Actor Dennis Quaid

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Golden Globe-nominated actor explains his preparation for portraying former President Clinton in his new HBO film.

Texas-born actor Dennis Quaid has starred in numerous films, including benchmarks like The Right Stuff, The Big Easy, and recent hits like G.I Joe. He's stepping into some big shoes with his upcoming role, playing former President Bill Clinton in HBO's film The Special Relationship, about the president's friendship with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Quaid is also a musician, who plays frequently with his band, The Sharks, and an activist for hospital safety, after his newborn twins were given a near-fatal dose of medicine.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Dennis Quaid to this program. The talented actor has been a popular force in Hollywood for many years now, dating back to his break-out roles in “Breaking Away” and “The Right Stuff.” Starting May 29th you can catch him in the new HBO film “The Special Relationship.” Dennis plays one Bill Clinton, opposite Michael Sheen’s portrayal of England’s Tony Blair. Here now, a scene from “The Special Relationship.”
Tavis: So how many Big Macs did you have to eat to beef up for the Bill Clinton role?
Dennis Quaid: Well, it was more of a combination of the Angus Burger Deluxe (laughter) and the 10-piece Chicken Tender Select.
Tavis: It’s amazing.
Quaid: For those who have discriminating taste.
Tavis: Yeah. So Clinton now is a pillar of good health, now that he’s had his heart issues, and you’re eating like crazy to put on weight to play him in the movie.
Quaid: I gained 35 pounds to play Clinton.
Tavis: Thirty-five pounds.
Quaid: I could have worn a suit or a device, whatever, but I wanted to get my face fuller to play him and there’s no way to fake that.
Tavis: How do you do – because he has been imitated so many times, particularly the voice and the gestures, how do you do the voice and the gestures without coming across as a caricature?
Quaid: Yeah, well I already had my Clinton impression, as so many people did, to begin with, so it was really a question of kind of pulling it back so that it wouldn’t – because I didn’t want to do an impersonation of him. I had the privilege of spending some time in the White House with him back in the late ’90s, so I had a lot to draw on from there.
Tavis: This particular piece on HBO, “The Special Relationship,” covers what, exactly, about the relationship between Blair and Clinton, over what years?
Quaid: Well, it covers the years ’96 to 2000, Clinton’s second election, and Blair was just coming into office at that time. Both of them were politicians of center-left politics, and this relationship was a time and place in history that came together that they formed this relationship, which was personal as well as political.
Tavis: I was about to ask, how much of their relationship was about these two countries versus their relationship, because one gets the impression, at least, reading and looking at all the media that was covering them while they were both in office that they had a pretty interesting and special relationship with each other as individuals.
Quaid: Right. The term “special relationship” goes back a ways. Great Britain and the United States have had that relationship before, like with Churchill and Roosevelt in particular, and these two guys – Blair basically took Clinton’s playbook to win the election in Great Britain and they had a simpatico, the two of them.
Along the way, complications arose within the relationship, but they got a lot done together.
Tavis: Michael Sheen’s been on this program a few times; honored to have him here. He has, of course, played Tony Blair on a couple of occasions. This is your first time playing Clinton on-screen?
Quaid: My first time; first that I know of that Clinton’s been done in a serious manner.
Tavis: So Blair had you on the – so Michael Sheen had you on the number of times he’d played (unintelligible).
Quaid: Yeah, going in there was kind of intimidating.
Tavis: You’ve got to catch up.
Quaid: I almost said no to the part, tell you the truth, because I went in and met Peter Morgan and talked to him, because the script was so good. Peter Morgan, who wrote this, also wrote “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen,” and the way he deals with these historical figures, making them human, his writing is so good.
I was really shocked when two months later they offered me the part. I just didn’t see myself as Clinton.
Tavis: You almost said no why, though, Dennis?
Quaid: Because I didn’t see myself in the role, and it’s very – I’ve played historical figures before, known real people, but this is probably one of the most photographed, one of the most known people in the entire world and everybody’s got an opinion about it. So it was daunting, but I feel like I should do the thing that I’m most afraid to do sometimes, so I gulped and said yes.
Tavis: Is there a particular challenge in playing, to your point, historical figures?
Quaid: Is there a what?
Tavis: Is there a particular challenge to playing historical figures?
Quaid: Yeah, it’s different than creating a character out of whole cloth, because for one thing I feel like I have a responsibility when I’m playing a real person to capture their spirit and to tell the story from their point of view.
Tavis: To your point now about telling it from their point of view, Bill Clinton, as I know him relatively well over the years, is the kind of guy when he runs into you he will tell you what he thought of your portrayal. Are you ready for that conversation?
Quaid: I guess. (Laughter) I didn’t –
