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Aidan Quinn Explores Academia, Science and Tragedy in Dark Matter

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

Aidan Quinn in "Dark Matter."

Aidan Quinn in “Dark Matter.”

Aidan Quinn

Explores Academia, Science and Tragedy in Dark Matter

by Brad Balfour

The feature film debut of renowned Chinese opera and theater director Chen Shi-Zheng, and winner of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival’s Alfred P. Sloan Prize, Dark Matter garnered critical praise, had a mini-theatrical release, and has a DVD out shortly. Inspired by a real tragedy, Dark Matter delves into the life of Xing Liu, a Chinese graduate student pursuing a science Ph.D. in the U.S. in the early 1990s.

Driven by ambition, yet unable to navigate academic politics and life in American academia, Liu is inexorably pushed to the edge until he totally loses his way. The forlorn and angry Liu responds violently when his chances for a Nobel Prize are dashed by his professor and advisor Reiser.

Liu’s antagonist, Professor Reiser, is played by Irish-American actor Aidan Quinn, who has handled a remarkable range of characters and roles as either the lead or support in dozens of films, plays and television shows. Born in Rockford, Illinois to devoutly Catholic Irish parents (his father was a professor), Quinn was raised in both the Midwest and in Ireland. No doubt, that gave him the fiercely independent streak he has shown in his work over the years. His older brother, Declan, is a noted cinematographer, so being in the visual arts runs in the family. Since Aidan was 19, he has been acting; the Madonna-starrer Desperately Seeking Susan offered him a breakout role.

During the ’90s Quinn’s career grew immensely as he worked alongside such Hollywood stars as Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall” Johnny Depp in Benny & Joon and Robert Duvall in The Handmaid’s Tale. One cache for him was to star in films that employed his Irish roots, such as Michael Collins and Evelyn. Eschewing conventional stardom, Quinn has done such fine indie films such as Sundance Film Festival award winner Songcatcher and quality television in such as the mini-series Empire Falls.

Though Dark Matter stars established veteran actors such as Quinn, Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, Blair Brown and Bill Irwin, it also expands the career of 30 -year-old Chinese-language star Ye Liu Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (previously in such international acclaimed films as Yimou Zhang’s Curse of the Golden Flower and Kaige Chen’s The Promise) as the brilliant but hapless Liu.

Though you’ve worked some of the best directors throughout your career, you’ve worked with a lot of first-timers as well. What is the appeal and how was it working with first time film director Chen? 

They’re the only ones who will hire me. They don’t care what the studio execs say [laughs]. I’m joking but there is an element of truth to them. All kidding aside, working with Chen was wonderful. He had a very strong visual sense from his work in the opera, and a beautiful sense of drama. I haven’t yet seen this film with a significant Chinese audience but I understand there’s a lot more humor than we know about in it within the Chinese characters. He was lovely, he has a great personality. He’s very supportive and tense in the right ways.

Director Chen applies a lot of beautiful, theatrical touches to Dark Matter, done in a short amount of time; so many elements were very operatic. Were you aware of that? 

I did see it while he was creating it and he had a great relationship with his cinematographer. He was always thinking in those terms and they were working very quickly to get a lot of work done in such a short time.

How long were you on set? I was only on set for a couple of weeks.

So what got you involved with this film? Meryl Streep [laughs]. I got a call on a Wednesday. My manager said there’s a film that’s already filming in Salt Lake City. One of the supporting actors is doing another movie and it ran over so he can’t do it, they’re desperate. You would get on a plane tomorrow and you would be shooting on Friday. There’s no money. It’s low budget at scale for no money. I told them to take a fucking flying leap at themselves [laughs]. My manager then gave me one more detail and she says “The star is Meryl Streep and she asked for you.” I said, “When is the next plane?” I didn’t even know what it was about or anything. They were e-mailing me the script that afternoon, so then I read the script and of course I liked it. I got on that plane the next day.

Why did Meryl specifically ask for you? I had worked with her before, that’s why she asked for me. We had done a movie called Music of the Heart. You are always surprised working with Meryl because she is so fresh and surprising in all her choices, so it’s always good working with her in that way. Liu Ye, what a joy to work with him, he was phenomenal. My first scenes after I got off the plane were with Liu Ye and he’s a phenomenal actor.

