Elisabeth Shue began her career as one of the most popular teenage actresses of the ’80s, landing parts in The Karate Kid and Adventures In Babysitting. Then she spent much of the early ’90s bouncing from role to role in films that didn’t hit such successful heights. In 1995, though, she rode the part of prostitute Sera to an Oscar nomination for Leaving Las Vegas, and she’s worked steadily in a combination of big studio and independent films ever since. Her next project is Piranha 3D, an update of the ’80s B-movie creature-feature where she plays the sheriff of a small town with a sudden infestation of killer fish. Shue sat down at San Diego Comic Con International with The A.V. Club to discuss her long career, what it’s like playing the authority figure in a monster movie, and how being an Oscar-nominated actor doesn’t open every door.
Piranha 3D (2010)—“Julie Forester”
Elisabeth Shue: I would say that Alex [director Alexandre Aja] attracted me to [the film], and I can’t imagine doing this movie in anyone else’s hands; I think that would be really terrifying. [Laughs.] I knew his vision was definitely to make it over the top, but grounded in an intensity and a reality that actually we didn’t get to see as much last night [at a brief screening of select footage from the film], because we wanted to show the more fun part of it. But there is also this really menacing, deep, emotional, kind of terrorizing part that you do care about whether people live or die, which I had to kind of embody in being the sheriff and having to save my kids. At first, I was terrified of that, in the midst of the colorful fun part, thinking “What if they laugh at me?” [Laughs.] I had to play it for real. But I think he’s really tonally done an amazing thing. He’s created something that’s very emotionally real and absurdist and fun and funny and cool.
The A.V. Club: When you’re in a monster movie, how do you project the authority of this authority figure?
ES: Well, I was a little worried about playing a sheriff. It’s not something I’ve ever done anything close to. I think because I was a mother, too, it helped me feel comfortable that really my primary goal there was to save my kids. I was amazed how the first scene in the movie, I have to arrest some obnoxious spring breakers, and I had, like, my gun holstered and my boots and my outfit and these kids, and it totally brought me back to being in my family, with being the only girl, with three brothers, and how much I’d beat on them, and how physical and tough our whole childhood was. I had never taken a part even close to tapping that. So I was amazed that the sense of authority wasn’t that far off. Still, definitely not the part I would naturally think of for myself. [Laughs.]
AVC: You have a strong subplot about trying to hold your family together. How do you work in those more dramatic elements around the fish flying everywhere?
ES: I know! Well, hopefully you’ll see, it’s just weaving these two stories together. I mean, the climax of the film is very much an action sequence of trying to save these kids from a sinking ship. We just really had to stay committed, and Adam [Scott] and I at times just looked at each other like, “Oh God… is this going to work?” [Laughs.] We had no choice; we just had to.
AVC: Adam Scott also isn’t known for playing authority figures. He usually plays more of a wise-ass. What was building that relationship like?
ES: Oh, it was fun. Thank God for his sense of humor, because he kept me laughing through this whole experience. He’s a great companion on those boats. We spent many hours sitting on boats on Lake Havasu, just waiting and waiting in the brutal 120 degrees, so I’m grateful to him. We just tried to have fun and tried to give over to the reality of what we were doing, not try to take ourselves or the movie too seriously. We just tried to be in the moment as much as we could, react to whatever the craziness was as real as we could, but without, you know, trying too hard.
Call To Glory (1984-85)—“Jackie Sarnac”
ES: I remember that was my first real acting job, and how grateful I was that I had incredible actors around me to inspire me to want to be a great actor one day, and not just to be whatever an actor might become if they don’t care at all about their art. Craig T. Nelson was a big influence on me. He’s a lovely man, and so talented. He was my dad. I was lucky I started out on television on a show that got cancelled at the end of the year. I had a great character, I played a total tomboy. I was so fortunate that that was my first real experience, because I was very, very naïve; I did not know much about the world at that time, and I could have gotten lost, you know, in some other zone of reality. [Laughs.]
