Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Lea Thompson’s first taste of success came in the field of dance, performing with the American Ballet Theater and other notable companies during her teenage years, but in the early ’80s, she switched her focus to acting. The decision proved to be a wise one, as Thompson quickly became a hot commodity, earning roles in such classic ’80s films as Back To The Future, Some Kind Of Wonderful, and, uh, Howard The Duck. Currently, Thompson can be seen in the ABC Family drama Switched At Birth.
Jaws 3-D (1983)—“Kelly Ann Bukowski”
Lea Thompson: [Laughs.] Well, that was my very first part, the very first movie I ever got, but I lied and said I had done a couple of other movies, so when I showed up, I really knew absolutely nothing. Also, I had said that I knew how to water-ski. And I did not. So I had, like, five days to learn really, really complicated water-skiing things, because I had to fit into the Sea World water-skiing show. I don’t even know how to swim! So that was an interesting event. I wiped out a lot. But I pulled it off, I think, because I was a ballet dancer. The acting… was not so good. But I looked pretty good in my bikini, so I think that made up for it. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: To clarify your acting timeline a bit, was Jaws 3-D before or after you did the now-famous Burger King commercial with Elisabeth Shue and Sarah Michelle Gellar?
LT: [Laughs.] That was after. I believe it was after, anyway. I did so many of them that I don’t remember. But what was interesting about the Burger King thing was that I never knew that Sarah Michelle Gellar was on my lap. I knew that Elisabeth Shue and I had done commercials together, but… My daughter [Zoey Deutch] is on Ringer, the Sarah Michelle Gellar show, and plays her stepdaughter, and the first day I met Sarah there, she said, “You know, we’ve worked together before.” And I’m, like, “I don’t think so…” But she had her iPad, and she brought up that commercial. I just can’t believe that nobody had pointed that out to me before! What a great casting director, huh? [Laughs.]
Switched At Birth (2011–present)—“Kathryn Kennish”
LT: I thought it would be interesting to play someone who felt different than me, because she’s so much more conservative than I am. And more uptight. Kind of like how I would be as the mother of a teenager in an alternate universe. Because I actually do have two teenage daughters. Also, I just thought it was a fascinating story. And it was also really fun, because I didn’t have to go to the network for the part. That’s always a terrifying ordeal. [Laughs.]
Kathryn is upper-middle-class. She’s a One-Percenter. She’s been sheltered, and she thinks she’s kind of created this perfect little life, and she really doesn’t want to look too far beyond that. And when she finds out that she’s been raising someone else’s daughter for 16 years and her daughter has been raised by someone else, it kind of throws her entire perspective of the world into a tailspin. She deals with it in a really lovely, loving way for the most part, because it’s like she’s all of a sudden put on 3D glasses or something. The world looks completely different to her, because she’s suddenly exposed to people or situations that she never wanted to be, or thought she could be exposed to. She realizes the daughter she’s been raising is part Puerto Rican. The daughter she gave birth to is deaf, and she has to learn sign language. I think it’s really fun to play someone like that, someone that’s been really sheltered and, all of a sudden, their world completely opens up.
AVC: Given how she was when the series began, how would you say Kathryn has progressed over the course of this first season?
LT: Well, she’s really learned a lot. She’s really found herself to be very open-minded, and I think she’s kind of a great mother, in the sense that she’s the glue that holds everything together. A lot of times when everyone’s not being tolerant of each other, she’s the one that comes through. So in a lot of ways, she’s a really great mom. And it’s been fun to see her kind of growing up. That’s what she’s done: She’s grown up, and she’s seeing that life’s a lot messier than she thought it was. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you been able to bring some of your own experiences as a mother of teenagers to the part?
LT: [Uncertainly.] I guess. But, you know, what I really bring is the immense amount of love that I have for my children. I wouldn’t have understood that unless I’d gone through it. I think it’s really hard to understand the depths and the power of the love that someone has for their children unless you really have children.
