When Dennis Quaid arrived on the set of director Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price,” directly from a Montreal night shoot for another movie he was filming, Bahrani had a rehearsal set up for the following day. And he found his star to be not very cooperative.
“Dennis showed up tired and not in a good mood. He was mumbling; he would not invest himself in a rehearsal,” Bahrani recalled during a recent interview in Boston. “I was terrified. I’d never worked with movie stars before.”
Bahrani, 38, was prepared to confront Quaid, who is 21 years older. But first he called a friend, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who narrated Bahrani’s 2009 short, “Plastic Bag.”
“He chastised me,” Bahrani said. “He said, ‘He’s Dennis Quaid. He’s a 30-year veteran. He doesn’t want to rehearse; you’re wasting his time. He will deliver when you turn on the camera like any good professional.’”
Sure enough, the next day, Bahrani turned on the camera and Quaid delivered.
“He had [the character’s] cadence of speech, the mannerisms, the accent, the walk,” Bahrani said. “I gave him a bear hug. He must have thought I was out of my mind.”
Sitting next to Bahrani on a hotel couch and sipping a Red Bull, Quaid, looking weary from his delayed morning flight but still youthful in jeans and sneakers, listens intently and nods, keeping his famous high-wattage smile under wraps. In the film, which opens here Friday, he twists that smile into sinister smarm. His Henry Whipple, an Iowa corn farmer and seed salesman for a Monsanto-like agribusiness corporation, is a Willy Loman-esque figure whose overeager backslapping conceals desperation. His life is falling apart: His business is in trouble; his eldest son has fled the farm; and his second son, Dean (Zac Efron), also wants no part of it, or him.
Quaid says he was living in Austin, Texas, when he heard that Bahrani, a North Carolina native whose parents hail from Iran, wanted him to play Henry Whipple. So he watched Bahrani’s trilogy of indie features about immigrants making their living in New York City: “Man Push Cart” (2005), “Chop Shop” (2007), and “Goodbye Solo” (2008).
These films, says Quaid, “reminded me of the movies from the ’70s that I cut my teeth on. I was amazed by his use of non-professionals; the boy in ‘Chop Shop,’ especially. I told Ramin, ‘I hope you can get a performance out of me like that.’ ”
“At Any Price” is Bahrani’s first feature out of New York, with a high-profile cast and a somewhat bigger budget. But like his early, neorealist work, it’s also about ordinary people struggling with moral issues against harsh economic forces.
He became interested in agribusiness through the books of Michael Pollan, he says, and then went to Iowa to do research.
“I learned the pressures they’re under,” Bahrani says. “It’s not like the 1980s with banks foreclosing on a farm. I love Terrence Malick’s films, but it’s not like that anymore. Farms are multimillion-dollar operations now. Farmers spend more time on computers looking at commodities than touching the land.”
He said that when farmers talked to him, he wrote it all down and had Red West [who plays Henry Whipple’s father] say it back to Quaid.
“I don’t have the imagination to come up with that good stuff,” Bahrani says.
Quaid says that although his own grandfather was a cotton farmer for a time and his own long resume includes playing rural characters, “At Any Price” presented a new challenge.
“Farming is more like Wall Street now,” Quaid says. “So this was a different type of character for me. There was a fear factor, but fear is a great motivator.”
He said Bahrani talked about “Death of a Salesman” and Willy Loman. And that Henry Whipple tries to present a confident exterior to the world, as a seed salesman and corn farmer, but that the pressures to get ahead have corrupted him and filled him with self-loathing.
While Quaid was watching Bahrani’s early films, the director was immersed in Quaid’s four-plus decades of moviemaking. “I knew Dennis’s films and loved them, starting with ‘Breaking Away’ and up to ‘Far From Heaven’ and many more in between,” he says. “But when his agent called, I went to the Internet. The first thing to come up was a YouTube clip with Ellen DeGeneres.”
For these popular recurring pranks, the daytime host sends Quaid, outfitted with an earpiece, into public places like Starbucks. The good-sport actor then shouts out whatever obnoxious or crazy thing that the comic silently instructs him to say.
“I had a feeling that must be what he’s like as a person,” says Bahrani. “I called and offered him the part.”
And with that out in the open, Dennis Quaid finally flashes that megawatt smile.