More than 30 years after its release, 1979’s Breaking Away is still one of the most beloved coming-of-age films ever made, and its zero-to-hero rise from a tiny, under-the-radar movie with no major stars to a sleeper hit and Best Picture nominee is one of Hollywood’s great underdog stories. Over the years, no one has felt the love for Breaking Away more than Dennis Christopher, who starred as Dave Stoller, the wannabe-Italian midwestern teen misfit who, much to his close-minded father’s consternation, dreams of becoming a cycling champion.
When the 56-year-old actor came to the photo shoot for EW’s Reunions issue (on stands now)—where he was brought back together again with co-stars Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, Daniel Stern, Barbara Barrie, and Paul Dooley—Christopher brought one of the original Masi racing bikes his character rode in the movie. And he brought his memories.
EW: What did you connect with about the role of Dave Stoller?
DENNIS CHRISTOPHER: Quite frankly, I didn’t understand the character at first. He seemed off the wall to me. Shaving his legs, singing opera—I thought, ‘Oh my God, how do I make this real?’ And they initially had a completely different idea of what Dave would be. I went in to hair and makeup the first day, and when I got out of the chair, my skin had been darkened, my hair was dyed dark brown and slicked back with grease, I had a tight Ban-Lon shirt that was unbuttoned almost down to the navel, gold chains around my neck, tight pants, and pointy black shoes. They had in mind, I think, trying to make me look like a reject from Saturday Night Fever. We shot a whole day like that, and it was very disturbing to me. I never got to sleep that night. I just didn’t know who I was. The next morning, I saw [director] Peter [Yates] and I burst into tears and said, “I can’t do this. I don’t know how to play this part.” Peter said, “I know, don’t worry.” He and [screenwriter] Steve Tesich came to my hotel later that day and we talked about the script. It ultimately became a perfect fit. The difficulty between the father and son, the lack of communication—I knew what those feelings were. When we got to those scenes, stuff came out that normally wouldn’t have come out.
How did you approach the biking scenes? Did you do a lot of training?
The bike stuff was very challenging to me because I wasn’t a sports-minded person when I was in school. I didn’t really have time for a lot of training, and I thought, ‘How can I become a bike champion in a few weeks?’ But they had a great double for me—his name was Garry Rybar and he was a champion bike racer—and I matched his style on the bike. Even though I might not have been going 60 or 70 miles an hour on the bike, I knew what it would look like on my face and my body to go that fast. It seemed to work out. I’d say they ended up using maybe 85 to 90 per cent of my stuff in the movie as opposed to the double. There’s a couple of shots where you see massive calves—that was not me. When they cut back to the skinny calves, you know that it’s me. [laughs]
The movie wound up giving a huge boost to the popularity of cycling in America.
For sure. I wish I had a spandex concession. [laughs] I missed a really great business opportunity there. But in those days actors doing commercials and endorsements was something you just didn’t see. It was a different world.
What sort of impact did Breaking Away have on your acting career?
I felt the need to do something that was a little darker after Breaking Away and that’s how [the 1980 horror film] Fade to Black [in which Christopher played a film-obsessed serial killer] happened. That’s the way it went for me. The cult of celebrity turned me off and when the opportunities came along for me to play different characters, that’s what I went for rather than the safe choices. I’m not sure if that served me in the long run, but I’ve been happy with my choices and very happy with how things worked out. And you never know when people are looking. To be recognized and plucked out and put in Quentin Tarantino’s latest masterpiece [December’s spaghetti Western Django Unchained] has been very gratifying.
What’s your role in Django Unchained?
I play Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s lawyer, who makes sure everything is running properly on this multimillion-dollar plantation. You know Robert Duvall’s consigliere character in The Godfather? That’s who this guy is. He’s the guy that takes care of this very rich family and makes sure all the business stuff is worked out properly. The plantation segment is about the last third of the film. It’s Quentin Tarantino does Gone With the Wind. It’s pretty damn amazing. There isn’t a thing about film that Quentin doesn’t know. At one point he said to me, “I’ve seen every movie you’ve ever done the week that it’s opened.” I said, “Really? You saw Dead Women in Lingerie?” He said, “With a title like that, how could I not?” [laughs]
What’s your theory of why Breaking Away has endured all these years?
This was just a small story, and you’d never think it would have such wide appeal. But when you make something that clean and pure of purpose and with that much heart, it seems like the audience is hungry for that kind of film experience. You take that kind of honesty and couple it with the action we had in the racing scenes—you can’t beat it.