Caroline In The City (1995-2000)—“Caroline Duffy”
LT: Caroline In The City was such an interesting thing, because I’d never been on the set of a sitcom or even auditioned for a sitcom when they gave me that part. And I’d just had my second daughter. In fact, she was actually breast-feeding during network notes, which in a lot of eras probably would’ve been a cause for firing. But anyway, it really was a terrifying experience. I remember I went to see another show taping, because I was like, “I have to at least see what it’s like before I have to do it,” but after I did that, I said, “I can’t do this! This is too scary!” [Laughs.] The whole experience of doing a sitcom is… Telling jokes with such precision is really exciting, but it’s also terrifying. It was a great job, though. I wish it would have gone on for a few more years.
The character of Caroline… I kept saying to the writers, “She’s got everything. She’s young, she’s got a great job, she’s got this giant apartment in New York. How are you supposed to care about her?” So it made it interesting to try and make people want to be involved in her life. And to like her, because she kind of had everything except for a man, and I was like, “C’mon, guys, can’t you come up with something else besides that?” [Laughs.] But it still had a lot of fans, we got good ratings, and I’m really proud of it when I watch it now. I’m always amazed at how funny it was. And I’m still really good friends with all of the actors, which is not all that usual. Usually, you don’t really end up lifelong buddies with your co-stars.
It was definitely nerve-wracking, though. After every show, I felt like I’d been beaten up or something. I always had weird random bruises somewhere that I didn’t even feel when I was doing the show, where I’d smashed into something but hadn’t even been in my body enough to realize I’d hurt myself. Ultimately, it’s a super-macho job, which I appreciated. It’s totally underestimated by people how difficult it is. Sitcoms are usually given short shrift by the acting profession, but it’s quite an amazing job. And I had two little babies at the time, so it was a very frantic time in my life. But I’m really glad that I did it, and I hope that someday the sitcom form comes back again, especially in the way that it was, like, in All In The Family, where it has more social satire to it. Because it’s an amazing form of entertainment, and it hasn’t been doing that well, but hopefully it’ll resuscitate.
Howard The Duck (1986)—“Beverly Switzler”
LT: Howard the Duck! Beverly Switzler! That’s a really interesting movie. I appreciate my career, because I’ve had a lot of very interesting ups and downs, and most people… That movie is such a famous flop. In a land of a lot of flops, it’s kind of awesome to be in a really famous flop. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s kind of a poster child for flops. A lot of iconoclasts really love that movie. They love to love something that everyone hates. And those are my kind of folks. I’m happy to be part of that club of people who don’t want to be told what’s horrible and just want to enjoy it anyway. Howard The Duck has a lot of fans, and usually when they come up to me, I just think they’re the coolest. Because it takes a lot of strength, a lot of perseverance to love Howard the Duck. [Laughs.]
That was a really long shoot—it took six months to shoot—and it was a really, really hard part to get. It was a gigantic movie. George Lucas was producing, it had a very big budget, and everybody wanted that part. And everybody wanted the part of the duck! Everybody wanted to voice the duck. The people that they had coming were like, Robin Williams, Jay Leno… all these people wanted to be the voice of the duck, and they were turned down. So it was a really big deal. And it was really fun for me, because, y’know, I got to be a rock star. Everybody wants to be a rock star, right? So I got to sing and wear really crazy hair. It’s unfortunate that it was such a bomb. [Laughs.] But whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
AVC: Did you enjoy working with Thomas Dolby on the music?
LT: Oh, I loved him! I love Thomas Dolby. I think it’s really funny that he’s become so hugely rich and successful for creating some kind of software. I think that’s funny, because he’s such a great musician. And a lovely man. It really was a joy to work with him.
AVC: Since it’s an inevitability that a clip is going to accompany this segment of the interview, do you have any requests?
LT: I think you’ve gotta go with the rock video for “Howard The Duck.” I know it’s out there. That one’s pretty good. And pretty funny. [Laughs.]
Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987)—“Amanda Jones”
LT: Well, that’s interesting that you asked about that next, because I never would’ve done it if it hadn’t been for Howard The Duck. I’d actually turned it down. And then when Howard The Duck was such a bomb, that weekend, Eric Stoltz came and said, “Howard Deutch wants to offer you this movie again.” I’d already turned it down, and I was like, “I’d better take it.” I just kept hearing this voice going, “Get back on the horse!” I was so devastated. So I said, “Yes,” and, of course, that affected my life a lot, because I met my husband [Thompson is married to Deutch. —ed.], who I’m still married to, and we have two incredible daughters.
