An exclusive interview with the actor as he steps into the boots of President Ronald Reagan for a new biopic coming out early next year.
To begin with the obvious question: Why Reagan?
Dennis Quaid chuckled in response to the query, then replied with a question of his own: “Do you mean the man or the movie?”
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Reagan, director Sean McNamara’s independently produced biographical film about Ronald Reagan, features Quaid in the title role as the 40th President of the United States. The biopic, due for an early 2023 theatrical release, focuses on the widely admired actor-turned-politician widely known to friends and admirers as “The Gipper”—a nickname he earned for playing ill-fated college football star George Gipp in the classic 1940 drama Knute Rockne: All-American—while following him from his Illinois childhood to his Hollywood heyday to his White House residency. The supporting cast includes Penelope Ann Miller as First Lady Nancy Reagan; Mena Suvari as Jane Wyman, Reagan’s first wife; Lesley-Anne Down as British prime minister Margaret Thatcher; Kevin Dillon as Warner Bros. studio chief Jack Warner; and Jon Voight as a KGB agent who tracked Reagan for 40 years.
And Quaid is the first to admit he was initially reluctant to sign on for the movie.
Mind you, he wasn’t averse to portraying a real-life person. Throughout an extraordinarily diverse career that has spanned six decades, the Houston-born actor has played such notable figures as outlaw Ed Miller in The Long Riders (1980), astronaut Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff (1983), rock ’n’ roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire (1989), Wild West legend Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp (1994), late-blooming MLB pitcher Jim Morris in The Rookie (2002), Texas founding father Sam Houston in The Alamo (2004)—and another U.S. President, Bill Clinton, in The Special Relationship (2010).
But Ronald Reagan was, well, different.
“I was reluctant to portray him at first,” Quaid said while calling from his home in Nashville, “because he was a hero of mine. He’s my favorite President of the 20th century, really. I was encouraged by the fact that we were both actors. And we both have a sunny disposition. But it’s one of those things where you get a tingle of fear up your spine about doing.
“But you know what? Whenever I get that, that’s usually an indication that I should do something. So that’s why I did it. It was quite a journey. Really an amazing experience. And Cowboys & Indians is the perfect place to talk about him because you know what a Western icon the guy was. I think that’s really the key to him—the West and the love of the West.”
Here are some highlights from our conversation with Dennis Quaid, edited for length and clarity.
Cowboys & Indians: What would you say surprised you the most when you started researching Ronald Reagan’s life?
Dennis Quaid: I found out that Reagan was a very humble man actually and not a rich man. We shot at the Reagan ranch, which is not open to the public. Went up there and got up on top of the mountain, which was the Western White House basically. Where he hosted Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth. First off, it’s about a five-mile ride on probably the worst road in California to get up to it. Then you get up there and you see it all. And it’s beautiful. You can really feel what a humble man he was.
C&I: In what ways?
Quaid: He bought the place right after he was governor of California. And they’ve kept it pretty much the way he and Nancy had it. They had GE appliances because he was a spokesman for GE. The house itself is about 1,200, 1,500 square feet. Not very big at all. They had what looked like a king-size bed—but it was two single beds that were zip-tied together to make a king-size bed. They had one of those old remote channel changers that go prong! when you hit it. Their clothes were still in the closet as if they’d just left and were coming back. You could feel them there. Reagan did all the work on the property, as far as building all those fences and the pond that’s there. You could feel him and all that, and his love for that place.
C&I: What do you think was the greatest challenge you faced while playing Reagan?
Quaid: Well, there’s the voice. You’re playing somebody that pretty much everybody in the world knows. How they walk, how they talk. To play him, well, I didn’t want to play him as a hero, even though he was one. I wanted to play the human being. Nobody thinks of themselves as a hero. I wanted to get down to the human being, to show what made him tick. He was a man who didn’t show his private side all that much. I think in some ways he may have been a mystery to himself.
C&I: It’s become very common over the years for many people—even people close to him, personally and politically—to describe Reagan’s acting career as undistinguished at best, vaguely embarrassing at worst. But, really, he certainly was no worse, and quite often much better, than many of the notables routinely embraced as beloved Old Hollywood contract players. And if he hadn’t made the move into politics when he ran for governor of California —and if he had wanted to— he probably could have settled into a lengthy career as a character actor.
Quaid: Oh yeah, he definitely would’ve done that. Because he had to pay bills, and that would’ve been the way to do it. I don’t think he was a bad actor. I think he was an unfulfilled actor, with an unfulfilled career. John Wayne—that’s the career he should have had as an actor. In fact, the two of them are very similar, as far as being icons. I don’t think he ever really, truly got a chance at Warner Bros. to be an actor. He was going to do The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and they gave it to Bogie. I think that disappointed him. I don’t think he felt success as an actor.
I wanted to play the human being. Nobody thinks of themselves as a hero. I wanted to get down to the human being, to show what made him tick. –Dennis Quaid on Reagan
C&I: He was very good in westerns.
Quaid: He was great in westerns. Yeah, like I said, that’s the career I think he should have had. He was an incredible horseman.
C&I: Do you have a favorite Ronald Reagan movie performance?
Quaid: Kings Row. The one where he loses his legs. Yeah, that’s probably my favorite movie of his. But my favorite performance of his was President of the United States. That’s where he showed his great acting skills, dealing with the Soviets the way he did. A lot of that was, he made them think we had Star Wars right around the corner. That went a long way towards bringing them to the table and ending the Cold War. Or at least the Cold War as it was then. He even said that himself, that he was playing the role of the President of the United States. And everything that went with it.
C&I: Of course, becoming President of the United States was a great career move.
Quaid: Yeah. No kidding.
C&I: Does that inspire you at all?
Quaid: [Laughs.] No, not one little bit. Not one little bit. You lose half of your audience as soon as you get elected.
C&I: Now this isn’t your first rodeo in terms of playing Presidents. You got some excellent reviews for your portrayal of Bill Clinton in the 2010 film The Special Relationship, about Clinton’s association with British prime minister Tony Blair. Was that more difficult or easier than playing Reagan?
Quaid: I think that was easier. For one thing, I knew Clinton and spent some time with him, actually. So that was a little bit easier. Clinton is much more approachable in that he really gives you a lot. I think Reagan was a lot more complicated than people think. He had his public persona, but then he had a very, very private persona as well. I wonder if he was aware of that. But he was a great communicator, an incredible communicator.
C&I: Let’s go back to westerns for a minute. Back in 1998, you directed a contemporary western for TNT, Everything That Rises, in which you played a rancher coping with a family tragedy. It was fairly well-received, but you’ve never directed again. Was that an unpleasant experience for you?
Quaid: Actually, I had a really good time doing that. But it’s very all-encompassing to get out and direct. You have to basically give away 18 months of your life to direct a film, from beginning to end, and everything that goes with it. You have to make every decision there is. I like producing, which is kind of the same thing, without having to be out there all day. I like going from thing to thing.
C&I: You also played a real-life contemporary cowboy, Sheriff Ralph Lamb, in Vegas, the 2012-2013 TV series based on Lamb’s encounters with the Mafia in 1960s Las Vegas. It’s a shame it lasted for only one season.
Quaid: You'd think they could have gotten at least one more out of it. I don’t think they gave it a chance. I really loved Sheriff Lamb—the role was a good fit on me. I got to know him. He was the very last of those Western sheriffs, the ones who’d tell you that when you come into town, you check your guns. That’s how it was in with Lamb: If you were with a mob, you had to go in personally into his office and let him know you were there. And if you didn’t, he’d go down to catch you at a table at a casino. He'd grab you by the tie, and pull you across the room.
C&I: You’ve looked pretty comfortable on horseback whenever a role has called for it. Do you still get to ride much in real life?
Quaid: I haven't. The only time I rode was about three months ago. In fact, we were just talking about it other day, because this is horse country here in Nashville. We'll go outside, and it's a great place to ride, in fact. Lots of different types of horses here, too. I guess I’ve owned horses for 30 years of my life. But I’m currently without. I used to have one right at my house there in LA, by Will Rogers [State Historic] Park. You always feel better getting off a horse than you did getting on it, that’s for sure. And I just love their beings, and their personalities, and their little quirks. It’s quite an invested relationship with a horse. It’s kind of like having a dog, but they are such a big challenge. They’re bigger babies than dogs.
C&I: But then again, a dog would never let you put a saddle on him and ride him, right?
Quaid: No. But a dog’s a predator. A horse is prey, and that’s the way they act. Everything looks bigger to them. I remember riding my horse into Will Rogers [State Historic] Park, and somebody’d have a sleeping bag over there. He’d want to run home because of the sleeping bag. You’ve got to feel their fear, and catch it before they lose their mind. Feel the hair coming up on their back. That's what I love about when you have a horse: Rather than just riding a horse, you really have to get to know them and know what’s coming before they do. At least, that’s the idea.
C&I: You’ve always been active in music, especially after you played Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire. And you’ve toured extensively with your band The Sharks. But you only recently recorded your first solo album—a gospel album?
Quaid: Yeah. I just finished my part of it yesterday. It's going into mixing, and it’ll be out in October. It’s just me and some guys who’d been in Johnny Cash's band. Half songs that I wrote, and half songs that I grew up in the Baptist church with.
C&I: You’ve dodged some curveballs and survived some hard knocks in your life, ranging from health issues and substance abuse problems to that terrible incident in 2007 when your twin infants were inadvertently given a life-threatening overdose of heparin. But your twins survived, and you’re still here. Do you ever feel like you’ve been blessed?
Quaid: I’ve felt like I’ve been very lucky. Like, that’ll be the name of my autobiography: My Lucky Life. Because you know, for one thing, I am still here. And nobody gets out of life unscathed. That’s for sure. I even appreciate the bad experiences I’ve had. Because I’ve learned a lot.
Search “Quaid” at cowboysindians.com to see more stills from the film and past interviews with the actor. Search “Reagan” to find C&I’s history pieces on the legacy and lifestyle of the 40th President.