Tavis: You guess? It’s a little late now, Dennis.
Quaid: After all, I stepped in it, didn’t I?
Tavis: Yeah, it’s a little late now, you guess. (Laughter) So when the president sees you and tells you that he didn’t like something, how are you going to handle that?
Quaid: Well, I didn’t contact him when this came up because for one thing, I would feel a little queasy about somebody doing parts of my life story too. I had his autobiography there with me, which I used. It’s very thick, by the way.
Tavis: Yeah, it is. I’m still reading it eight years later. (Laughter)
Quaid: (Unintelligible) just about every day in office. It was well done, so I used that and I watched miles of footage, but I don’t know what he’ll wind up thinking about it. I think in the end he’s portrayed as a human being, and I admire the man a lot. I think he’s the smartest man I ever met, and I think he was a really good president.
Tavis: When you’re playing a historical figure and that person happens to be alive, when you know you’re going to run into them at some point, you’ve been to the White House when he was president, how do you balance being true to the character and knowing that you literally know this person?
Quaid: Well, for me it helps. Every time I’ve played a real person I’ve been lucky enough to (unintelligible).
Tavis: Jerry Lee Lewis.
Quaid: Jerry Lee was on the set every day. (Laughter) He was right over my shoulder, going, “You got it wrong, son.” So if I can do that, then I’m not so worried about Bill Clinton, to tell you the truth. (Laughter)
Tavis: So how does one do that? How does one play Jerry Lee Lewis when he’s over your shoulder, giving you advice every step of the way?
Quaid: You have eyes in the back of your head. He was great. Then I played Jimmy Morris in “The Rookie,” he was a real person, and I was lucky enough to have them on the set every day because it reminds me of what I’m doing there and I’ve got the real person to give me an opinion about it. Like I said, I’m trying to capture their spirit and trying to tell the story from their point of view.
Tavis: When you walked on the set I was telling you when you first came out how happy I was to meet you. I was a kid growing up in Indiana, I went to Indiana University, so you know where I’m going with this, of course.
Quaid: IU, Breaking Away.
Tavis: Breaking Away, what a great film. The little 500 bike race; and I went to that every year, of course, when I was a student there. That was a good movie, I enjoyed that.
Quaid: It was a good movie. It was –
Tavis: You guys filmed on location, too, in Bloomington.
Quaid: Yeah, we shot right there. That was my first real big break. I’d done some movies before that, like drive-in movies and things like that, and this came along. In the ’80s there were a lot of youth movies made, and I think this was the first one. It was made in ’79 and came out in ’80, and there was just something really special and charming about it.
Tavis: I was just about to go (unintelligible) I started IU in ’82, so I was watching. It became a big deal because it was like a big recruitment tool for Indiana.
Quaid: Oh, yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure – in fact, they started a Cutter team after the movie, and still have it.
Tavis: Exactly, exactly. You became the biggest recruitment for IU – Dennis Quaid in “Breaking Away,” filmed on location in Bloomington. You’ve become very, very active, and I only raise this because I know your passion about this. The story of what happened to your babies a couple-few years ago has made you quite an ambassador for this issue.
Quaid: Well, yeah, our twins, Zoë and T-Boone, they were overdosed when they were 10 days old by heparin, a thousand times the dose they were supposed to receive. The same incident had killed three infants in Indianapolis, in fact, the year before, and it has since killed a couple of other infants.
So after that, we formed a foundation and what we’re out to do is to try to get the people who die from healthcare harm in our country every year, 100,000 people, try to get that number down as close to zero as we could, because it’s all preventable.
Tavis: Wow, that’s a lot of deaths from something preventable.
Quaid: When you take medical accidents and medicines and add hospital-acquired infections, it’s the equivalent of 20 jumbo jets going down each and every single week in this country, and because it happens over so many, 5,000 hospitals, one at a time, even a lot of people in healthcare are not aware of how big the problem is.
Tavis: So has that made you an overprotective dad?
Quaid: Well, we really had a happy ending to our story. Our kids are just doing great and normal two-and-a-half year old kids. In fact, they’re in their terrible twos now. (Laughter) It’s really – life is a circus –
Tavis: So you’re glad to be out of the house, huh?
Quaid: – around our house, but since then we’ve done a number of things. We’ve testified before Congress and going through the courts and going through the legislative process and raising public awareness about how big the problem is. There is something that can be done about it.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad you’re on the case, you and your wife. I know you want to get back home to those terrible twos, so I’ll let you go now. (Laughs) The movie on HBO is called “Special Relationship,” about the relationship between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Dennis Quaid plays former President Bill Clinton. Dennis, good to have you on the program.
Quaid: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Glad to have you.

Quaid: All right.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm