CHICAGO — There was a time, in the late 1980s, when each new film starring Dennis Quaid was The One. The one destined to make him not just an actor, not just an actor with guts and a wily, toothy joker’s grin, but a huge box-office-reliable star. In the summer of 1987, The One was the adventure fantasy “Innerspace,” which turned out to be a medium hit. Two summers later it was the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic “Great Balls of Fire!” in which Quaid whooped it up to yahoo Himalayan heights. Again, not a disaster. But not The One.
Now 59, Quaid has grown into a different sort of star, tempered by ups and downs and in-betweens. Lately, the Quaid audiences first came to know in the lovely “Breaking Away” (1979), and later as astronaut Gordon Cooper in the grandly eccentric film version of “The Right Stuff” (1983), has pushed himself into challenging territory. As the anguished closet case in “Far From Heaven,” Quaid tamped down his natural ebullience in favor of a simmering unease, to critically lauded results.
And in the new independent drama “At Any Price,” written and directed by Ramin Bahrani of “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo,” Quaid plays a third-generation Iowa farmer buckling under the pressures of expansion, competition, infidelity and a plot turn, involving the son played by Zac Efron, that leaves Quaid’s character, Henry Whipple, with metaphorical and literal blood on his hands.
“At Any Price,” filmed in DeKalb County, Ill., and made for an exceedingly thrifty $4 million, is no one’s idea of a big summer movie. “I basically did it for free,” Quaid says, laughing. It’s a film an actor chooses to make for reasons other than compensation or a percentage of the gross. Recently, Quaid spent a half-hour of his birthday morning (“Sorry, my phone’s blowing up. It’s my birthday today, so …”) talking about fame, success, acting and learning to act less, as he took drags off his electronic cigarette (he’s been off real cigarettes for two years, he says) in his suite at the downtown Chicago Waldorf Astoria.
Bahrani describes Whipple as “Willy Loman in a cornfield,” a monstrously conflicted soul with elements of playwright Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” protagonist, as well as the morally compromised father in Miller’s “All My Sons.”
“He’s kind of broken,” Quaid says. The film, he says, courts expectations of “one of those traditional save-the-farm films, the inspiring music, the family desperately trying to hang onto things. But the story starts to turn into dark corners you don’t expect.”
Quaid’s agent proposed the idea of the actor putting his showboater’s wiles to work on a tricky, potentially unsympathetic role. The backslapping farmer and seller of genetically modified seed is hiding an awful lot behind an all-American, can-do facade.
Bahrani: “He’s played sleazy characters, but mainly we remember Dennis from ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘The Rookie.’ I’d always liked him as an actor. And I thought he’d been underutilized.”
Bahrani and Quaid spent three days together at Quaid’s place in Austin, Texas, “talking history, politics and cinema,” the writer-director says. Then Quaid said yes, he’d like to do the film. He joined the DeKalb, Ill., set of “At Any Price” straight from a night shoot on Quaid’s “Vegas” TV series (currently awaiting word of either renewal or cancellation).
Bahrani says things got off to a wary start. “He wasn’t in a good mood; he didn’t really want to rehearse. I got very nervous.” The director called his pal Werner Herzog and asked him a few questions about making movies with movie stars. Herzog, according to Bahrani, told him: “Ramin, don’t waste his time. He’s a 30-year professional. He’ll deliver when you turn the camera on.”
When he was co-star Efron’s age, Quaid was signed to do a movie with Lee Majors, a father /son tale about construction workers. Then the young actor met with “Breaking Away” director Peter Yates, who persuaded him to drop that project and join Yates’ cast.
“That was my first big break,” Quaid says. “That’s where I went from going from job to job to getting offers.” Yates, he says, taught him how to act for the camera. Even today, Quaid acknowledges, “I need to be scaled back sometimes, to do it smaller. Sometimes when I think I’m doing nothing, that’s the one, that’s the take they use. It’s about being still, just being in the frame.”
Quaid followed his brother, Randy, out to Hollywood in the early ’70s. Randy got lucky early on with a choice role in “The Last Detail.”
Dennis’ favorite film experience remains “The Right Stuff.” “It’s really something,” he says with that grin, “to dream about getting something, about playing someone like Gordo Cooper, and actually getting it.”
The actor’s off-screen life and times, including cocaine addiction, are like those of many other well-known American actors, only a little bit louder, a little more gossip-prone. For Newsweek, Quaid wrote an essay about his greatest mistake: blow. In it Quaid noted that his recovery period, in the ’90s, “actually chiseled me into a person.” He has a son by his second marriage, to Meg Ryan, and 5-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, by his third wife, Kimberly Quaid. The older son, Jack, is an actor, recently appearing in “The Hunger Games.” Quaid notes that Jack declined his father’s offer to help him land an agent. “He did it on his own,” he says.
“I want all my kids to follow their bliss,” Quaid says, his phone on the table in the Waldorf suite continuing to chirp, or blow up, or whatever phones do if it’s Dennis Quaid’s birthday. “It’s great to get paid for what you love doing most. To enjoy your work. And to follow that. It’s important.” He pauses, then says it again, as if reminding himself, casually but not cavalierly. “It’s important.”