Texas born and bred, Dennis Quaid is a consummate actor whose impressive acting career has been on-screen since 1977 when he played a baseball pitcher in “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” Since then, he has appeared in over 70 films including “The Right Stuff,” “The Big Easy,” “Innerspace,” “D.O.A.,” “Great Balls of Fire!,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Switchback,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Traffic,” “The Alamo,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” “Soul Surfer,” “Footloose,” and “The Words.”
Equally at home on the small screen, Quaid plays a sheriff in the television series “Vegas” and gave a most memorable performance as President Bill Clinton in “That Special Relationship.” Besides being one of Hollywood’s most outstanding actors, Quaid is also a composer and musician performing with his band, “Dennis Quaid and the Sharks.” He wrote the songs for three of his movies, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Tough Enough,” and “The Big Easy.”
Director Ramin Bahrani has won a number of awards for “Chop Shop,” “Goodbye Solo,” and “Man Push Cart.” His latest film, “At Any Price,” is the first with a bigger budget and professional actors. Co-written with Hallie Elizabeth Newton, it explores the world of farming in the American Midwest touching on advanced technology, which has made possible the development of genetically modified seeds. He illuminates through the narrative, the question of moral ambiguity including exploring to what ends we will go to protect a child. In addition to Quaid, the film co-stars Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, and Maika Monroe.
Quaid and Bahrani recently sat down with a select group of journalists to discuss the film and other topics and the following has been edited for content and continuity.
All the characters in the film, with the exception of the Cadence character played by Maika Monroe, are morally bankrupt so what attracted you to the script and to the character of Henry Whipple in particular?
Quaid: Right she’s the purest one in the film. My role is a very meaty role isn’t it? He is a very complex character and very interesting to play. Ramin talked a lot about “Death of a Salesman” before shooting the film. Henry Whipple, in a way, is a Willy Loman for our times. He is someone who is chasing the “American Dream” for himself and his family and at the same time, corrupting himself in the process.
Did you make any moral judgments about his methodology?
Quaid: Well, we tried not to be judgmental. I think characters judge themselves because we all judge ourselves and are harder ourselves. I think Henry, at the beginning of the film, is an unlikable character in many ways. He’s like a used car salesman trying to sell you something and shows his confidence in his exterior but inside I think there is self-loathing and insecurity going on at the same time he is trying to hold all this up. He starts to crack as the film goes on.
Did you research what it’s like to be a farmer?
Quaid: My grandfather was a cotton farmer in east Texas and I spent a summers up in rural east Texas, but it’s a much different world today. I basically parachuted into this movie from another film I was doing called “The Words,” where I was playing this jaded, cynical novelist. Ramin and I had talked for months about the role and about the movie and I had done a lot of reading. We shot on the Kevin Herman farm who was head of the family, so I did everything I could to absorb what I could. Luckily, Ramin is a master of the subject.
Are you familiar with the GMO controversy? (Genetically Modified Organism)
Quaid: It is something I am familiar with and is something I know more about now, but we are not out to make a judgment or comment about that.
Bahrani: If it were an agenda movie, I would grab all of you by the hand and run like hell from the cinema. Nobody wants to watch an agenda being smashed over his or her head. You just want to watch a story.
Do you like the labeling of GMO products?
Bahrini: I went to Mel’s Drive-In the other day to eat a hamburger and there’s a sign on the table that says “Grass Fed No GMO Burger,” and it had a sign that said, “Corn” that had a line through it. (laughter) Even in Mel’s Drive-In they give you an option.
Did the script go through any revisions during the shoot?
Bahrini: Yes, because the actors start seeing things happening for real. There was not a lot of time to make the film; it was not a big budget film so I shot the entire movie on a Handycam with interns. I like to tell the actors what’s going on in the scene and this is the blocking and these are my five camera set-ups.
Quaid: So why did we need to rehearse? (laughter)
Bahrini: (continuing his thought) But, at the same time, I like to give actors the freedom to change anything they want because at some point they really know the character. I know the whole film better than them, but you have to give them the room. We were shooting a very complex scene where Zac, Dennis, and Kim Dickens are on the property and these two agents show up in a car and Zac is going to become physically violent. I looked at the sun that was low in the horizon and asked the cameraman how much time did we have before we lose the light and he said an hour and a half. To shoot a scene like that, you probably need five or six hours and so I said oh my God and quickly told the actors here’s the blocking, here’s the scene, this was the previous scene, remember where you were emotionally, etc. and let’s start shooting. I started running back to the camera to turn it on and Dennis said, “Excuse me. I don’t think my character would behave this way.” I said what do you think your character should do and he said, “I think I would do this.” I looked at the sun, which had gone even lower (laughter) and said you know you’re right.
