Exclusive: Dennis Quaid Was 'Profoundly Hit' by Playing Abusive Father in 'I Can Only Imagine' Movie

Dennis Quaid stars as Arthur Millard, an abusive, angry father in the upcoming movie, I Can Only Imagine. The role is based on the true story of Bart Millard, lead singer of MercyMe, and the relationship between Bart and his father, Arthur, during Millard's childhood and adolescence. After years of physical and emotional abuse, Bart was able to reconcile with his father shortly before his father's death, inspiring the MercyMe hit song, "I Can Only Imagine."

Quaid knew as soon as he read the script that it was a role he wanted to play.

"I did not know the story," Quaid tells PopCulture.com. "I did not know the song even when I was offered this. I put the CD aside, and I just read the story. I was so profoundly hit by the story that I thought if Bart had the bravery to tell it – it just felt real because it was a true story. I just felt drawn to do it. I've played a lot of dads, but never one like this."

In I Can Only Imagine, Arthur, who raised his son as a single dad after Bart's mother left, physically assaults Bart, played by child actor, Brody Rose as the young Bart, and J. Michael Finley as Bart as a teenager and adult. Especially in the physical scenes with Rose, Quaid was aware of the physical and emotional safety of the child.

"We shot those very, very carefully," Quaid says. "Brody, he's such a good actor too. He's a great kid. We were very careful because just even a trace of something like that, playing sort of pretend with it, if you will, you have to be careful."

Bart was on the set for the filming, watching the most painful parts of his life be acted out. Even for a seasoned actor like Quaid, he admits those scenes were a challenge.

"These difficult emotions that you have to get to. Who wants to go there?" he says. "We'd come in in the morning, and J. Michael and myself and [directors] Andy and Jon [Erwin] – even with a good script, I don't care what's on the page. You have to get to this place and kind of create something out of nothing. Knowing that Bart, the real Bart, is watching the monitor – you work it until you're there. It's some sort of hocus pocus that happens, I guess. That's the only way I can describe it. Then when the scene's over, you just drop it, get out of there."

Even as Quaid was acting out the physical scenes, he was aware of how painful it must be for Bart to relive.

"There's things in this film that are difficult to watch, let alone difficult to play," says the 63-year-old. "But Bart was brave enough to tell his story, so we all wanted to get it right, especially for him and Arthur too."

Although Quaid never heard of MercyMe, or the song, "I Can Only Imagine," he made sure he got to know Bart, and hear his story first-hand.

"When I first got on set, I sat Bart down, who was on the set quite a bit, and just had him tell me the story, his story," Quaid reveals. "I already knew the story, but I wanted to hear it from his mouth. It's not really what he said, like stories that are not in the script or anything. It was a little bit like watching television and turning the sound down. I just tried to feel him and watch him while he told the story, and I could see it flicker, the emotions flicker on his face. I could see the impact his father had, and the impact of his father's complete renewal and redemption as a human being and the redemption that both of them had. That's how I came up with the character of Arthur."

Quaid, who will star in Season 2 of the Amazon series, Fortitude, has played plenty of bad guys throughout his career, but he says the role of Arthur Millard is one that will stay with him.

"I learn from everything that I do, from every character because I'm interested in people," says Quaid. "I would just say I'm very inspired walking away. This is what I took from this role."

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I Can Only Imagine, which also stars Trace Adkins, Priscilla Shirer and Cloris Leachman, opens in theaters nationwide on March 16.

Photo Credit: YouTube/Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions