Out of the Blue
Life's now a beach for Lost star Terry O'Quinn, who finds it's never too late to land a breakout role.
Terry O'Quinn seems to have been born to intimidate, and few actors do it as effectively. He has the authoritative look of someone in charge--a persona that has suited him well as a shadowy government figure in shows such as Alias, The X-Files, and Millennium. He also excels at menace; take for example his breakthrough film role as a serial killer who will murder for the perfect family in The Stepfather. His remarkably blue-green eyes can turn into a steely stare, and they can communicate more than most actors can accomplish with pages of dialogue. He has the classic look of a commanding character actor: the sinewy form, the ability to morph into any role, and an air of power he can bring to any performance, even in fluff such as The Cutting Edge. Perhaps hip website Fametracker (www.fametracker.com) co-creator Tara Ariano put it best in her analysis of O'Quinn's appeal: "He must look trustworthy, or like he can keep super-secret secrets, at least. Like, maybe there's so much classified information crammed into his head that there's no room for active hair follicles."
As he entered his 50s, O'Quinn was settling into a nice niche as the go-to guy for no-nonsense authority roles. He had a recognizable and reliable presence as someone who would always turn in a quality performance, and it seemed he would continue the pattern for years to come. That all changed with the television phenomenon known as Lost, which has finally propelled the actor from underrated supporting player to the most complex--and cool--character on network TV. As John Locke, the mysterious plane-crash survivor who seems just as likely to quote Proust as decapitate you with a hunting knife from a 100-yard distance, O'Quinn finds himself playing father figure to his fellow castaways. In an ensemble filled with outstanding actors, he manages to steal scenes, as the boar-hunting, frog-dissecting, darkly humorous Locke continues to confound expectations. Is he a well-intentioned patriarch, a cunning strategist, a harmless old man with dreams of glory--or is there something sinister he's not sharing with us? As played by O'Quinn, the answer is all of the above, and watching the character unravel has been one of the highlights of the season. In an early episode, it was revealed that Locke was nothing more than a pathetic office drone working at a box company prior to the crash. But that wasn't the big surprise: By the episode's end, viewers learned the character had been confined to a wheelchair for four years when he boarded that fateful flight, only to have the island miraculously restore his legs to working order for reasons still unknown. In lesser hands, such revelations, along with Locke's tendency to wax philosophical, would be a disaster, but, thanks to O'Quinn and a terrific writing staff, it has made for one of the most fascinating TV shows ever.
O'Quinn recently sold his home in Maryland and relocated to the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where Lost is filmed, thanks to the success of the show. But, on this bright April afternoon, he's visiting the L.A. area for reasons we know better than to ask about. After all, this guy can keep a secret. Don't expect him to reveal to you what's next on the show: Even he might not know. He took the role in the pilot without having any idea of Locke's backstory, primarily because it was a chance to work with Alias creator J.J. Abrams again. "It was another instance where I really needed a job, and thank God it was J.J. that called me," O'Quinn recalls. "Basically he said, 'There's a part on this series--' and I said, 'That's great, I'll take it.' He said, 'Well, it shoots in Hawaii--' and I said, 'That's okay.' He said, 'Well, you're not going to have much to do in the first couple of episodes or the pilot, but the part will develop.' I said, 'Great, I'm in.'"
He admits to being a little concerned when he received the script for the pilot, in which his character barely said a word. "But I said, 'I've got to have faith,'" he says, echoing a theme that will come up several times in the conversation. "That's the point at which the show as an experience began to parallel my own, in that I had to go on faith. You'll see coming up, there are times when Locke's faith is tested, and mine is, too. I don't ask what's coming up, I just wait for it, and I'm excited every time I get a script. It was an instance where he said it would develop, and I trusted that it would, and I trusted myself to do good work. And when I've done those things in the past, good things have always happened. Look, J.J. came back to me."
However, it can be difficult to play a character whose history and future is uncertain. O'Quinn recalls the moment he was first told of his character's handicap; his first thought was that he might have moved differently in the first episode had he known. "I thought, 'Wow. What did I do in the pilot? How are we going to get from there to here?'" he says. "It's kind of like, when somebody gives me something wonderful, I'm always afraid I'm going to break it. I just don't want to break it." Far from it, the episode "Walkabout" has achieved status as a favorite of fans, with its breathtaking, operatic finale when Locke first realizes he can walk. "Of course I was filled with doubt, but, when it finally aired, it blew me away," he says. "It was a wonderful moment, but it wasn't just me. It was the music, it was the cinematography, the script, the directing, the editing. There are a great bunch of people on this show, and the contribution from all the elements is so obvious and strong." And, as Locke's history begins to slowly unravel, O'Quinn finds not knowing too much surprisingly easy. "I thought it would be a burden as an actor, to not know the past or not know the future," he says. "I find that it's very freeing. I have no baggage. I'm not even responsible for the choices I make; all I have to do is make them interesting." And how does he make those choices? "To a certain extent, I have to guess a little bit," he admits. "And all that does, if it's not quite right, it simply leads the audience a little bit one way, and the writers correct the course. Then I get to wait and see like everybody else."
O'Quinn first discovered his love of acting at Central Michigan University in the early 1970s. "I knew doing plays was making me happy, and the idea occurred to me, somewhere in those years, that it might be possible to attempt making a living at it," he recalls. "I just didn't know how to get there." While attending the University of Iowa on a scholarship, he met director Ed Berkely, who invited him to the Williamstown Theatre Festival. "It was the end of my college experience, so I was happy to go," says the actor. "I did a play there, and he introduced me to a couple of agents in New York, and it took off from there." O'Quinn, who has been with Innovative Artists for the last decade, says he wasn't particularly picky about choosing his representation back then. "Agents to me were like roles: If one would have me, I would have him or her," he says. "I think most of us hit it that way. It would be nice to have had the luxury to go out and interview agents, but that's kind of like interviewing banks to give you loans." In addition, he says he wasn't being too choosy about his roles, saying, "I was going after anything. I wasn't role-specific; I was just trying to get work."
O'Quinn appeared onscreen here and there throughout the 1980s, mostly in authority roles such as lawmen in Mrs. Soffel and Silver Bullet and physicians in the soap opera The Doctors and the TV movie An Early Frost. But his biggest break came in the form of what his agent at the time dubbed "a sleazy horror flick." Even O'Quinn didn't have high expectations for The Stepfather, which co-starred former Charlie's Angels actor Shelley Hack. "It all went by in kind of a blur," he says of landing the iconic role. "I was cast out of the blue; me and a couple of other guys were flown up to Vancouver to audition. I was flying back, and, before I landed in L.A., they had called and said, 'Come back, you're who we want.' I think we started shooting within the next week and a half."
Although the film won critical acclaim and earned O'Quinn an Independent Spirit Award nomination, his reason for doing it was practical: money. But he still took the role as seriously as any other, and he turned in a creepy, complex performance in what turned out to be a taut thriller. Still, he never thought the film would achieve much success. "It was in the can for a year and a half, and I was terrified," he confesses. "I didn't think it was the vehicle I wanted to introduce myself to the world with. I thought, 'Good. I did the film, they paid me for it, and I'll never see it again.' I was relieved."
Following the surprise success of The Stepfather, O'Quinn worked steadily in a wide array of projects, from the good (Tombstone, Primal Fear) to the less good (Amityville: A New Generation, several TV movies with titles such as My Stepson, My Lover). He turned in a delightful cameo as Howard Hughes in The Rocketeer that would have done Scorsese proud, and he is probably remembered everywhere by women now in their 30s as the controlling father of ice-skater Moira Kelly in 1992's The Cutting Edge. When he looks back on his filmography, he admits there are roles he would have preferred to turn down. "It's hard," he says simply. "It might be a crappy script, or it might be with people you've seen do shit before. It doesn't make you happy. It's hard, because your life is in a place where you've got to do something that you'd rather not do. The reality is that most of us actors have to take work that we would rather not at some time." When faced with such situations, he tried to look for the positive. "You just try to find something to play; there are things to play," he notes. "And it still beats a lot of other things. I'd rather not be a roofer."
Despite what would appear to be a steady career, O'Quinn says he was still struggling. "I've worked a lot. But, in all honesty, I didn't work for much," he says. "I lived in Maryland, which wasn't the most practical thing to do; you miss a lot of stuff. People get the impression you don't want to be involved; casting people take it as a sign you're recalcitrant." He says he was often broke and found himself at a crossroads two years ago, when things began to spin out of control. "I got [to] a point several times in my life where I just wept," he admits. "There were bad things in my life, family things that sent me to the hospital because my heart just hurt." He credits Lori, his wife of 25 years, with turning things around. "She turned to me one day and said, 'You know, we can't spiral down. We can't continue to hurt until we die. We have to start letting the cards fall on the table, playing them when they hit, and take the best attitude you can,'" he recalls. "There's no advice for when you're out of money and there's none coming in and nobody's going to give you any. Sometimes my wife and I butted heads--because when money gets tight and you can't get arrested, you feel ashamed because you're not providing and you strike out. Don't pick the wrong target when you're angry, and don't hurt the ones you love or the ones who love you, because if you keep a good attitude and are prepared to do your work, you just might get an opportunity out of the blue."
Locke for a Role
Not surprisingly, for a man who stars on a show about cursed lottery numbers and synchronicity, O'Quinn also attributes a certain amount of his success to chance. Asked how he was fortunate enough to become a resident player for two brilliant show-runners such as Abrams and Chris Carter, he says, "Lucky is not an inaccurate word. There's a lot of serendipity involved; there's a lot of right place, right time, where you missed a flight or caught a flight." Carter first called him in for The X-Files, and then remembered him when casting Millennium. "They liked the episode and the character so much they made him a semiregular," he notes. "Then [Carter] started another series [the short-lived Harsh Realm], and [he] asked me to have a featured role on that. I was lucky to meet him. After that, I did my work, and he wanted to hire me again."
When O'Quinn first got the call for Alias, he was told by his agents that he could go in for a meeting or an audition. "There was an implication that it might be beneath me to audition, which is something I never understood," he recalls. "If it's what you do best, why would you want to hold it back and make them guess how good you are, when you can go in and show them how good you are?" Even director Ken Olin later mentioned that he was surprised the veteran actor had auditioned. "He said a lot of people wouldn't have done that," O'Quinn says. "I understand that happens sometimes, but I've never quite understood why. I suspect perhaps some people don't audition well. I don't think I audition as well as I act, but hopefully directors and producers and casting agents understand that and make allowances. I think the smart ones do." The actor has had his share of bad auditions, primarily because he was trying too hard. "If you can't pay your rent and you've got a family and you don't have money, you can be filled with desperation--it's hard not to be," he notes. "Probably the worst time for me to audition is when I really, really need the job. If you go in and don't need the job, you're relaxed."
With the runaway success of Lost and O'Quinn's recent leap from "that guy" status to bona fide TV star, one would imagine he could have his choice of roles from now on. Even the actor seems a little stunned to find himself landing a seminal role in a blockbuster after all these years. "Given my career and as long as I've been acting, you get to the point where you prepare for the worst," he says. "I never thought it was my lot, or that I deserved it. I thought I would be happy if I could keep working and pay my bills and stay under the radar. To be perfectly honest, I've been scuttling along for so long that popping my head out makes me a little jumpy. I think somebody's going to shoot it."
Something O'Quinn wasn't completely prepared for was the amount of publicity Lost would generate, particularly the level of rabid fanaticism from viewers. When the male cast members appeared in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, he was noticeably absent from the group photo--but don't go suspecting a deep conspiracy. "I just didn't feel like going that weekend," he explains. "We worked all week getting dragged through the jungle, and they wanted us to shoot all day Saturday and then meet with the Golden Globes people Sunday, and I've only got so much energy--not only energy, but energy to care." If Locke doesn't like being given orders (a recurring line is: "Don't tell me what I can't do"), he shares that in common with O'Quinn. "Every job to me is basically an experience: the people, the place, the location, the director," he says. "If too much of the experience gets eaten up doing things I resent--not that I resent publicity, but sometimes you resent things being presumed--I get tired of it. And I don't like people to presume I'll do anything."
For this reason, O'Quinn no longer has a publicist, though he employed one for three months when the show first began. "My agent and my wife talked and said I needed to take advantage of what was going on," he says. "I think I tried to get a publicist once before, but of course they don't want you when you need them, they want you when 20 million people are already watching you." His publicist was great at her job, but he found himself chafing under the stress. "I just found that I couldn't let her do her job as well as she wanted to do it," he says. "The more successful she was, the less happy I became. I find that if I'm feeling negative about something, I'd rather not do it. It's not going to be a good experience for anyone." It makes it easier being part of an ensemble. "So many people are getting such good publicity; they're doing my work for me," he quips. And he's not antisocial; he frequents the website Abrams created, The Fuselage (www.thefuselage.com), and he frequently answers questions from viewers. "It's sort of like fan mail that I don't have to put in an envelope," he says. He sums up the bottom line beautifully. "Nothing speaks better for me than my work. I can't really do anything that's going to look better than what I do best."
O'Quinn is still adjusting to being a recognizable face, noting he's not a terribly public person. "People used to know me, and they would do that thing where they look at you and shake their finger and go, 'Hey! Hey! Hey!'" he says. "Some people would recognize me from Stepfather, which is weird, because it was 18 years ago. But most people would say, 'Do you shop at the Home Depot in my neighborhood?' Now they just say, 'It's Locke,' which is funny...and nice. I'd be less happy if I didn't think Locke was such a cool guy, but it's okay to be Locke."