Fortitude star Dennis Quaid: I like life weird

Hollywood heart-throb Dennis Quaid has survived drugs, tragedy and three marriages – now he finds happiness doing the dusting

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All it took was one hour in Dennis Quaid’s company to make me ill. Once the embodiment of the Marlboro Man, with a two-pack-a-day habit, the 62-year-old Hollywood star is now a prodigious electronic smoker. His gnarly good looks, with that famous big easy grin like a languorous feline stretch, fade in and out of great clouds of white vapour.

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We had been sitting at a table in his hotel room, quite close, and afterwards, my throat constricted and a filthy cold descended. Soon everyone I knew in the south east of England had caught it and referred to it as Quaiditis or Quaidonia. It’s not every day a Hollywood actor becomes a mystery virus – unless, perhaps, he’s a character in Fortitude, Sky Atlantic’s Icelandic sci-fi thriller.

I had arrived to find him posing in a tweed jacket in a leather chair in the bar – being filmed for the trailers for the second series of Fortitude, which starts on Thursday. He was apparently on LA time (as in laid-back) and everything was running late. Afterwards, we went up to his room, accompanied by a ravishing young woman who turned out to be someone he’s dating (he won’t go as far as to call her his “girlfriend”, but she looked very much like the 30-year-old French-Canadian model, Santa Auzina, who has been on his arm) while he and his third wife, fellow Texan Kimberly Buffington, finalise their on-again, off-again divorce.

He changes into a tight-fitting shirt and jeans, revealing a gym-friendly physique, before ushering me back into his room. We start by talking about his character in Fortitude – fisherman Michael Lennox, whose wife Freya is dying of a muscle-wasting disease that’s progressing faster than it should: “And although this is a death sentence for everyone who gets it, I’m desperately looking for a cure or a miracle and, to do that, I have to fund it – even through illegal means, including stealing the information from the Government of the whereabouts of the red king crab.

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Fortitude

“That’s my quest because I’m totally focused on her and because of that I wind up getting involved in and overwhelmed by the strange occurrences that are happening in Fortitude.”

Being a natural-born man of the Great Outdoors – until quite recently he owned a ranch of 400-plus acres in Montana, where he played at being a cowboy, roping calves, for more than 40 years – filming in the sub-freezing conditions was no hardship for him at all. “I love the wilderness and being outside and playing a fisherman on the Arctic Ocean,” he says, with a slow, sly spread of that grin. “It’s so beautiful. To me, Iceland is Hawaii in the Arctic – it’s exotic and very alien, in the sense that it messes with your senses.”

Somewhere else he loves is Austin, Texas. “It’s where I always wanted to be. It has a fantastic music scene, always has… very eclectic, country and jazz and a fusion of all kinds of different music. There used to be this expression: ‘Keep Austin weeeeeirrrrd’, which is disappearing.” You like “weird”? “Yes, I do. I have to say that I do like things that are not down the middle – which bores me.”

He’s the front man of his band the Sharks and plays the piano, guitar and writes songs – including the bluesy ballad Closer to You that he wrote for the steamy 1986 crime thriller The Big Easy, set in New Orleans.

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The Sharks

Apart from being known for the sexiest grin in Hollywood, Quaid is famous for having been married to (and divorced from) Meg Ryan, with whom he has a 24-year-old son, Jack (also an actor). Quaid is also known for having had a serious cocaine addiction, from which he recovered by playing golf, meditating and becoming, in his own words, a recluse (or as he says it with his long southern twang, “a wreck-looooose”).

He became addicted in the 1970s: “It starts out fun and then there’s fun with problems, and then there’s just problems,” he recalls. He tried freebasing [crack], but was frightened by the way people lost their lives in a couple of weeks. “I had one of those white-light moments – I saw myself dead in five years or at least losing everything I had worked for and wanted in life, and so I put myself in [a treatment centre] for 28 days and I did everything they said.

“I was able to quit drinking and smoking pot for the next ten years. Cocaine, though, was like a little devil on your shoulder saying, ‘Oh, come on…’”

I wonder if he’s still friendly with Ryan.