The Karate Kid (1984)—“Ali Mills”
AVC: There was a new Karate Kid movie out this summer. How was it to have that back in the cultural sphere?
ES: I think it’s great. I think it’s a testament to the strength of the story itself. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard that they’ve reinvented it enough to make it its own story, and yet much of the structure is the same. I’m proud that it’s doing so well. It would have been very sad if it didn’t do well. [Laughs.] That would have been very depressing. But yeah, I think it’s a good thing. It’s a great story for kids.
Back To The Future Part II and Part III (1989-90)—“Jennifer Parker-McFly”
AVC: The Back To The Future sequels were some of the first movies filmed back-to-back. Was that a grueling shoot?
ES: To be honest, I had such a small part in that, I don’t remember it being too grueling for me, but I’m sure it was for the other guys. It did take a long time, but remember, I was asleep most of that movie. That movie, I really did as a favor to [director Robert] Zemeckis, because, um, I was trying to not distract anyone from the fact that the original girl [Claudia Wells] was not coming back, so I was just trying to kind of hide behind whoever she was, and not do too much to alert people to the fact that she was not there.
Mysterious Skin (2004)—“Mrs. McCormick”
ES: I love that movie. I really am very proud of that movie. I think that was Joe’s [Joseph Gordon-Levitt] first breakout movie, and he’s gone on to have a really wonderful career, and I loved my character so much. I would love to play more characters like her, and I’ve sort of… Like, the movie I’m going to do right now called House At The End Of The Street is a mother-daughter story with Jennifer Lawrence, and about living in this house where some very, very scary things have happened, and when I think about the mother part in this movie, whenever I’m playing a mother that’s not the sheriff, I think about how I can somehow bring in some of the colors of that character in Mysterious Skin, because I just enjoyed her inappropriateness and her inability to be a parent. She was more of a child. I just find those characters really fun to play, because there’s a freedom in them. So that was really a great movie. I loved doing it.
AVC: You seem to alternate really dark movies with goofier movies.
ES: Popcorn type.
AVC: Is that a conscious choice?
ES: Not really. You know, I think it’s hard to find movies at all to work on where you are excited to go to work, so it usually comes down to people for me. And with Piranha 3D, Alex was Alex, and as the cast came together, I was actually the first one on board, so I didn’t even know it was going to become such a great cast. Usually, I know who the cast is, and I’m all about the cast. So they present themselves in different genres and different films, but I know there are so many disappointments—so many successes, but so many disappointments that you can’t overthink anything. You just pick the people you want to be with for that amount of time, because you’re going to leave your family and give over to it, and try not to think about what happens.
AVC: Piranha 3D does have sort of an all-star cast. Christopher Lloyd’s in there, Richard Dreyfuss, Ving Rhames, Eli Roth… How did that come about?
ES: It was great! I was so happy the way it came together. It felt like I was going to be well-supported by everybody around me. That was Alex, too. He has a great love of American culture and of ’80s movies themselves. And I think he wanted to make a film that hearkened back to a time when horror films were fun and funny, and it was fun to get scared. It’s very interesting, because he’s like an outsider kind of looking at our culture, then taking the worst of our culture and putting them in Lake Havasu and allowing them to get eaten alive by fish. Coming from a French, outsider point of view, it just becomes so much more interesting vs. if an American had done this movie. And his love of women. There’s a lot of wet T-shirts. I was amazed that it was actually really erotic. Like, he made it erotic in a way that was fun. It wasn’t gross. If you’d read the script and you imagined those sequences… I think it was good it was in French hands. There’s a connoisseurship to it all. [Laughs.]
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2009)—“Virginia”
ES: Yeah, that was fun. It is all improvised. There’s a certain structure to what you’re doing, so you can’t just go off the wall. You pretty much have a structure to each scene, but yeah, that was daunting. [Larry David] doesn’t really tell people what you’re doing when you go to work there, and I didn’t even know I was part of a Seinfeld reunion, so I showed up on Monday, and all of a sudden there’s Jerry Seinfeld, and “Oh my God, it’s the cast of Seinfeld. Oh, this is… oh.” Like, each day you don’t know what you’re doing. I think I just lucked out in getting to be in such special episodes.
