News and Features

LA Actor Moves to Texas and Re-Discovers Himself — on Stage

Van Quattro as Carmichael in Second Thought Theatre’s A Behanding in Spokane. Photo by Karen Almond.

Experienced, professional actors generally don’t leave Hollywood to live and work in North Texas. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this story about one who did – but it wasn’t easy.

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As an actor, Van Quattro has a brooding, battered quality — literally. In the early ‘70s in Los Angeles, Quattro got his nose broken when he was a boxer at the Main Street Gym.

“They didn’t even consider setting noses back in the fight game then,” he says. “Just stuck about thirty yards of gauze up your nose and, you know, let it heal.”

He went right back in — but gave it up eventually (“It’s a brutal game”). That sense of hard knocks suits Quattro’s character in the play, A Behanding in Spokane, currently being presented by Second Thought Theatre. A Behanding is a decidedly lesser work by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. It’s McDonagh’s most recent play, his first set in America, and it lacks the seedy Irish life that roots his  works from the ’90s (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, The Cripple of Inishmaan). These are the plays that rocketed McDonagh to theater fame, regular stage productions around the world and Hollywood gigs as the screenwriter-director of In Bruges (excellent) and Seven Psychopaths (not excellent).

Behanding is more on the Psychopath side of things, which means it still has got plenty of what McDonagh’s plays are known for:  brutality, profanity, macabre humor. But here, unrooted, they’re too much like what his critics have said all his writing is based on: whatever easy shock value or callous humor he can come up with from moment to moment. Quattro plays a man named Carmichael who’s searching for his hand that was cut off years before. His violent revenge is occasionally derailed by phone calls — from his mom. She complains that she tried to remove a balloon from a tree and fell.

Carmichael — caught in the middle of handcuffing and killing two people who tried to sell him the wrong hand — yells into a phone: “Hey ma! Sitting on your fat ass, chasing balloons all over Spokane? Why don’t you just call for an ambulance like any normal person who’s fallen out of a tree would?”

Alex Organ (left) directed Quattro in Behanding. He says it’s more than just the 58-year-old actor’s imposing size or his lived-in looks that suggest menace or weariness. “There is that quality to him,” Organ says. “There’s something going on behind the eyes, you know what I mean? He also has just the ability to stare straight through you. That’s not something he has to work at. That’s just who he is.”

Part of that wounded, brooding stage presence comes from Quattro’s own troubled childhood, growing up in LA. He says his mother was a hypochondriac, his father a night-shift truck driver. “You walked on eggs all day because if you woke him up, it was a beating,” Quattro recalls. “He was very physical, very brutal.”

Eventually, what Quattro didn’t find in boxing or drugs or alcohol, he found in acting — an escape, an outlet for expression. Even so, Quattro didn’t make it big as an actor in Hollywood. But he worked steadily enough – mostly as cops or killers, naturally. In the movie, Fight Club, Quattro was one of the detectives who assault Ed Norton. In Picket Fences, he blasted Don Cheadle with a shotgun. On Millennium, the spooky cop show in the ‘90s, Quattro played Hollywood’s favorite character, a serial killer. In Quattro’s case, he moves up from mutilating horses to attacking women — all with the standard, foreboding music and creepy mannerisms, although Quattro’s performance also suggests the killer is torn by psychotic forces he can’t resist: “A man can’t fight what he is.”

But in 2000, work in Hollywood dried up because of the actors’ strike. The year before, Quattro’s son Case was born. Quattro and his wife didn’t want to raise him in LA — “it had changed so much from when I grew up. It had turned into a bordertown mentality. Everyone was on the make … Everybody was a screenwriter, everybody was a gang member. Everybody wanted a piece of the big pie that was there. And I didn’t want to raise him in that environment.”

So they moved to his wife’s hometown, Fort Worth. But within months, the couple divorced. Quattro said he thought about going back to Los Angeles, showing everyone in Texas he didn’t need to be here. “But there was no way I’d leave my son. Not a possibility then, not a possibility now.”

So Quattro quit acting. Many actors do when they hit their 30s or 40s. They want to raise a family, buy a house — and they can’t do that on a theater artist’s piecemeal salary. Which is why for theater communities far away from the media-entertainment centers in New York or LA, the lack of talented, older male actors is a chronic weakness. In North Texas, there’s been just enough TV, film and advertising work that some have managed to stitch together a living over the years. But they’re so few, it’s one reason Quattro’s presence here eventually got noticed.

When he finally did get back to acting, that is. For ten years, Quattro didn’t act. He worked construction, he worked as a photographer, anything to keep him near Case. He says he wanted to imprint himself on his son — as his dad. That meant, sometimes,  just driving by the house, and sitting with him for a few minutes in the car. “But I did that every day.”

Quattro says he didn’t even think about acting when he wasn’t actually doing it. But two years ago, it was Quattro’s second wife, Catherine Ruehle, a baker in Fort Worth, who encouraged him to get back on stage — having heard his Hollywood stories, having seen some of his film work.

“But I didn’t know anything about the theater scene here,” he says. He auditioned for Inherit the Wind at Onstage in Bedford — and got the part of Hornbeck, the sarcastic character based on H. L. Mencken. From there, he played Boo Radley in the Dallas Theater Center’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Just two roles, and he was already at the big house in town.

Boo Radley is a telling role in this instance: He’s the boogie man who turns out to be a gentle giant. These days, Quattro often brings a sadness, a gentleness to his characters. He even makes the angry Carmichael in Behanding sympathetic. Actually, director Alex Organ reports he had to push Quattro not to make Carmichael too sympathetic.

Van Quattro in Superior Donuts with Chris Piper in Theatre Too, Theatre Three’s basement space

Quattro credits his son Case with changing him – as a person and as an actor — expanding his emotional range. “I think having a child opens your spirit up so much,” he says. “It brings a confidence in yourself as an artist. It opened me up to possibilities that, hey, there are things that I care passionately about in this world, my son and family being those things.”

Last spring, Quattro played a grumpy-but-kindhearted shop owner in Superior Donuts in Theatre 3’s basement space. It was only his second outing ever on a Dallas stage. The Dallas Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum cited Quattro for one of the top performances of the year.

“It just felt so good to be back out there again.”