I’m awesome. I wrote a book. It’s got little to do with movies. Download and read “Thank You, Goodnight” right HERE for free.
It was the late 1980’s and I was living in suburban Illinois. As a budding uber nerd I liked to consume my media in various forms; be that in the shape of reading Science or Discover magazine, watching the television stylings of the revamped Smothers Brothers program on CBS or even booking time to spend on my middle school’s Apple IIe there was always something different about what intrigued me. To this day I can’t remember what I loved about INNERSPACE but I do know that it led me to love two things: Sam Cooke records and Dennis Quaid.
I don’t think I ever really thought that much about the films I liked (this was around the same era where I found Jean Claude Van Damme and would hold his ballerina ass up as the second coming of ass kicking Christ) but INNERSPACE was just one of those films directed by Joe Dante that was representative of films which didn’t really want to change cinematic history unlike every auteur who nowadays wants to remake film in their own image. A lot of movies around that time weren’t necessarily pushing boundaries but they were damn entertaining and a joy to watch. INNERSPACE was a watershed moment in my youth as I loved the film for reasons that, by any debatable standards, were paper thin but that’s not the point. The point here, though, is that when you have these kinds of movies that you reflect on later in life with a halcyon-like nostalgia it’s a bit mind blowing when you find yourself sitting literally next to that person talking about movies in general. That little governor in the back of your brain that keeps yourself from geeking out on someone in situations like this really gets a workout but I can tell you that as I walked in the room where me and other journalists got to talk to him there was a little something sweet and kind about shaking the hands of the guy who was in one of the greatest films for the 13 year-old who lives inside me.
The guy wasn’t going to be having any talk of GI JOE (Goddammit…) but he did riff on all things civil rights and where he’s been since being an astronaut 25 years ago in THE RIGHT STUFF (which I still haven’t seen…along with D.O.A.). We were there to talk about THE EXPRESS and the film opens today in theaters everywhere. The movie, for those who don’t know, is based on the true story of college football hero Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. It was definitely a step above most inspirational sports films where I have to feel shitty about being a white guy as I watch bumpkins of the Southern variety remind me why I’m happy the North won the Civil War and definitely one that I would recommend to my parents.
Thankfully, and quite literally, the story about Quaid’s past with Meg Ryan and his reported philandering broke about an hour after I talked with him. Since then, the media have done more to promote this story than with anything involving his movie. Thankfully, no one was the wiser and this interview is private & personal life free. And, to add in the fact that one of my queries led him to say the word “whore” makes the 13 year-old inside of me laugh a little bit, high fiving the other juvenile sensibilities that live on in my noggin…
QUESTION: How did you get involved with this project?
DENNIS QUAID: There was a script that got my attention but when I [found out] John Davis was involved it really elevated it more. What John Davis does do, which is one of my criteria to do a sports movie, is make it more than a football movie. It has to be something universal that people can relate to and identify with I think. John Davis knows how to do that.
And I think THE EXPRESS – although it’s a football film and it deals with racial issues of that time - it’s also about living your life gracefully and facing the challenges of your life which Ernie Davis certainly embodied.
QUESTION: I have a friend who knew the coach that you played and said you nailed it right on. How did you prepare for this film?
DQ: That’s nice. I saw some film of him and I don’t really look like him but I feel some responsibility when I play a real person to capture their spirit and to play them honestly and not idealistically. But my main resource was Jim Brown. He’s a friend of mine already and we did ANY GIVEN SUNDAY together and play a lot of golf together. He’s a very straight talker and he told me about his relationship with Ben which is contentious at times but he had a deep respect for the man. He told me how it really was and told me about his times there and the atmosphere in Syracuse and Ernie Davis who he was very close with.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: This movie deals with segregation, racism. We have the Confederate flag flying prominently in the film. Did Jim Brown ever intonate, or even in your investigation for this role, of how we got to where we were to where we are today? It’s just common place for black men to be on the field nowadays.
DQ: Really, it’s not that long ago.
DQ: What I really liked about the movie is that although it deals with racism and segregation as it existed back then it really does speak to where we are today and still where we have to go I think. And it was just one little barrier at a time the way it is progressing and people like your age – how old are you?
DQ: Yeah, people like you see the film and for the most part are in shock to see how it really used to be. I grew up in Houston and I remember separate restrooms and drinking fountains and Black people sat in the balcony in theaters and that’s just the way it was.
It was unspoken but were the rules of society.
The way it existed.
