(This interview was originally published October 17, 2014 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Ilan Mitchell-Smith. He is best remembered to many as "Wyatt" from the 1985 film Weird Science. In addition to that John Hughes classic that has always been a personal favorite, he was in several other films from the age of 12 to 20. After leaving acting, he went on to become a professor at a university. We will find out about his time as a teenage actor, making Weird Science and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Ilan Mitchell-Smith...
Q: When and how did you get your start in acting? Did you ever have any formal acting training? How was it like being a teenager starring in movies?
Ilan: I got started in acting by chance, actually. I had been a ballet dancer since the age of five, and so by the time I was eleven I was pretty good, I guess. I was at the Joffrey School for one of these programs when I was eleven, and the director Sidney Lumet sent a casting agent there to cast for a movie. There was no dancing in the role, but he wanted a young person who was used to working and who was also a young face. I guess I had a look that he thought worked well, and he cast me to play a young Timothy Hutton in a movie called Daniel .
Once I had done a film, a manager and an agent fell into place and I started auditioning. I also started acting lessons at a number of places around New York, especially the Stella Adler School for a while. I found a home for a while later with a coach called Warren Robertson, and I studied there along with Stacy Haiduk (who is still in the business) and Grace Jones, who were both awesome.
It was weird being a teenager working in film, and I'm still not sure how I felt about all of it. There is no downside to everyone treating you like you're special and calling you "The Talent" (despite my suspicions that "talent" was not something of which I had a great deal), and there were more wonderful people and great moments than I can count. It was also a bit lonely, though, and I was working pretty hard as a dancer for a lot of that time. During any free time that I had I really just wanted to have some friends with whom I could play D&D [Dungeons & Dragons] and talk about comics, but that never happened while I was working on a job. In the 80s, it was a lot harder to be a nerd than it is today.
Q: How did the role of "Jim Conrad" in 1984's The Wild Life come your way? What can you share about getting that role and your memories making that film?
Ilan: I loved that role, and I loved working with Cameron Crowe (the writer) and Art Linson (who is better known for his producing). I wanted the role very much because the character was so much cooler than I was, and Jim Conrad kind of became a part of me. Cameron would make me these mix tapes of 60s music to help me get into the role, but I hadn't developed a real musical taste yet and those tapes became the backbone of my musical interests for many years following the film. I don't know if he ever realized what an impact he was having on me. I was also thinking of getting a guitar at the time, so at one point he called his wife (Nancy Wilson of Heart) and she talked me through some of the things I would want to ask for when I went shopping. That was amazing, and I love the memory of that day.
I really liked everyone on that set as well, and I felt close to a lot of the crew. There is a scene in which my character blows up a statue outside his school, and every crew member signed that head and then surprised me with it as a gift. That is probably my favorite memory from all of my acting days, and I still have that head!
The Wild Life was released in theaters in September of 1984 as Cameron Crowe's writing follow up to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The teen comedy-drama was only moderately successful at the time, but became more popular later on cable television. It featured a cast of young actors that went on to big things including Eric Stoltz, Lea Thompson, Chris Penn and Ilan Mitchell-Smith. Here is a trailer for The Wild Life...
Q:The Wild Life included a great cast of young actors. What can you tell us about working with any or all of the following: Eric Stoltz? Lea Thompson? Chris Penn? Randy Quaid?
Ilan: I liked Eric a lot, and he went out of his way to hang out with me which was cool. While his character was a couple of years older than mine, he was actually about ten years older than I was, and so it was nice of him to spend some time with the kid on the set. I later hung out with him when I was doing Weird Science because he was on the lot next to me playing Marty McFly in Back to the Future. It wasn't until that movie came out that I realized that he had been replaced with Michael J. Fox, and even now I remember McFly as Eric in that vest and jeans.
I was flat-out in love with Lea Thompson, and I remember her as being surrounded by glowing light with a voice that sounded like the taste of honey. If I am wrong about this memory I would rather not know.
Chris Penn was a lot of fun, but hard for a kid to get to know. Here's a conversation we had once: Chris: "Seriously. I have no feeling at all in my face. You could punch me right in the face right now and I wouldn't feel a thing. You want to punch me in the face? 14-year-old-squeaky-nerd Ilan: "Um... I just came over to get a snack at the Kraft Service table."
Randy Quaid was a great actor and a hard core professional. He scared me intentionally between takes by seeming distant and a bit off (put a cigarette out on his tongue while glaring at me). I later learned that he was preserving what he felt should be the mood of the scene, and I think it worked really well in the movie.
Q: Then in 1985, you were cast as "Wyatt" in Weird Science which was written and directed by John Hughes. First, how did this role come your way? What do you remember about the audition process?
Ilan: I was working on The Wild Life when I auditioned for the job, and I read for John right off the bat, as I remember. I went through a number of callbacks and I finally booked the job through some kind of miracle that I still don't understand. I just don't think I did a very a good job at any of those auditions because I kept on laughing at the jokes. He was a funny man and the script was brilliant and Michael (my costar) was hilarious. That continued to be a problem while making the film, and still I wince during the scenes where I can tell I was trying not to laugh.
Q: What can you tell us about the late, great John Hughes and your experience working for him?
Ilan: I was lucky to work with John, and I was very sorry to hear of his passing. As I mentioned above, I was a pretty geeky kid (OK, I'm a pretty geeky adult, too) and I sensed that, unlike the other actors on the set, John had been a nerdy kid as well. In all of his works, there is a loving and empathetic depiction of imaginative and smart kids who don't fit in, and it was great for me to sense that John was similar to me in that way.
He was also brilliant and a great writer and director. I remember once on the set we were all standing in the blue kitchen, and he said something witty and smart, ate a blue chip and made a cool exit. I later asked him why he ate the chip, because I knew that they had been spray-painted blue. "Anything for a laugh, Ilan" he said to me with a little wink. It was a privilege to work with him and I am proud to be one of the alumni of Shermer High School.
Weird Science was written and directed by John Hughes and released in theaters in August of 1985. Despite its ridiculous premise, it remains one of my favorite teen comedies of the decade for multiple reasons. It is a story of the nerdy guys turning from zeros to heroes in one fantastic (and a little absurd) weekend. Two unpopular high school students, "Wyatt Donnelly" (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) and his buddy "Gary" (Anthony Michael Hall) used a computer to make an actual woman of their own. They create "Lisa" played by the gorgeous Kelly LeBrock and she helps them find the confidence and coolness inside of themselves. It's not an easy process and includes many hilarious moments along the way. Here is the trailer for Weird Science...
Q: I want to ask about some of your co-stars. First, what can you tell us about Anthony Michael-Hall and your experiences working with him on this film? Did you two become friends during the process? You really seemed to have great chemistry together.
Ilan: Michael and I became friends before the filming, actually, because we went to the same school for professional kids in New York (PCS - we were there with Malcolm Jamal Warner, Ricki Lake, Christian Slater, and lots of other young professional kids).
Michael was a great mentor to me and we did hang around with each other to some extent. We didn't have a lot of the same interests, though, so there was a limit to how much we did together. I saw him as older (he is a year older than I am), more outgoing, and more experienced with everything we were doing, and I think all of those feelings played very well with our characters.
Here's an early scene in the film when "Wyatt" and "Gary" begin trying to make a girl with the computer ("We gotta make her as real as possible, Wyatt. I want her to live. I want her to breathe. I want her to aerobicize.")...
Q: Bill Paxton was perfect playing your older brother Chet. What can you tell us about Paxton and working with him?
Ilan: Bill was one of the kindest and nicest people I have ever met, and I have been very happy to see his successes over the years. He was great to work with, and he was always ready to give some advice and notes on acting, for which I was thankful. As I remember it, a lot of Chet was Bill's own character development (the cigar, the laugh, the about-face door kick), and I remember learning from him what it was to really own a character.
A great scene with "Chet" is when the boys come home from a night on the town and he's there waiting for them ("You're stewed, buttwad!")...
Another memorable scene with Chet is when Wyatt comes down for breakfast, but is wearing Lisa's panties ("That's not a joke, that's a severe behavioral disorder. I mean, the next thing you know, you'll be wearing a bra on your head!")...
Q: Kelly LeBrock was even more perfect playing the role of Lisa. What can you tell us about the gorgeous LeBrock and working with her? You even got to have a romantic kiss and a shower with her! What can you tell us about filming those scenes?
Ilan: I'm afraid to disappoint you, but none of the scenes with Kelly were as sex-charged for me as they were in the film. I wish they had been, and she was, in fact, absolutely gorgeous. When you know that a woman is kissing you or standing almost-naked in front of you because she is contractually obligated to do so, though, it takes the sexuality out of it.
