Tom Hamilton (Dennis Quaid), Cheri Hamilton (Helen Hunt) and Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) © 2011 FilmDistrict

In his new movie Soul Surfer, Dennis Quaid did something he’d never done before – surf. In the film he portrays Tom Hamilton, the father of Bethany Hamilton, who became famous several years ago after a shark attack left her with one arm.

At the time of the attack, Bethany was a 13-year-old surfer who competed in national competitions. The movie chronicles her life and the aftermath of her headline-making story, as she and her family fight to recover from the tragedy and grapple with her future.

How did the role come to you?

Tom Hamilton (Dennis Quaid), Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) and Cheri Hamilton (Helen Hunt) © 2011 FilmDistrict

I had kind of a dim memory of what happened to Bethany from I think world news when it first occurred, but it was eight years ago. But two Christmases ago I was sitting on the couch in the morning with my little one year old who had woken up earlier than his sister.

Bethany was on the Today Show and she was doing a book tour, I guess, for the book Soul Surfer.

I was just struck by her, by her spirit and her optimism in the face of what had happened to her. And how normal she was about everything, she’s just special. And it struck me right in the heart. I just turned into a mess. I welled up.

Then three days after Christmas my agent calls and says, ‘I know everybody’s on vacation, but I’ve gotten a call from these people that they want you to play Bethany Hamilton’s father?’ I went, ‘Okay. Yeah, I’ll do that.’

As someone who has never surfed before, what made you think you’d be able to do it?

I’ve always wanted to do it. But one thing I don’t like is being in cold water. And here [in Los Angeles] you have cold water. I surf now but I have a wet suit that has a heating coil in it. I didn’t even know you had those. It’s great.

Then I had my own fear of sharks and fear of the deep and all that. And honestly, I had a lot of stuff going on. I love to play golf. That takes up a lot of time. I like to ride horses. It takes a lot of time. And I’ve got kids and spend time with them. So how do you surf, golf, ride horses and have kids? There’s too much going on.

With what happened to Bethany, were you nervous going out into the ocean?

Yeah, a little bit. But I felt like I really needed to because the whole family, the Hamiltons, they all surf. It was a big part of who they were and what made them tick. And I thought it was very important to learn.

So I had two months there in Hawaii, nice, warm water, and also the greatest teachers in the world. And it was fantastic. And it was really hard, too.

You play a real person, what did you discuss with Tom?

I got the story in the script. And I heard Bethany tell her story on television and in print. But I wanted to hear the story from his point-of-view of what happened. And also where he was from and what it was like growing up there. How he grew up and what made him who he was.

I found Tom a real inspiration and I wanted to capture the essence of the man. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He’s very honest, hard working and true to himself and his family. He went through a lot, but I loved that Soul Surfer was a story of a family overcoming adversity as well as the story of Bethany’s triumph.

What were the challenges of playing someone that you met?

Tom Hamilton (Dennis Quaid) and Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) © 2011 FilmDistrict

I’ve played so many real people that I’m kind of used to it. I consider it to be an asset, actually, because I don’t have to make anything up. It makes the job a little easier. They’ve already done the work for me. They lived it.

I’ve played some people who aren’t around anymore, figures like Doc Holliday. But all the people who are alive, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with and they were generous enough to offer me their time and open up their lives to me.

How was working with AnnaSophia particularly, because you guys have some really good scenes?

She is fantastic. She’s amazing. She’s such a good actress. She actually makes me better, because acting is reacting and you have somebody like that who’s so intuitively good, it just makes it so easy.

What’s the beauty of surfing?

The beauty of surfing is just being out there in the elements and no matter where you are as far as a beginner or an expert, once you actually catch a wave and ride it, it really does something to you.

When I go out and play golf or if I’m surfing, or if I’m riding horses, as soon I get on a horse, or I get out there [in the ocean], I forget about everything else except for the task at hand, no matter what.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.