A Man's Man: Sexy Leading Man Dennis Quaid Talks about Surviving Drama Club, What Went Wrong with Meg, and Playing a Married Gay Man in Todd Hayne's Acclaimed New Film, Far from Heaven. (Cover Story)

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Some studio mogul or other once said that Clark Gable was a star because he was a man whom men wanted to be and women wanted to be with. Dennis Quaid exudes that same sort of easygoing appeal. Ever since he was discovered by gay director James Bridges for his 1978 death-of-James-Dean saga, September 30, 1955, Quaid's charming smile, manly mien, and general guy-next-door oomph have made him a dependably charismatic leading man in movies as far-ranging as The Right Stuff, Postcards From the Edge, and The Parent Trap. While the tabloids hovered all over the 2001 breakup of his decade-long marriage to Meg Ryan, Quaid has had a succession of great roles in Traffic, Frequency, The Rookie, and HBO's Dinner With Friends.

This fall Quaid appears in a role that's unlike anything he's ever played before--a 1950s suburban husband tormented by his inability to control his homosexual longings in out auteur Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven. Quaid's Frank Whitaker seemingly has it all--perfect wife Cathy (Julianne Moore), two adoring children, even a maid and a gardener. But his outwardly perfect life begins to crumble when Cathy discovers him making love to another man, leading her to turn to their "Negro" gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), for friendly, platonic support. Small-town, small-minded gossip soon follows.

Far From Heaven is a stylish and captivating homage to the postwar melodramas of director Douglas Sirk, whose lush Technicolor films, often starring gay icon Rock Hudson (Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession), also inspired queer director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Sirk's passion for exposing the hypocrisy of rigid social convention makes his movies a natural source for Haynes's razor-sharp storytelling--Haysbert's gardener in Far From Heaven, in fact, is almost a direct copy of the character Hudson plays in Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. Over Cokes at the Toronto Film Festival, the Houston-born Quaid had a lot to say about the role and about the many gay men he's known over the years.

Was it ironic at all that you were playing what, in a Sirk movie, would probably be the Rock Hudson character as a man who ...?

The thing is, I don't play the Rock Hudson character. Dennis Haysbert really plays the Rock Hudson character. But it was a very different type of role for me. I ate it up.

And you really committed to the role.

I thought it was a very interesting type of situation this character was in. I have friends in my life who were trapped in the exact same thing, actually. Certainly back in the '50s, I think it happened a lot more. I remember there was a girlfriend of mine back in high school whose father was in the closet and finally came out. I've known about two or three others in my life that I've been friends with and this happened to.

Was there anything tangible for you to draw from their experiences in making this film?

Yeah. Sort of the emotional pain that they went through and the whole process of coming out and turning their whole life upside down. I sort of related it to my own life--trying to finally just ... finally surrendering to who you are.

And who are you?

[Chuckles] Well, you are who you are, and you can't deny who you are. That's the thing. Maybe you don't know who you are--I don't think any of us really do, and it's a process--but we certainly know what we're not when we're living that way. And that's an impossible way to live.

What was happening in your life that you realized wasn't working?

Well, for me, it was drugs. It was cocaine, which I did for 15 years. I've been off that for 12 years. To me, that was sort of living a lie.

Cocaine sort of encourages that kind of behavior.

Yeah. But as far as--I'm not gay myself--but as far as playing this character, it was, for me, one thing. We're attracted to whomever we're attracted to. …