How did you read your character Reiser? 

I read him as a human being who was in a position of power, a man who liked having his ego stroked. My father was an academic, I’ve been around academics, but without a doubt, Liu Ye publishing a paper and criticizing my character’s great theory, not a smart move. I think he took in a way I think of “The door’s not open, you’re not welcome here,” and he took it to mean other than what I meant. There is a protocol here. There’s no question that a lot of people tend to do better that follow the rules of praising and buttering up the people of power in whatever business you’re in. Look at some of the actors who are big movie stars now, how could they get to be that? Certainly not on talent [laughs]. I’m not going to name names but you know who they are.

Did you read much about physics to prepare for this role? I read as much as I could in two days. I went on the internet, read articles, went to the library, I crammed it all. I read a lot on the plane. I was an expert in two days, that’s all I needed [laughs].

Since you were around the academic community, do you think it’s endemic that this kind of jealousy happens among the ranks so to speak? I don’t think it’s endemic; it’s just very human. I think that jealousy is in all fields but I do think that there is something in the academic world because there is that little bit of sense where you’re not quite doing full time what you dream of doing. However there are teachers that I met through my father in that is what they dream to do, that is what they were born to do, and that is what they should be doing. God bless them as they are obviously one of the most undervalued professions in the world.

Ye Liu and Aidan Quinn in "Dark Matter."

Ye Liu and Aidan Quinn in “Dark Matter.”

Liu’s character published a paper behind Reiser’s back and defies academic rules; instead Reiser embraced the character of Laurence, a more by-the-book student [Lloyd Suh]. Putting yourself in Liu’s position, how would you have handled it — be more rebellious like Liu or more like Laurence, ingratiating of your mentor? 

Well obviously if you look at my career, it’s not on the Laurence side; it’s more like Liu’s side. I’ve always taken those paths, maybe to a fault.

The Virginia Tech tragedy [which took place April 16th last year] delayed this film’s release for almost a year ago; were you afraid of any backlash? Unfortunately there’s a plethora of violence to choose from, not just in universities but in high schools. I think it’s a perfect time to show this film because you have the Olympics. You have China and Tibet. You have Chinese culture. I think it’s perfect to show Chinese students trying to find its way in America.

Were there any culture clashes on set? Since Liu Ye’s English was not the best and my Chinese was a little bit worse, I didn’t understand what he was saying so that helped. If they were laughing at me, I didn’t know it so that was good. Liu Ye has a tremendous talent. His ability to go from one emotion of wide eyed innocence and devotion to being completely devastating in seconds flat is astonishing and wonderful to work with. Even though we didn’t understand each other’s language and were just gesturing to each other, we both were laughing and had a good time. I don’t know what we thought was funny but we knew what we wanted the scenes to be about non-verbally so we had a good time working together.

Did the distance of the language help in expressing the difference in attitude the characters had with each other? Maybe, but I don’t think it was that. I think that came with the script and the director and also with our two personalities and how they melded.

This film deals with Liu’s cultural displacement and his clash with American ways of behaving. It’s a relevant theme — adapting to a new environment through immigration. Has this been a theme in other films you’ve done? I think that was a theme in Avalon, a great film I was involved in, about a Jewish family coming to America. It has happened with my family; we have moved back and forth to Ireland. I understand parents who feel not quite at home so in some ways we’re not quite at home. But it is our home and it is who we are. I definitely understand that. It’s probably the reason I’m an actor because I was moving back and forth and having to change your voice because you want to fit in. As a kid you do that automatically within weeks because your heart, your ear, and your mind are more tuned to adaptability.

Being that it is a hot topic; will Hollywood recycle this theme of culture clash and immigration? Yes, I think that’s how the world changes. Everything is changing at any moment. I may do an upcoming film about immigration because it is so prevalent. It is a global community that it’s in everyone’s faces all the time, how we are so inter-related, how everything we touch is from somewhere else. Nothing is local anymore. I think it’s supersaturated our senses and it’s coming out from writers and directors, those themes.

Have you been to China? No but I’d love to go to China.