My generation really started to question that and the civil rights movement did a lot to change that when Martin Luther King came along. That’s just the way it was – it was status quo. Schwartzwalder really represented that status quo where in today’s standards would be considered racist but that’s how white people, certainly more in the south, that was the rules of society back then. Ernie really kind of changed Ben on a personal level.
QUESTION: You dealt with issues from back then before – did you notice anything similar – not necessarily the story but when you go back were there any similarities between this and that?
DQ: Well, yes, in the sense that there were a lot of issues that just didn’t get talked about or people were entrenched in their point of views that change was not – it was slow in coming.
QUESTION: Was there any uneasiness on the set with other actors when dealing with issues like that?
DQ: No. Not really. We had a very open discussion. First off, what we wanted to do was not be politically correct. We wanted to be open and honest about it. That way we could make a film that had some impact instead of just sugar everything over. With Ben we didn’t want to do a 21st century version of him back in the 50’s when – we would make him more complicated – he had issues himself about race and color.
QUESTION: It definitely did have an impact at our screening. There were a lot of kids in the audience that were brought in from school groups and I heard them walking out – a lot of them were 6 or 7 and had no idea that this existed back then and I could hear them saying, I had no idea people treated people that way.
DQ: That’s what we’ve been getting from the screenings too. It’s more than a football movie.
QUESTION: How familiar were you with Ernie Davis’ story before?
DQ: I really didn’t know Ernie Davis. I knew the name but I didn’t know the story. When I read a script it’s the only time I get to be an audience member and get that experience and it had a profound impact on me. It hit me in the heart and in the gut. In the place where you really don’t have words. And he came along before the civil rights movement started to bubble up and I think that’s one of the reasons his story was lost for a time. Had he lived he would have had a significant impact on the 60’s civil rights movement. Certainly Jim Brown did.
QUESTION: Will General Hawk [in G.I. JOE] be anything like Ben Schwartzwalder?
DQ: No. General Hawk is a little bit more light hearted. He is a combination of General Patton and Hugh Hefner. Super models are his aid in camp.
QUESTION: In real life are you more like General Hawk or Ben Schwartzwalder?
DQ: I am like neither of them but that was a lot of fun to do. I can tell you knowing is half the battle.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Looking over your resume you are not one of those guys who does 4 or 5 movies, as much as you can, every year…
DQ: I’m not???
CS: No. We just don’t see you in the theater every nine days. We were talking about Sam Jackson prior to talking to you and it got me thinking about how he seems to be in many films throughout the year. Any rhyme or reason that you appear to be picky and that somehow you seem to be saying, “This year I’ll only want to make two or three films”?
DQ: Actually, I have been working like Sam Jackson. There’s just a lag time with them coming out. Just you wait, You are going to be like, “Oh my, that guy is such a whore…”
We have to see him again. I did THE EXPRESS, G.I. JOE and a movie called PANDORUM and I have another film I shot called LEGION, and they are all very different films. The only reason I have been working like that is because it’s just a fruitful time for me. The scripts have been really great and very different movies and I’m enjoying working now more than in my 20’s. I had fire in my belly about it.
QUESTION: One of the things in this movie that caught my eye is the football seemed authentic at the time. It’s tough to go back and create that. How long did it take to create those sequences?
DQ: That was filmed throughout the shooting. Allan Graf was in charge of shooting all the football scenes. He did ANY GIVEN SUNDAY and also did “Friday Night Lights” and he’s been around. I’ve known him for about 30 years. He paid a lot of attention to being sure he got the era right and really had to re-teach the players to block with your shoulder – not with your helmet and get that real old school technique that was taught back then.
QUESTION: Looks real though.
DQ: Yes, it does.
QUESTION: Do you have any plans to get into directing and writing?
DQ: Yes. I’ve written a movie that I would like to direct but not worth talking about it until after I make it and then we’ll be back here and talking about that.
You’ll say, “Are you ever going to stop working? You’re in everything!”
QUESTION: I watched THE RIGHT STUFF this weekend – the 25th anniversary coming up. Do you ever go back and watch the old stuff and think, “Even today I couldn’t improve on some of those things”?
DQ: THE RIGHT STUFF is a very special movie for me. It really was like being a kid because I did want to be an astronaut and Gordon Cooper was my favorite astronaut and I grew up in Houston – space city – and I got my pilot’s license for that film and Gordo Cooper lived three miles from me in LA and I went flying with Chuck Yeager – he was on the set the entire time and that was great. That is one movie that when I channel surf and it’s there I kinda watch some of it.
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