(This interview was originally published May 20, 2011 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 Catherine Mary Stewart. She is especially remembered by '80s fans as a beautiful actress on both television and in film. Soap opera watchers might remember her on Days of Our Lives as “Kayla Brady” from 1981 to 1983. In 1984, she would go on to star in two films that would become cult favorites, The Last Starfighter and Night of the Comet. Those two films really endear her to many '80s fans, but then she would also wrap up the decade co-starring in 1989’s Weekend at Bernie’s. You will find out about how she got her start and much more about her memories from those classic '80s films as we get on to some selections from my interview with Catherine Mary Stewart…
Q: I read that you had been a dancer before becoming an actor. When and how did you change directions into acting? At what point did you decide that acting/performing would become your career? From there, how did you go about pursuing that career?
Catherine: I started in Edmonton, Canada as a dancer and began serious training at 14. At 16, I was a member of a jazz dance company called “Synergy”. The first time I performed on stage professionally, I knew on a visceral level that performing is what I wanted/needed to do. When I graduated from high school I traveled to London, England to study at a performing arts school focusing on dance and including acting and singing.
One day on my way to class, I bumped into a couple of classmates headed to an audition that they had heard about for a movie that needed dancers. I decided to tag along. As it turned out, it was for a “futuristic rock musical” called 'The Apple'. I was completely unprepared for the singing/acting part, as you were supposed to have something ready to perform for the director and producer, but I could dance. Surprisingly, the director pulled me from the dance audition and asked me to sing a song from the movie and read from the script for the lead female character. I ended up with the part and thus began my career as an actress! After shooting 'The Apple' and armed with a lead role credit on my resume, I headed to Los Angeles to test the Hollywood waters.
Q: How did the role of “Maggie Gordon” in 1984’s The Last Starfighter come your way? What were your expectations of the film and role when you first began?
Catherine: I was a regular on Days of Our Lives when the audition for 'The Last Starfighter' came along. I auditioned for it and for the callback was coupled with Lance Guest. We instantly liked each other and apparently worked well together and were cast. Fortunately 'The Last Starfighter' shot at night and 'Days of Our Lives' shot during the day, so I managed to do both.
I don’t remember having specific expectations of 'The Last Starfighter', in terms of its success. I know that I liked the script a lot and Nick Castle, the director, and everyone involved were so positive and passionate about the project and you really felt that on the set. It was truly a wonderful experience. I remember seeing it for the first time on screen and getting caught up in the story and forgetting that I was actually in it, so I suppose that’s a good sign.
The Last Starfighter is a science fiction adventure about a teenage boy (“Alex Rogan” played by Lance Guest) recruited by aliens to help them fight an interstellar war because of his skills playing a particular video arcade game. While he is gone, an android is left in his place, which adds some comic relief to the film. Stewart plays Alex’s girlfriend “Maggie”. It also starred Robert Preston in what would be his final film role. The movie was released in July of 1984 and would be successful grossing over $28 million, but has gone to even gain popularity as a cult classic. Here is the original trailer for The Last Starfighter…
Q: What other memories do you have of making this Sci-Fi favorite?
Catherine: I remember being excited to go to work each night. There is a lot of “down time” when you’re shooting movies and I remember spending a lot of time in my “honey wagon” (very small dressing room), trying to rest but being too excited to. I remember the coldest part of the night was just before the sun rose. I remember the wonderful actors in the trailer park, many of whom have now passed, and the upbeat, supportive feeling on the set. It was a special time for me.
Q: The film was directed by Nick Castle who had played “Michael Myers” in the 1978 original Halloween and co-wrote 1981’s Escape from New York. What do you remember about your experience working with Castle?
Catherine: Nick is like a big kid, even to this day. I saw him recently and he hasn’t changed at all! 'The Last Starfighter' was his baby, so his enthusiasm permeated the set, and he treated us like gold. He’s been trying to get a sequel made for some time that would involve Lance and I and the next generation. It’s a wonderful idea! Let’s get the message out that there are tons of “Starfighter” fans that would love to see that happen!
Q: What can you tell us about your co-star Lance Guest and your experience working with him?
Catherine: Lance and I are still good friends. In fact, he is now living in New York where I’m living, and doing a hugely successful play on Broadway called 'Million Dollar Quartet.' It’s absolutely fantastic! Anyone visiting New York must go see it. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in 'The Last Starfighter.' He was passionate about this role and challenged me to be a better actress opposite him. I love Lance!
Q: What were your feelings about it when the film was released in 1984? Were you proud of your performance and what you helped create? What changed for you personally after the success of the film?
Catherine: As I said earlier, I could separate myself from the film when I watched it, which is not easy when you’re so big on the screen. I figured that was a good sign.
I think 'The Last Starfighter' definitely helped establish me in L.A. A friend called me one time and said she was auditioning for a role that was described as a “Catherine Mary Stewart type”… We had a good laugh over that. We thought it would be funny if I went in and auditioned for it. What if I didn’t get it…?
Q: What are your feelings about The Last Starfighter now over 25 years later?
Catherine: I think it’s such a lovely, inspiring story. You really get to know and empathize with the characters. I think kids are able to relate to them because they are ordinary kids. They just happen to be in an extraordinary situation. The message is inspiring and relatable to young people as opposed to just trying to over stimulate their senses at every turn. I think it’s a timeless message.
Q: Also in 1984, you starred as “Reggie Belmont” in Night of the Comet. How did that role come your way?
Catherine: Again, I auditioned for the film. This was before 'The Last Starfighter' was out, so I didn’t have a whole lot of clout. I remember at the callback for Night of the Comet, I was paired with another actress as my sister, and Kelli Maroney was paired with a different actress auditioning for the role of “Reggie”. We were paired with actresses that looked more physically like us, but we ended up together. It’s funny how that can happen.
Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be one of the last people on earth? In Night of the Comet, most of the world has been wiped out by a comet except for a select few. Stewart plays “Reggie”, a rebellious tomboy, who is one that survived and now has to battle zombies and others to help save the planet. The film was a moderate financial success, but again has grown into an incredible cult classic over the years. Here is the original trailer for Night of the Comet…
Q: What drew you to that character? What were your original thoughts on the subject matter? What memories do you have of making this film?
Catherine: I was attracted to Night of the Comet because I loved the character of “Reggie”. It was and still is unusual to find lead, powerful female characters to play. I also thought it was a unique script. It was scary with a twist, very tongue in cheek. I shouldn’t really speak for him, but I think for Thom Eberhardt, who wrote and directed Night of the Comet, it was a kind of salute to the old horror genre films.
“Reggie” was a nice departure from the “Maggie” character for me. I had so much fun playing the tough, independent teenager, shooting Mac 10’s and fighting zombies. “Reggie” is probably closer to who I really am. The shoot was bare bones in terms of budget so there was a real collaboration amongst everyone that worked on it. We were asked to shoot at some strange times and in odd places at times, but we were all in it together. There was some discussion on whether or not it would be a serious horror movie or stick with Thom’s original vision, so we shot some scenes two different ways. Fortunately, in my mind, Thom’s vision prevailed.
Q: What were your feelings about the final version of Night of the Comet when it was released in 1984? What are your feelings about it now over 25 years later?
Catherine: I think it’s great and camp and I’m proud of it. I’ve had lots of women come up to me and tell how much they loved it as a kid and how it influenced them in some way. Again, I think it’s a character driven fantasy that illustrates that women/girls can be powerful and independent. We don’t see that very often. LOTS of guys loved it to, which only goes to prove that these kinds of characters work across the board. I’m proud of it.
Q: 1989’s Weekend at Bernie’s has always been an under-rated comedy favorite of mine. How did the role of “Gwen Saunders” come your way? What were your original thoughts on this unusual script when you first read it?
Catherine: I hate to sound redundant here, but I auditioned for it. This time, however, my first read was with Jonathon Silverman who was already cast. I remember coming out of the audition thinking I’d blown it completely and called my manager railing about what a mess I’d made of it. To my surprise I was cast as “Gwen”.
Honestly, I thought it was a little silly. I didn’t get the sophomoric, guy humor. I thought the scene where poor Bernie was dragged behind the boat banging into buoys was horrifying! Boy was I wrong! For most people I’ve talked to, that’s their favorite scene.
In case you don’t remember, Weekend at Bernie’s stars Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman as two guys who find their boss deceased at his fabulous beach house and, believing that they are responsible for his death and that a hitman won’t kill them if “Bernie” is around, they attempt to convince people that he is still alive. Stewart plays another co-worker who becomes the romantic interest of Silverman’s character. Despite the morose subject matter, the film was very successful in theaters and even had a 1993 sequel. Also similar to her first two films, Weekend at Bernie’s has developed into sort of a cult classic. Here is the original trailer for Weekend at Bernie’s…
Q: Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman were the stars of the film. They really had good chemistry together and both displayed some fine comedic timing. What do you remember about working with McCarthy and Silverman?