Have there been plans to go to China for this film? Not that I’ve heard. I know that when we were making this film that there was the hope that this film would get to China. I don’t know where it stands right now.

You’ve done movies, theater, and television. Do you have a preference? No, it’s nice to do it all. Of course there’s probably nothing more satisfying for an actor when doing stage when the planets line up but I like it all. You can do work in film that you can’t do in theater.

What has been the best lesson you’ve learned as an actor both in the art and in life and who has been your greatest teacher? If you’re looking for great teachers and lessons in acting, you need to go no further than Meryl Streep. There’s a classic example right there. She is like a witch and I mean that in the best possible way of how she could conjure up just in a relaxed and improvisational way authentic life into whatever character she’s playing or whatever project she’s involved. Do you know how quick she learned Tai Chi? That’s amazing. One of my friends has been doing Tai Chi for 30 years and he doesn’t look nearly as good as Meryl does in this film. She learned in six weeks I believe. Meryl is a pretty extraordinary woman. She’s a perfect example of balancing a family life with a career, balancing being an authentic person and not having to cow-tow to allow the corporate needs that are in our business. The corporate needs are becoming more intense. I just did an interview at a news channel which will remain nameless where it seemed the requirement was that every woman had to have sexy long legs and short skirts. I’m for women dressing as sexy as you want but it seemed to be the school uniform over there. We live in strange times so if you could find a balance within these strange times, it’s a good thing.

Talking about balance, some careers don’t necessarily have to go out of date because you’ve gotten older. Do you see that as a change… where you’ve gotten opportunities to do new things? There are certainly opportunities like that but they are few and far between.

You’ve worked with three powerful female actors in Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek and Bonnie Hunt; what was it like working with them? Sissy was phenomenal. I worked with Sissy twice and I’ve worked with Meryl twice. They’re both great, fun to work with, just great ladies and great human beings. Bonnie Hunt is so funny. She literally will have you almost peeing in your pants; she’s just so damn funny. We had a lot of fun doing that first Project Greenlight – which was a bunch of crap. HBO was so upset that we all liked each other because all they wanted was conflict. All they wanted was us not liking the director or each other. This is an example of how bad corporate media could become even in something like Project Greenlight which is supposed to be this great independent project with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. By the way, they never came to the set, I never saw them, not even once. It was their company, so fair play for them. Anyway, Kevin Pollak is playing the Rabbi. I play the anti-Semitic Irish fireman. It’s raining and they’re asking if I want an umbrella. I’m from Chicago, I don’t need an umbrella. Kevin says, “I’m a Jew, give me three umbrellas.” He’s telling this story to the cameras, and I’m sitting right next to him laughing. You could actually see part of my shirt in the scene. I’m shaking up and down laughing. Kevin’s going to the camera and he says, “Mr. Method Actor, Aidan Quinn, he loves the rain,” and they edited it like he was being serious. They took out the sound of me laughing. They took out me putting my head in just to make a little bit of conflict where there was none. That’s what I mean about those kinds of things.

Speaking of women in power, what was it like working with Madonna on Desperately Seeking Susan?

That was the most asked question of my career until about fifteen years ago and I thought it had gone away. The funny thing about that question is that I never worked with her. My scenes are with Rosanna Arquette. That’s why it’s funny to me that it’s the most asked question of my career because it never happened.

Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you’d like to?

Oh God, there’s so many. I’ve been fortunate to work with so many actors in my career.

What films do you consider a benchmark for you? I’m sure if I thought about it. That’s one that’s hard to answer without thinking about it. For me, it was when I did All My Sons which was an Arthur Miller play on PBS; An Early Frost which was the first movie ever done about AIDS. I was the first actor to play a person with AIDS. Or in playing Hamlet, those are benchmarks for me.

Do you see yourself doing more of your own productions? I think that helps a lot. I know more and more actors that do that out of necessity. I always tell young actors when I have a chance to talk to them, “Do not think that you are going to have a satisfying career if you’re just going to be a freelance actor. You’re going to have to generate your own work by producing and writing with friends because if you’re just waiting for the phone to ring from the corporate interest, more than likely they’re not going to align with your own interest unless you’re very lucky or you’re in the top-ten box office stars where just about everything is offered to you and then you can pick and choose some good stuff. Other than that, it’s going to be a struggle and a dance.”

