Dennis Quaid on his Hollywood long game: "I never cared about having a Tom Cruise-type of career"

The actor on his period golf film, making music, why he loves "The Right Stuff" and producing passion projects

Published March 15, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Dennis Quaid in "The Long Game" (Courtesy of Anita Gallón )
Dennis Quaid in "The Long Game" (Courtesy of Anita Gallón )

Dennis Quaid has a supporting role as Frank Mitchell, a golf coach in the new film, "The Long Game," which just had its world premiere at SXSW. This inspirational sports drama recounts real-life efforts of a Mexican American high school golf team that went on to win the Texas State Championship in 1957. Because of racism, these youths could caddy and work as grounds crew at an elite (i.e., all-white) country club, but it was impossible for them — or the team's founder JB (Jay Hernandez) — to become members. 

"Life is not fair, and neither is golf."

Quaid and his wife Laura produced the film as part of their newly formed production company, Bonniedale. It is the latest development in the actor's  decades-long career, which has included appearances in high profile films ("The Right Stuff," "Any Given Sunday"), Hollywood hits ("The Day After Tomorrow,") misses ("The Alamo"), indies ("Far from Heaven"), remakes ("D.O.A," "The Parent Trap," "Footloose") and family films ("The Rookie," and "A Dog's Purpose"). He also had worked in almost every genre including Westerns ("The Long Riders," "Wyatt Earp") to sci-fi ("Enemy Mine," "Pandorum"). 

Quaid is best when he is being affable or wily on screen as his turn as Remy McSwain in "The Big Easy" attests. The actor is irresistibly charismatic, charming, and slightly devious as he flashes his megawatt smile and emphasizes his aw-shucks demeanor. He also received strong notices for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis in "Great Balls of Fire!" and playing another slippery character, Henry Whipple, in Ramin Bahrani's "At Any Price," a mannered performance polarized audiences and critics.  

In recent years, Quaid has become reliable in supporting roles such as his baddie in "The Intruder," or as Coach Dick Vermeil in "American Underdog." He also appeared in "Blue Miracle," which was directed by Julio Quintana, who helmed "The Long Game."

Quaid chatted with Salon from SXSW about his new film and about the long game that has been his career.

I understand you are an avid golfer. What is the appeal of the sport? Is it fitness, is it meditative, mental or more stress relief?

It's all of that. I only play it once a day. It's something you'll never conquer. You can always get better at. You will never reach the end of it. It is so ephemeral. You can be hitting the ball great and then right in the middle of the round it will leave you. It can be very brutal at times. It's like life. Life is not fair, and neither is golf. 

You have trended to making sports films throughout your career. In addition to "The Long Game," there is "Any Given Sunday," "Everybody's All-American," "The Rookie," "American Underdogs," "The Express." Why do you have such an affinity for those parts and stories?

I don't know! In high school, I never made the football team, which in Texas, is a rite of passage. So, I wound up in the drama club. It wasn't until I was in my 30s and 40s when I started playing sports people. I like sports films. In "The Rookie," Jay Hernandez played one of my character's student-players, and now in "The Long Game," he's the coach. It has come full circle. 

Frank gives a speech in "The Long Game" about playing by the rules, and how he regrets following them. Can you describe a situation when you felt it was right to break the rules?  

"I break the rules — then I question authority."

I'm not a very good rule follower in life, I must admit. There is something about rules that rankles me. I have rules in my house with my kids. There are some principles in life to live by. Trying to do the best you can, find something you love to do and figure out a way to get paid for it. Scream against the dying of the light. [Laughs]

I like to say that I follow the rules, but question authority.

That's a great way to put it. I break the rules — then I question authority.

You first came to prominence in the late '70s with two back-to-back ensemble films "Breaking Away," and "The Long Riders," the latter costarring your brother, Randy. You also received strong notices playing astronaut Gordon Cooper in "The Right Stuff." These were ensemble films. Can you talk about trying to find your footing as a leading man in Hollywood? 

It was always because of story. "The Right Stuff" is my favorite movie I have ever done. I grew up in Houston with the astronauts, and I wanted so much to be a part of that film. I like doing ensemble films. It feels good. I like doing leads too. I tried not to pigeonhole myself or get typecast in my career. I think I've been fairly successful at it. I just want to have a great time. 

I think you are great in modest films, "The Big Easy," which is being rereleased on DVD soon, as well as "At Any Price" and "Smart People." You made the underseen war film, "Savior," which I expect was a passion project. What observations do you have about your smaller film choices?

I'm really glad that I made them. They paid off career-wise sometimes, but that's not the reason I do them. It's about being a part of something, a story I want to tell that in the mainstream you just can't do, which is what independent film used to be. Now, indie film is more for streaming which has become boutique like that.