Kelly was concerned that the camera in the shower scene would capture her breasts because I think a previous director had done so without her consent. Knowing that, how could I steal glances at her without feeling like a total creeper?
The boys got to live out one of their fantasies by getting to shower with Lisa ("If we're going to have any fun together, you guys have better learn to loosen up.")...
Q: Was there any real chemistry between you and "Hilly"? How about that nice scene at the end when you take her home and get a kiss?
Ilan: I am still great friends with Judie Aronson and we were always close during the filming of Weird Science. I'm not going to say that I didn't have a bit of a crush on her (because she was, and still is, so beautiful), but I was fifteen and she was in her early twenties. I like to think that I had some game when I was fifteen, but awkward boys in their middle teens have a hard time attracting beautiful young women in college. It was great just to be her friend, though.
Q: How different was the character of Wyatt to the real Ilan Mitchell-Smith back then? What were some of your favorite parts about playing "Wyatt" in Weird Science? Did you have any favorite lines or scenes? Did you have any least favorite parts?
Ilan: At the time, I didn't feel very similar to Wyatt at all, and it was very much a question of what it meant to me to be in the category of nerd or geek. I never questioned the fact that I was, like Wyatt, in that category. I guess the answer is that I was enough like Wyatt that I was defining myself by the qualities that we either shared or didn't share.
I think he and Gary worked really well for Weird Science, but they are also early versions of the "sympathetic loser" trope of nerdiness where the audience is positioned to feel sorry for kids who are socially stunted, who enjoy stupid things, and whose friendships are categorized by annoyance, squabbling over trivia, and (often) outright hostility. This was not my experience with being so clearly in the nerdy category, and so I don't identify with Wyatt in the same way that I don't identify with the male characters on television's The Big Bang Theory, even if I love these shows and think they are very funny.
I really liked working on the party scene and I remember that there was a general feeling of chaos surrounding those scenes that was really fun. Bill Paxton, for example, dressed in sunglasses and a trench coat and put on some kind of hat while they were filming one of the scenes when things started going crazy, and he just snuck into one of the scenes. I don't know if anyone was able to pick out Chet, all disguised, as a guest at the party, but I thought it was so cool that he did that without anyone ever knowing.
Q: Any other interesting stories or facts about making Weird Science that you can share with us and let us in on? Do you have any favorite memories from making Weird Science? Do you still keep in touch with any of your fellow cast members?
Ilan: I have a lot of very nice memories from the set and from making the film, and I really enjoyed the people with whom I was working. My favorite memory might be this one:
I was on a lunch break, and I saw Eric Stoltz (see question #3) driving up in one of the golf carts that PAs and crew use to get around the lot. It turns out that he had somehow stolen this thing and he asked if I wanted to ride around a bit. At first we just toodled around the studio, chatting and looking at all of the sets and actors from the other films and shows. Then Eric noticed a tram full of tourists who (in those days) were often taken through the working parts of the lot on their way to the Universal Studios Tour.
For the next half hour Eric assaulted this Tram like a WWII fighter pilot going after a bomber. He first circled around to charge the flank of the thing at top golfing speed (which is faster than you would expect), only to peel off at the last minute among the shrieks of fear from the tram passengers. Circling again, we charged another part of the tram, and then another, and then another, and the tourists were yelling and throwing up their hands and getting out of their seats to avoid what they thought was going to be an accident at any moment. Any '80s fan today would have absolutely loved to see, in full wardrobe, Marty McFly and Wyatt Donnelly relentlessly attacking the Universal Tour in a stolen golf cart.
When I left the business I concentrated on school almost exclusively, and so I lost touch with a lot of the people whom I really liked a lot. I am lucky enough to still be in touch with Judie Aronson and Suzanne Snyder, Michael [Hall], and Vernon Wells, who has recently invited me and my family to tour a Wolf rescue with which he is associated (WolfConnections.org).
Q: What were your feelings about Weird Science when the film was released in 1985? Any different feelings about it now 29 years later?
Ilan: I wish I had a good story about the release of the movie. I was excited to go to the premier with the wonderful Yasmine Bleeth, which was fun, but I have always hated watching myself on film, so I didn't really watch much of the premier and I never saw the movie again until I was invited to introduce it to the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas while completing a Ph.D. at Texas A&M. While I was filming the movie, I was always a little bit stressed about what my next job might be and the movie, in my mind, was a resume builder that I could be proud of. Now, I see the movie and my experiences in a much more relaxed way. It seems like lot of people enjoyed the movie and I am pleased to have been part of that enjoyment. I was a lucky kid to have been able to work in the film industry and I miss a lot of the wonderful people that I met during my time there.
