|The best part about interviewing Aidan Quinn over the telephone is that
you dont have to come up with an adjective for his eyes. Wordsmiths before me,
describing the 36-year-old actor's turns in films like Desperately Seeking Susan, The
Playboys and Benny & Joon, have trotted out such blue-ribbon qualifiers as
"breathtaking", "translucent" and the wonderfully understated
"pretty". One writer, overcome by a fit of alliteration, went so far as to refer
to them as "big baby blues". How could I possibly compete with that?
Quinn's BBBs are given a run for their photogenic money in his latest film, Ed Zwick's Legends Of The Fall. Set in World War One-era Montana, and shot in the Canadian Rockies, Legends with its eye-popping vistas and beautiful long-haired lovers in the form of Brad Pitt and Julia Ormond is mighty easy on the eyes. The film's rather simplistically played-out themes (family loyalty, unrequited love, life isnt always fair, etc.), however, aren't nearly as pretty.
In the panoramic family saga, Quinn, Pitt and Henry Thomas (ET's Elliot, all grown up) play the three sons of a retired US Army colonel (Anthony Hopkins) who all fall for the same woman (Ormond). Quinn's uptight, do-the-right-thing eldest, Alfred, is presented in direct contrast to Pitt's charmed, charming and tormented Tristan. But who you, as the ticket-buying audience, are meant to empathise with is never entirely clear. You can learn a lot about a person, I've discovered, by asking whether they fall in the Alfred or Tristan camp.
"The challenge of the role of Alfred is that he's priggish, self-righteous and he has to be that irritant in the story initially," Quinn explains from the New Jersey home he shares with his wife and five-year-old daughter. "But as the film goes on, you see why he is like he is and despite his rivalry with Brad's character, he really is guided by his love. It was very important to all of us that Alfred not just be the cardboard wimp."
Even if he was made out of cardboard, Aidan Quinn's eyes would still be [your adjective here].
How tough was it for you being way out in the Canadian boondocks for four months shooting Legends of the Fall?
I'm only happy when I'm outdoors, so for me it was heaven. I went camping and we would have little bonfire parties every Saturday night at Brad's cabin up in the woods. Wed just let loose a little, imbibe some liquor and have some laughs. Henry Thomas would play guitar and we'd make up songs about Legends where we would make fun of our characters.
Is it true that Brad Pitt lobbied for you to get the part of Alfred?
Ed [Zwick], the director, wanted me but I think the studio and I don't blame them was hoping for a bigger box-office name. So Brad got on the phone and helped persuade them that I was the right one for the part and he was pretty adamant about it. It was very sweet of him and I didn't even know him at the time.
What was Anthony Hopkins like?
He has a completely charming, irreverent attitude towards acting. He can be taking the piss out of acting, doing imitations of all the great actors, and then the camera rolls and he blows your socks off in the scene. There's a scene where I bring home the heart of a loved one in a tin box. We were told this scene would be with music so there's no talking. We ride up to the ranch, I hand him the heart and he turns to face the rest of the family, so the camera's on his back, and he starts making slurping sounds and says under his breath, "Does anyone have any chianti?" meanwhile, the camera's still on me and I'm trying to look mournful.
Did that take the final cut?
I'm pretty sure that was the one, because we only did it a couple of times.
Did you have much experience riding horses?
A little bit, but its always challenging. I was the least experienced rider, so I asked them to put me on the oldest, deathless nag they had. I liked my old horse good old Roy never let me down.
Roy lived through the shoot, I take it.
In Legends, Alfred ends up going into politics. Could you ever see yourself doing that?
Not any kind of national politics, but living in a small town as I do, I've fantasised about being a local congressman and serving the community.
Do the people in your town know who you are?
Yeah, but they don't make a big deal about it.
Has Legends played in the local cinema yet?
No, but its in the next town over. Some of my neighbours said, "We're waiting for it come to our town." They're not going to make that ten-mile trek.
Obviously not everyone's waiting.
Its a huge hit.
Do you follow how the films you're in perform at the box office?
Oh sure, are you kidding? After being in movies for 15 years that critics love that do OK, its fun to have a leading role in a big hit.
Does the status of being in a hit film manifest itself in little ways in Hollywood?
Absolutely. They asked me to present Best Director at the Golden Globes, whereas if they had asked me to present at all before, it would probably have been for something like Best Sound Effects Editing.
You seem to choose your roles more for artistic reasons than because you thought that they would be good career moves.
I certainly try not to ignore the career thing completely, but when you make as much money as I do, and you work on as many good projects with great actors, I try not to turn around and think, "Gee, I've got to be a bigger star." When I look at the lives that some of the huge stars have, the pain in the ass of being instantly recognisable, that's not something I pine for. What I do pine for is the better choice of roles.
D'you think there are some ways you could play the game better if you wanted to, like, for example, by not living so far away from Hollywood?