AVC: A lot of the people on that show play heightened versions of themselves. What’s it like to come into that situation and have to create a character that isn’t just you?
ES: I didn’t know what I was doing. Believe me. [Laughs.] I didn’t really know what to do. I always just try to become some version of myself that I can hide in that’s not quite me, but is some sort of version of myself. Like, that was weird in Hamlet 2, because I played myself there, fully myself, but then I realized “Oh, I’m not playing myself. I’m some weird version of myself.” So as an actress, you’re always playing something, I don’t even know who I am, how could I become me? I don’t know what that is.
Hamlet 2 (2008)—“Elisabeth Shue”
ES: Oh yeah, I loved that experience. That was really fun. I was so glad that that came here [to Comic-Con]. I remember being really upset I couldn’t come.
AVC: Was it written for you?
ES: It was not, no. It was actually supposed to be a real sad, has-been actress, which I found hilarious. When they came to me, they were kind of worried to offer it to me, because they thought I would take it personally that they thought I was a has-been, but it was quite the opposite. I thought it was funny that they thought of it that way. And maybe not a has-been, but they thought of it as someone maybe a little more obscure, who you hadn’t seen for a while. I loved doing that movie. It was so fun to laugh at myself, and Steve Coogan is such a huge talent, and I just felt really grateful to do it.
Adventures In Babysitting (1987)—“Chris Parker”
ES: That was really a very special experience for me, because it was the first movie I was kind of the star of, and it was Chris Columbus’ first movie, and Lynda’s [Obst, producer]. I just remember there was such an innocence to making that movie, and so many things I got to do, like singing the blues. That was probably the best scene I’ve ever gotten to do. So fun. If it had done well, and it was a shitty experience, I would not pretend to you that it was a great experience. [Laughs.]
So when they’re great experiences, and they are well-accepted… It’s so nice, because sometimes you have a great experience and no one sees the movie. Other times, you have a shitty experience, and the movie ends up being successful, but you don’t care. And every once in a while, you love the people, you love the experience, and it happens to break through. That’s rare. Especially today.
Back then, there was more time. Adventures In Babysitting didn’t even make any money the first weekend. And then Jeff Katzenberg said, “Aw, we really like this movie, let’s try and put more advertising behind it.” I mean, that doesn’t happen today. Today, you go “Oh, it didn’t make any money? Yank it.” And when you do independent films with no marketing budget and there’s no hope for an award? It’s like, “Put it in a movie theater for a week.” So it’s a tougher time now for things to get through. But it teaches you. I think over the years, it’s taught me that you don’t make movies for a result. If that’s what you’re in it for, you’re going to be disappointed a lot.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)—“Sera”
ES: I love that movie.
AVC: Was it depressing to film?
ES: No. Not at all. It was uplifting. Because in the end, it was still a love story. It wasn’t depressing. I mean, of course he does die, but you’re still watching two people allowing each other to be who they are and survive their circumstance through their affection for each other. There’s a real easiness to it that was very beautiful. It was romantic. And it was beautiful because it was dark, but it was also innocent and romantic. And so the two textures combined to make something very beautiful.
AVC: Some critics treated it as though they had suddenly rediscovered you, though you’d been working all along. What did that feel like?
ES: That was fine. It was definitely a different part, and I hadn’t had any opportunities to play anybody that complicated, or even that dark or that emotional. I just hadn’t had that chance yet, so I can see why I was sort of pigeonholed before. But still, I look back and I go “Wow.” I mean, even doing that movie—it’s not like the red carpet was laid out for me and I got every great role that there was to offer. It’s still a complete struggle. I still make tons of mistakes. I’ve struggled all the way through. So that was another great lesson. You don’t just all of a sudden have roles open. You still have to go out there and slug it out with everyone else. But that’s what’s challenging and good about it.