Building character: Actor Dennis Christopher on Breaking Away

Breaking Aways star Dennis Christopher will appear for a discussion following a screening of Breaking Away at the PVCC Dickinson Theater on October 25 at 6pm. Courtesy of VAFF Breaking Aways star Dennis Christopher will appear for a discussion following a screening of Breaking Away at the PVCC Dickinson Theater on October 25 at 6pm. Courtesy of VAFF

In his 50-plus year career, actor Dennis Christopher has defied typecasting. His wildly varied characters include an Olympic runner in Chariots of Fire (1981); tormented Eddie Kaspbrak in It (1990); and Mr. Candie’s lawyer in Django Unchained (2012).

Christopher, 64, describes himself as “very hands-on in every role I take…I make what my characters look like, I make what they wear, I make how they talk, I make how they walk—I do it all.”

Christopher spoke with C-VILLE about how this creative commitment defined one of his most popular performances, as the conflicted, aspiring cyclist Dave Stoller in Breaking Away. The film follows four working-class Indiana friends navigating young adulthood, whose dual passions are cycling and Italy. The foursome’s tensions with Indiana University preppies culminate during the college’s “Little 500” bike race.

In 1979, cycling movies were uncommon: “It really was before the industry of bike racing hit America,” Christopher says. “And the only stupid thing I did was not get stock in Spandex.”

Christopher initially read for another role. When director Peter Yates had him audition for Italy-obsessed Dave, Yates didn’t realize Christopher was half-Italian, had lived in Italy, and had worked for Federico Fellini, he says. Christopher started “goofing with” Dave’s put-on Italian accent: “I wasn’t scared because I didn’t want to play that part.” But he got it anyway, “before I knew it was the leading role,” he adds.   

After finishing another film, Christopher arrived on the set with production already underway. He quickly realized the costume designers had wildly misjudged their working-class hero. “I had a skintight, polyester Ban-Lon shirt on, unbuttoned almost to my navel, with gold chains hanging around my neck, skintight pants, and Saturday Night Fever shoes with pointy toes,” along with a dark brown pompadour.

After a day of filming in this “Halloween costume,” Christopher recalls, “I said, ‘I can’t do it. I’m not him. Please don’t make me do this.’”

Thankfully, Yates was open to Christopher reworking Dave’s look, preventing the character from becoming another famous John Travolta character,  “a second-rate Danny Zuko,” he laughs. From there, he mainly wore his own clothing, with his hair curled “like those cherubs in the Sistine Chapel”—it was “the only way I’m going to look Italian,” Christopher says. He also nixed the idea of Dave riding “a folding bike.”

Christopher says he was deeply impressed by his co-stars, particularly actress Robyn Douglass, and the rest of the film’s creative team. “Somehow, everybody in that movie was at the right place at the right time,” he says. “Any collaborative artistic project, when all the elements come together and fit, it has a unique power of its own that’s more important than any of the individual pieces. And Breaking Away has that.”

The film was a hit, receiving five Academy Award nominations, including a win for Best Original Screenplay. Christopher received a Golden Globe nomination and won a BAFTA for his performance.

Breaking Away is continually popular not just as a “sports movie,” Christopher says. “The film is really, really rich. It doesn’t seem to be that way. It seems to be a sports movie and you can cheer. We have that, but we also have a movie talking about class. …And it’s more and more pronounced now—of the people who were once usable and they’re no longer usable now.”

He still gets feedback on Breaking Away. “Because of this job that I had 40 years ago, I’m greeted with such goodwill and have been most of my life…I’m really touched by that.”   

As for his overall career, Christopher remains grateful: “It’s all worked out fine for me because I’ve had a life and a career. So many people only get a career. And I’ve learned how to live.” —Justin Humphreys

Breaking Away will be shown at the PVCC Dickinson Theater on October 25 at 6pm.

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