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DJ Qualls: Putting the "Character" in Character Actor

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DJ Qualls looks like the antithesis of a Hollywood star - thin and lanky, almost gaunt with a face that is childlike and guileless. And it is these very qualities that make him so recognizable on the streets of Hollywood when flanked by the interchangeable beefy pretty boys whose physical sameness render them almost invisible. Qualls is equally guileless in a phone interview, breathless with excitement over the upcoming purchase of his first California home. "I come from a meager background and everything here is crazy expensive," he explains. For the past 10 years that he's been in Los Angeles, he's lived in a modest one bedroom apartment that, he says, elicited looks of concern from his friends. But now, after saving up enough money to pay his mortgage for 20 years even if he is unemployed, he is ready to close on his chosen house. But, says the self-proclaimed "Gentile Woody Allen," he recently asked Memphis Beat co-star Alfre Woodard if she thought the show would be picked up for another season before he goes furniture shopping for the new house.

The name DJ Qualls may not resonate immediately, but you'd likely know him if you saw his photo. His breakthrough role was in the film Road Trip. He auditioned for a one-line part and landed a starring role. More film and TV work has followed - from Hustle and Flow to Law and Order Criminal Intent and Monk. Now he's starring alongside Woodard and Jason Lee in the George Clooney-produced police drama Memphis Beat. It almost didn't happen. "I cancelled my audition for Memphis Beat and left town," Qualls says, "I was just filled with self-doubt. Could I really be cast in a cop show?" He could and he was, and his manager made him promise to stop worrying so much.

His insecurity - as well his unusual physical appearance - can be attributed to being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 14. "It stopped my development," DJ Qualls says. "And there was nothing heroic about it. I was just hoping not to die. Chemo is poison. After chemo and radiation, I walked away pretty damaged." And don't expect any inspirational books about redemption after cancer from this survivor: "I think if there is a lesson from having cancer, I'm too close to see it," says Qualls.

Most of DJ Qualls' life before Hollywood seems like a detour. He was born in Tennessee to teenage parents with little money. "I was born to the wrong parents in the wrong place. It always felt so foreign to me," he says. "I was so different from other kids; I was just weird." He fled to London to attend the University of London and to eventually study law because, he explains, he was squeamish at the sight of blood and medicine and law were the two occupations where he knew he could make a lot of money. But he was hardly enthusiastic about becoming a lawyer, and he knew where his real passion was.

"If there is any sense of order to the universe, acting is what I am meant to do," says Qualls. "I'm not manufactured. I know acting isn't real, that it's temporary. If there is any theme to the roles I play it is emotional vulnerability and availability." Those qualities also come through loud and clear in a conversation with the actor. As a native Tennessean, he is angry that his current show is allegedly set in Memphis but shot in New Orleans. He launches into a complicated explanation about tax credits and how Tennessee needs to join other states in acknowledging the "business" part of show business. He ends by saying, "I'm in love with Memphis, but I can also see its flaws."

Security seems to be the goal of this boy/child. Buying a house is a step in that direction. "I've lived so frugally for so long," he says wistfully. "I have to have that financial security or the world feels out of control for me." He also looks back at his own childhood and speaks passionately about wanting to do something about the issue of bullying. "Cruelty breaks my heart." His ideal role would be as a father, but, he acknowledges, "people don't cast me in those roles. I'm not aging at the same rate as my contemporaries." Someday he would love to be a father himself, but not until he is able to devote less time to his career and more to a child. "I'm not ready to do that now," says the 32 year old.

In the meantime, there is the sense that DJ Qualls will continue to worry about money, about bullies, about cancer as he continues to make a name for himself in Hollywood. He knows that the cancer that robbed his body of its natural shape and his mind of a level of innocence has also made him a unique commodity in a business where few others look like him. "My face is distinct," he says. "It's hard to confuse me with anyone else." And, in gratitude to the profession he always longed to join, he says, "Celebrity is a gift. I'm very lucky."