A strong message in the film is that there are no consequences to your behavior. Was that your point of view?
Bahrini: I spent so much time on the farms and I tried to bring what I was seeing into the move. But, I also live in a world so I was trying to bring the world into my movie and the world that I’m living in today says that you do get away with it. The world I’m living in today says that you can bankrupt the world and be rewarded. It could be my comment on many things – the banking crisis, the housing crisis, the global economic melt down, and capitalism run amuck.
How does this relate to Dennis’ character?
Bahrini: In the film, it’s leaving Henry as kind of a hollowed out man. He’s gotten all the things he wanted. He’s Number One. He has a kid. But, he’s begging the audience to tell him he’s a happy man. Someone has to convince him that’s he’s happy.
Quaid: It’s a lot about the subject we’ve been talking about. What kind of world do we live in today and where do we fit into it and at what price is it worth it for me to get ahead.
Did you ever know anyone similar to Henry?
Quaid: I’ve known people a little similar to Henry but the farmers that I met there were really warm, good-hearted people but this just happened to be Henry’s character.
As a dad could you relate to any of the struggles Henry has with his son?
Quaid: My oldest son Jack would be the nearest in age but we have a much different relationship than Zac’s character. Henry is trying to pass down this farm to him which is the tradition in farming because there is actually a legacy to give, which is the land. I got it from my father and he got it from his father but Dean wants to be racecar driver, not at all like my relationship with Jack. Jack is an actor. (laughter)
What if one of your kids wanted to be a racecar driver or another dangerous sport?
Quaid: I would like my kids to follow their bliss. What are you going to do once they get it in their heads?
Bahrini: We’re living in this time period where if a kid is on a plastic scooter that’s one inch off the ground, the mom and dad thinks he should have a helmet on. I don’t think they should have a helmet on. I think they should break their leg and have an imagination otherwise we’re going to have a nation of accountants. (laughter)
Quaid: Or lawyers (laughter) to sue about the helmets. (laughter) We didn’t have any helmets when I was a kid.
You and Kimberly made international headlines when your newborn twins almost died after being given an overdose of the blood thinner Heparin. How are they and are you still an activist for preventing health care mistakes in hospitals?
Quaid: They’re doing great. They’re now five and ready to start kindergarten. I narrate some films that are used as training in hospitals for the medical staff.
How are you feeling about your acting career? Any thoughts of taking fewer jobs?
Quaid: I still have a fire in my belly to do it. I have more fire in my belly now than I had in my 20s. Also, I feel so lucky to still be here.
Is it getting more competitive to get roles?
Quaid: I think it’s about the same in any business in this country. There’s very stiff competition in the film business but you go to Main Street and Wal-Mart is coming to town and kicks out all the mom and pop stores and all the people who owned these stores are now working for Wal-Mart.
What is the secret to your long, successful career?
Quaid: Perseverance. That’s the only thing I can put it down to. Like I said, fire in the belly to do it.
With all the films you’ve done in your incredible career, is there one character that lingered after the shoot?
Quaid: I like to put them down after I’m done. In fact, I take a ritual bath after each film. (laughter) I really do where I scrub off and shave off and cut off the character and hopefully they won’t need reshoots. (laughter)
Do you enjoy watching your films?
Quaid: I’ve become immune to watching myself. I see a current movie that I’ve done a couple of times so I can talk about it because it’s usually been a year since you’ve done that film but occasionally I’ll be channel surfing and I go, hey, there’s “Innerspace.” When I watch a movie that I’ve been in, I usually like to remember what I was doing at that time and what was going on in my life.
The last time we met was when you were doing press for “Soul Surfer” and you had just moved back to Texas. Are you still based there?
Quaid: No, I moved back here because of the series “Vegas.”
What are you doing now?
Quaid: I’m taking a rest. It’s been eight months non-stop. I’ve been doing the series “Vegas” for seven or eight months and now we are doing a press tour for this, so I’m going to take some time off.
What’s your idea of rest?
Quaid: Get into that position. (indicates horizontal) (laughter) Hopefully some place warm and romantic.