You had what might be called a comeback with "The Rookie," which was followed by a performance in "Far from Heaven" that generated Oscar buzz . . .

"Far from Heaven" paid off coming out in the same year as "The Rookie" which was about second chances in life. I was kind of living that at the time. 

You followed these by the underperforming "The Alamo" and a blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow." What are your thoughts about the ups and downs of your career? 

"Phil Kaufman took nine months to shoot 'The Right Stuff,' and I never wanted it to end."

I never cared about having a Tom Cruise-type of career. And I wanted to do the things that interested me. And certainly, I wanted everyone in the world to see the films when they come out — that's a natural way to be — but it's not the be-all and end-all. The only time that I really enjoy what I do is when I actually am doing it. Working with good people and not thinking about how it's going to do. The older I get, the more I enjoy it because I'm not trying to get anywhere. It might seem like ups and down from the outside, if you look at box office, or even critics, but I had my reasons for doing them. For me, the experience of making a film is completely different from everyone else. If I see myself in a film I did when I am channel surfing, I remember what I was doing that day. That's what it's about for me.

You made a lot of remakes. I remember "D.O.A.," and "Flight of the Phoenix" . . .

"D.O.A." was a film without a rudder. It didn't know exactly what it wanted to be other than neo-gothic. But "Flight of the Phoenix," it was great to be in Africa.

You have also shifted to playing in more family-oriented films. "Yours, Mine & Ours," "Soul Surfer," "Footloose," "A Dog's Purpose" and even "The Long Game." Was that a conscious career move? 

Kinda, sorta, in a way. I was the bad boy in the '80s, and I grew older, and got sober, and had kids, and I got "The Parent Trap." Kids grew up watching "The Parent Trap" on their VHS 40-50 times and they would show it to their kids. It's a great way to keep your career going. I didn't make that film for my children. It was a classic, and a remake. I remember the effect it had on me as a kid. I really like that movie. 

You are a musician and have performed in "Great Balls of Fire!" "The Big Easy" and other films, like "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia." Do you still have musical aspirations?  

Yeah, I'm still playing. I toured last year. I live in Nashville now and I just made a gospel record that is coming out. I did it with Johnny Cash's last band. It's called "Fallen." It's a gospel record for sinners. I am going to do an Americana record this year. 

What is the appeal of producing now? Are you looking to do more behind-the-scenes work at this stage in your career?

My wife Laura and I and our partner Ben Howard started Bonniedale about a year and a half ago, and "The Long Game" is our first film out of the box. And it's exciting to be here at SXSW. I like the idea of producing because I am good at putting people together, and I've learned a lot about the business for as long as I've been doing it. Producing is not so day to day. Directing is the hardest job there is because you are the first one there and the last one out, and all you do is worry about weather. I like producing, and I love working with Laura and Ben. We're working towards getting things made. I don't need to direct. I love to work with directors, but I'd rather produce. We have the Charley Pride story on the burner. We got the rights from Charley and knew him during the last years of his life. We got a few other things going on, such as this book "Talking to the Sky," by Aimee Mayo, a songwriter in Nashville. She was one of the first women songwriters to come along in an age that totally belonged to men. 

Producing is really exciting. You want to hand a project off to a director you trust. It's like birthing them and giving the films their start. You work on story, the writer, the director, and the casting, even the marketing. We don't have a distributor for "The Long Game" yet. But being here at SWSX, we just might! 

Yes, I hope folks can see "The Long Game" . . .

It's hard to believe this story happened in 1956. These kids were caddying in a country club where they could not play, and they really did win the state championship in their first year. One of the players, who is now in his 80s, came to the set and really brought it home. The home movies in the film are the real guys back then. It's authentic to its time. It was a time of segregation. We see how far we've come, and where we are now.

What are your criteria for taking on a project?

I mainly take films because the story makes you feel something. When I read a script, it's the only time that I'm ever going to have a first-time experience of that story as an audience member. I've done enough movies that I can tell whether the story holds up and how it affects me. I don't have to be the lead in it; that's one great thing about ensembles. 

Do you have a particular favorite film or films, or directors?

Phil Kaufman took nine months to shoot "The Right Stuff," and I never wanted it to end. I learned to fly. I still fly airplanes and jets. "The Rookie," "The Big Easy." "Breaking Away," for sure, "The Parent Trap." I've had a couple of films in each decade that I really love. That's a pretty good track record. Better than batting percentage in baseball. [Laughs]

Is there a film you wish that did better?

A bunch of them for sure were right there, but it just didn't strike. I won't go into those. What can I do about it now? "The Right Stuff" was a bomb when it came out, but then it became a classic. That's why to get any satisfaction, you have to focus on the enjoyment of doing it rather than on how it does at the box office and all these things I can't control.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Bonniedale Dennis Quaid Golf Interview Movies The Long Game The Right Stuff