A man's man

By Alonso Duralde

Originally published on Advocate.com October 14 2002 11:00 PM ET

Some studio mogul
or other once said that Clark Gable was a star because
he was a man whom men wanted to be and women wanted to be
with. Dennis Quaid exudes that same sort of easygoing
appeal. Ever since he was discovered by gay director
James Bridges for his 1978 death-of-James-Dean saga,
September 30, 1955, Quaid’s charming
smile, manly mien, and general guy-next-door oomph
have made him a dependably charismatic leading man in
movies as far-ranging as The Right Stuff, Postcards
From the Edge,
and The Parent Trap. While the
tabloids hovered all over the 2001 breakup of his
decade-long marriage to Meg Ryan, Quaid has had a
succession of great roles in Traffic, Frequency, The
Rookie,
and HBO’s Dinner With Friends.

This fall Quaid
appears in a role that’s unlike anything he’s
ever played before—a 1950s suburban husband
tormented by his inability to control his homosexual
longings in out auteur Todd Haynes’s Far From
Heaven.
Quaid’s Frank Whitaker seemingly
has it all—perfect wife Cathy (Julianne Moore),
two adoring children, even a maid and a gardener. But his
outwardly perfect life begins to crumble when Cathy
discovers him making love to another man, leading her
to turn to their “Negro” gardener,
Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), for friendly, platonic
support. Small-town, small-minded gossip soon follows.

Far From Heaven is a stylish and captivating homage
to the postwar melodramas of director Douglas Sirk,
whose lush Technicolor films, often starring gay icon
Rock Hudson (Written on the Wind, Magnificent
Obsession
), also inspired queer director Rainer Werner
Fassbinder. Sirk’s passion for exposing the
hypocrisy of rigid social convention makes his movies
a natural source for Haynes’s razor-sharp
storytelling—Haysbert’s gardener in Far
From Heaven,
in fact, is almost a direct copy
of the character Hudson plays in Sirk’s All That
Heaven Allows.
Over Cokes at the Toronto Film
Festival, the Houston-born Quaid had a lot to say
about the role and about the many gay men he’s
known over the years.

Was it ironic at all that you were playing what, in a
Sirk movie, would probably be the Rock Hudson
character as a man who…?

The thing is, I don’t play the Rock
Hudson character. Dennis Haysbert really plays the
Rock Hudson character. But it was a very different type
of role for me. I ate it up.

And you really committed to the role.
I thought it was a very interesting type of situation
this character was in. I have friends in my life who
were trapped in the exact same thing, actually.
Certainly back in the ’50s, I think it happened a lot
more. I remember there was a girlfriend of mine back in high
school whose father was in the closet and finally came
out. I’ve known about two or three others in my
life that I’ve been friends with and this happened
to.

Was there anything tangible for you to draw from their
experiences in making this film?

Yeah. Sort of the emotional pain that they went
through and the whole process of coming out and
turning their whole life upside down. I sort of
related it to my own life—trying to finally
just…finally surrendering to who you are.

And who are you?
[Chuckles] Well, you are who you are, and
you can’t deny who you are. That’s the
thing. Maybe you don’t know who you are—I
don’t think any of us really do, and
it’s a process—but we certainly know what
we’re not when we’re living that way.
And that’s an impossible way to live.

What was happening in your life that you realized
wasn’t working?
Well, for me, it was drugs. It was cocaine, which I did
for 15 years. I’ve been off that for 12 years.
To me, that was sort of living a lie.

Cocaine sort of encourages that kind of behavior.
Yeah. But as far as—I’m not gay
myself—but as far as playing this character, it
was, for me, one thing. We’re attracted to whomever
we’re attracted to. We can’t help loving
the people we love, and we can’t help being
attracted to what we’re attracted to.

But when it came to the shooting day of
“You’re kissing this guy all
afternoon,” was that tricky?

It turned out to be kind of funny, to tell you
the truth. When we first started the scene, like the
first kiss, it was like we really wanted each other in
sort of a very passionate way, which is really kind of like,
I guess, two linebackers butting heads.
[Laughs] So Todd had to come over and go,
“Hey, guys—it’s a ’50s screen
kiss.” So we had to tone it down a bit.

You used to always hear about agents telling their
clients not to play gay roles.

No, my agent wanted me to do this role. I
don’t know if that really exists anymore. In
fact, I’ve seen this sort of progress in some
people’s careers. Greg Kinnear is also a good
friend of mine, and that role [in As Good as It
Gets
] did great things for him. I mean, gay people
play straight people, so why can’t straight people
play gay people? Like I say, for me, it’s all
love and it’s all part of the human experience.
And maybe it’s been done before, but I haven’t
seen a story where the guy is married with kids and in
the closet.

It hasn’t been shown a lot, and certainly not
portrayed this way, in the trappings of a melodrama.

I think that one thing that Todd did—and
what really made this film—is that you can tell
people this situation, these characters, and what the
movie’s about, and you start to laugh because it
sounds like a tongue-in-cheek situation, that you
might be parodying Douglas Sirk, but [Haynes’s]
tone was done with complete sincerity. He had sensitivity to
what the characters were going through. That’s what
attracted me to it to begin with; I knew that when I
read it.

Did making this film change your point of view of gay
people at all?

