In Soul Surfer, longtime actor Dennis Quaid plays the father of Bethany Hamilton, a real-life 17-year-old girl who loses an arm in a shark attack while surfing. He sat down with Buzzine to talk about getting to know the family this story is based upon, his own parenting experiences, and the close call he had with his own twins when they were only 12 days old...
Izumi Hasegawa: Is it true you hadn't surfed before?
Dennis Quaid: No, I didn't.
IH: What made you think, "Okay, I'm going to get out there and at least try it?" Is it something you always wanted to do?
DQ: I think I've always wanted to do it. But one thing I don't like is being in cold water. I really hate the cold. And here you have cold water. I surf now, but I have a wet suit that has a heating coil in it. I didn't even know you had those. It's great. And then I had my own fear of sharks and fear of the deep and all that. And then, honestly, I had a lot of other stuff going on. I love to play golf. That takes up a lot of time. And I like to ride horses. It takes a lot of time. And I've got kids and spend time with them. So how do you surf and golf and ride horses and have kids? You can't take them. There's too much going on.
IH: Especially with this story and what happened with Bethany [Hamilton]. Were you nervous going out into the ocean and surfing?
DQ: A little bit, but I felt like I really needed to because the whole family...the Hamiltons -- they all surf. It was a big part of who they were and what made them tick. And I thought it was very important to learn. So I had two months there and a year in Hawaii, which is like...what nice water. Nice, warm water. And also the greatest teachers in the world. It was fantastic. And it's hard too. Really hard.
IH: You play a real person -- Bethany Hamilton's dad. What did you discuss with her father?
DQ: I just got the story in the script, and I heard Bethany tell her story on television and in print or whatever, but I wanted to hear the story from his point of view of what happened, and also where he was from and growing up -- what was that like. And his life, basically. How he grew up and what made him who he was.
IH: Did you find any similarities between you and him?
DQ: We're both about the same age. Same generational references and cultural references. We both play golf, and we're both kind of optimistic, easy-breezy going as a general type of people.
IH: I wondered why he didn't get mad at Alana's dad for taking them out there. It's just a human thing to do, even though it would have been a misplaced accusation. I just wondered if he actually felt like he was a little mad at him...
IH: Because he's a good guy.
DQ: That's what you do there in Hawaii. The true fact: you're actually in more danger walking down the street of New York City than you are getting bitten by a shark, having a shark attack. That's just true facts. That's the way it is. So it's not like he was going to take them motorcrossing or anything. They weren't going to go out skydiving. It was just one of those things.
IH: Like Tom, you've gone through crisis with your kids, and he obviously went through a crisis with his. I'm just wondering, on that level, did you kind of relate to the character in terms of having a child that you don't know if they're going to make it?
DQ: Oh, definitely. Yeah, I for sure did that. And also, like him, I think it was really faith and the power of prayer that saved our kids. There were a lot of people out there praying for them, and I really could feel it. But the fear that goes through you is apparent. You just feel so helpless in that kind of situation.
IH: What were the challenges of playing someone that you met?
DQ: I've played so many real people that I'm kind of used to it. I consider it to be an asset, actually, because I don't have to make anything up. It makes the job a little easier. They've already done the work for me. They lived it. I've been fortunate enough to have played some people who aren't around anymore -- historical figures like Doc Holliday... But all the people who are alive, I've been lucky enough to spend time with and were generous enough to offer me their time and open their lives to me.
IH: Does it add more pressure to you in your performance?
DQ: I feel more responsibility because, if somebody was doing a story of my life or whatever, I would feel sensitive to something that was being done wrong or I didn't agree with. I pipe up and I always tell them, "Is there anything about the way this is being written or anything like that that bothers you that's just wrong?" Because I want to capture their spirit and try to tell the story from their point of view.
IH: Because this person isn't famous, so we wouldn't know him...