People love love love that movie. I think probably once or twice a day someone comes up to me… You know, if I’m not just sitting in my house. [Laughs.] If I’m actually out among other people, someone comes up to me and tells me how much that movie affected them, how much they loved that movie, or that it’s their favorite movie, which is really quite extraordinary, because the movie was not a hit. But it’s had this incredible life.
The opening of Some Kind Of Wonderful is just so exquisite. The way my husband put together that whole montage that sets up the whole story, it’s just so beautifully done. The music, the costumes, the story, they’re all still really powerful, which is odd for a movie that’s 25 years old. They don’t make those movies anymore. I’m amazed at how many people love it. I’m also amazed at how many men really like it.
AVC: Speaking only for myself, even 25 years later, it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to conjure a mental image of Miss Amanda Jones and her beloved cowboy boots.
LT: [Laughs.] Oh, those cowboy boots. And the short skirts, the high collars… My kids could and do wear some of those clothes right now. And the music’s still really cool. I tell my husband that all the time, because I think he forgets just how much that movie meant to so many people. But I think opening weekend was… I don’t remember exactly, but something like $10 million or something like that. It really was a disappointment. So it’s awesome that it’s persevered after all this time.
The Wild Life (1984)—“Anita”
LT: Oh, wow! That part was really interesting on two levels. One, that’s how I got Back To The Future, because they were looking at Eric Stoltz for Marty McFly, and they were, like, “Who’s that girl?” So that’s how I got the first audition for that. The other thing was that I actually had a topless scene that they cut out of the movie. [Laughs.] I found that really interesting to have my breasts cut out of a movie that was basically a teen exploitation film. I was, like, “Really?”
AVC: Was that a blow to your ego?
LT: Actually, it was a calculation on my part. It was contractually obligated, so I said, “If I’m going to have to do this, it’s not going to be stupid. It’s going to be really sexy.” And that’s what happened, and because of that, it was too sexy for the movie. [Laughs.] It was like, “Wow, this is a really sexy scene!” It didn’t fit with the tone of the movie, so they took it out. So, y’know, it was mission accomplished, actually, on my part. I outsmarted them. That was in the scene with Hart Bochner, by the way. The scene’s still in the movie, but they cut before he unbuttons my blouse. Kind of a funny accomplishment, but take note, teenage girls in exploitation films: Make the scene sexy!
AVC: You realize, of course, that this will cause countless men in their 40s to rise up and demand a special-edition DVD of The Wild Life.
LT: Well, that’s okay. Because, y’know, I was only 22. Trust me, the boobs were looking good.
J. Edgar (2011)—“Lela Rogers”
LT: That was just really great. Y’know, when Clint Eastwood asks you to come and play, even if it’s one scene, you go. He says, “Jump,” you say, “How high?” And I was so curious to see how he works. I thought she was a really interesting character. After kind of researching her, I really wanted to see a whole movie on her. She was a real strange cat. [Laughs.] She was a witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and she decided what line in what movie was a communist plot. I mean, imagine! Kind of kooky. So she and her politics were, like, really whacked. She was one of J. Edgar’s beards. She kind of ended up being his girlfriend. It’s not really in the movie, but she and another actress were kind of his girlfriends. So she was also an actress, a stage mom, a writer… I really wanted to know more about her after doing my research.
But it was super fun to work with Leonardo [DiCaprio] and Armie Hammer, really fun to do a scene with them, and working in that environment with Clint Eastwood. He runs a set like nobody else I’ve ever been around. It’s very quiet, it’s very respectful, but it’s very tense in a way, because you only get one take or maybe two. It’s very church-like, which puts more pressure on the actors, because it’s so quiet and focused. As a director and as an actor, I just really appreciated having that experience in my career, where I got to see how he works. I thought the perspective of the movie was so interesting, and it was brave of Clint Eastwood to make that movie, so I was happy to be part of it.
