Dennis Quaid: I can be a really embarrassing dad if I want to be

Eighties pin-up Dennis Quaid’s latest role is in the feelgood A Dog’s Purpose. He talks to Ella Walker about past lives, being an embarrassing dad and why dogs really are man’s best friend.

Dennis Quaid, at first, is not so friendly.

He rubs his eyes continuously (blame the jetlag), his answers are short (if not snappy), but switch tack and ask him what kind of parent he is and he collapses into giddy laughter.

“Oh, I can be a really embarrassing dad if I want to be!” says the father-of-three. 

“I take such glee in it. Just let your 11- or 12-year-old out [of the car] and start to walk into school and, just as they meet their friends, you turn up Radio Disney really loud and say, ‘Hey!’”

He can’t stop guffawing. Get Texas-born Quaid, 63, considering the deeper stuff and he unfurls even further, becoming frank, insightful and rather witty.

“It’s a fleeting thing, it’s not who you really are,” he says of fame. 

“It doesn’t make anybody any better, or stronger, or faster. It’s not a superhero power, being famous; sometimes it seems that way, because it’s good for restaurant reservations — really good for that!”

He’s passionate about cinema being a force for good — “Either the world’s scary or somebody’s life is scary; it’s a place to go and dream and forget about you, or the world, or see that the world is a beautiful place” — and is committed to sharing his past struggles with anorexia and cocaine.

“A lot of people do go through it,” he reasons, “and a lot of people are maybe looking to get out of it, thinking it’s an endless road, so why not tell my story? That’s part of getting through it, to tell your story — because being in it is all about hiding.”

For Quaid, cinema is about storytelling, and articulating emotions (“I don’t like to go and be educated, I like to go and feel things in the movies,” he notes), hence his latest film project, A Dog’s Purpose, directed by Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat).

It’s a story of unconditional love, between a boy called Ethan and his dog, Bailey, who happens to have multiple lives, based on the book by W. Bruce Cameron.

Quaid hadn’t read it, but when his agent began explaining the story, “he got about four or five sentences in and I started to well up, and I said, ‘Stop, I’m going to do it’,” the actor recalls.

“I had one of those relationships with a dog when I was a kid,” adds Quaid, who plays the adult version of Ethan. 

“That classic boy-dog relationship with my basset hound, Gertrude; she knew my thoughts, we were together all the time, and I still think of her today.”

A certified ‘dog man’, he currently has two French bulldogs, Batman and Gidget, and wasn’t worried about working with pups on-screen.

“[Comedian] W.C. Fields said don’t work with kids or animals, because they’re scene-stealers, but they were fantastic to work with,” says Quaid, showcasing his trademark, side-mouth grin. 

“The dogs were so eager, they’re not all self-involved like a lot of actors...”

While A Dog’s Purpose follows one pooch through many incarnations, Quaid is circumspect on the idea of humans having multiple lives.

“I have had that feeling, just like a lot of people, that I may have had past lives,” he muses.

 “I don’t know, I’m enjoying the one I’m currently having, but I think it’s quite possible.”

When nudged on what his past lives might have looked like, he shakes his head and offers: “I was probably doing something shady...”

Quaid’s film career began in the late-Seventies but really took off in the Eighties, when he snagged roles in Breaking Away, The Big Easy and The Right Stuff.

A 10-year marriage to actress Meg Ryan followed, as well as major roles in The Parent Trap, The Rookie and the acclaimed 2002 movie Far From Heaven, alongside Julianne Moore.

When asked about the impact his face (that grin, those cheekbones) has had — and still has — on his career, he practically yells: “Heart-throb? Heart-throb at 63?! Hell no!

“If someone wants to throw out their heart over me, that’s fine,” he teases, before adding: “No, it’s also what got me in the door, playing romantic leads, but I’ve always considered myself an actor of characters.”

The Eighties already feel like a past life, he admits. 

“Well, yeah, because the money was rollin’ back then!” Quaid says with a laugh. 

“It’s a different world now in film than it was, and it’s good that it keeps changing.” He describes how, every decade of his career so far, the focus has shifted — from the director to the ‘movie star’ era, to the time of the producers and agencies, and now, “it’s the age of television — it’s basically running the show”.

Quaid’s a total convert, from being on the box himself (in Sky Atlantic sci-fi thriller Fortitude) to binge-watching The Crown (“I really, really loved it”), and being miffed that doing press for A Dog’s Purpose has interrupted his Westworld marathon back home in the US.

You’d never guess he spent so much time on the sofa. For a man in his seventh decade, Quaid’s undeniably trim. 

He puts it down to being “blessed” with a high metabolism, and the fact he was a runner for 35 years, until he switched to cycling, “because it’s easier on the knees - and I feel like I’m 12 years old when I get on my bike”.

Age doesn’t terrify him though, and so far, he hasn’t felt his options choked by the date on his birth certificate. “There’s always roles for older people, you just play different things going through life, that’s what keeps it interesting.”

As he stands up to leave, shrugging his jacket back on, Quaid adds: “Find something you love to do and figure out how to get paid for it — that’s the key to life.”

A Dog’s Purpose is in cinemas now

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