“I say a prayer every time I go on stage, to tell you the truth.”

Actor Dennis Quaid is not known for his conservatism and his strong faith, to be sure. When asked about Quaid’s life, Hollywood insiders are likely to cite the star’s three failed marriages, his personal indiscretions, and his former struggle with cocaine addiction.

But talking to reporters at a recent Hollywood press junket for the film “I Can Only Imagine,” Quaid seemed a sincere seeker. Quaid, who plays the abusive father of MercyMe’s lead singer Brad Millard, spoke candidly about the film’s impact. “I was profoundly moved by this story,” he admitted to reporters. “That is why I wanted to do it.”

“I Can Only Imagine,” the blockbuster song on which the movie is based, was inspired by the death of Millard’s father; and the song imagines what it would be like to be in Heaven and to be standing before God. First released in 1999, “I Can Only Imagine” crossed over from the Christian market to earn acclaim in the country, adult contemporary and Top 40 markets, becoming the best-selling Christian song of all time. Quaid, however, had never heard of it before he was offered the script for this film.

Quaid explained to reporters that he was attracted to the role of Arthur, the abusive father who was suffering from his own personal trauma and seemed compelled to spread his unhappiness, forcing his wife and son into submission. In order to prepare for the difficult role, Quaid turned to Brad Millard for a fresh perspective on his father. “He made Brad feel bad about himself down to the core,” Quaid learned. Playing the role of a man who was verbally, emotionally and physically abusive did not come easily to Quaid, but he turned to Brad Millard, getting the story from him directly rather than from a script. He also appreciated the wise advice of the film’s co-directors, Jon and Andrew Erwin, who did “an incredible job.”

Dennis Quaid reaches into his collar to pull out the rosary he wears around his neck

As our interview drew to a close, I raised one more question with Dennis: Is that, I asked, a rosary that you’re wearing around your neck? The actor confirmed that he was, in fact, wearing a rosary, then went on to explain that he and his girlfriend get a rosary in every city that they visit. That’s not the answer one would expect from a practicing Catholic – but Quaid had been raised Baptist, and he had no idea how to pray the rosary. “I’m not Catholic,” he revealed, and then he hazarded a guess about the rosary’s use: “You count the prayers. Just like in the Muslim and Hindu religions. It helps you keep count.”

Oh, well. You could feel disappointed because the actor didn’t actually PRAY the rosary. I preferred to focus on the fact that he was attracted to a rosary, rather than to a souvenir shot glass or keyring or t-shirt. Perhaps he will learn more – will come to understand that the rosary is much more than a pretty trinket, it’s a meditation on the Scriptures, a beloved prayer that draws the devout closer to Jesus and his Mother Mary.

“I Can Only Imagine” (the movie version) opens in theaters on March 16. You can read my review of the film in the pages of the National Catholic Register.