Dennis Quaid doesn't look particularly imposing. The guy's relatively short and thin and, dressed smartly in a black suit, looks more cosmopolitan (and even metrosexual) than rough-and-tumble. And yet, he's often cast in sports movies where he gets to play the hard-ass coach who barks orders at his players like some kind of drill sergeant. That's certainly the case in The Express, in which he portrays Ben Schwartzwalder, the intense Syracuse University coach who had NFL legend Jim Brown and Ernie Davis in his backfield.
"I don't know why I'm cast in sports movies," Quaid admits during a recent visit to Cleveland, where he honored Davis during a pre-game ceremony at Browns Stadium. "I was too small to play sports in high school. That's how I ended up in the drama room."
For Quaid, however, The Express isn't just another sports movie. While it's ostensibly about the career of Davis, the first black athlete to win the Heisman, and how his career was tragically cut short, it's about much more than that. And that's what drew Quaid to the role of Schwartzwalder, a former U.S. soldier who took that same no-nonsense attitude on the football field. The movie's essentially a feel-good, rags-to-riches story, as it shows how Davis (played by Rob Brown) came from a small Pennsylvania mining town and slowly worked his way to the top of a powerhouse college football program. That he would never play in the NFL (he developed leukemia and died at 23) doesn't diminish his accomplishments one bit.
"It was more than just the role; it was the story," explains Quaid, whose acting career stretches across three decades. "I wasn't really aware of Ernie Davis before I read the script. You'd be surprised how many people into sports hadn't heard of him either. Ernie was a person who transcended football. He transcended color and race. The story really hit me in the heart and the gut, and I wanted to be a part of it. I've done five or six sports movies. And if you're doing a football movie, it has to be about something bigger than football. Otherwise, why don't you just turn on the TV and watch a game. There's a lot of drama in that. This movie to me is really about grace and living your life gracefully and facing all the difficulties that come with life."
In order to play Schwartzwalder, Quaid did a fair amount of research and turned to Jim Brown for perspective on his former coach.
"I looked at a lot of film on Ben Schwartzwalder," says Quaid. "My greatest resource was Jim Brown, who was also there at Syracuse and arguably should have been the first black athlete to win the Heisman. He gave me the straight skinny, as he always does, on who Ben was and his relationship with him. If [Ben] comes off as a little bit racist, you have to say that entire generation was racist. What was considered the norm was different back then. When my generation came along, we started to question segregation, and then civil rights started. But that was just the way it was for most people, especially in the South. In [my hometown] Houston, I remember separate restrooms and drinking fountains."
For Quaid - who's already finished filming a thriller called Legion, the action-adventure saga G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra and sci-fi horror movie Pandorum - acting is still a thrill. And the fact that he's never taken a break during his long career is testament to that.
"At this point in my career, I'm actually enjoying it more than ever," he says. "I still have that fire in my belly that I felt when I was in my 20s. I think it's partly because I don't have that pressure of trying to make it, so I'm just enjoying it."