Do you have your own production company? I don’t. When I grow up, I will [laughs].

Are there under-the-radar productions that people should know about? There are a tremendous amount of films being made that I have seen at film festivals around the world that are terrific, much better films that you are going to see at your local, neighborhood Cineplex. A lot of them aren’t getting released. In the last ten years we’ve seen this happen where the film world has become so corporate that there’s a lot of great films dying on the where they may get a DVD release a year or two later or something like that. I would just encourage people to try and support these kinds of films. I would encourage more women to be in positions of power so they can help these men decide what films to buy because a lot of them don’t have a fucking clue. That’s where I’m at.

How important is it for you to choose projects that reflect your beliefs? 

Too important for me – unfortunately. I just can’t see myself making a film going in that I know is going to make the world a worse place. It’s that simple, If you were to follow this story and be inspired by what it says, and if it’s going to encourage more violence and more commercialism, I’m not interested. Now, if I am working less and less, I will become more interested.

What do you feel needs to be changed in the film world? I just did a film where three girls are the leads, and they’re all fourteen or fifteen years old. They’re three extraordinary, wonderful Irish actors, but they’re unknown so when you go to sell that film, they are the leads. it’s men that are buying the films 90% of the time even though women make up the choice of who goes to see the movies as a couple. They make the decision over the men 65% of the time. Gender-wise, I don’t think there’s not enough balance in the film world. I think that’s a major problem. Also it’s become more corporate in the sense of what’s wrong with making a little money where everybody gets paid and everybody has a job, but you have to make a $200 million dollar worldwide hit or else, why bother.

And the name of this Irish film with the three girls? 32A. It’s a film that my sister [Marian] made. We shop it around and hear from executives “Oh we love it but it’s not for us. Good luck with it.” My sister wrote and directed it.

This was a year where No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were nominated for Oscars, and they weren’t box office hits.

But who voted for them? The Academy members are not the corporations. They’re not the studio heads. They’re the actors. They’re people like me. They’re the guys that see good work. That’s why those films are nominated because those are good films that need to be seen.

Do you prefer doing independent films compared to bigger budgeted films? Not necessarily. In general, the themes of a lot of independent films are a little more varied and interesting so, in that way, it’s a preference. On the other hand, I’ve done plenty of big-budget movies that have great stories and, to be honest, it’s a nice feeling to get paid.

What’s coming up for you? I’m waiting for three independent films’ financing to become real.

With the digital technology where it’s cheaper to make a feature now, do you see a rise of more independent films? I hope so. I really, strongly hope so. The thing about that is that it just makes it more accessible but that also has a downside to it for actors like me that are used to getting a certain amount of pay because anyone can make a film and put it on YouTube, 60 million people see it and it’s cheap so what do you need actors for? That’s why my union is battling the studio right now with the producers in trying to getting a piece of the new media because that new media, this new digital medium, is the future, there’s no doubt about that.

And you would do a film shoot in digital video or HD? Oh yeah, I’ve already done it. Actors don’t care where they work. They work in a pig sty. Just give them a good part, a little bit of food, and maybe a glass of wine at the end of the night, and they’ll be fine [Laughs].

Would you like to direct? I would love to, when I grow up.

What’s it like being in a two-actor family? My wife [Elizabeth Bracco], God bless her, has sacrificed her career for our family and our daughters, in particular my eldest daughter who is autistic. She took a few jobs, the last one being The Sopranos for the last season and a half in which she had a great part in and was wonderful for her to do. Our daughters are getting older so I’m hoping she’ll do more roles.

Is it easier for you to have someone who knows what you’re going through as an actor? 

I think so. She knows how it works and how you could run over time and all that stuff.

Is there more awareness on autism with some films dealing on the subject? 

Definitely. I mean we’ve gone from one in 10,000 children being autistic to one in a hundred. How did that happen? Think about it. There’s only one thing that has changed radically and that is the amount of toxins being injected into our children by vaccines. To me, that’s what it is.

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved. Posted: June 27, 2008.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2008. Courtesy of First Independent Pictures.  All rights reserved.#2 © 2008. Courtesy of First Independent Pictures.  All rights reserved.

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