“When Harry Met Sally” is one of those movies that basically everyone has seen at least once — a feel-good romantic comedy that even the most cynical of critics agree is a classic.
But when Sally is your mother, it’s hard to share in the universal love for the film.
“When your mom has one of the most famous orgasm scenes of all time, as a child, that’s not the movie you jump to,” said Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan — a.k.a. Sally — and Dennis Quaid.
But then the younger Quaid landed his first major movie role, playing the leading man in a romantic comedy called “Plus One.” So at 27, he felt it was imperative he finally sit down and watch “When Harry Met Sally.”
“I mean, I was doing a rom-com, and that’s the rom-com,” said Quaid, who resembles his parents in nearly equal measure — his mom from the nose up and dad from mouth down. “So I put it on and by the time I finished, I was bawling. I was so proud of my mom. I called her immediately to say how great I thought she was, so many years later, and I apologized for not seeing it sooner.”
He was so moved by the movie that a few hours later, when he went to rehearse for “Plus One,” he was still in tears when he greeted his co-star, Maya Erskine.
“It hit me, like, ‘Yeah, that’s your mom, and she was so amazing in that movie,’” said Erskine, best known for her Hulu comedy “PEN15.” “We’d been urging him to see it because we kept referencing the film during rehearsal. So for him to have that parallel experience felt like he was paying tribute to her, in a way.”
“Plus One” isn’t exactly poised to become the next “When Harry Met Sally”: It’s a tiny indie that is opening in just 13 theaters nationwide this weekend, though it will also be available for purchase on digital platforms. But the movie won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival in May and has earned positive reviews — giving it a chance at becoming the next streaming rom-com to go viral, a la Netflix’s “Set It Up” or “Always Be My Maybe.”
Written and directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer — who have also written for “PEN15” — the film follows two twentysomethings who have reached the stage in life where all of their friends are getting married while they’re still single. To make wedding season more bearable, they decide to be one another’s plus ones at all of the nuptials they have to attend — and that’s when their friendship starts evolving into something more.
Quaid and Erskine had never met before they were cast in the film, though they’d live what he describes as “weirdly parallel lives”: He entered Santa Monica’s Crossroads School right after she’d graduated and headed to NYU — the college he’d too later attend.
In high school, Quaid was obsessed with acting — opting to eat his lunch in the theater every day with his friends. But outside of Crossroads productions of “A Midsummer Night's Dream” — he played the comic relief, Nick Bottom — Quaid’s parents wouldn’t allow him to audition professionally until he was 18.
“It was a hard-and-fast rule,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Let’s focus on school and having a childhood.’ On a set, someone will get you a coffee instantly, and that’s not how life works. I feel like it was so valuable to have that time to be a kid.”
Once he got to NYU, however, he began studying acting at Tisch, made the sketch comedy group Hammerkatz (once home to Donald Glover and Rachel Bloom) and signed with a manager. During spring break, he’d fly back to L.A. to go on auditions instead of raging on a tropical beach with his classmates. That’s how he landed his first major break: A small role in “The Hunger Games” that he began shooting the summer after his freshman year.
His part wasn’t big — “I was essentially a glorified extra” — but as one of the franchise’s “Career Tributes,” he still spent a lot of time on set.
“It was an incredible first step, and I learned a lot by just watching Jennifer Lawrence doing her thing,” he said, referring to the star of the dystopian thrillers. “I was figuring out what it was like to be on a set on my own.”
As a kid, Quaid would sometimes tag along with his parents while they filmed, pilfering the candy at craft services. But he found it was difficult to be on a set where you didn’t have a purpose — standing around and feeling like you were in the way. And he’s always been reluctant to ask them for help, initially refusing any introductions his mom or dad offered him.
“It’s always been a very conscious effort of mine to do it on my own,” Quaid said. “I love this so much that I do want it to be mine.”
Still, during his early auditions, it was hard to hide who he was because of his last name.
“I think a lot of people were prepared for me to be a jerk before I even got in the room, because of the stigma a celebrity kid sometimes has,” he said. “I literally did a scene once and the casting director was like, ‘Oh, that was actually really good. I thought you would just come in here and expect it to be handed to you.’ So I just felt that I had to prove myself a little bit more.”
It’s clear, however, that Quaid is self-conscious about coming off as a privileged white dude. While he acknowledges his upbringing sometimes led to “awkward” moments with the kids at school or with casting directors, he takes pains to underscore how lucky he was: “I can’t complain about the way I grew up.” “It’s never been a bad thing.” “I got to live in Santa Monica. My parents brought food to the table.”
Ben Stiller, who produced “Plus One,” understands this struggle.
“Obviously, from the outside you can look at it and go, ‘Oh, having parents who are in the business makes it easier — and in certain ways it does — but the reality is you’re never going to be anonymous in the beginning,” said Stiller, son of comedians Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller. “There are moments in this movie where you go, ‘There’s a little Dennis or Meg there,’ but he’s got his own thing going on, and comedically, he has his own persona. Everybody talks about it for a second, but very quickly, these actors find their way.”
Quaid certainly seems to be doing just that. Prior to “Plus One,” he had supporting roles in HBO’s “Vinyl” and the Dwayne Johnson blockbuster “Rampage.” And he’ll star in “The Boys,” an Amazon series from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg premiering July 26 about a world ruled by morally bankrupt superheroes.
His heart, however, remains in the improv comedy he started doing in college, and he has his own sketch group in L.A. called Sasquatch. His girlfriend of three years, Lizzy McGroder, is in that world too, performing with the Groundlings’ Sunday Company. Together, they’ve started to hit a lot of their friend’s weddings recently — just like his character in “Plus One.” Quaid’s own parents split when he was just 8, and the subsequent tabloid headlines were nasty — though the divorce hasn’t soured him on the institution of marriage.
“I still believe it can work,” he said. “I’m into weddings. It’s a big party where all your friends get to celebrate the two of you. I totally see it as something that could happen in my future — I’m just not thinking about it yet.”
For now, he’s more focused on his career. When he reflects on the type of actor whose footsteps he’d like to follow in, one of his mom’s longtime co-stars comes to mind.
“I know everyone probably wants this career, but I feel like Tom Hanks did such a great thing in the beginning where he did such boisterous comedies and pivoted to more serious stuff. That’s the dream,” he said, before couching the sentiment: “But there’s only so much you can plan. And I don’t think I’m at that point in my career where I’m like, ‘That! Now! Let’s do it.’”