DQ: Yeah, we don't look alike. The pressure's off there. But somebody like Bill Clinton -- that's a lot of pressure. The most famous man in the world. Everybody knows what he looks like, sounds like. So that's a different challenge.
IH: Do you know if he actually went after getting that shark, or somebody actually just happened to catch the shark and they went down to see it?
DQ: What happened was that the shark continued to stay in the area. They think the shark must have been ill because it stayed in the area and harassed a couple of other people as well. And because the Hawaiians revere sharks, much like American Indians revere the bear, they had to get the Hawaiians' permission to go out and kill the shark. They figured it was sick. So they did catch it and kill it, and they brought it in. And that whole story of putting the surfboard in the mouth -- it was a perfect fit. It's like dental records for us. It's the same.
IH: What was it like working with Helen Hunt? You had a really good sense of a family with all of the kids -- the boys too. Did you hang out with them?
DQ: We were all in the same hotel. This is one of those movies where nobody spent time in their trailer. You usually do. I have to admit that usually I'm doing scenes, I'm in my trailer, and I've got my satellite TV and just resting. There was really a family atmosphere, and everybody brought their kids. Everybody was on the beach. It was fantastic.
IH: But the real family and, I hear, all their friends and everybody was on the set day after day. Did that not drive you nuts?
DQ: No. It was their story, and they're being a part of it. It's not like they were just hanging around on the set. The boys, Timmy and Noah, were on the crew. They were Bethany's videographers. So they became videographers of the filming of the movie. And I think Noah worked on the lights and lighting in the lighting department as a grip. They had real jobs. And Bethany did a lot of the surfing in the film as well. Then Tom's job was to hang out with me.
IH: Can you talk a little about Bethany?
DQ: I had kind of a dim memory of what happened to her from, I think, world news when it first occurred, but it was eight years ago. But two Christmases ago, and I was sitting on the couch in the morning with my little one-year-old who was woken up earlier than his sister, and Bethany was on The Today Show and she was doing a book tour, I guess, for the book Soul Surfer. And I was just struck by her, about her spirit and her optimism in the face of what had happened to her. And how normal she was about everything. She's just special. It just struck me right in the heart. So I'm sitting there on the couch and I just turn into a mess. I well up. And then three days after Christmas, my agent calls and says, "I know everybody's on vacation and everything, but I've gotten a call from these people ... Do you know Bethany Hamilton, the surfer? They want you to play her father." I went, "Okay. Yeah, I'll do that. Yeah."
IH: How was working with AnnaSophia particularly? You guys have some really good scenes...
DQ: She is fantastic. She's amazing. She's such a good actress. She actually makes me better because acting is reacting, and you have somebody like that who's just so intuitively good, it just makes it so easy.
IH: Did you end up going off-script a little bit?
DQ: Not all that much. When you're talking about something like that, it's really more in the subtext about really what is going between you as actors and people, rather than when you're saying words and things like that. It's just...feel it.
IH: You and your wife brought about some changes in terms of the procedures that are done in hospitals now because of what happened, and I'm sure a lot of parents are grateful for what you did -- for speaking up and making sure that the procedures are followed. Having gone through all that, do you just count your blessings every day with the kids? Every parent is proud of their children, but does it make them even more precious to you -- the fact that they were able to overcome what happened?
DQ: It really does. I'm really proud of them. It wasn't really my wife and I that brought these changes -- it was really [the kids] because it happened to them. After the danger had passed with them in the hospital and they were going to make it, I actually said to Kim, "These kids are like 12 days old and they've already changed the world in a way." And they have -- they've saved a lot of lives already. Hospitals all over the country started changing their procedures, and it comes down to really saving lives.
IH: To me, it seems like, if you're just Joe-average parent, they might not have had a voice like you guys had.
DQ: That's been my role in all this, that I've joined forces with the real experts in patient safety -- one in particular, Dr. Charles Dennum from Harvard -- and my role is, because I'm an actor, I can get on the shows and I can get out there, or in a forum like this, and it's about raising awareness really. It's the first step.