Article 99 (1992)—“Dr. Robin Van Dorn”
LT: Wow! You’ve actually seen that movie?
AVC: I have, actually. It’s got a pretty great cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Ray Liotta, Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley, John Mahoney…
LT: Yeah! Wow, that’s a crazy movie. That movie was interesting because I was eight months pregnant when I did it. My husband directed it, and there was another actress in that part, but the studio didn’t like her, so they said, “You picked the wrong person, so get your wife to do it for very little money, ’cause she’s already there on location in Kansas, anyway.” [Laughs.] So, yeah, I stepped in for some poor actress who was fired, and it was a really great cast. Luckily, I was wearing a lab coat, so I could hide my big baby bulge, but I remember I did a lot of frantic scenes with Forest Whitaker, and, y’know, he’s a big guy, so I was always afraid I was going to get smashed by him. But I was really proud of that movie. I really loved it. It was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. Now we’re going to be having more and more issues with all of the veterans coming home, how we’re going to treat them, and the state of health care in this country. I liked what that movie said, and I was really proud of Howard for making it. And sad that it didn’t do better.
AVC: It seems to have at least gone on to develop a cult following, if only because of all the notable people in it.
LT: Has it? That’s cool! I don’t hear about it as much as I’d like to, but… It had an amazing score. Danny Elfman did the score, I remember that. And, you know, both my dad and my husband’s dad were veterans, so it felt really powerful to do something for them, something about veterans. I was really proud of that. And, again, I was very pregnant. [Laughs.] Poor Kiefer had to kiss me. Or maybe just flirt with me. I don’t remember if he actually kissed me, but either way, he’s got to do this when I’m eight months pregnant… and in front of my husband, no less!
SpaceCamp (1986)—“Kathryn Fairly”
LT: SpaceCamp was an interesting movie because, after the first day of filming, we were already 10 days behind schedule. And it kind of kept on that way. It was supposed to be a three-month shoot, and it ended up taking six. We had T-shirts printed up that said, “SpaceCamp: It’s Not Just A Movie, It’s A Career.” Oh, actually, instead of SpaceCamp, it actually said SpaceCramp. [Laughs.]
That movie was really fun because of the camaraderie we had. It was Kelly Preston, Tate Donovan, Kate Capshaw, and Leaf Phoenix, who later became Joaquin Phoenix. He was only 10 and just a wonderful kid. We all spent so much time together on that weird mock-up of the space shuttle. And then it was, like, the biggest disaster for a movie, because before the movie came out, between the time we wrapped it and the time it came out, the space shuttle blew up with [Christa McAuliffe] on it. Which was a horrible, horrible tragedy, so, of course, nobody wanted to see a film about a bunch of wacky kids accidentally blasting off in the space shuttle. [Laughs.] It was just a horrible situation.
Since then, though, I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say that they became physicists or inventors, how much they loved that movie and how much it inspired them. That was really sweet and something I never really expected. And it was also a really interesting character to play after Howard The Duck, to play somebody so uptight and conservative. That’s sort of been a theme in my life, in my career, where I like to play really different characters. To kind of shake one off, I like to play a completely different style or character. And as movies go, SpaceCamp is definitely not Howard The Duck. [Laughs.]
You know, you keep bringing up all these names of movies and stuff, and it really reminds me of what a weird career I’ve had. What a strange journey it’s been. Really diverse, with a lot of really big ups and downs. And, you know, when you bring up these names, I think of all the crazy stories that I could tell about them in some cases…
AVC: If you’re looking for permission, you’ve got it. Please feel free to tell as many crazy stories as you wish.
