Dennis Quaid: ‘I didn’t go looking for someone younger’
The star on his 26-year-old fiancee, why he rates TV over film, and casting-couch culture
Dennis Quaid: ‘the casting couch was a very real thing, and I certainly wouldn’t want my daughter to put up with that bullshit. Photograph: Alex Welsh/Guardian
Dennis Quaid is tired of talking about the cocaine addiction that landed him in rehab in 1990 and stunted his Hollywood career after a promising start in the 1980s films The Right Stuff, The Big Easy and Great Balls of Fire. “It always winds up being the centrepiece of an article,” the 65-year-old actor says, sighing. “It’s not even the centrepiece of my life any more.”
Quaid’s recent engagement to a 26-year-old PhD student, Laura Savoie, should put paid to that. It has been a while since the Parent Trap star commanded quite so many column inches. Not to mention multiple memes and a heated debate around age gaps in relationships.
We are meeting at a Beverly Hills hotel to talk about his latest project for Netflix, and are joined on the sofa by his snoring miniature English bulldog, Peaches. I’m half-expecting his forthcoming nuptials to be off limits – but far from it. “That was really a laugh,” he says of the press attention he and his new fiancee have been receiving. “I thought it was wonderful, actually.”
You have no control over who you fall in love with. I don’t fall in love easy. But I can’t let what a few people think control all that. In Laura I feel like I have a real partner in life
But some of the attention isn’t very kind. Does it bother him that age gaps are considered such a taboo? “No, it really doesn’t bother us,” he says, shrugging. Quaid has been married three times, most famously to Meg Ryan, with whom he has a 27-year-old son, Jack. “Everyone comes from the perspective of their own life, and so I can’t comment on the way they feel; I can’t even get angry.
“I didn’t go out looking for an age gap or someone really younger than me. I met her at a business event and then the relationship developed. You have no control over who you fall in love with. I don’t fall in love easy. But I can’t let what a few people think control all that. I’ve been married three times, and this is the final one; I know it is. I feel like I have a real partner in life.”
As much of the comment has noted, this is a case of life imitating art. In The Parent Trap, from 1998, Quaid’s character, Nick, gets engaged to a 26-year-old PR, Meredith Blake (played by Elaine Hendrix) – and it is excused as a midlife crisis. Quaid was only 44 then. In fact, one of the tweets that went viral in response to Quaid’s announcement was by Hendrix. “Watch out for those twins,” she wrote, in reference to the 11-year-old sisters in the film who do not approve of Meredith. Quaid himself has 11-year-old twins with his third wife, Kimberly Buffington.
Again, Quaid insists he found it funny. “In fact, that very day, we went to the Staglin Family Vineyard, where we filmed The Parent Trap,” he says cheerfully. “I hadn’t been there since 1996. So we went and they offered us the opportunity to get married there.” And will they? “Well, wouldn’t you? For sure!” Have they set a date? “I think you have to get married within a year of asking.”
Meg had a couple of stalkers. It felt like a fishbowl. An actor’s job is to engage with life – that’s what you draw from – but when you’re being observed, it’s hard
Hollywood stars don’t usually like talking about this kind of stuff – and Quaid hasn’t always been so forthcoming – but perhaps he has got to a point in his life where he no longer cares about things that are out of his hands. Fame, he admits, hasn’t always been easy; he has had four decades of it. He was 25 when his first film, Breaking Away, was released, and he can still remember feeling “very freaked out” after being followed up and down a pharmacy aisle by a woman and her kids.
Things escalated when he married Ryan, in 1991, after they fell in love on the set of DOA. “It was out of control, being followed all the time, wherever you went, kind of stalked basically,” he says. “It was champagne problems, you know, but, looking back, it was very intrusive. Meg had a couple of stalkers. It felt like a fishbowl. An actor’s job is to engage with life – that’s what you draw from – but when you’re being observed, it’s hard.
“Eventually, I was immune to it. I’m a people person, really. And it takes the onus off it; it’s kind of an opportunity to engage. Constantly turning away from it starts to make you feel bad.”
When it comes to his acting career, Quaid claims he has more fire in his belly now than ever before. “I’m not trying to get anywhere,” he says. “I’m not trying to win an Oscar. I’m not trying to get a bigger career. I’m not trying to make it.” The turning point, he says, was in 2003, after he failed to get an Oscar nomination for Todd Haynes’s period drama Far from Heaven, despite being led to believe he was a shoo-in.
“I felt embarrassed and a little humiliated,” he says. “But then I thought, It’s silly putting my self-worth in any of this; this is not why I started doing it. The only real joy I get out of acting is when I’m on set. All the rest of it is a circus. I think it started to change from there.”
I turned down Tom Hanks’s career! I turned down League of Their Own. Sleepless in Seattle was mine. And yet, all of a sudden, it wasn’t
Still, Far from Heaven and The Rookie, a Disney sports drama from 2012 in which he played the lead, signalled a successful new era for Quaid, and he has worked consistently, albeit with a slightly lower profile, ever since.
