Dennis Quaid on why he still loves Meg Ryan
With his new movie in cinemas this week, Dennis Quaid spoke to Donal Lynch about love, addiction in Tinseltown and reveals what was the scariest moment of his life
'Never work with children or animals' goes a well-known movie adage, but it's not one Dennis Quaid has much truck with. He's back for his second outing with a canine co-star. A Dog's Journey is the warm-hearted sequel to the A Dog's Purpose and reunites Quaid with an adorable golden retriever (several, actually), for another tale of doggy friendship and reincarnation - kind of like Buddhism meets Disney.
"My character is going through a spiritual crisis and the dog, Bailey, coming back into his life really helped with that," Quaid explains. "Pet grief is very real and the idea that somehow the animal lives on in spirit is very powerful.
"My kids loved the first movie. I took them to a screening and my 11-year-old boy, about a third of the way into the film, says, 'I love this movie' - that's as good as it gets for me these days, review-wise."
In fact, Quaid is probably now, more than at any time during his Eighties heyday, likely to elicit critical superlatives. As the bloom of youth has gone off his matinee idol looks, he has matured into an excellent character actor, and his career has lately undergone something of a revival: he was brilliant as the alcoholic father in last year's I Can Only Imagine and there has already been a major buzz around his performance as Ronald Reagan in a forthcoming biopic -his second outing as an American president after his spot-on portrayal of Bill Clinton in 2010's The Special Relationship.
He says that career momentum has bled into his personal life too.
"I think the ultimate thing that I've learned in the last few years is how to relax and enjoy the feeling of being alive," he explains. "I look back at pictures of me from 10 years ago and I was so worried by things, which in the meantime, seem to have faded in significance. And you sort of wonder, how real were they at the time? I guess it's true that people get happier when they get older."
And more magnanimous, perhaps. It's been 18 years since his messy divorce from Meg Ryan - she is now engaged to be married to John Mellencamp - but any residual rancour between Quaid and Ryan is long gone.
"Sure I still love her," Quaid tells me. "I'm very fond of her and we have a lot of fun. We spent 13 good years together. We had a kid together and we shared so much: she made my life."
Their relationship, he explains, mirrored the one in A Star Is Born. "What I mean by that is that when we started, I was very much on top. She was just starting out. Then she had When Harry Met Sally and I took time out and the roles were suddenly reversed in terms of where we were at, in our careers.
"I'm too big of a person to really let that bother me and it wasn't her fault. I was glad for her, but at the same time it really made it hit home where I was at myself, the direction things were headed."
At the time, Quaid was very much a leading man, a Hollywood heart-throb, but a defining role, and an Oscar nomination eluded him.
"Back in the 1980s, I kind of blew it," he says now. "I was in that group with Kevin [Costner] and Mel [Gibson] and Bruce [Willis], but I kind of missed the curve. I wasn't ready for it. I mean that, personally, but also just technically in terms of acting and my career. At that point everyone was waiting for that big movie which would put me over the top but unfortunately it never came."
His career inertia was partly caused by drugs, he says, including a two gram-a-day coke habit.
"Cocaine was really the cause of my downfall. I didn't realise just how harmful it was and it kind of crept up on me in terms of the consequences of that. I wasn't there in my life and I wasn't getting enough sleep to really be there. And then I got cleaned up and you think when someone does that things would get better, but no. In fact, things got even harder. I was in what you could call Hollywood jail a bit from that."
Given that the likes of Mel Gibson and Christian Bale have been given second chances, it seems harsh that Quaid's career took such a nosedive in those years.
"It wasn't a scandal, or anything like that," he recalls. "But I took a year off, which turned into two. That is a big mistake in this town, because there is always someone there who is going to take your place. Personally, I'm glad I did it, but it was really bad for my career."
The good roles dried up, and, as the press got wind of his personal struggles, the paparazzi bore down on him and Ryan; their relationship was beginning to founder.
"It's like golf, you are playing against yourself in the end," he says. "It wasn't her fault. She was my partner, there was a lot of pressure on me, but the fame and everything made it all a little less fun. Sure, we were hounded by paparazzi. During the divorce, there was a van outside the house and helicopters overhead. It was intense."
During the period that followed, he took stock of his life and how his childhood shaped him. He grew up in Houston, Texas, in an era when the spectre of nuclear war seemed very real. His father was an electrician, as well as being a frustrated actor and musician, something both of his sons inherited.
"I had fantasies of being a pop star as a kid," he recalls. "My brother and I would be in front of the stereo, pretending we were The Beatles. The only problem was I always had to be Paul or Ringo; he always got to be John."
