For Quaid, Being a 'Big Deal' Is No Longer a Big Deal

"Really the only satisfaction I get from my work is doing it," says Dennis Quaid, with Ellen Page in "Smart People."
"Really the only satisfaction I get from my work is doing it," says Dennis Quaid, with Ellen Page in "Smart People." (By Bruce Birmelin/miramax Films)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008; Page WE33

Dennis Quaid is 53. He has been in the business for 35 years and has more than 60 movies to his name. In his latest, "Smart People," he looks awful: creaky, disaffected, worn. In real life, he has settled into this conclusion: "I'm never going to be the big deal."

He delivers that sentence like a punch line. And follows through with a full, husky laugh -- soundtrack to the singular image of Quaid's face, curling into that joker's smile.

So he'll never be the big deal: Life, he insists, "is better than it's ever been."

"I'm no longer on my way up," he says. "I'm not trying to become something or achieve something or be something. I'm just, um, enjoying what I do."

Lately he has been doing a lot. Quaid made four movies last year, including "Smart People," a melodrama in which he appears opposite Sarah Jessica Parker and Ellen Page as a curmudgeonly English professor who has receded into a shell of petulance after his wife's death.

"I saw him as somebody who's sleepwalking through life. Somebody who's lost his way as far as the fire in his belly . . . which I think happens to all of us at some point," he muses on the phone from New York hours before the film's premiere. "I know it's happened to me."

Quaid still vividly recalls his first week of college at the University of Houston, when he fell in love with acting. Ten years later, after some easy, early success, he was in his 30s and always "one movie away from being the big deal."

"And that one movie never happened, actually," he says, laughing again. Then came a 1990 stint in rehab, a year off that turned into two, an unheralded return and a stretch of something like sleepwalking.

Quaid continued to make movies, but "it became a real struggle," he says. Until, one day, it just wasn't. He considers 2002 (the year "The Rookie" and "Far From Heaven" were released) as a turning point. The films were well received, but more important, it's when he decided to focus on having fun with his work and that "being the big deal doesn't really matter anymore."

He apologizes for tripping over cliches as he talks about his career, but here it comes: "Really the only satisfaction I get from my work is doing it," he says. "I'm having more fun now at my craft than I did when I was in college."

The opportunities coming his way lately are abundant, diverse and more interesting than anything he can recall from his hot-shot, 30-something period. Last year, in addition to "Smart People," he made "Vantage Point," an action flick released in February; "The Express," a 1960s-era drama about Ernie Davis, the first black football player to win a Heisman Trophy, slated for release in October; and a dark thriller called "The Horsemen," expected to be released in August.

Along with the work, there is perspective. Quaid says he worries less now, doesn't "take things so seriously and with so much weight as I used to -- except for the things that deserve it." Things like his relationships with 16-year-old son Jack, from his marriage to actress Meg Ryan, and his wife, Kimberly Buffington, and their twin babies, Thomas and Zoe, who were born in November and given a dangerous overdose of an anti-clotting drug, but today are completely healthy. (Quaid started a foundation dedicated to preventing medical errors and has sued Baxter International, maker of the blood thinner.)

He's in cliche territory again, but Quaid posits that this -- all the good, and the ability to appreciate it -- might not exist without the bad. That without one or the other, a fellow might get stuck and end up missing out on "finding new things in life . . . keeping alive that feeling of discovery."

Like that discovery about never being the big deal. And the one that came after that: "This is just what I do, you know -- and I love doing it."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company