IH: It's been universal, beyond Cedars...
DQ: Oh yes, it sure has. There have been changes in hospitals all over the country. There are so many accidents that happen in hospitals. They say there are 100 accidents in the average hospital each day. Not all of them are necessarily life-threatening, but patient in room 224 gets patient's 226's medicine. There are 100,000 people a year who die needlessly because of a medical accident.
IH: Thanks for doing what you've done...
DQ: It's going to be done anyway. It just needs to be done. The technology is here, like barcode systems -- same technology they have in grocery stores. [Laughs] It's very expensive.
IH: What's next? What are you reading?
DQ: I'm going to do a movie with Gerard Butler in Louisiana in about a couple of weeks. It's a comedy, I hope. Then I'm going to do a film called Heartland with a director by the name of Ramin Bahrani. He did Chop Shop, and he's a very interesting director. That's about modern-day farming.
IH: What's the one with Gerard about?
DQ: Gerard is the main character in that, and it's about a guy who's coaching this little soccer team and his life is falling apart around him. My character is sort of the sponsor patron of this little team, and a philanderer.
IH: What was the experience like working in Footloose with two leads so new to acting?
DQ: They did a great job, I thought. They didn't really need much help. I get that these days. When I get hired, they go, "One of the reasons for hiring you, besides that we like you for the part, is that we know you'd be a great influence on these young kids around here -- settle them down." And I go, "I don't know about that. Apparently you don't remember me from the '80s, do you?"
IH: In this film, your character says to never give up, and you pressure your daughter a little bit. What about yourself? What kind of father are you?
DQ: I think that's kind of me too, as a father. You always think you can just fit it and go on. Let's just get this done.
IH: Are you strict?
DQ: I wouldn't call myself strict, no. I don't think I'm a strict father. Right now...I'll tell you what kind of father I am -- I'm a taxi driver and a cabana boy. "Oh yes, let me get that apple juice for you. Oh, your stuffed kitty? Yes, I'll go back and get that for you. Be right back. Yes, I know -- the grey one, not the white one." That's my job.
IH: They've got you wrapped around they're little fingers. How old are they?
DQ: They are three and a half. The best one is about my daughter's wardrobe. She's a fashion maven, and when she wakes up in the morning, it's really... I mean, she spends all night thinking about what she's going to wear the next day. So you wake up, and if it's cold outside, she has no concept and she's putting on this summer thing. It's a huge fight until we finally figured out that the thing to do is the night before, when she goes to bed, get her to pick out her outfit. Then she picks it out, lays it out, and then she can think about it all night and gets excited about what she's going to wear.
IH: She's a girly girl...
DQ: She's been that way since she was three months. I come in the house and I'm wearing a hat and sunglasses, and she'll point at my shirt and go [shakes his head].
IH: She's a stylist
DQ: She is. It's crazy.
IH: Being such a golf fanatic, you've done a couple of these different sports movies. When are you going to do a golf movie?
DQ: I'd love to do one of those. It's hard to get golf movies done, especially. There have been a few. They don't do well, as a general rule, at the box office. They just don't. That's the reason they don't do them.
IH: What's the beauty of golf?
DQ: You sound like my wife. There's something about getting out there, just something about it. Once you do it right once and you actually hit a shot correctly once, the sound and feel of that is just...I don't know. It's stupid.
IH: Then what's the beauty of surfing?
DQ: The beauty of surfing, once again, it's just being out there in the elements, and no matter where you are, as far as a beginner or an expert, once you actually catch a wave and ride it, it really does something to you. I think really, what both of those things are about -- when I go out and play golf or if I'm surfing, or if I'm riding horses or whatever -- as soon I get on a horse or I get out there, I forget about everything else except for the task at hand, no matter what.
TriStar Pictures/Sony Entertainment Pictures' 'Soul Surfer' is released on April 8, 2011.