(This interview was originally published November 1, 2013 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 Jean Louisa Kelly. Many might remember her best from Yes, Dear or her film roles like Mr Holland's Opus, but I will always remember her first as “Tia Russell” from Uncle Buck. In her first film role at just the age of 16, Kelly starred alongside John Candy in the John Hughes classic from 1989. She then went back to high school and returned to acting a couple years later including, as mentioned, a six-year run as “Kim Warner” on the sitcom Yes, Dear. Find out a little about her experiences making Uncle Buck, what she is up to now including her music and more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Jean Louisa Kelly...
Q: When and how did you get your start in acting? How about singing and dancing as well? How did that later evolve into larger roles on Broadway and in film?
Jean: I started acting and singing at the same time, really. I was given a solo in a school play when I was seven. One of the mothers in the audience saw the show and suggested to my mom that I audition for my small town’s production of The Sound of Music. I had so much fun, the theatre bug bit me and the rest is history. I took dance lessons as well – ballet, tap and jazz – all through my childhood and even somewhat into adulthood. When I was 24, I did a show in Toronto called RSVP Broadway which was so fun, because I got to take my tap shoes out again and dance like Fred and Ginger with a wonderful dancer named Dirk Lumbard. I also danced en pointe in 'The Fantasticks' , something I never would have expected to do on film. Now I dance in my kitchen mostly, but I would love to do Dancing With the Stars – so fun! I still take voice lessons every other week. My singing is an integral part of my identity and I love it. Now I’ve started writing music and it’s exciting to see how that develops.
Q: You were cast as “Tia Russell” in 1989’s Uncle Buck which was written and directed by John Hughes. First, how did this role come your way? What do you remember about the audition process?
Jean: “Tia” was such a perfect role for me at the time. My family had just moved from Massachusetts, where I grew up, to Maryland. I was a junior in high school and it was hard. I totally understood the resentment of the Russell family move and the emotional friction of the parent/child relationship because I was a teenager too! As for the audition, I think I took a train to New York from Maryland. For the first meeting with John Hughes, I sat in the waiting room for about 1 1/2 hours, ready the whole time because I didn’t know when I was going in. It was taxing! Then I had a test with John Candy sometime later, I think, and got a call in a few weeks that the part was mine.
Uncle Buck was released in August of 1989 and helped finish up the '80s decade strong. It was written, directed and produced by John Hughes and starred the late great John Candy as “Buck Russell”. Jean Louisa Kelly played Buck’s niece “Tia” who is none too happy that her uncle is there to watch over her and her siblings while her parents are out of town. It went on to become the 20th highest grossing film in the U.S. for 1989. Here is an original trailer for Uncle Buck...
Q: What can you tell us about John Hughes and your experience working for him?
Jean: My experience of John Hughes was that he loved the creative process… he loved to play. He loved letting people find things – a lot of what John Candy does in the movie is improvised. He wasn’t afraid to take his time to let something great surface. It was fun! I don’t think I really got at the time how rare that is, it was my first movie – talk about starting with the best. My 16 year old perception of him was that he was a relaxed and engaged person – he was curious.
Q: What can you tell us about the legendary John Candy and your experience working with him?
Jean: My experience of John Candy was that he was just hilarious, fun and lovable. He was so sweet. It was just a treat to work with him and, as I mentioned, he would just go off and improvise… and John Hughes would give him free rein… I think it was a great collaboration.
The “Tia” character allowed Kelly to practice her scowl quite a bit. Often times that scowl was directed at John Candy’s “Uncle Buck”. Here is the scene where Buck picks up Tia from school and gets to meet her boyfriend “Bug” for the first time…
Here is another scene appropriately titled “Battle of Wills”…
Q: What did you like best and like least about your character “Tia”? What challenges did you have playing your first role in a major motion picture?
Jean: I loved living out the horrible bitchiness of my worst self as a teenager through Tia. I think we all have a dark side and how wonderful to be able to express it completely with no repercussions!
I will say that the movie was challenging for me though in that, as my first film, it was a major culture shock. I was used to theater and a film set is run very differently. First and foremost, there is no privacy. Someone has to know exactly where you are at all times, because you need to be ready when the lights and camera are set, so you lose a lot of freedom as a kid. Also, there is a ton of waiting, which I also had not experienced in theater. Finally, I had just moved to Maryland from Massachusetts, had found a group of friends, and now, just a few months later I was off in Chicago doing a movie. The year before, I had lived in New York on my own doing the original Broadway show of 'Into the Woods.' I was ready for some normalcy.
Here is one more scene in the battle between Buck and Tia where her uncle really embarrasses her (showcasing the brilliance of John Candy) while he uses some not-so-subtle intimidation tactics on her boyfriend…
Q: An 8-year-old Macauly Culkin (before Home Alone) and a 7-year-old Gaby Hoffmann played your little brother and sister in the film. What can you tell us about your experience working with each of them and playing their big sister? Especially in regards to Culkin, did anything cause you to expect he might go on to big things as he did the following year in Home Alone?
Jean: Both Mac and Gaby were great – imaginative, well-behaved and talented. They were just like little siblings to me on this; we were all in it together. I was not surprised Mac went on to be such a success – he was absolutely adorable and a dream to work with.
Q: Overall, how was your experience making Uncle Buck? Was the cast close during filming? Did you keep in touch with any of the cast members after?
Jean: As I mentioned, making the movie was wonderful and an experience for which I am extremely grateful, but it was challenging to be a teenager away from home, having just moved, learning a whole new paradigm of work. I loved it – but I also really wanted to be a normal kid! This has always been a push-pull in my career – the tug of war between work and home life. Since I started so young and know what it’s like, I have been hesitant about making choices that could take me away from home and family.
I have not kept in touch with anyone, sadly. When I was done, I just dove into my public high school in Maryland and sort of brought the trajectory to a halt. At least for a few years.
Q: What were your feelings about it when the film was released in 1989? Was there a big Hollywood premiere for the film and did you go?
Jean: I was proud of the film – I thought it was great. There was no premiere that I was aware of… I just went and saw it at my local movie theater.
Q: What are your feelings about Uncle Buck now over 24 years later?
Jean: Well, I watched it with my nine-year-old son last year when he was home from school sick and it was so fun! I had to skip through some of it because it was a little fast for him. It’s so funny how the films back then were more adult in a way. It was a family movie, but there was some stuff in there that was darker – the gambling addiction, the rift between generations, the teenagers drinking out in the woods. I just loved watching it and, to my son, it was like eating ice cream…
When I filmed the movie, I really identified intensely with Tia and her specific situation. But now, I can see wider themes of addiction and isolation. I love that two outsiders find redemption and reintegration through a connection with each other. I think connection is hugely important, and John Hughes’ films emphasize that with the most unlikely characters in the most unlikely situations. It’s like you are getting a lesson in humanity without realizing it.
I think she hit the nail on the head with that analysis of John Hughes’ work as a “lesson in humanity without realizing it“. Though he would go on to write and produce several other films, Uncle Buck was the second-last film he ever directed (1991’s Curly Sue was the last). Normally, a successful film role like this would catapult a young actress into more films, but Kelly decided to return to high school and a more normal teenage life.
Q: What made you decide to take a break from acting after you had that success at such a young age?
Jean: From the time I was 11 years old, I had been a working actress, doing summer stock every summer and living in New York for my sophomore year of high school. I had been to four high schools and felt adrift from my peers. I felt that I really needed to just be a teenager and I spent some time doing just that. I joined the track team, got a boyfriend, found my friends and focused on my social life. Then I went to college in New York so I would be near the business if I decided that I wanted to continue, which obviously I did.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your career has taken you since Uncle Buck. How have your priorities or goals changed over the years? What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Jean: My career has been a gift. I’ve been blessed with opportunities to sing, dance and act in all three mediums. I have been to Europe to shoot a movie, I’ve lived in Canada for a series, and I’ve shot in many different places in the USA I never would have gone otherwise. I got engaged in Wichita, Kansas! I said I would never leave New York, but ended up in Los Angeles, via Vancouver.
I’ve worked with amazing actors – John Candy, Joel Grey, Richard Dreyfuss, Beth Grant, Mimi Kennedy, Bernadette Peters to name a few. I’ve been directed by the best – Michael Ritchie, John Hughes, James Lapine, Stephen Herek. I worked with Stephen Sondheim! I was also fortunate enough to work with the talented Greg Garcia and (late) Alan Kirschenbaum on the hilarious sitcom Yes, Dear for six years. While on that show, I had my son and became pregnant with my daughter, who is now 7.
Since having my children, I have really focused on balance. I have done mostly television movies and guest-spots, which don’t separate me from my family for too long. I get the kids off to school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon… that time goes so quickly. I’m so grateful it has worked this way for me. I’ve been able to have my family life while maintaining a toe-hold on my career.
Yes, Dear ran for 6 seasons and 122 episodes from 2000-2006 on CBS and re-runs have continued to run in syndication since then. In addition, she has gone on to well over 40 other credits in film and on television. On top of all of that, she is also a singer/songwriter.
Q: What else has Jean Louisa Kelly been up to more recently? Both acting and otherwise?
Jean: I’ve been in four television movies over the last year, two of which have not been released yet. I recently completed an independent film called 'Zoe Gone,' which will probably air on television within the next year. I played the lead police detective on a child abduction case.
The movie I did last October is called '1000 to 1: the Corey Weissman Story,' which is the inspirational true story of a stroke victim and his amazing recovery. While working on that film, a song came to me one night in my hotel room, which I recorded into my iPhone. I went home and had it produced and it is now in the film! It is called “Don’t Give Up” and is available on iTunes [and Amazon].
But I think the thing I am most proud of is the album of children’s music I just released this June, 'Color of My Heart' [also available on iTunes and Amazon]. It is a collection of my original compositions, sung by me, and it is really for kids of all ages… a lot of adults really like listening too! I was inspired by 'Free to Be… You and Me,' the album I grew up with in the '70s [from Marlo Thomas and Friends]. It is my attempt to give voice to feelings and solutions for kids – almost like an instruction book for life that I wish I had had when I was growing up. I’m still learning how to be in the world!
I am so pleased that Jean was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. To find out more about her and everything she has going on now, please visit her official JeanLouisaKelly.com website and you can follow her on FacebookandTwitter.
I want to take this occasion to again thank Jean Louisa Kelly for her contributions to '80s pop culture especially through Uncle Buck and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.