Dennis Quaid Interview – THE EXPRESS

     October 7, 2008

Every year, one of the big movie studios produce a sports movie that’s meant to not only teach you about our countries past, but to pull a few heart strings while they’re at it. This year is no different, as Universal is releasing “The Express” this Friday, and it’s a football movie based on the life of Ernie Davis – the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Here’s the official synopsis:

Based ona true story, The Express follows theextraordinary life ofcollege football hero Ernie Davis (Rob Brown).

Raised in poverty in Pennsylvania coal-mining country, Davis hurdled social and economic obstacles to becomeone of the greatest running backs in college football history. Under the guidance of legendary Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), he became a hero who superseded Jim Brown’s achievements and set records that stand to this day.

Decorated veteran Schwartzwalder was a Southerner with a single vision of a national championship and hardened ideas about how the world worked. But though he and Davis clashed mightily, he taught the player everything he knew about football, just as Davis helped him learn the true meaning of victory.

As the growing civil rights movement divided the country in the ’60s, Davis became a symbol for achievement that transcended race. Refusing to flinch from others’ prejudices, he achieved all his goals—until he faced a challenge that would make most men crumble. He joined the ranks of black pioneers by teaching a generation tolerance, inspiring a movement that smashed barriers on and off the field.

Anyway, I recently had the chance to participate in a roundtable interview with Dennis Quad and it’s below. In the film, Dennis plays Coach Ben Schwartzwalder and it’s a solid performance from someone that always delivers. Dennis is one of those guys that never mails it in…

So when we got to speak with him…of course we asked about his involvement in next summer’s “G.I. Joe” movie. While he didn’t tell us a lot…he does say a few interesting things…

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the interview by clicking here. And if you want to watch some movie clips from “The Express,” click here.

Q: Were you surprised by the success of Vantage Point?

DQ: Yes, I was. I really like that movie. I like the story of it and the Rashomon of it. It was really interesting for me. I only had like 17 lines of dialogue in it. I got a great chase sequence.

Q: Why this movie?

DQ: It was the story. I didn’t really know about Ernie Davis to tell you the truth. I’d heard his name but I didn’t really know about him or Ben Schwartzwelder before. I read the script and the story hit me. The script hit me right in the gut and the heart, a place where I really don’t have words. It’s inspiring. Also, it’s about more than football. Even if you don’t like sports, I think there’s something in it for you because it is an inspiring story. You take The Rookie, movies that I do that are sport movies, they have to be about more than the sport. They have to transcend the sport. The Rookie was about second chances in life. The Express really I think is about living your life gracefully. If God’s grace is bestowed upon you, you live your life to its full effect. Ernie Davis really embodied that.

Q: Are you particularly drawn to periods in history?

DQ: No, but I keep getting put there for some reason. I’ve done a lot of movies in the ’50s and early ’60s for some reason. I don’t know why.

Q: Did this overlap with Vantage Point?

DQ: No, actually I did like four movies in a row, beginning with Vantage Point. The Express was the last one in that line. Vantage Point was released, it was a while before it was released. In fact, Vantage Point came out and then I was on another film or just finished a film and I just started this.

Q: You work on multiple films at the same time?

DQ: I am. That’s the reason my answers are little confusing. I’ve done three more since then too.

Q: Growing up in Houston, did you witness a lot of prejudice?

DQ: Yeah, I did. I remember the segregation and the racism which was certainly more overt in the south of that era. I grew up in Houston and I remember separate restrooms and drinking fountains. Black people sat in the balcony of the movie theater with separate concession stands. My generation I think started to question that and certainly the civil rights movement came long and it really started to bubble up. But that was the way things were. The character I play, Ben Schwartzwalder, which I also found interesting because therein lies the conflict I think in the film. By today’s standards, I think he would be labeled a racist. I think he was a man of his times. I think most white Americans would be labeled racist based on what the attitudes were back then. We tried to approach the question of race and segregation that existed. We tried to approach it honestly and not be so politically correct about it.