I'm a pretty friendly person but I dont have a very political sense. Like, if you're at a premiere and think, "Oh I should go talk to that executive of that studio" I just dont think in those terms. Certainly living on the East Coast is a bit of a sacrifice, but the payoff in the sanity of my life makes it worthwhile. I'm not immune to looking at the reality of things. I understand that it's a business. That's why it's nice to be in a film that's doing well, because hopefully it will start to make a difference with the roles I'm on the border of getting. Like a director will say "I want Aidan Quinn." And the studio will say, "But we cant get enough foreign sales in China for him." And the director will say, "But the other guy's completely wrong for the part." And they'll say, "So what."
What are some of the strange perks of being famous?
You're given things, like someone will do a painting of you and send it to you. I've had four or five of those over the years.
Do you have a little gallery in your house?
I hate to admit it, but they're in some closet somewhere collecting dust. I'm not the type of person that puts up photos of myself anyway.
Where's the strangest place you've ever seen your own image?
I was on this remote island a thousand miles off the coast of Kenya. The island didnt have electricity, but some people had generators, and I went to someone's house and there was a video of Desperately Seeking Susan playing. I think it was the only frigging television on the whole island. That was very bizarre.
Were you ever competitive with any of your brothers over women, like the brothers in Legends Of The Fall?
There was one time with my older brother. He was completely smitten with this girl but they weren't going out, and somehow me and her connected and started going out and that did not sit too well with brother. I'll never forget the look on his face when he confronted me about it. In the end, he ended up going out with her and they were much better suited for each other, so it had a happy ending.
If you could be a woman for a day, what would you like to experience?
Sex. See what the opposite of that feels like.
Do you ever watch your finished films?
I may watch my movie at the premiere and then I never see it again. Sometimes I don't even see it then. I get too nervous and I go to the party, have a few beers and wait for people to come in.
Are there any costumes that once you put them on instantly put you into the character?
That's happened many times. I don't care what I look like most of the time. I dont have a fashion bone in my body, but when it comes to my characters, I'm very adamant about costumes. I just did a film in England where I put on a blue tweed suit and I knew the minute I put it on that that was the one I had to have.
What's the film?
The Haunted with Anthony Andrews and Sir John Gielgud. I play a cynical American parapsychologist who meets this eccentric English family and gets his comeuppance because he doesnt even believe in parapsychology. He thinks it's all hogwash.
You starred in the TV movie An Early Frost in the mid-'80's, which was the first major film to deal with the AIDS crisis. What were your speculations about the future of the disease when you made it?
When you thought about it, you were always hopeful that maybe in ten years this will all have diminished. But even from the initial research I had done and seeing how rapidly it was spreading, the truth is I really thought that what indeed happened was going to happen.
Was accepting the role a controversial choice at the time?
Some bigger names turned it down, which I didn't know until afterwards. But for me it was never even a choice. I was offered a great script with great actors, a terrific director, about a subject I felt deeply about. And they paid me a lot of money. It was kind of a dream scenario. It would have been so asinine to consider not doing it because I was playing a homosexual.
What was your first acting job?
Playing the little boy in Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot. It was at a college where my father taught and at the last minutes the boy that was going to play it couldnt so my father said, "I have a son. He'll do it." I came into three or four scenes and they would say, "Where's Godot?" And I would say, "I dont know, sir." I had to read Waiting For Godot because my father's a literature teacher and he thought I should. I'd throw it across the room and say, "I want to go play basketball." And he'd say "No, you're going to read it before rehearsal." And I'd say, "But I dont understand it. What are they talking about?" I was furious because I had no interest at all. I was eight and into sports.
When did you really get into acting?
There was one moment in high school where I thought, "Maybe Ill take an acting class." And I walked in and saw all the quote unquote theatre people and I went, "Oh God," and walked out. But later, when I was 19, I actually took an acting class and I was very much smitten with it.
You've done a lot of stage work. Whats the worst thing thats ever happened to you during a performance?
I was playing Hamlet in Chicago. In the fencing scene with Laertes, I had to come around a pillar and do a blind thrust. The actor who played Laertes was supposed to have his dagger up so it didnt hit his head. Well, he had slipped and didnt have time to put his dagger up so my sword came down on the top of his bald head and opened an artery and the blood was literally pumping out. He's nodding as if to say, "Go on," and then Hamlet has the longest dying scene ever written. I'll never forget how quickly Hamlet died that night. As soon as the lights went out I sprung up ad screamed, "Is there a doctor in the house?" The audience broke into hysterical laughter because they had just seen me kill 11 people all over the stage. They thought I was making a joke.
What's something you would love to do in a movie that you haven't done yet?
I want to do an all-out romantic comedy. I also want to play a really cynical, streetwise character and a very literate, literary person. In every area, I'd like to do more.
Is there anything that you would dread physically doing in a movie, like hanging from a mountain with Sly or shooting rapids with Meryl?
No, I'm into all that. I had rats crawling all over me in a movie called Crusoe and I actually got very friendly with them. I'm not too squeamish in that sense.
Has your five-year-old daughter seen any of your films yet?
No. She's not interested.
Which one will you show her first when he is?
There's not too many that are kid-friendly. Maybe I should do kids movies. Put that on the list too.