No, not really, ’cause I’ve had
gay friends throughout my life. In fact, when I was in
high school, my two best friends were gay. I was the first
straight person they came out of the closet to. I kind of
went through it with them telling their parents and
all that. This was back in the ’60s in Texas,
so it was a really shocking thing. One friend, his father
threatened to kill him—an “I gave you life, I
can take it away” sort of thing. And the other
guy really struggled with being straight; in fact, he
got married and had kids, his wife knowing that he was
[gay]. He tried to be bisexual at one point in his
life, and now he lives with his lover, and he’s
still very much a devoted father and everything. But he
worked it out.

As a parent yourself, have you thought about if you have
to have that talk if your son comes out?

We’ve had that talk.

Really?
Yeah. My son is 10, and kids know more than they used
to. I guess back when I was growing up, it was just
sort of kept hidden away, but Jack, with him
it’s an open thing. There are some people that are
homosexuals, that are gay and they like guys, and some girls
like girls, and we have friends who are like that. So
he’s been around it. Everything’s fine.
In fact, the other day he said, “How do you know if
you’re gay?” I said, “Well, let me ask
you a question: Are you attracted to girls, or are you
attracted to guys?” “Well, I’m
attracted to girls.” “Well, then
you’re not gay.”

Pretty cut-and-dried.
Certainly, if a child of mine turned out to be gay or
whatever, it wouldn’t change the way I love
him. But at the same time, I think it’s harder
to be gay in this world than to be heterosexual. For one
thing, I feel that it starts out with some shame in it
because society is geared that way, to make you feel
like it’s something you shouldn’t be. And I
think that’s what I kind of felt with my character
too—he was a person who was really in deep
shame about his behavior, especially because back then
there was no one to talk to about it, so there was this
secret life going on. I know that’s what I had
when I was doing blow all the time. I had this secret
life, and the way to overcome that shame was really to
have everything blown out of the water and really face
it.

Growing up in Texas, did you have the perception that you
could be gay and be a “man’s
man” as well?
Well, I’ve always been around gay
people—in drama, stuff I was in in high school.
So my family was probably worried about me. I didn’t
really have a girlfriend until I was 17.

That’s late for Texas. The joke is that high
school has a Head Start program for
gays—it’s called drama club.

We called them “drama mamas” in
Texas.

In the early part of your career, did you get hit on by directors?
Well, I remember at first I had a door-to-door
salesman’s job—I was about 17—I
used to get hit on a lot. And of course, in college dramas
there’s always—I got hit on quite a bit. My
friends were like, “Don’t you want to
just try it? I mean, how do you know? Haven’t you
ever been attracted to a man?”
[Laughs]

There’s also the interesting racial aspect to the
film. Growing up in Texas, was that a big issue?
Oh, yeah. I remember all the riots on television all the
time, all the buildup going on in ’68, and
everything being burned down after King died. There
was a lot of tension in the air. But I grew up with a black
housekeeper who was really like my second mom ’cause
my mom worked. So for me, it was never an issue. I
couldn’t understand why everybody
couldn’t get along. When people are afraid of
something else is when they really start attacking
gays and blacks, because they’re afraid. Afraid in
their ignorance.

So you moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and started working
pretty quickly—Breaking Away was in 1979?

Yeah, the first thing I did was with Jim
Bridges.

Right, September 30, 1955.

He gave me my first break. He died about six
years ago—six or seven years ago, something
like that.

Jack [Larson, Bridges’s partner] is still around.
Yeah, Jack’s still around. That was
another sort of obvious in-the-closet relationship.

Really? I always figured they were wide-open.
In some ways, I kind of felt—no, it
wasn’t. There was some protection around them.

Did the fact that this movie had to do with the
destructive nature of gossip attract you after
your very public split with Meg Ryan?

It didn’t really have anything to do with
me taking the movie or whatever. But I certainly went
through a lot the last couple of years. It’s
over now, but it really was not fun when it was happening.
You know, to let your marriage fall apart in front of
everybody.

Were people going through your garbage?
Yeah, I had people—I mean, I heard a door shut
outside the gate, a car door, and I’d go out to
check on it. And it’d be a van, and in the back
of the van there’d be a camera set up with a curtain
over it. I could see listening equipment—police
scanners, cell phone scanners. I felt like, Is my
house being bugged too? During our whole marriage
we’d never had any problems; there was nothing
to write about. So I counted myself lucky.

I’m wondering if two divorces [Quaid’s
first wife was actor P.J. Soles] makes you
hesitant to date any more actresses.

No, not really. I mean, I’m with somebody
right now who’s not an actress. But, no,
I’m an actor myself. I don’t know about
marrying another actor, because it’s the whole
thing of being separated all the time. Especially when
you start having kids, even when one stays at home.
You’re never together, and to me, that’s
the real reason our marriage disintegrated, because of
not enough time spent together. We were better parents than
we were married.

So here’s
what a lot of Advocate readers probably want to
know—what’s your workout? I work
out? [Laughs] I started doing pull-ups when I was 17
years old. And because I’ve got the stomach for
it, I was boxing for about 10, 15 years as a way of
working out. And now I do yoga and run. Lately I
haven’t been doing that. With the abs, the key is not
to lose them, ’cause once you lose them
they’re really hard to get back.

If an actor you knew was queer told you,
“I’m thinking about coming
out,” would you say “Great” or
“Think about it” or…?
I would say “Great.” Because I think
it’s more important for a person to be happy
first. The reason we do our careers or whatever is because
we should proceed at what we are happiest doing. If we
can’t be happy as people first, we
aren’t going to be happy in anything else, and part
of that is denying who we really are. To be able to
live as who you are—and in spite of
it—that’s the only way you’re really
going to have any kind of happiness in this world. And
peace with yourself, you know what I mean?