Before Netflix docuseries The Tiger King enthralled homebound audiences early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, actor Dennis Quaid had his own experience with a tiger.

“When you see a tiger up close, you are drawn towards it, at the same time of wanting to run away,” says Quaid of meeting a real-life tiger, with whom he shares the screen in the Cannes sales title The Tiger Rising.

Based on the children’s book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, the story follows a 12-year-old who discovers a tiger in a cage in the woods behind the Florida motel where he lives with his widowed father. Quaid plays the mean-spirited motel owner Beauchamp, who is keeping the animal captive.

The movie, which will screen for the first time at the Cannes market, where Highland Film Group is handling worldwide sales, also stars Queen Latifah, Christian Covery and Katherine McPhee Foster.

Quaid talked to THR about meeting his movie’s titular tiger, as well as his upcoming projects, including playing former President Ronald Reagan.

What made you sign-on to The Tiger Rising?
Like the book, it takes you over like a dream through the mind of this child and this incredible creature that represents something magnificent. I was captivated by the story and, of course, by the tiger. This was before Tiger King. The character turned out to be like the sub-culture of Tiger King. [Laughs.]

What attracted you to Beauchamp?
He thinks very highly of himself and his self-esteem is rooted in this tiger. [While] the kids are in awe of this animal, his purposes [for the tiger] are not worthy. He wants to use him for business and he says, “Real men deal in tigers.” But I also saw some humor in him. I thought he was unknowingly humorous.

Were you able to meet the tiger?
They brought the tiger down a month before shooting to get him acclimated for shooting. They filmed him separately after we had shot the scenes. But I went out and met the tiger and was in close quarters with the tiger, outside of the cage, actually. It is something you really respect, let me tell you.

There is the trope to never work with animals or kids. Having worked opposite several kid co-stars, what are the joys of working with children?
One thing is they have shorter hours, so you get off earlier. [Laughs.] Kids are generally very good actors to work off of because they are just themselves, and so are animals, really. They don’t know so much about techniques. They are inclined to live life one moment at a time. They play make-believe all the time, and that is really what we are doing out there — a grown-up version of make-believe.

You’re playing Ronald Reagan in the upcoming movie Reagan. Do you feel any added pressure to playing a former President of the United States?
There is quite a bit of pressure to get him right on a number of levels. He is somebody, in my life, that I saw like John Wayne and idolized. The challenge there was to make him a human being — to get past all the veneer of what he was and get to who he was. Or, at least, my interpretation of who he was. There is so much research to be done going in because it’s Ronald Reagan, so everyone knows how he talks and walks and looks. Then you have to learn that, forget it and just do the scene. Whereas a piece of fiction is just something of your own making. I read three biographies on him, and YouTube is fantastic. If you want to be an actor, just watch YouTube. [Laughs.]

Is there any type of role or project that you haven’t done yet that you would like to do in the future?
I am getting ready to do one, actually, it is called Wing and Prayer. It is another true story and it is about a guy who is on a plane with his family, and the pilot has a heart attack and he has to fly the plane. I have always wanted to do one of those movies where they say, “Can anyone here fly an airplane?” I learned to fly when I was doing Gordo Cooper for The Right Stuff. I am excited to revisit that.

By Mia Gallupo, The Hollywood Reporter