He says he never again experienced a lull (or what he calls “Hollywood jail”) quite like the one after coming out of rehab in 1990. “I was always supposedly just one movie away from having a huge career,” he says with an eye roll. “In Hollywood, if you take a year off, they’ll find somebody else. So I had to hustle. Parent Trap was the first time I started playing dads, which I resisted – you know, ‘I wanna be the cool guy dressed in black’ – but I learned to trust my agent. At that time, I really needed to let someone else make decisions for me.”
Does he worry about not having his pick of roles any more? That what he is making won’t match the success he has had before? “I don’t really look at the box office. Sure, I want every film to have huge success. I love that feeling of having huge success – like with The Day After Tomorrow or The Rookie – but a movie comes out and that wonderful feeling lasts for about 15 or 20 minutes.”
Quaid has turned down some hugely successful films, including the Tom Hanks smash Big, from 1988. Does he have any regrets? “Oh yeah, of course. I turned down Tom Hanks’s career! I turned down League of Their Own. Sleepless in Seattle was mine. And yet, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. I turned it down because of the director on it at the time. I said: ‘You should get Nora Ephron.’ But because I turned it down they were free to do anything they wanted, so I wound up out of it [even though Ephron did direct] and my wife at the time [Ryan] was in it!”
Making Merry Happy Whatever was terrifying at first. I’d never done a sitcom before. I felt like the weakest member of the cast for a couple of weeks
Quaid’s latest project, an eight-part comedy sitcom for Netflix called Merry Happy Whatever, seems like an odd choice, but he has his reasons. “When I get offered something and fear shoots up my spine then I think I should probably do it,” he says.
The series, in which he plays Don Quinn, the “gruff and opinionated” patriarch of a family reunited in a suburban town for the Christmas holidays, doesn’t feel like it would be a challenge for Quaid. “But it was terrifying at first,” he says. “I’d never done a sitcom before. I felt like the weakest member of the cast for a couple of weeks. I’ve never had a strategy for my career except to try as many different things as possible.”
Is that why he’s an executive producer on the show? “I got us a couple of days off as a cast; other than that it was a vanity title,” he admits. “Next year – God willing we get a second season – I will be able to really executive produce, now that I’ve found my legs.”
As someone who has made a living starring in films rather than on television, can Quaid understand why parts of the industry are resistant to streaming platforms? “To tell you the truth,” he says, “I’m bored, for the most part, with studio films these days. I go to the movies and watch the trailers and they all look like the same movie.
“Studios used to make 40 to 50 films a year; now they make eight to 10. They’re all tent poles, which is fine – I’m not complaining – but it’s become more corporate, and that started with Star Wars. What’s happening with streaming television is very much like what was happening with movies in the 1970s, where the inmates had taken over the asylum and anything could happen. I think it’s a golden age, I really do.”
Last year it was announced that Quaid would play Ronald Reagan in a highly touted biopic directed by Sean McNamara (whom Quaid previously worked with on Soul Surfer, in 2011). No stranger to American presidents, having portrayed Bill Clinton opposite Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair in Peter Morgan’s The Special Relationship, in 2010, Quaid couldn’t wait to get his teeth into the role.
“This is the first time I’m saying it: it’s not happening,” he says. “I don’t think they have the money. I was really looking forward to it, because I got a shiver of fear up my spine about it. He was my favourite president of the 20th century. I didn’t agree with him politically on a few things, but he was emblematic of my mother and father’s generation and a great communicator. It’s a really good script. I’m feeling cheated.”
I don’t think it was about women with Harvey. It was about men and women; it was a power thing. I think he was the guy in school that could never get the girl, and so he extracted revenge over four decades – and there’s a price to be paid
Behind the scenes, Quaid doesn’t align himself with a political party. “I’ve voted both sides all my life, according to where the pendulum is,” he says. Which way is it swinging next? “I really don’t know. I’m just so fed up with it.” What will he do in the next election? “I don’t know. I’ll go in the voting booth and have to make a decision. I vote every time.”
After our interview Quaid is going straight to the Dominican Republic to shoot his next film. Before he leaves I ask about the impact Harvey Weinstein has had on Hollywood. He worked with him on two Miramax films, Playing By Heart, from 1998, and Smart People, from 2008.
“I don’t think it was about women with Harvey. It was about men and women; it was a power thing,” he says. “I think he was the guy in school that could never get the girl, and so he extracted revenge over four decades – and there’s a price to be paid. It’s kind of pathetic that we’ve gotten to this point. It used to be called common courtesy, the way you were supposed to behave, and it takes a little zing out of the relationship between men and women.
“But it’s really good that this [the #MeToo movement] happened, because the casting couch was a very real thing, and I certainly wouldn’t want my daughter to put up with that bullshit. It’s a reintroduction to common courtesy, the way that we should treat everybody in life.” – Guardian
Merry Happy Whatever starts streaming on Netflix tomorrow