Actor, producer and Belmont alumnus DJ Qualls, best-known for his roles in “The New Guy,” “Road Trip” and “Hustle and Flow,” recently sat in front of students and faculty gathered in Troutt Theater and discussed the challenges he has faced as a working actor in Hollywood.
Qualls was born in Nashville and earned his degree in theater from Belmont in the mid-1990s. He knew, though, that Nashville could not afford him the opportunities he desired. “The Nashville market was completely wrong for me,” he said. “No one would have me here.”
His first audition was for a low-budget horror film called “Cherry Falls,” starring Brittany Murphy and released in 2000. Qualls landed the part and had one line in the movie. At the time, he was working as a paralegal for local law firm Bart Durham.
Soon after, Qualls had an audition for the teen comedy “Road Trip.” He arrived to the audition expecting to be a day player, but was asked to read for a bigger part. Qualls said he was “terrible” in the audition, but nevertheless got the part and was asked a few days later to fly to Los Angeles. After pawning the title to his car to pay for the plane ticket, spent the next three months in Los Angeles shooting “Road Trip.” Every day, he said, his “part kept getting bigger.”
After the film wrapped, Qualls returned to Nashville, where he continued to work for Bart Durham for six months. “Road Trip” premiered in May 2000 and was an unexpected financial success, grossing more than $15 million in its opening weekend. Qualls called it a “strange dichotomy,” being far from financially stable while garnering fame for his role in the film. “I can’t go get a job at KFC, I’m in People magazine,” he said.
Qualls’ first leading role was in 2002 film “The New Guy,” also starring Eddie Griffin, Eliza Dushku and Zooey Deschanel. The film was also financial success, but Qualls said he was displeased with the final version. “The New Guy” was also hugely popular in Mexico. “For the rest of my life, I am ‘El Hombre Nuevo.’ I am the New Guy in Mexico,” he said.
Qualls also discussed some of his frustrations with Hollywood. “The fascination with celebrity kills me,” he said. “Fame is so hollow.”
He also warned of the ability of fame to change people. “You don’t change initially,” he said. “But after a while you start believing it, and there’s no one around to tell you the truth anymore.”
Qualls has recently starred in Sandra Bullock film “All About Steve” and independent drama “Last Day of Summer.”
Lanky and young-looking for his age, Qualls lauded the benefits of his unique appearance. “There’s merit in being an individual,” he said. “You might get blasted for it, but you’ll also get paid for it.”