DJ Qualls has the kind of offbeat look that's made for big-screen comedy. But it took a bit of luck for Hollywood to discover that.
Qualls had been set to audition for a one-line part in the raunchy teen comedy "Road Trip," which opened Friday. But when Qualls walked into the casting office in Atlanta, he immediately caught the eye of the film's director, Todd Phillips, who was looking for an unknown to play the pivotal role of the shy, gawky college student Kyle.
"I was sitting there with Dan Goldberg, who is the producer, and we turned to each other and said, 'This is Kyle,' " recalls Phillips. "We didn't want to hear the one line he came in for."
So, faster than you can say "a star is born," Qualls went from a struggling actor doing local theater in Nashville to a hot young performer busy auditioning for movies and talking with NBC about doing a series.
"My life has completely changed," says the tall, gangly 21-year-old. "But everything is bizarre for only 10 minutes. When I saw myself on a billboard, that was bizarre for a little while, and then you get over it because [acting] is such a fantasy world. You have to live a normal life outside of it."
Combining the rubber-legged elasticity of Ray Bolger with the quirky comedic timing of Don Knotts, Qualls steals every scene he's in in "Road Trip," as the skinny, overprotected Kyle who, during the course of a trip from Ithaca, N.Y., to Austin, Texas, loses his virginity and stands up to his overbearing father (Fred Ward).
Qualls is involved in one of the more memorable "ewwwwwww, yuck" scenes, one involving an order of French toast and a surly waiter. "I actually hate French toast," says Qualls. Dressed in black jeans and a leather jacket, the actor is much cuter in person than the nerdy Kyle.
"I had to eat so many pieces. We did so many setups and angles. I ate probably 15 or 20 pieces."
Qualls also brings down the house when he does a "Riverdance" number to a rap song at a black fraternity. "I did 20 takes of that in four-minute increments," he explains. "I would do any [type of dance]. And Todd Phillips would yell at me, 'Spin around.' That was probably my most stressful day because right before I got on stage I had to take a shot of what was supposed to be alcohol.
"When it ended, I had about 20 ounces of fluids in me, plus all the water I was drinking between takes. So I was sick by the end of the day."
'They Cast Me on the Spot'
At that fateful audition in Atlanta, Phillips gave Qualls the script to read. "I read it and laughed all the way through it," Qualls recalls. The next day, he was called back to read for Kyle. "Everything sort of jelled and they sent me out to Los Angeles to meet [executive producer] Ivan Reitman. They cast me on the spot," he recalls.
"What is exciting about a movie at this level," says Phillips, "is you have the ability to find new faces. He has this great, unique look and there is this underlying sweetness to him, which comes through amazingly in the movie because that's the way he is. Everybody is on his side--he is such an underdog [in the movie]."
Qualls felt comfortable playing Kyle from the outset, but he never envisioned Kyle as a geek. "I knew a lot of kids like this," he says. "A lot of the South is almost secluded in a way. Parents are really strict because of fear of the unknown. I knew kids who had no life experience by the time they graduated from high school. That's how I looked at him. I just tried to be open and honest. I didn't play dork shtick."
Well-spoken, polite and serious, Qualls admits he's surprised he's making his mark in a comedy. "[Of] all the theater I have done, I had never done a comedy before. I think I can be funny, and I know what's funny. I have a good sense of comedy, but I never sort of really threw it out there. I think I have always been an intellectual.
"I went to the University of London. . . . I studied English literature and the evolution of the English language, so I learned to read and speak Middle English."
Before "Road Trip," Qualls had planned on trying his luck in Los Angeles. That was until he sent out his resume and head shot to agents. "Everyone rejected me," he says matter-of-factly. "William Morris told me, 'We don't take new talent.' "
But what a difference a popular movie makes. ("Road Trip" opened well, taking in $15 million in its first weekend.)
Now managers and agents are crawling out of the woodwork. "But I am happy where I am with my [current] manager and agent; both of them believe in me," says Qualls, who officially moved to L.A. with his dog, Jack, three months ago.
During the past year, he also managed to fit in a stint as a print model for Prada in New York. "I could have stayed there and done that, but it seemed like a step in the wrong direction," Qualls says. "It's not very fulfilling, and the fashion world is completely absurd. I didn't think I was using my brain or my life if I got sucked into that [world]."
Facing Obstacles at an Early Age
Qualls has been through a lot in his life, including a two-year bout with Hodgkin's disease, beginning at age 14. "I had chemotherapy and radiation, and I had to have my spleen taken out."
Qualls says he wasn't particularly brave. "Kids need no bravery to get through anything because you don't have a sense of your own mortality," he says. "Even though I was really sick when I was diagnosed, the doctors were, like, you have about two good months and then you are going to get really sick. Then we don't know what's going to happen. I couldn't get around people because I couldn't get germs, and if I had a bruise I had to carry a Sharpie (magic marker) with me and draw a circle around it. If it grew outside of the circle I had to get to the hospital."
He won't divulge the name of his hometown of 2,000-some, 70 miles south of Nashville because his parents are already getting phone calls from "crazy" people and reporters. "They don't have the life experience to deal with this," he says of his parents. "They are not really well traveled."
Qualls made up his mind as a youngster that he was going to leave his hometown, where the primary industry is making caskets. "Pretty much growing up, TV and movies were my only link to the outside world," he says.