old son Jack, also an actor, is from his marriage to second wife Meg Ryan. He is currently dating 30-year-old French-Canadian model Santa Auzina.

His own upbringing in Houston, Texas, the son of electrician William Rudy Quaid and Juanita, a real estate agent, with brother Randy, also an actor, he describes as “an ideally suburban Mid-American Sixties childhood”. His father’s roots were Cajun/Irish and his mother’s Alsace/Lorraine and Cherokee.

“It was really ideal I guess, although also assaulted with the threat of nuclear war at any point,” he laughs.

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“My dad was a frustrated actor and he turned me and my brother on to different actors, to Laurel and Hardy, and he was always crooning around the house like Bing Crosby or Dean Martin, so it was kind of in our blood. And mom, I think, gave us both a tenacity, a stick to it-ness, the idea that if you’re going to do something you have to work at it, you don’t just wait around for it to happen.”

When Quaid left school he studied acting at Houston University, following in the footsteps of Randy.

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“Randy had had an amazing teacher so I went too. I didn’t quite know if I wanted to be an actor, yet within a week of being in his class, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. That was quite a gift to have at that early age.”

Quaid was so sure of what he wanted that he quit in third year and headed for Hollywood.

“I wasn’t going to teach acting and that’s about what you could do with a degree in drama, so I went to LA and started sending my picture around, beating the streets, and it took me about a year, but I got a job.”

Forty years on things are going well for Quaid. Apart from A Dog’s Life, the Arctic murder mystery Fortitude, Sky Atlantic’s latest hit show, features a stellar international cast including Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, Christopher Eccleston and Sofie Gråbøl.

“I think everybody has been hired for their parts because somehow they are the people they are playing. There’s nothing like it on television. Even Simon [Donald, the writer] doesn’t know where the story’s going. But it’s all based on scientific fact – if the ice melts 100,000 year old wasp larvae can do strange things…”

Part-thriller, part sci-fi, it’s set in Arctic Norway in the remote community of Fortitude, described as one of the safest places in the world until its inhabitants start to die. A kind of Twin Peaks with polar bears, there’s environmental calamity, cannibalism and don’t even think about drinking the local ‘reindeer juice’ hooch. Season two is on Amazon now, and (spoiler alert) Quaid confirms he will be heading out to Iceland to film season three in January. “If I don’t get killed, I’ll be there,” he says.

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What’s the best thing about filming in Iceland, as far as Quaid is concerned?

“I just love that place,” he says. “It’s like Hawaii in the Arctic, it really is. It’s like no place on earth that you’ll ever see. It plays with your senses and it’s like being on another planet. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.”

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And the downside? “The only hard thing about it is getting a fresh vegetable,” he says, and laughs. It doesn’t sound like fresh veg is one of Dennis Quaid’s dressing room riders.

Quaid plays Michael Lennox, an ex-pat fisherman hell bent on finding a cure for his wife’s illness and the actor admits there are similarities between himself and his character.

“I’m a little tenacious like he is. I get something stuck in my head and I won’t give it up. You try to tear it out of my mouth, and I’m not going to give it away,” he says, reaching for a doggy metaphor.

“I like the very clean arc that Michael has in his story, that his sole purpose is to save the love of his life.”

The fisherman is a hopeless romantic, obviously, would Quaid describe himself in the same way, given that he’s been married three times?

“Yeah, I’m afraid so. I never give up! I never give up.” He laughs.

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Months on film sets makes maintaining a home life hard so does Quaid blame his line of work for his relationship breakdowns?

“Well, I don’t regret a thing in life that way,” he says.

Quaid’s good looks have brought him leading man roles and two years ago he was still being rated by People magazine in its Sexiest Men Alive list, photographed with his two French bulldogs to ramp up the cute quota. Quaid hoots at the memory.

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“I was the sexiest older guy with dogs,” he says. “If you want to say that, go ahead, I’ll take that.”

Quaid is happy to be judged on his animal magnetism, coming across as uncomplicated and up for a laugh, refusing to take his public image too seriously.

“Yeah, sure, it’s a lark. It beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” he says.

There was a time when his appearance did attract attention, and not for the right reasons, when a weight loss regime for his role in 1994 film Wyatt Earp got out of control. He turns serious for a moment.

“A lot was made of the anorexia thing, but I really got to the point where I understood how difficult it can be. It affects your self image. I lost 42lbs for Wyatt Earp and I was always thinking that I hadn’t done enough. But I look back at pictures and you could see my skull. I did it because Doc Holliday was a scrawny little guy, he had tuberculosis, and I wanted to get as close to him as I could. But you get into a way of eating and you’re counting your calories and it puts you in a way of thinking. It took me about two years to really get clear of it and gain the weight back.”

Another thing Quaid takes seriously is his work, and he’s enthusiastic about what he perceives as a revival in television writing as viewers binge on juggernaut series as fast as the likes of Netflix and Amazon can release them.

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“What’s going on in television now reminds me of what was going on in the movies back in the Seventies, what they now call the golden age of films, when it felt like the inmates had taken over the asylum. There were all these fantastic, multi-faceted themes and different kinds of movies being made... Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde... and that’s what’s going on in television now. And nobody knows where it’s going to settle or what’s going to happen. It’s a fantastic place to be.”

Time’s up the PR tells us, but Quaid is just warming up and tells his PR, “Aw just give her a minute or two more, I was late”. You could really get to like charming Mr Quaid. Also, we’ve just started to talk about golf, one of Quaid’s big loves and he’s just getting into his swing, telling me the Jason Connery film Tommy’s Honour is on his to do list and that his handicap has suffered of late as he doesn’t get the time to practise.

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According to Golf Digest, Quaid was Hollywood’s best golfer for a while and he has played the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, over the Old Course (St Andrews), the Championship Course, Carnoustie, and Kingsbarns.

“I was a one at one time, before the twins came along, but I’m currently an eight and probably playing about 12. Playing in the Dunhill was fantastic, and I’ve played in Scotland many times, just coming over on my own to play. I love it, love it, love it. Maybe I’ll get back on my way to Iceland next time,” he says.

With the publicity for the film now done, Quaid is heading back to the States where he is about to go on tour with his band, The Sharks. For the past 17 years Quaid has been singing and playing guitar – a Gibson acoustic and Fender Stratocaster – with them. Their mix of their own rock numbers and covers can be heard when they support ZZ Top next month.

“We go on tour in Texas, opening for ZZ Top, one of the all time bands! I’m really looking forward to it,” he says.

Is he going to grow a beard to fit in with the hirsute Texan rockers?

“I don’t think I’ll have the time,” he says. “I’ll just borrow Billy Gibbons’. Or half of it. I’m sure he can spare some.”

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Singing is in the Quaid family genes, not just from his crooning father, but his father’s cousin was Gene Autry, aka The Singing Cowboy, who found fame as a film star and country singer in the 1930s.

“I knew he was my cousin growing up and he’s probably the most successful entertainer of all time if you count it in today’s dollars. He wrote Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and owned the first TV station in LA and a baseball team.”

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He was also a demon yodeller, so can Quaid oblige us with a bit of tonsil trickery?

The question’s barely out before he’s “Yodel-ay-hee, hodel-ay-dee-hoo-ing” away with abandon.

Yep, he’s done this before. Often.

After the tour there’s a new film due for release, so what can he tell us about Kin, with James Franco and Zoë Kravitz?

“It’s about feeling alienated in the world – it has some aliens in it too, ha, ha – but that’s sort of incidental. It’s a really great story,” he says.

But now we really are out of time insists the PR, so I reiterate the question from A Dog’s Purpose, no less pertinent for being posed by a red setter: “What’s the meaning of life? Are we here for a reason, is there any point to any of this?”

“Well, I think the meaning of life is to enjoy the wonderful feeling of being alive,” says Quaid. “It’s a wonderful time of life. I feel very grateful to still be here, doing this.” He laughs like he can’t believe his luck. “Doing what I love to do best. And I feel really grateful that I still have fire in my belly to do it – probably more fire now than I ever did.”

A Dog’s Purpose is out on Friday;

Season two of Fortitude is available now on Amazon