Q: How often do you still get recognized as Wyatt? Do you enjoy your connection to this '80s classic or have you completely moved on?
Ilan: It doesn't happen all that often, and I look pretty different now than I did back then. My voice, for some reason, doesn't seem to have changed much. That is often the thing that tips people off.
I don't mind being recognized a bit, but I sometimes try to get out of it by playing it off like we might have met somewhere. It's not that I mind being recognized or talking about my acting, but sometimes I just come out and say it and the other person doesn't believe me, so then I am trying to convince some stranger that I used to be a movie star.
In a lot of ways I have moved on and it doesn't come up that much. I do, however, have a "Shermer High School" T-Shirt and it is one of my favorites.
Q: You were in 1988's The Chocolate War which was directed by Keith Gordon. What do you remember about making this film? How about working with the young first-time director Gordon?
Ilan: Of all of the work that I did, working on The Chocolate War was by far my favorite experience. Keith was a real actor's director and he was so connected to the work that you couldn't help but feel like you were part of something meaningful.
The cast was wonderful on that film and the crew were some of the best people I have known. I was very close with one crew member who was pregnant at the time, and she ended up naming her son Ilan because she liked the name (and I hoped because she liked me, too).
Q: Are there any '80s roles that you auditioned for and did not get that would be particularly interesting especially looking back now?
Ilan: It seems like I auditioned for all kinds of movies that later became pretty big deals. I got some call backs on Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, auditioned for many of the things Zach Galligan and Patrick Dempsey ended up booking and turned down (much to my regret and only because of some bad advice from my agent) a small part in Say Anything. The ones I wanted most, though, didn't come out at all or were so bad that I am lucky not to have gotten them. I really wanted to do action movies, but the ones where I might have been appropriate turned out to be pretty goofy.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your career has taken you since the '80s. What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Ilan: I am a professor of Medieval English Literature at California State University, Long Beach. I have published a little bit on medieval chivalric romances, violence and monsters, and I also have written a little bit on contemporary recreations of the Middle Ages, in Disney Princesses or in online gaming or in medieval action films.
I am proud of being at CSULB, which is an excellent school with a wonderfully diverse, friendly, enthusiastic friendly campus community. I also have had some excellent students who have gone on to some very good Ph.D. and Master's programs as well as impressive positions in business and government. If I were to be honest, I think these people would do amazing things with or without my having been their mentor, but I will claim a small piece of pride for their accomplishments nevertheless.
Q: What else has Ilan Mitchell-Smith been up to more recently? Both acting or otherwise? What can we expect in the future? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?
Ilan: I have no regrets at all, and in general I am a happy man. I recently did a little bit of voice over work for Fox ADHD's Axe Cop (which I followed and loved online before it was a show), but in general I am out of the business, and I love my job as a professor.
I have a wonderful family whom I love very much and I spend a lot of time with them or on dates with my wife, which we get a lot more of now that our kids are older. My two kids share many of my interests and we have a pretty good time together.
I am also a huge tabletop (not computer) gamer and I spend much of my free time (when not on a date with my wife) gaming with friends, local and state-wide clubs, and with my kids. I still play D&D whenever I can (and other games of the same kind) and I have been part of the board gaming renaissance that has been happening in nerdy communities for the last 20 years or so. I am also a proud member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society and I am an avid painter of wargaming miniatures, which are used to play complex strategy games once we have painted them. In this hobby I join a long list of fellow enthusiasts, such as Ansel Elgort, Vin Diesel, Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin!), Peter Jackson and many others.
Unfortunately, I don't know if you can expect anything exciting from me in the future, except that I host some pretty elaborate games that anyone can play at every Strategicon Convention in LA. I also attend, as a VIP, all of the events for TableTop, Wil Wheaton's online show that features celebrities playing Tabletop games. I am also known to attend some other conventions around the U.S. to sign autographs, and I usually announce these (and squee about the people I might meet) on Twitter (I'm @IlanMS).
I am so pleased that Ilan was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. I was so jealous of what his character in Weird Science was able to do back then (and still am at least a little). As he mentioned, if interested, you can follow him on Twitter. I want to take this occasion to again thank Ilan Mitchell-Smith for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially through Weird Science and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.