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A man's man

A man's man

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Sexy leading man Dennis Quaid talks about surviving drama club, what went wrong with Meg, and playing a married gay man in Todd Haynes's acclaimed new film, Far From Heaven

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?

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