A Life Redeemed
By Peter Wallace
At times, Hollywood superstar Dennis Quaid was torn between his faith and hell-raiser reputation, but while his troubles appear behind him for good now, his belief never faltered.
It takes a certain type of faith to be prepared to showcase your beliefs to a global audience. Indeed, there are many high-profile individuals who elect to keep stoically private when it comes to the subject of religion. Dennis Quaid, however, has gone the distance of late, not only committing his staunch faith to record in interviews, but even going so far as to lend his talents and superstar status to a Christian film – still a Hollywood rarity – that combines his professional class and Hollywood platform with personal godliness. But surprising as it may seem that an established actor like Quaid would bare his beliefs on the big screen, there is one tangible reason why the star of Traffic, The Big Easy and Footloose, among others, was drawn to the Erwin Brothers-directed I Can Only Imagine.
‘I appreciated the element of redemption in the film,’ the 65-year-old says. ‘It’s not the typical Hollywood kind of story but goes much deeper than that. When I was presented with the project, it hit me so profoundly in a place where I had no words, that I knew I had to be part of it.’
Of course, I Can Only Imagine wasn’t Quaid’s first brush with a faith-based film. In 2011, he starred in Soul Surfer, the true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton’s recovery after losing an arm in a shark attack. The similarities with I Can Only Imagine are pertinent – the latter project being based on the band MercyMe’s song of the same name, still the highest-charting Christian song of all time, and the real-life relationship between frontman Bart Millard and his violent father.
‘Bart wrote the song about his father and it was picked up in a faith-based community,’ Quaid explains. ‘It’s about Jesus, which it is and then it’s not, but it could be. It relates to everybody because it’s personal to everyone. Everyone makes it personal unto themselves. Everyone has something in their lives, that hole, the this, the that, that you get filled. It’s a song of hope and redemption, and it’s a song of joy. And it’s beautiful. I’d never heard the song before. It actually kind of worked on me slowly, to tell you the truth; it’s a beautiful song, and I think they’ll be singing it a hundred years from now.’
For Quaid, however, the ‘element of redemption’ in the film ran deeper than just his character arc as Bart’s on-screen father. Having put his name to a host of now-classic cinematic projects through the late seventies, eighties and nineties, much of the Houston-born star’s on-screen career was played out against a backdrop of tabloid-worthy excesses, including widespread substance abuse that saw him at one point using up to two grams of cocaine per day.
‘I grew up in the era of the sixties; back then, pot and drugs and all that was a way of expanding your mind and raising your consciousness,’ he explains. ‘Then we got into the seventies and it was cocaine. Cocaine became my drug of choice. There are three levels of drug addiction. The first one is fun. The second is fun with problems. And the third is problems. I definitely got to the problem stage. I think I would have crashed and burned no matter what, because I was ready for a crash and burn.’
Quaid would go on to struggle with his demons off-screen for many years. ‘I’ve heard stories where I go, “These people are screwed up! I wasn’t so bad!” But in my own way, I was. I reached my own bottom’ – until experiencing a revelatory moment, in the City of Angels no less, after performing with his long-time musical side-project, The Sharks.
‘I had one of those white light experiences, I guess,’ he recalls. ‘I’d tried to stop many times before and usually we’d wind up in the next day going, “Oh God, just get me through this one, I’ll never do it again, I swear.” The turning point for me came after I performed with my band in LA; I kind of realised I was going to be dead in five years if I didn’t change my ways. The next day I was in rehab! Addiction is a terrible, terrible thing and once you find yourself in the grip of it, it’s very hard to come out of it. Even after I got out of rehab, my brain chemistry was still craving the stimulation that comes from cocaine and I went through a kind of depression because of that. That was the price I paid for indulging myself for so long. So, it took several years for me to really come out of the haze... but once I felt good again, I sure as hell never wanted to go back. I beat the devil inside me.’
Though Quaid may have successfully taken the first step on the road to recovery, he found himself facing down ‘a grinding-my-teeth type of experience’ known to recovering addicts of any social status.
‘Once you get off addiction, there’s a sort of hole in your heart and you really relearn how to live life again,’ he nods. ‘That’s what was going on with me: to really learn how to enjoy life on life’s terms. I have to admit, the first year of being off it was kind of an emotional pit. I think I was actually clinically depressed for a number of years after that. Because I think of what it did to the nervous system and having time to recover and also just the emotional development, which I think stops at a certain point when you become addicted to something. It took me a while to catch back up.’
One unexpected obstacle in Quaid’s life post-rehab, however, was erected not by the shadow of the narcotics that had threatened to derail his career, but by the industry that had raised him up in the first place.
‘I began to realise that I wasn’t going to last very long on two hours of sleep a night over several years, and that my engine was going to pop a few cylinders or just blow up,’ he says. ‘So, I cleaned up and then the jobs stopped coming. You clean up your life and think you’re supposed to be rewarded for it, but things actually got worse in terms of my work. So that was hard to deal with, but I didn’t let that disappointment drag me back down. That was probably the biggest test for me. And eventually the jobs started coming back and I was ultimately rewarded in some sense for being clean, being a good man, and trying to be the best father in the world. So, I feel there is some poetic justice to life.’
With three children – including a son with actress and former wife Meg Ryan and twins via a surrogate – Quaid knows all too well the trials of fatherhood, a concept he was able to rely on when it came to I Can Only Imagine, just as he could mine the darker aspects of his social life, and the lighter positives of his faith.
‘After playing Arthur, I started having the thought of not judging anyone else, and that included myself,’ he says of the effect the film had on him. ‘Because you just let God take that over; let Him take care of that all. It frees you up in life. Arthur started to really look at his life, I think, that’s when he started to wake up. And through that, he had a spiritual awakening, which led him to prayer; and really in prayer, you can’t lie to yourself. By the time you get to prayer, you’ve already lied to yourself and made excuses about this and that, and then you are really seeking something. Through Christianity and through Jesus, it started this real change in Arthur.’
As for Quaid’s own relationship with religion, there’s no doubt that faith, and the near-relentless pursuit of new understanding and theological curiosity, has formed a cornerstone of his life.
‘I grew up in the Baptist Church, went to Sunday school and then got baptised when I was nine,’ he says. ‘I read the Bible cover to cover. In the end I found that it’s all about having faith. It’s certainly been a comfort in my life. I believe in second chances – in my case, I believe in second, third, fourth, and fifth chances – but if you have faith, I truly believe you will ultimately prevail. No matter what, the door is always open to the Lord. All one has to do is open one’s heart and ask, and He’ll be there.’
Now a veteran of the silver screen, Quaid can look ahead to starring in upcoming Second World War epic Midway and adding yet another rung on his cinematic ladder. That being said, as he nears his seventies, with the more turbulent portions of his past well behind him, he’s thankful that the spotlight of modern mega-stardom never fell on him in the way it does many of the actors to have followed in his footsteps.
‘It seems to be a pain … as far as living your life goes!’ he says. ‘Sort of isolating, you can’t go out ... I had that for about fifteen minutes one time and I really hated it. Today I have some serenity in my life. Not that I don’t get angry and upset. I just don’t do that unreasonably any more. My life is like Fantasy Island. I love my work, I love my life, and I love my sons!’
With his wealth of experience, Quaid is also well-placed to deliver some words of wisdom for those seeking to make their name in the notoriously capricious industry.
‘If you don’t really love this, I don’t see how you’re going to last. Because it’s just too frustrating a career to get into, number one. It’s almost impossible, though some people do fall into it. But if you don’t love this, it’s not going to sustain you. There’s too much there, against it. But I was like eighteen, nineteen, back in drama class at the University of Houston. And there comes, like, this moment – and I think it comes for anybody who loves their job and what they do, and they’ve been at it for a while. You know … it’s such a gift at an early age to realise what you want to do with your life. It’s really a great gift. Then that time in my life — those years in the nineties, recovering — chiselled me into a person. It gave me the resolve and a resilience to persevere in life. If I hadn’t gone through that period, I don’t know if I’d still be acting. In the end, it taught me humility. I really learned to appreciate what I have in this life.’
Quaid has been through enough to know that staying true to your beliefs is never entirely simple – even with a little help from above.
‘God will give you the path; He’ll show you the path,’ he smiles. ‘Then you start to walk it, and that’s where it really gets hard.’