LT: [Laughs.] Well, SpaceCamp was really weird because… Well, my daughter Zoey is shooting Ringer on the same lot, so whenever I go there, it’s like post-traumatic-stress syndrome. We were there for so long, and… We were hanging from ropes, and they’d built the set on this thing that rolls, and I had to climb up. It was so uncomfortable. We had to be this sort of weird mime troupe trying to simulate no gravity. They had no idea how to do it, so they were like, “Lea, you’re a dancer, we’ll just hang you from these ropes and just pretend!” I’m like, “Uh, okay, whatever…” So we would literally come in, they’d block, and we’d sit around for the entire day while they tried to figure out how to shoot it. And then they’d get one shot. It was a crazy movie. Very, very difficult and tortured film to make. But we had a great time, we laughed a lot, and we knew each other very well by the end of it. Oh, and at the same time, they were shooting Captain Eo next door with Michael Jackson. That was an interesting event.
AVC: Did you cross paths with Michael Jackson at all?
LT: We would kind of climb up in the rafters to watch him. Of course, he wasn’t interested in us. But he did invite Joaquin over—or Leaf at the time—so we would, like, go, “Don’t stay too long! Come back!” [Laughs.] So, yeah, we’d watch him make that, and that was interesting. It was very weird, even back then.
Tales From The Crypt (1989)—“Cynthia Vane”
LT: Wow! That was a really interesting thing, because, again, Howie directed me. You picked all the ones where he directed me! [Laughs.] He did not direct Howard The Duck, however. For some reason, people seem to think that he did. But he didn’t.
With Tales From The Crypt, that was funny to me because I was making Back To The Future II at the same time, so I was doing scenes in old-age makeup on that one while I was also doing old-age makeup on this one. So my poor face was beat to smithereens. [Laughs.] The funny thing I remember about that is that the guy who played my boyfriend in that was my best friend’s boyfriend—he’s her husband now—so I couldn’t get through the love scenes. I kept screaming in a not-even-remotely sexy way, because it was just so weird. My husband’s yelling, “Act like you enjoy it!” And I was, like, “I can’t! It’s like he’s my brother or something!” I mean, in the end, they actually had to loop it. I was not the consummate professional. [Laughs.] I couldn’t even kiss this guy with a straight face. He’s still one of my best friends. In fact, I talked to him this morning. His name’s Brett Cullen, and he’s a wonderful actor. But I couldn’t act sexy with him. I just couldn’t!
Casual Sex? (1988)—“Stacy”
LT: Geez! Casual Sex? Well, that was based on a Groundlings sketch, and it was a really interesting movie because we basically shot the movie, then they tested it and pretty much reshot half of it. It was really weird. Andrew Dice Clay was designed to be the complete buffoon, then for some reason they made me marry him in the reshoots. I’ve never seen anything like it. This happens a lot, though. Recently I watched the trailer for it, and they have all these scenes from when he was a buffoon that they’d cut out of the movie but still put in the trailer. So that was bizarre. They actually shot me marrying three different guys in that movie. [Laughs.] The whole thing was really weird.
All The Right Moves (1983)—“Lisa”
LT: That movie’s been on lists of the top 10 best football movies, which I thought was really nice. It’s nice that people still remember it. But my character… I really didn’t know much about acting. That was a really intense movie, because it was attempting to be really kind of gritty and realistic, so that required me to be a better actor, probably. The director was really… Well, everyone was really intense. Maybe it was all the football, but there was a lot of testosterone going on. And I was really young, so I just remember there were times when the director was not happy with me, and I was really searching to learn this really important lesson, which was that I’m like the CEO of my character, and I have to protect myself and my character at all costs, even if people try to push me around.
The experience was interesting to me because this was before Tom Cruise became über-famous. He had already shot Risky Business, but it hadn’t come out. I remember doing this test with him, and, y’know, he was just auditioning like me, and he really struck me as such a hard-working and intense actor. It really had a profound effect on me. I really learned a lot from him as far as how he worked. He’s very concentrated and dedicated, and I don’t think he’s changed that much, y’know? He still seems the same. Really focused. I really liked him. The image I remember is that Tom and I both had these hideous full honey wagons, which are like little cells, with stinky toilets and a couch that you can lay down on. And I remember he would always be listening to Bruce Springsteen to kind of pump himself up. That’s my image, and it’s a sweet image.