“Yes,” he says. “You have to be after a while. If you’re bitter still after 15 years – and still holding grudges – something’s wrong with you, not with them.”

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With Meg Ryan

It must be annoying to be going through yet another divorce now, I say, but he sighs in a resigned way: “Well, we gave it our best shot – we were married for 13 years, which I consider a success. We are still great friends and we have two kids that we’re bringing up together.” The twins – Thomas Boone and Zoe Grace – are almost nine years old, and thriving. But they almost didn’t make it as babies in 2007 after they were given an adult dose of bloodthinners instead of an infant dose, three times within 18 hours. The packaging for both medicines was too similar: “A nurse was actually teaching another nurse about safety with medicine and without looking at the bottle gave the twins the wrong dose.” Quaid became an international advocate for patient safety as a consequence, appearing before Congress, making films and speaking in public.

Quaid was brought up as a Southern Baptist and had the full baptism immersion experience, “which was probably my first time on stage”. His maternal grandfather, George Jordan, came to Texas in a covered wagon in 1903, became a preacher in a tent and went from near-impoverishment to being worth two million dollars in a period of two months: when his second wife’s father died, he bought his late father-in-law’s land, hawking his Buick to do so, and – glory, hallelujah! – discovered oil on it.

Dennis’s father, known as Buddy, was an electrician and his mother, Juanita, was a stay-at home mom who got into real estate when Dennis was nine: “She was a very smart lady and one of the first women to be out there working,” her son says, approvingly.

Buddy was a frustrated actor, related to Gene Autry, the singing cowboy of the movies, although Dennis only met Gene later in life when he was a star himself. It was Buddy who introduced Dennis and his older brother, Randy, to acting, by showing them great movies on TV starring Humphrey Bogart, William Holden and Marlon Brando.

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With Kimberly Buffington

Randy was the first Quaid to make it in Hollywood – after being picked by Peter Bogdanovich to be in The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?, and then two years later nominated for an Oscar in The Last Detail. Dennis followed his older brother, moving to Hollywood just shy of his 21st birthday. He got rejected by agent after agent and started calling casting directors himself. Eventually, he got his big break – in Breaking Away, a coming-of-age cycling movie.

I ask him about Randy’s career and his response is muted: “I hope he comes back to acting… let’s put it that way. He was one of my five favourite actors – I love my brother so deeply.” (Also on the list are Jack Nicholson, William Holden, Marlon Brando – his taste not having changed – and Meryl Streep.)

At the time, it didn’t seem appropriate to explore the strained, almost elegiac tone of his words but, afterwards, I looked up Randy Quaid to discover that he has gone spectacularly AWOL, along with his wife, Evi: a desperate litany of drugs, violence, paranoid conspiracy theories, being thrown off sets, banned for life from Equity, unpaid hotel bills and squatting in houses that once belonged to him. Now the pair are living in Canada. Meanwhile, the adoring kid brother, who could so easily have gone the same way, has been sober for decades and is continually in work. How sad and how salutary.

Time is almost up – so I ask him some random questions. When did he last cry? “Every time I tell the story of the dog movie [A Dog’s Purpose, released in the UK in April], I start to cry.” He wells up on cue. “It’s such a beautiful story – it’s like [1957 family drama] Old Yeller without the really tragic ending. It gets ya. It’s when something’s really beautiful I’m most prone to cry.”

Do you have a temper? “Of course I have a temper – the thing is to be aware of when it’s coming up.”

Anything surprising about you? “I’m a cyclist and I wear that silly lycra – hence my divorce! And I love dusting.” Dusting? “Yeah, there’s a pad you put on a handle and pick up all the bits, like you’re mowing the lawn. It’s fantastic!”

Finally, I ask him the age question. Has he found it hard coming to terms with getting older? “I feel good about my age now, but three months before I turned 60, I just couldn’t believe it – because, you know, that’s old. But now I think: ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about it and the alternative is, you know, much less appealing. I’m just gonna keep on fighting.’

“So they can’t throw me off the field. It’s not time for me to take my bat and ball and go home. No way.”

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Fortitude begins tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic