Aidan Quinn is more respected, than he is celebrated, an actor not a movie star. Though he has appeared in a many a Hollywood blockbuster, he shuns the spotlight and chooses to do smaller films, like his semi-autobiographical This is my Father, or his latest gem, Songcatcher. The latter premiered a year ago at Sundance and is finally getting a release, following its crowed-pleasing reception at the Utah-based festival. It is there that Paul Fischer talked exclusively to the actor.
Aidan Quinn looks nothing like his 41 years. His piercing blue eyes are indicative of a youthful exuberance, and that he is. A passionate artist, Quinn loves making movies, but not because of some desire for stardom. Thus, the independent world of American film has given him some exciting opportunities. “That’s where I get offered the most interesting work”, Quinn explains from a small room at the back of the Park City theatre in which his latest film, Songcatcher, was just screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival. “The kind of work I get offered in studio movies is simply not as interesting. I don’t get offered those leading roles and I’m not on that top 5 list and I never HAVE been.” While the actor may get some good roles, being on that list is something he still would not mind “because I’d love to get the roles that Russell Crowe was getting, because I don’t have any less talent than ANY of those guys, so it would be great.”
Born in Chicago on March 8, 1959, to Irish immigrants, Quinn and his four siblings were raised in both the U.S. and their parents’ native country. The family spent so much time in Ireland that Quinn had part of his high school education there, and he moved to Dublin in his late teens. It was his Irish heritage that inspired him to executive produce This is my Father, written and directed by his brother Paul in which he starred as an impoverished Irish farmer. The film won the actor high praise. “That was a story I grew up with and based loosely on a neighbour of my mother’s”, he recalls. “I also knew the people really well and half my family’s a farming family, as in the movie, so I felt a kinship with those men, along with their silences and awkwardness.” As for Quinn’s own childhood, he describes his family life as being weird. . ‘I remember being on welfare when I was young. Then we went through a period when we lived in a big middle-class house, then we were broke again.’ the family’s home base kept shifting as well: Several times during Aidan’s childhood, his father, Michael, shuttled them back to Ireland for more than a year. Perhaps his main stabilizing influence then was the world of the imagination: His mother, Teresa, used to tell her children fairy stories as if they were taken from history books, and Michael taught English Literature.
So it is no surprise that while in Dublin, Quinn tried to break into the local theatre scene; which was less than successful, so Quinn returned to Chicago. There, he worked as a roofer before joining local acting companies. “I remember sitting on top of a high-rise building looking over Lake Michigan,’ he recalls. “I loved my job. I’d dangle my feet over the edge 27 floors up.” But such bliss couldn’t continue. “I was on the job at 7 A.M., and someone passed me a bottle of whisky and a joint. ‘Oh, no,’ I said to myself. ‘ This is not a good way to start the day. These guys are great, but they’re all alcoholics. What am I going to do with my life?” He mustered the courage to call an acting teacher and sign up for a class. “I didn’t go very often – about once every three weeks,” he admits. “After about six weeks, the teacher asked me to be in a play with him. ‘Do you want to read?’ he asked me. I said, ‘Uh, yeah, if I like the part. ‘He got furious with me.” Quinn did the play, but, ever rebellious, he still refused to commit to acting. “I did about one play a year, partly because I couldn’t get work and partly because I was lazy and insecure. If I had $100 in my pocket, I’d say, ‘Let’s go to New York! “‘
He acted in a number of productions and made his New York debut in an off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. Quinn broke into movies playing an angry young man that gets involved with faux Daryl Hannah in Reckless (1984). The film went largely ignored by both critics and audiences, and it wasn’t until he starred in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan the following year that Quinn began to attract notice. The recognition he earned for that film was nicely complemented during the same year by his acclaimed, Emmy-nominated portrayal of a gay lawyer with AIDS in An Early Frost, the first TV movie to deal directly with the subject of the virus. Quinn subsequently carved a niche for himself with strong portrayals in a series of disparate films throughout the ’80s and ’90s. He did some of his more memorable work in Barry Levinson’s Avalon (1990), The Playboys (1992), which cast him as an amorous Irish musician; Benny and Joon (1993), in which he played the long-suffering brother of a mentally unstable young woman (Mary Stuart Masterson); Legends of the Fall (1994), in which he portrayed wild man Brad Pitt’s responsible older brother; and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996), in which Quinn got to play against type as an ambitious IRA terrorist. In 1998, Quinn collaborated with brothers Paul and Declan, starring in and executive producing This Is My Father. The actor followed This is My Father with a return to mainstream Hollywood fare, starring as Annette Bening’s husband in the thriller In Dreams and as an old high school friend of Meryl Streep’s in Wes Craven’s Music of the Heart, both released in 1999.
Quinn’s latest film also offers the versatile actor a change of pace. The film is the quietly lyrical and entertaining Songcatcher, a gorgeous portrait of music, romance, and history. Set in 1907 in the Appalachian mountains, director Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher tells the story of Doctor Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a musicologist trying hard to reach the next rung in her academic career. She goes to visit her sister, Elna, who lives in a rural coal-mining town, and discovers that the local musicians play traditional folk music that they learned from their ancestors in Ireland and Scotland. Quinn plays one such mountaineer who teaches the character about folk music and love. “I loved this guy, because it was such a well conceived part all the way., he explains. The film was shot on location in North Carolina, in the midst of rural small town America, which is the birthplace of traditional country music. Quinn loved working in that environment, “because I got to rent this old ramshackle cabin for $200 on top of a mountain at the end of a dirt road, completely deserted. It was 10 minutes from most of our locations, so while everyone else travelled for ages to their terrible Best Western motels, I was living with the locals and I had time off”. On those days off, Quinn says he “would go listen to a lot of local music nearly every night, which was great”. The music in the film is traditional country music that was first recorded in the early part of last century. Though Quinn was unfamiliar with the music before shooting Songcatcher, he is now hooked. “It’s the kind of music that I’m going to hold in my heart for the rest of my life”. And the actor DOES sing in the movie, and none too shabbily. “I love it. There’s something about singing that is so pure and such a full experience”. He loved it so much, he wants to do more. “I want to take guitar lessons and keep that up”.
With this film, along with much of the actor’s recent films, (including a TV movie in which he played Paul McCartney) Quinn believes that “I’m doing my best work ever, though ironically, I’m finding it hard to get more work, which I find perplexing”.
Perhaps that is partly because he remains choosy about the films he takes on. Of late, Quinn chooses-or is chosen for-films rooted in reality. “I like complex, adult-themed stories, he says “If every film were a high-concept blockbuster, there would be little need for creativity. I want to make sure we don’t lose touch with the tradition of sitting around the fire and listening to stories,” says the man raised on fairy tales. “Let’s not become people who warm themselves by the light of the TV. But I’m not here to dump on Hollywood. I don’t have any patience for being sad about things. There are good things out there, and I’ve been in a few of them, and I’ll be in more of them.” Songcatcher is a perfect example.