Q: He seemed more complex than that.

DQ: Well, he was a complex person. He was a groundbreaker in the sense that he was one of the first coaches to actively recruit African-American players to his team. But it wasn’t any kind of sociological reason or anything like that.

Q: They could play.

DQ: They could play. He and Jim Brown butted heads and before that, there was Aveda Stone who was at the school. He made the mistake of dating a white cheerleader. That was just a line you didn’t cross. Ben certainly didn’t stand up for him or anything. So that’s what I mean about he was a man of his times.

Q: He evolved though?

DQ: Yeah, he evolved. I think more than anything else, it was because of the personal relationship that he had with Ernie. I think Ernie changed him. He certainly made Ernie a better player and gave to him this mentor but they became kind of a father and son. But really, in a way, the movie speaks I think to today and where we still are yet to go. When Ernie picks up that bottle at the end and says, “You see this bottle? It has no label on it.” He didn’t start out to be the best Black running back. He wanted to be the best running back.

Q: Research challenges?

DQ: Well, I had really great access, the best you could get was Jim Brown. He was a friend of mine from we did Any Given Sunday together, played a lot of golf together. So he was really valuable. He’s a straight talker and told me what Jim was like and his own relationship with Ben where they really kind of butted heads quite a few times, and also helped recruit Ernie.

Q: Do you need to be a football fan to get into this?

DQ: I hope not. I don’t think so. Certainly people that I’ve talked to who really don’t care about football, and women, they just seem to find something in the story because it’s an emotional story.

Q: We saw a picture of General Hawk. What was it like wearing that costume?

DQ: Being Hawk Abernathy? It was really a lot of fun. It was sort of like playing a cross between General Patton and Hugh Heffner. He had supermodels as his aid du camps with briefcases. He’d say, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Q: Do you get to say that in the film?

DQ: Oh yeah.

Q: Is that like a whole other world?

DQ: Oh yeah, it was just a blast. What are you going to do?

Q: Do a lot of friends want to visit that set?

DQ: Yeah. When I got the script, I was like, “GI Joe?” Because I’m of the generation that when GI Joe came out, it was basically a Ken doll in an army uniform.

Q: So you’re an action figure….

DQ: Yeah, we called them dolls back then. People I think maybe 38 and under were really into the cartoon show.

Q: Did you do a PSA? The message at the end.

DQ: Oh, Go Army or whatever?

Q: More like don’t go near downed power lines.

DQ: [Laughs] No, I haven’t. Maybe we can do a reshoot.

Q: How do you make that famous smile of yours?

DQ: I don’t know, just in the scene. Just trying to capture the spirit of Ben. Ben was not really a big, open, happy go-lucky guy actually. He was pretty obsessed and serious, so I don’t know.

Q: Is that grin in GI Joe?

DQ: Oh sure, of course. Mr. Confident.

Q: Are you asked to do it by directors?

DQ: Sure, yeah, of course. I was asked not to do it in this.

Q: How is Rob’s golf game?

DQ: Did he tell you? I took him out for his first – – some reporter was asking Rob about who was the better athlete, me or him. He said, “Oh, come on, there’s no question.” So he asked me and I said, “Well, tell Rob to meet me on the first tee.” Took Rob out, he’s got a lot of natural ability. He’s going to be good. I think I got him hooked.

Q: What was it like working with him?

DQ: I think he was channeling Ernie Davis in this film. It’s a daunting role to really take on and Rob has that ability. It’s in his persona and he’s such a good actor that he can just stand there and quietly convey a lot of things without having to say a word.

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Q: Do you look for likeable characters or do you make them likeable?

DQ: No, I don’t even really see Ben as all that likeable. I wouldn’t call him likeable myself. I think he was maybe redeemable but I also don’t think actors can really get away from their persona too much sometimes. I think whenever you watch an actor, they’re really there because of who they are. I don’t think – – no actor really loses himself in a role. It’s still their persona. Even John Malkovich. He’s an incredible actor but it’s still like you love to see him get pissed.

Q: Did you model any coaches?

DQ: I was really trying to go for Ben and capture his spirit. He was a real person and I feel a responsibility to try to capture his spirit. I mean, I don’t look like him at all. I’ve also been around enough football games and been around enough coaches to kind of know the routine. Alan Graff was also really great because he directed all the football sequences. He also did Any Given Sunday and Friday Night Lights. He was really great.

Q: Can you describe the religion of football in Texas?

DQ: Yeah, by religion I guess it’s because they’re obsessed by it. It’s really kind of a passage of – – a rite of manhood or a rite of passage. You have to go out for the football team, which I tried to do and got laughed off the field. I was a late bloomer. That’s really how I wound up in the drama room after that. They are crazy about it.

Q: How are the twins doing? About a year old?

DQ: Yeah, they’re 10 ½ months and doing really well. They’re completely healthy and happy and we’re really grateful about that. Could’ve been not good at all. We were very lucky. The same incident killed another set of twins in Corpus Christi just in June. I don’t know if you remember that.

Q: How are things going with the case?

DQ: Well, we have our ongoing case with Baxter, against Baxter as far as the labeling and packaging goes but it was a chain of events, of human error. Baxter was the first link in that chain. What we’re trying to facilitate and it’s coming anyway, just trying to facilitate is the introduction of bedside bar coding and electronic record keeping in hospitals. Medical errors kill 100,000 people a year in this country and their procedures and their record keeping is still stuck back in the 1920s where the doctors who write prescriptions, who can read a doctor’s writing? There’s a lot of soundalike, lookalike names on medicines. It’s just human error. Nurses get overworked. In aviation they have auto pilot and color radar and a lot of other instrumentation that is a backup for pilots. It’s really brought the incidents of plane crashes way down. Same thing ought to happen in the medical industry I think.

Q: Charles mentioned your “life is too short” attitude towards acting. Is that in life too?

DQ: I just enjoy it. I really enjoy working now. I enjoy acting now more than I did when I first started. I really do because I think I’m not trying to be anything. I don’t feel the pressure to be anything or like make it or get that next movie or whatever is going to put me into some other league. I just enjoy doing it for the same reason when I was back in college in plays. I just love it. I love finding out what makes other people tick.

Q: What did you enjoy most about this film?

DQ: I really love the story and bringing the story, helping to bring the story to the screen. I think Gary Fleder really elevated what was already a really great script. Being part of that world was great. It was an interesting character for me to play.

Q: How much action is General Hawk in in GI Joe?

DQ: A lot. General Hawk? General Hawk is not really in all that much action in this one. If this is successful, I’m sure there’ll be sequels, I’ve been told. I’ve been told I should get ready.

Q: Did you sign your life away?

DQ: Yeah, sure. I completely sold out. Completely sold out on that.

Q: How do you play a doll?

DQ: What do I draw on? Like I said, General Patton and Hugh Heffner. The girls are all dressed up like Barbarella. It was wild, wild action scenes. They bring down the Eiffel Tower I think. They completely destroy Paris like an oops type of thing.

Q: Did you go to Europe?

DQ: No, I did all my stuff in Downey, California. I was there in GI Joe Central.

Q: How do you take that seriously?

DQ: Exactly. Of course. Look what we’ve been doing.

Q: What other two movies did you shoot after this?

DQ: I just finished Legion.

Q: What’s Pandorum?

DQ: Pandorum is a science fiction film. It’s a science fiction movie that’s pretty interesting.

Q: What’s it about?

DQ: I don’t know if I can tell you. It takes place about 200 years in the future and Earth is dying. We’re on our way to like another Eden. Humanity moving off the earth. ‘Cause global warming, man. It’s The Day After Tomorrow to Pandorum.

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