Randy later moved to Hollywood, and Dennis followed in his footsteps. Did he ever fear that he wouldn't make it as an actor?
"Everybody has fear and, of course, I was afraid things wouldn't work out. But I had an even greater fear of being stuck behind a desk my whole life, doing something I hate. So the greater fear won out, and that pushed me to at least try for what I wanted. That's what I tell my kids now: figure out something you love doing, try to make money at it, and that is one third of your life pretty much figured out right there."
He had trouble finding work initially, but his breakthrough roles in Breaking Away and The Right Stuff made him a hot commodity in the 1980s, and led to more major studio films like Innerspace, Suspect and Great Balls of Fire!
He was a bona-fide heartthrob in those years and involved in some of movie history's most famous sex scenes including his character's encounter with a young Ellen Barkin in The Right Stuff (which is also his own favourite movie he's done). I wonder, then, what he makes of the modern-day dearth of sex scenes in movies - we hardly ever see them now.
"Look at all the political correctness and the MeToo movement - the lack of sex scenes in movies is part of the fallout from that," he explains.
"Nobody wants to risk getting put in Hollywood jail. Of course MeToo had wider consequences than just finishing off sex scenes in movies; it caused us to really look at the way that men and women relate to each other in this industry, and that was a good thing."
Does he think the MeToo accusations ever went overboard, or subverted due process?
"There were some cases where accusations have just been thrown out there, and then there have been other cases where the people who were accused really got what was coming to them."
Besides his second wife Meg, he was married another two times - first to actress PJ Soles and then to third wife Kimberly Buffington, who filed for divorce from him in 2016 - it was just finalised last year. With Ryan he has a 26-year-old son, Jack, who has followed in his parents' acting footsteps - he starred in The Hunger Games. With Buffington, Dennis has twins, Thomas and Zoe, who were born, via a surrogate, in 2007.
"I can be the fun Dad, but as far as letting them go against what their mother says, I don't think that's a good idea, because they will run all over you," he says. "It's a difficult kind of a challenge having twins because, honestly, having two is like having four. They're coming at you at the same time and you don't get to focus on one as much. My older son was an only child."
Just two weeks after the twins were born, they were accidentally given a massive overdose of the blood thinner, Heparin, and spent days battling for their lives.
"When we were first told, it was the scariest moment that me and [then wife] Kimberly ever had," he recalls. "We came in in the morning to see our twins, they had been admitted for an infection. We went home because we were exhausted. And when we came back to the hospital the next day, there was police tape across the door of the room. The drug they had been given turned their blood to the consistency of water."
The danger, Quaid explains, was that one of the children would rupture a vein or an artery, leading to lethal blood loss.
"They were so small they couldn't really move around," he explains. "I think that's what saved them. It's very difficult to sue a big drugs company in the state of Illinois. There had been three kids who died the year before in another state from the same issue. We were very lucky; we dodged a bullet."
He subsequently became a patient-safety advocate, co-authoring a 2010 paper that appeared in the Journal of Patient Safety and producing two documentaries on the subject.
He and Buffington share custody of the children and, as we speak, Quaid has Thomas, while Zoe is with her mother. The actor's current girlfriend is French-Canadian model Santa Auzina (33), who lovingly documents their relationship on social media. She seems to be a fan of his music and Quaid is also beginning to hit his stride as a musician. Last year he made his first record, with his band, the Sharks, and it sounds like he gets a bigger kick from playing with them than he does even from acting.
"I've been playing music since I was 12 years old and I was even in bands back when I was a teenager," he tells me. "Since junior high school, I've been doing this either under the radar or in films, like Great Balls of Fire," he adds. "I've had a very lucky life to be able to meet and be helped along by and hang out with some really incredible musicians."
Given his former status as a Hollywood heartthrob, I wonder if he has found it difficult getting older and seeing his looks change?
"Honestly, yes," he admits, with characteristic honesty. "There is pressure on me because I'm very vain. I've always been in shape. In my twenties I boxed, now I'm into riding - cycling. I'm one of those old guys in the Lycra that everyone laughs at."
If he still struggles to keep in shape, he doesn't hark back to what his glory years, however.
"I wouldn't want to re-live any of my life," he says. "With age you get a sort of better balance and insight into yourself and you learn to treat yourself and others better. I'm a family-oriented person. I'm probably happier now than I ever have been, and that was worth waiting for."
'A Dog's Journey' is in cinemas nationwide from Friday
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