Tom was so awesome, because we had this love scene and… You know, back then, it was always boobs boobs boobs in every movie, and it was required for me to show my boobs in these two love scenes. In one love scene… Well, he convinced them to kind of take it out, just because we’re kind of making out in a car. But in the real love scene, we really talked about it, and we really made it a beautiful scene about love, about first love. Now it’s famous because he was naked and I was naked, and all we had on were our white socks, which we thought was funny. [Laughs.] And honest. Because it was cold in Pennsylvania, and that’s what people do: They wear their socks to bed. But he was so protective of me and interested in making a really good scene, and he did. It’s a really lovely scene. I loved that scene in the movie. Of course, now it’s famous because it’s on DVD, and you can stop it and apparently see his… thing. [Laughs.] I don’t know. So that’s why people still talk about that scene, but the truth of the matter is that it was really beautiful, and he was very kind and protective, and really helped me. And I’ll never forget it. He really helped me learn how to be a better actor.
Red Dawn (1984)—“Erica”
LT: Red Dawn was really the most fun I ever had making a movie, because I love Westerns, and I love the idea of being a tomboy, and riding horses and shooting guns. I remember Jennifer Grey and I being, like, tormented but amazed by the politics of Red Dawn, but the truth is that the story is a fascinating one. The idea was so interesting. And when you see the movie, it’s absolutely fascinating that there’s no… The movie is like a really, really low budget of its day. You don’t see anything. They talk about how Chicago just fell to the Russians, but you don’t see it. We only talk about it. I think it’s kind of powerful on that level, that it’s more like a play or a book, where the war that you actually do see feels more real as a result.
I dunno, I just had a lot of fun being out on the tundra with John Milius and all the craziness that went along with that. And the guys were all so awesome, and we had such camaraderie. Patrick [Swayze] and Charlie [Sheen], who was a madman even then. He was awesomely unpredictable even then, but he was adorable. I just had a really interesting time in the ’80s. I tore it up in the ’80s! [Laughs.]
Thin Ice (2011)—“Jo Ann Prohaska”
LT: I want to make sure I don’t forget to mention the movie I did not long ago with Greg Kinnear, Bob Balaban, Billy Crudup, and Alan Arkin. It’s just a really funny, dark kind of caper, and it was just really great to work with those amazing actors. I wish I could’ve done a lot more acting with them. But that movie was really funny because… my cat got me the part. [Laughs.] My neighbor found my annoying cat, and when I went to go talk to her to get my cat, she said, “Oh, my God, I’m doing this movie. Do you want to be in it?” I’m, like, “Uh, yeah, sure!” And that is literally how I got the part: through my evil cat. But I loved doing it. It was a lot fun. I hope it does well.
Back To The Future (1985)—“Lorraine Baines McFly”
Back To The Future Part II (1989)—“Lorraine Baines McFly Tannen”
Back To The Future Part III(1990)—“Lorraine McFly”/“Maggie McFly”
LT: Well, I mean, seriously, how lucky am I? That part was such a gift, you know? They just don’t come along that great. I’ve had a few great parts, and that’s definitely at the top of the list. For some reason, I just really got her. I got the depressed, beaten-down, drunken Lorraine, and I got the young, silly, oversexed, repressed Lorraine from 1955. Some parts just click in your head, and you just go for it. I remember the audition or screen test—whatever it was—at Amblin, where Spielberg was working the camera. It was just so much fun, playing dress-up and inventing these characters, and then the idea that they let me play four or five more aspects of the same person in Back To The Future II and III… It really was such a gift.
It’s really interesting to me, and to Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale and all of us, how resonant the movie still is to people. I think the themes were even bigger than they thought when they made the movie. The key theme that I think about is the idea that one moment could change your life forever, that one moment of standing up for yourself or having courage against a bully could change your life forever, like when George punches Biff and saves Lorraine. And the idea that, y’know, your parents were young once. They had the same dreams that you have as a teenager and the same passions and know how important that part of your life is. Those are really important themes that continue to resonate, and I think that’s why parents keep wanting to show their kids these movies. And grandparents. I feel really, really lucky to be mostly known for that movie and that part. It was a great part. [Long pause.] Wow, what a weird-ass career I’ve had, huh? [Laughs.]