07/03/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Driving away from an audition for a one-line part in the gross-out teen movie Road Trip last year, DJ Quails was convinced he'd tanked. Worse, the journey home from Atlanta to Nashville turned into the road trip from hell. "I get in my 1992 Toyota Tercel with no air conditioning, vinyl seats, and it's so hot," he recalls. "I just break down. I was like, 'I can't believe this is my life.' "
He could say the same thing today, but for very different reasons. Not only did Quails, 22, wind up scoring the key role of Kyle, Road Trip's geeky virgin, but his gangly antics all but steal the show. "There's this underlying sweetness to him," says director Todd Phillips, whose film has made $60 million since its May 19 release. "He's so down-to-earth."
With good reason. For one thing, Quails didn't always resemble a human Twizzler. Growing up in Green Hills, Tenn., outside Nashville, "I was so short and so wide, I couldn't get clothes to fit me," says the Belmont University grad, whose parents, Donnie, 45, a welder, and Deborah, 43, a homemaker, divorced in 1983. Then, at 14, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and underwent surgery to remove several lymph nodes and his spleen, followed by two years of radiation and chemotherapy. "I don't dwell on it," he says now, after six years in remission, during which he appeared on the local theater circuit and in a few small films.
One thing the experience left him with is an addiction to The Price Is Right: Hooked while recovering, he still tapes it when he isn't home. Which is quite often now that Quails, who shares a one-bedroom L.A. apartment with his mutt Jack, is busy enjoying the perks of his fledgling fame. ("I'm not paying for anything I'm wearing!" he marvels.) But his newfound celebrity didn't win him any bonus points when he recently tried to get on his favorite game show. Sighs Quails: "They rejected me."