The Alamo (2004) – Q&A with Dennis Quaid

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With a cast headed by Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Dennis Quaid, THE ALAMO is an ambitious retelling of a defining moment in U.S. history when a ragtag group of Texan settlers resisted the might of the Mexican army in a bloody standoff in the small town of San Antonio. In the intervening years the site of the famous battle has become near-sacred ground to the citizens of Texas and also one of the state’s most visited tourist spots. In true Hollywood style, therefore, Alamo director John Lee Hancock and his production team rebuilt 19 th century San Antonio on a sprawling 51-acre location a few miles outside the city of Austin. “It made my spine tingle,” says actor Dennis Quaid of his first glimpse of one of the largest sets ever built for a Hollywood movie. With such films as FREQUENCY, TRAFFIC, and THE ROOKIE (also for director John Lee Hancock) Quaid, now 49, has seen his career hit new highs in recent years, and last’s year’s FAR FROM HEAVEN, in which he played a tortured gay man trapped in a loveless marriage, brought him his best reviews ever. Yet the serious-minded actor, who’s a native Texan, admits to a special fascination with the story of the Alamo and a unique passion about this latest film. Costumed in a blue silk waistcoat, a three-cornered hat and a bushy set of whiskers, Quaid took a break from a late-night shoot to talk about THE ALAMO and explain why it may just be the role of a lifetime.

Since you grew up in Texas, did you always know the story of the Alamo?

Oh yes, I knew about the Alamo from as early as I can remember, as a very small child. And in Texas schools, you learn Texas history before you learn American history. So this is like this great mythical story for me, which is why I so much wanted to be part of this film.

And why does the story still interest people so much?

Well, to Texans, it’s the story of how Texas came into being. After the Battle of the Alamo, Texas was its own country for about ten years – and it’s the only state in the United States that was ever a country in its own right – and I think that still carries over to today, to the attitude people in Texas have about themselves. From a wider perspective, the story of the Alamo is a story of people struggling to find and define their identity. And I think that’s why it’s so interesting to make this film right now. To me, it speaks to what’s been going on in this country over the last few years in all kinds of intriguing ways.

So who do you play in the movie? It’s not Davy Crockett, is it?

No, Davy Crockett is played by Billy Bob Thornton. I play Sam Houston, and Sam Houston was – well, I guess you could, compare him to George Washington — he was the George Washington of the Texas revolution. He was the general of the Texan army and later became president. I’m from the city of Houston myself, so it resonates even more for me.

And Sam Houston wasn’t actually at the battle of the Alamo, was he?

No, he wasn’t. He thought it was a bad idea for a small group of settlers to concentrate themselves in one place and attempt to resist thousands of well-trained Mexican troops. He was proved right of course. He thought you should fight the enemy out in the open with hit and run tactics.

The story of the Alamo has been filmed many times, most famously by John Wayne, and historians still argue over exactly what happened. Was part of the job on this film to sort fact from fiction?

I really don’t see much difference between fact and fiction [laughs]. You know, myths are often more true than hard fact because myths are stories we feel deeply inside us. And even though, in this film, we’re attempting to get all the details right, the story of the Alamo still has an element of myth about it. So you know, the events we’re telling happened in history, but the story has a lot in common with the great Greek myths, or even STAR WARS for that matter.

You previously worked with John Lee Hancock, the director of this film, on The Rookie. The two films could scarcely seem to have less in common. Were you confident he could pull this off?

I think that John Lee Hancock is a great director and that THE ALAMO will put him in another league. To me he belongs in the same company as Martin Scorsese or David Lean, and I think people will see that with this film. The big pitfall here would have been to be too reverent or pious about the history of these events, but John has a very definite style of his own and an incredibly dynamic way of telling a story.

You have made a lot of films during your career, but have you ever worked on a set that compares to this one?

Absolutely not. When I first got here, it was mesmerizing. I walked the 51 acres and it’s a whole town, and the attention to detail is incredible. You know, you can walk in and out of buildings – it’s not just a bunch of facades. It’s really a very special experience and I don’t know if it will ever be done again.

Your career has been on a roll over the last few years, hasn’t it?

I feel like I’m in the best place I’ve been for 15 years. I think there’s ebbs and flows to any career and back in the 80’s I was the hot guy there for a while and then I wasn’t. But I feel now like I’m getting back there again. You have to have a lot of tenacity to keep going, but parts like this one make it worthwhile.

This part in THE ALAMO sounds very special to you.

Yes, for me, the two most exciting roles in my career are very clear. The first one was playing Gordo Cooper in THE RIGHT STUFF, and that was another Texas story in a way, because Houston was space city and that’s where I grew up. And now in this film, I’m getting to play Sam Houston in the story of the Alamo. I mean, I used to play the Alamo as a kid. Now I’m all grown up and get all these great toys to play with and do it all over again. It’s wonderful!

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