Interview: Dennis Quaid of 'At Any Price'
'Well, there's the movie that you read, and the movie that you make, and then the movie that comes out, sometimes.'
His voice strained from a day of interviews, Dennis Quaid still has the mobile face and aw-shucks manner that's made him not just a star but a presence -- a familiar face we like to see again and again, a leading man's good looks tempered with a goofy and light sense of humor. In "At Any Price," written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, Quaid is Henry Whipple, a farmer and seed salesman whose hearty demeanor hides a desperation to do what it takes to get ahead -- even as he fights and feuds with his would-be race-car driver son Dean (Zac Efron). We spoke with Quaid in Los Angeles about working with Bahrani, what he learned about farming and what he looks for in a script ...
MSN Movies: The first thing I want to ask is ... I mean, you are in fact Dennis Quaid; you get sent a lot of things. What is the number one thing a script can do to make you express interest in it?
Dennis Quaid: When I get a script it's the only time that I get to be an audience member with the first-time experience of that movie. That's the first and only time.
And if I feel compelled, or it really makes me have a belly laugh, or I find it very interesting, and the characters and the story, but it's really the story.
How did this project come to you? I mean, were you familiar with Mr. Bahrani's work?
I'm just not familiar with Ramin's work before this. And you know I got sent the script, and I read it. And yeah, then a package of the first three... And it's a very interesting story; it's not your typical farm movie. It takes a lot ... you think you're going to be reading one kind of movie or seeing one kind of movie, but it goes in a very different direction. So after reading it I wasn't familiar with Ramin's work, so I got sent "Chop Shop," "Goodbye Solo," and "Man Push Cart," if you've seen his films, and they really sold me. I really wanted to work with him after that. His films reminded me of films really from the '70s that I cut my teeth on. And his use of non-actors and the performances that he got out of them? That kid in "Chop Shop" was like, I told Ramin, I said, "If you can get a performance out of me like you got out of that kid, that's really what I want," 'cause that kid's just being. He wasn't even acting, you know?
Yeah. There's always something really interesting in the film and in your career in that you will show up with a smile and a grin and then say the horrible thing that nobody wants to be said. You will show up at a funeral to try to convince people to sell you land.
But it's so gleefully shameless on the part of the character; or rather, because it's you, it's sort of agreeably shameless. How do you play moments like that?
Oh well, I don’t know. You just play the truth of the moment. I mean that was Henry. In a way I think he's really at the beginning kind of an unlikable character the way he goes about doing things. Zac Efron's character who plays my son is really kind of embarrassed by the whole thing. But it works.
Right. If this were a movie made in like the '80s and it had Mel Gibson, like "The River" -- there's always movies that revolve around the collapse of the American agricultural system ...
Right, where you have the inspirational music playing while they're foreclosing on the farm, and this is a very, very different story than that.
Right, because the subtext in this is maybe you're doing too much to keep everything afloat.
But Wall Street has come to America's heartland really. The only thing missing are the skyscrapers, you know?
And very much like Walmart has come to Main Street and nudging out all the mom and pop stores that are there because they're bigger and they can sell more and they can fertilizer cheaper.
And they get the economies of scale a large operation affords.
Yeah. And now with farming you have these really warm, good-hearted people who feel the pressure of the mantras that we would hear down there was, "Get big or get out. Expand or die." You know you expand a farm -- which requires more land, which requires more large equipment, which kind of pits neighbor against neighbor because it's also emptying out the towns in a sense. It takes like five people to run thousands of acres farms. The pressure is to get ahead and keep that way of life in this sense. and in Henry's case , it's corrupted.
I mean but the thing is as somebody points out in the film, when you're in a combine with GPS and air conditioning and a pretty good sound system it's hard to feel like you're in Grant Wood's American Gothic working the soil with a pitchfork.
What did you learn about farming that you didn't necessarily know?
These farmers, I mean it's besides (the fact) they're very hard working people. They are. But they're also very sophisticated businessmen who go to seminars in Taiwan and were checking the commodity market on their smart phones and really know the business on a global level.
And when you go somewhere to shoot are you somebody who just hunkers in, stays in the trailer, or are you somebody who like goes out and tries to find like the best burger in town or the good solid place to get a Dr. Pepper?
(Laughs) I always want to find the best burger in town. But besides that this was a low-budget film. My trailer was actually my car, and the living room couch of the people, of the Herman's, whose farm we shot on. (Laughs)
They let me lay on the living room couch and watch television in between.
The other day "G.I. Joe" was on the TV, and I thought "God, I forgot Dennis Quaid was in that." I mean, when you vacillate between that with its magnitude of production and something like this where your trailer's your car, do you like that? Do you find it keeps you like a little bit sharp in a way?
Yeah. Well it's about ... my only strategy I've ever had in my career is to do as many different types of roles as possible, as many different types of genres. It keeps the fire in my belly.
Are you someone who can like read a script and go, "I have a general idea of what this film is going to look and feel like," or are someone who really wants to see the finished cut?
Well, there's the movie that you read, and the movie that you make, and then the movie that comes out, sometimes. But generally it's the movie that you read. And the only time that I have a chance to be like an audience member with the first time experience of that film is when I read it.
Right, because after that you just sort of go over it and go over it and go over it.
Yeah, and that's really where I have my judgment or the attraction comes about: Is it a compelling story? Does it make me have belly laughs? How does it make me feel?"
"Am I eager to see somebody float around inside Martin Short in a miniaturized submarine? It doesn't have to be me. I just want to see that."
Right, exactly. Yeah. (Laughs)
Mr. Efron, I don’t think he gets enough credit for his actual skill set. When you look at what he does, you see those things that people think aren't tough but are, like being a gifted physical comedic actor as he's done in other stuff. In this he takes his time, he gets his scenes, he nails the moment in them...
Oh, he's so incredible in this.
Did you find him to be super present and not acting like somebody who would just arrive by accident via the Disney machine?
Exactly, you know. I mean that's what he's known for mainly. He's really making an effort at carving out a different position for himself. He arrived at the set. He's very dedicated, very humble actually, young man, and he's a great actor. I mean and you really can see that in this film. I think it made me better working with him. And also there's those moments of silences where the camera just lingers on him, and you can see so much in his face. It tells a story without saying anything.
Kim Dickens, Heater Graham, this has a great cast in it. But you're probably the type of person who's normally one of the first actors attached to a film. When you get a great cast falling into place around you do you go, "Oh, thank God"?
Of course. Of course. We had so much trust in Ramin for that, 'cause he's got such a great eye.
In the final moment we have before they burst in the door and throw me out, just really briefly, when I talk to people with a filmography as distinguished as yours, which is the best possible adjective, the question I ask is this: Which one of your films when you stumble across at channel surfing are you most likely to leave on and enjoy in spite of the fact that involves watching yourself?
I'd probably have to say "The Right Stuff." That comes on and I just, that's my favorite film for me 'cause I judge movies by the experience of having made them more than my performance, which I could see right through.
And that film was just ... I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. I grew up in Houston. Gordo Cooper was my favorite astronaut. The experience of making it was I got my pilot's license, Chuck Yeager was on the set every day, and I think it's a great film.