PASADENA, Calif.—Recently, actor Aidan Quinn was on his roof during a downpour trying to dislodge leaves clogging the gutters. That might’ve been an unpleasant job for most. But for Quinn it was a validation.
Thirty years ago he was a roofer, sweating in the hot sun, passing the whiskey and a joint at 7:30 in the morning. “I took the whiskey from a 50-year-old man who was the foreman. I said, `I can’t do this. Some days, yeah.’ I was 19 years old. `But these guys live like this every day.’ I said, `What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”“
Aloft on his roof three decades later, he thought, “`My God, I could’ve been doing this for the last 30 years instead of acting’ ... I’m very glad.”
Though he was a hot commodity with his very first play, he didn’t understand what choosing the field really meant.
“I took an acting class very early on, got the lead role in a play that became a hit so suddenly I went from being a roofer to going through this `actor’ buzz and being introduced by others as this `young actor who’s in that hit play.’ When they called me an actor I thought, `I’m not an actor. I just started out doing it.’
“For the next two years I thought it was so easy; thought it was the easiest job in the world. All you had to do was pretend you were in the situation that the character was in and let whatever happens happen. Of course, I didn’t work for next 2 ½ years and saw how difficult it was,” he smiles, “and how disciplined you had to be. And how—unless you get that one character that’s so close to you like that character of this young poet (in the play) - you have to do a lot of work to be a really good actor. And you have to be disciplined.”
The discipline paid off. Quinn eventually starred in movies like “An Early Frost,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Desperately Seeking Susan” and notable TV series like “The Book of Daniel” and “Third Watch.”
In his HBO film “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” premiering May 27, Quinn plays the well meaning Sen. Henry Dawes. “He was in his own mind a great friend of the American Indian who was trying, in his mind, to preserve them from being wiped out because there were a lot of forces that just wanted to wipe them out,” says Quinn.
“(He had) noble intent, a true Massachusetts Christian who absolutely believed in what he was doing - misguided in the end. You’ll see the kind of ethno-centralism that’s so deeply buried in this character is also buried in the fabric of our nation’s government and the belief that their way of life is just so much better than the other culture’s,” he says, seated in the back lobby of a hotel here.
It’s another idiosyncratic choice for Quinn, 48, who shuns the Hollywood whirl for a quiet life on a wildlife preserve in New York. He admits he’s particular about his roles, but also that choices narrow as he grows older. Married for 19 years to actress Elizabeth Bracco, he is the father of two daughters, 17 and 8.
His older daughter suffers from autism. That has shaped his life as much as his career. “The hardest time was the early years when my daughter was diagnosed as being autistic. That was when it was becoming epidemic. And it’s gotten worse and worse. It’s because of vaccines in the case of my daughter. I think we’ll find out that little children’s immune systems cannot put up with 40 vaccines before the age of 5 mandated by drug companies who push these laws onto our congressmen and senators’ desks. You ask any one of them, they don’t even read them, they just sign them,” he shakes his head.
Having an autistic child affects everything, says Quinn, whose daughter lives with them and attends school. “Every decision you make in your life is around it. It’s the center. Autism becomes a very dominant thing in a family’s life. That’s beginning to ease up, which is a blessing, as she’s getting older now. She still has to have 24-hour supervision.”
“My career is important to me,” says Quinn, who grew up in Ireland and Chicago, “but it’s not the most important thing in my life. My family is.”
Quinn admits he might have been more diplomatic in negotiating his career strategy. He didn’t always do what was expected of him. “I do believe you are supposed to learn certain lessons and travel certain roads in one’s life but I certainly could’ve been a little more political when I was younger, career wise, and I’m sure that would’ve helped,” he nods.
“But it’s not really in my nature anyway to go too far in that regard. Being like that would have been frowned upon from our city, from Chicago, from the Midwestern ethic.”
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” also airs on May 29, 31 and June 2, 4, 6, 10 and 14.
Director/documentarian Michael Apted’s second installment to his “Married in America” documentary arrives at the Hallmark Channel on May 23. Apted, who’s known for feature films like “Gorillas in the Mist,” “Nell” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” also chronicled life’s passages as he followed children growing up with his films “7-Up” to “42-Up,” etc. Here he examines real marriages as the years press on.
Apted tells me he likes documentaries because they feed his passion for character. “I think I’m a very nosy person. I think I like an excuse to ask people questions, and to find a kind of arena for it, to get paid for doing it, is kind of heaven. So that’s why I think I do the documentaries it plays into my nosiness, my love of gossip and my interest in people’s lives which I’ve always had.
“I’ve never much cared about talking about myself. I’m much more interested in asking other people questions. I’m kind of a nightmare date because I keep interviewing people and people who know me tell me to shut up. `Stop interviewing me.’ So there’s a downside to it, but I love gossip and that sort of stuff. The upside is I genuinely AM interested in other people’s lives and what goes on. I think that’s, in some ways, half of the movies as well.”
The longest running comedy show on television, “The Simpsons” will be celebrating its 400th broadcast on Fox May 20. Undoubtedly it will be something special, says Al Jean, the show’s executive producer. “There are two that are going to air that night. One is a satire of `24,’ where we get Kiefer Sutherland and Mary Lynn Rajskub to do roles. It’s a really intricate, really clever script by Ian Maxtone-Graham. And then another writer, Tim Long, did the second show, in which Kent Brockman says something that gets the news station fined by the FCC, and he’s fired. And you know, we deal with the issues of what you can and can’t say on television in a show that will be seen by a lot of people.”
Mark Burnett, that progenitor of reality shows (“Survivor,” “The Apprentice”), has joined Steven Spielberg for the new Fox series, “On the Lot,” premiering May 22. The show will winnow through contestants who long to be filmmakers and who have the right stuff. Sixteen finalists will be brought to Hollywood, where they will be divided into several teams and assigned a short film in a special genre, from comedies to thrillers, from sci-fi to horror. The winner will win a DreamWorks studio development deal.
Burnett says his entrepreneurial spirit was inspired by his mother. “My mother and father both worked in factories in east London, father at the Ford Motor Company and my mother in the car battery factory next door. Mother always said to me, `Mark, you can be anything you want to be. Just as we had to work in factories to pay the bills, you have to know the guy who started Woolworth’s started with a shopping cart on the streets and now has 1,000 stores. You can be anything you want to be.’ My mother kept telling me that.”