Driving her beat-up Chevy pickup through Malibu with blasts of ”Mustang Sally” leaking out of the rolled-down windows, serious surfer and 1995 Oscar nominee Kathleen Quinlan describes the first lesson she received from Hawaii’s legendary wave rider George Downing, back when she was 25: ”He just pushed me into a huge wave and said, ‘Hang on, girlie!’ And I just hung on to the rails really tight and rode in.”
That’s not a bad metaphor, actually, to describe the career of the 41-year-old Quinlan, who snagged a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her controlled, intense work as Marilyn Lovell, astronaut’s wife, in Apollo 13. California born and raised, she was a scuba-loving gymnast at Northern California’s Mill Valley High School when she was discovered by director George Lucas and plunked into 1973’s American Graffiti. From then on Quinlan was hooked, eventually moving to Los Angeles and taking on such tough, emotionally gymnastic roles as an obsessive teen in 1976’s Lifeguard and a schizophrenic young woman in 1977’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.
”It was during Rose Garden that I started to understand what I could do with acting, that it could be a form of art,” says Quinlan, who lives in the Malibu mountains with her husband, actor Bruce Abbott, and their 5-year-old son, Tyler. ”I like to think of myself as a kind of sculptor, only I sculpt people.”
But it’s the kind of people Quinlan sculpts that distinguishes her art. ”She’s got a willingness to take a leap,” says Ron Howard, who starred in American Graffiti and went on to direct her in Apollo 13. ”Sometimes, when she’s acting, you can almost see moments when she shakes off nervousness and says, ‘What the hell.’ And she goes for it and commits.”
In The Doors, directed by Oliver Stone, she sank her teeth into the role of Patricia Kennealy, the sensual journalist who seduces Jim Morrison; in the CBS TV movie Children of the Night, she brought taut determination to the role of Lois Lee, the founder of a shelter for runaways; and in Apollo 13, her Marilyn Lovell was a fine balance of self-control and passion.
Yet you’re not going to see Quinlan all over the big screen. She selects her roles as carefully as she chooses the waves she rides: Her next two are as a marine biologist who works with dolphins in Zeus and Roxanne, and as Kurt Russell’s abducted wife in the action thriller Breakdown. ”I don’t think she ever wanted to be a careerist at the exclusion of living a rich, full, interesting life,” says Howard. That life includes a devotion to motherhood (”That’s the coolest thing in the world,” she swears), and a continued love of scuba diving, ocean kayaking, and physical adventure.
And in such a life, there is no room for regrets about roles not taken or statuettes lost. ”I wasn’t going to get into the game of feeling competitive with other actors who are really good,” she says of her Oscar loss to Mira Sorvino, who won for her role in Mighty Aphrodite. ”I thought Mira’s performance was very clever. And I certainly felt, seeing her father’s reaction, what a great night it must have been for them. I was disappointed for about 30 seconds. But it’s amazing how fast it moves on.” Like a rocket, or maybe like a really tubular wave.