Friday, May 8, 2020
By Dave Walker, communication specialist

On Monday, May 4, The Historic New Orleans Collection hosted its first-ever #NolaMovieNight, an interactive watch-along of the film The Big Easy. During the event, users watched the movie on their own, and THNOC tweeted behind-the-scenes interviews and historical background on the film.

Before the showing, we spoke with zydeco star Terrance Simien about his role in the film, the explosion of Louisiana culture in the 1980s, and the relationships he made with Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin, and others. Visit our #NolaMovieNight page for more behind-the-scenes and historical background on the movie from our Twitter feed. And check out our interview with local dialect coach Francine Segal about those infamous accents.

Q: How were you cast?  

A: A woman name Ann Frisbee, who worked with the director Jim McBride, got us the audition. She saw us performing in Lafayette when they were scouting locations in the area. Jim, who I stayed in contact with over the years, later told us that she had begged him on a daily basis to audition us! We went to New Orleans and auditioned at a hotel ballroom for Jim and Dennis Quaid. We were told to prepare a couple of songs for the audition, but once we started playing, they wanted to hear more. I think we played for over an hour. Of course, at the time we  were  Terrance  Simien  & The Mallet Playboys.

Terrance Simien performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1992, just six years after his appearance in The Big Easy. (photograph by Michael P. Smith ©THNOC, 2007.0103.8.2151)

Where were you in your life and career when this opportunity arose?  

It was 1986, and I was 21 when we filmed. I was only about five years into my career, so we were a baby band, but had also signed to a national booking agency and they were excited about it, too. The year before, though, is when I met Paul Simon and did a recording session with him, so we were definitely on a roll! 

What was filming like?  

New and exciting. To be on a set and experience the whole process of filming was a first for this 21-year-old Creole country boy from St. Landry Parish! It was kind of a big deal as it was the first time a zydeco group was seen in a major studio film. I recall being really, really intrigued with the number and different types of cameras. It was also the first time I experienced a mobile recording studio. Our shot took two days to film. I had no idea the time and effort it took to film just one scene. I learned the true meaning of what "hurry up and wait" meant.  

Any specific memories of the cast and crew?

I recall how kind, gracious, and approachable everyone was—especially considering their celebrity status! They were all so patient and never made us feel any less, or like the lost boyz from St. Landry Parish that we really were.

I actually developed lasting relationships with Jim McBride, who I saw in Los Angeles about seven years ago, and same with several cast members. Dennis and I spent some time together during and after filming. Of course, we wrote the song together for the love scene—“Closer to You”—in New Orleans at a house he was staying at while filming.  He came to my parents’ house in Mallet, where I was still living at the time to meet my family. Then I went to California to visit him and stay with him at his house in the Hollywood Hills, and we drove around his 1950s Chevy Bel Air. When we were on tour in California he joined us on stage to play guitar at the Music Machine in Los Angeles.

And then Ellen, she was just badass and amazing—like a big sister. We also stayed in touch over the years and visited several times. She met our daughter and we got to spend time with her son Jack Daniel who also played music. And of course there's our friend and Nola resident John Goodman. We saw each other over the years at different events in New Orleans.

Terrance Simien (top right) and Dennis Quaid (top left) are pictured with unidentified crew members during the filming of The Big Easy. (Image courtesy of Terrance Simien)

Did you get to attend the local premiere?

Yes, it was at the theater in the Galleria Mall in Metairie. Everyone was there. Seeing the finished  product on the big screen felt surreal for this boy from Mallet.

When was the last time you watched the movie?

Ha! It’s been years. I remember after Katrina it was being aired more frequently, so it would have been around that time period.

What did The Big Easy do for your career?

It was the first major film to feature a zydeco band, so when we toured around the world many people who  saw it came to see us perform live, just because they saw the movie. And we also used it to promote our tours and performances, and it lead to more touring and even more film opportunities.

The Big Easy was part of the whole Louisiana phenomenon of the mid-to-late 1980s and into the early 1990s. The World's Fair in Nola had just happened in 1984—we played it for several weeks. Then everything was “blackened" in the culinary craze spreading out all over the country. Then out comes The Big Easy in 1987.

Simien remembers playing at the Louisiana World Exposition in 1984. Louisiana culture was in the midst of a national wave of recgonition at the time. This image by Joshua Mann Pailet shows an alligator figure from the fair that also appeared in The Big Easy. (THNOC, 1987.190)

The Neville Brothers were also having great success touring and recording. All of this was a perfect storm for a spotlight being shined on all of Louisiana food, music, and culture, and it helped educate the consumer and the music industry and also helped my career.

What are your thoughts on the rest of the soundtrack? Seems like a pretty good sampler of area music at the time it was released.

At the time it was the definitive collection or sampler of Louisiana music. In fact, I would think it inspired the many Louisiana compilation records that came later in the 1990s. We had songs on many compilations after that. I think the movie soundtrack sold really well, too. I have it on original vinyl and CD.

Do you still get asked about The Big Easy?

Every now and then!  Occasionally now when we tour the performing art centers, we'll do “Oh Yeh Yai” from the movie and tell a quick story about  our appearance as the first zydeco group featured in a major motion picture.

Simien says that he made lasting relationships with several of the actors and crew members in the film, including stars Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. (photograph by Jake Springfield; courtesy of Terrance Simien)

How are you doing during the current lockdown?

Like everyone, we're taking it one day at a time, trying to be patient. We are definitely  doing whatever it takes to do our part—including distancing and wearing masks when we go out for essential provisions. Of course I'm missing performing and my audiences like crazy, but we'll all be back soon!

Thanks for the walk down memory lane. These are always wonderful memories to revisit. Peace, love, and zydeco, y'all!