Catherine: Jonathan was an absolute sweetie. We had a lot of fun and he was always really kind to me. I saw him about a year ago and he was just the same. Andrew kept more to himself. I didn’t get to know him very well but he’s hilarious in the movie and such a talented actor.
Q: The film was directed by the great Ted Kotcheff. What can you tell us about Kotcheff and your experience working for him?
Catherine: Ted, a fellow Canadian, was terrific. He can be a bear, but I mean that in the best way. Mostly a “teddy”.
Q: Any interesting stories about making Weekend at Bernie’s that you can share with us?
Catherine: I remember watching Ted’s very pregnant wife walking up and down the beach while she was in labor during the shoot. Wow! That is one powerful woman. Then the message came that she was on her way to the hospital. Everything stopped and I’d never seen Ted move so fast to be with her. It was a beautiful thing.
Terry Kiser was a real trooper playing “Bernie”. When they were shooting the scene where the boys discover him at his desk and realize he’s dead, it was really Terry sitting there and he had to hold his breath while they shot the scene. Ted let the camera role after the scene had ended as a joke to see how long Terry could last. He slowly turned red and eventually gasped for breath. Everyone had a good laugh at his expense. Terry also suffered a back injury in the scene where he’s in the back of the boat bouncing up and down just before he went flying out. He bounced badly once and ouch!
We shot in North Carolina. We were supposed to be in the Hamptons on Long Island. The house we shot in was literally built from the ground up on the beach, including the swimming pool to make it look like it was in the exclusive destination. It was really cool!
Q: What were your feelings about the final version of Weekend at Bernie’s when it was released in 1989? Did you enjoy the comedy that you helped create? What are your feelings about it now over 20 years later?
Catherine: 'Weekend at Bernie’s' is a classic! It was even “Monica’s” favorite movie on Friends! Gotta love that! To this day it’s the most recognizable project I’ve been involved in.
Q: You worked with Kelly Preston and Jami Gertz in 1985’s Mischief. What do you remember about making that film (which was set in the '50s) and what can you tell us about working with those two young actresses?
Catherine: We had so much fun working on that movie. We were a just a bunch of kids having the time of our lives! Lots of in-jokes and high jinx on the set and off! I loved that it was a period piece. It was so much fun dressing up in the wardrobe and interpreting what I perceived a young girl of that era might be like.
Kelly Preston was the sweetest thing. I haven’t seen or spoken to her in years, but she seems the same. It must have been a challenge for her to play someone who was not necessarily likable. I was in awe of her style and her beauty. Jami Gertz was so funny in the film and to watch work. She is a true comedienne. Very talented.
Q: Then in 1987, you worked with Jon Cryer in Dudes. What can you tell us about this lesser known film and your experience working with Cryer?
Catherine: 'Dudes' was like a fantasy movie for me to do. I was a big fan of Westerns growing up and I always fantasized about galloping full out across the plains on horseback. I got to do that in 'Dudes' and as well as some serious gun play! I was a tough gal in this! Jon Cryer and Dan Roebuck were a pleasure to work with. Again, redundant, but so talented!! I’ve been so lucky with the people I’ve worked with.
Q: In 1991, you were in the Disney movie Perfect Harmony. You played the daughter of Darren McGavin who I am a huge fan of from his role in A Christmas Story. What can you tell us about Darren McGavin and your experience working with him?
Catherine: Well, what an honor. Darren McGavin is a legend! I’ve worked with so many legendary actors of that generation including Robert Mitchum, Karl Malden, Angie Dickinson, Anthony Hopkins, Rod Steiger (twice), Jean-Pierre Aumont, Celeste Holm, Fred Gwynne, Kevin McCarthy, Charles Bronson, etc. I mention them because so many of these amazing actors are gone and so is an era of actor that I am in awe of and learned so much from.
Q: Are there any '80s roles (TV or movies) that you auditioned for and did not get that would be surprising or particularly interesting especially looking back now?
Catherine: Well, ya! In retrospect, there are many projects that had I been involved with them, my path most likely would have changed dramatically. My life has been plenty surprising and interesting, so I have no second thoughts or complaints.
Q: After over three decades in the industry, from your perspective, how has it changed both for the good or bad?
Catherine: It certainly has changed!! While I was raising my children, I was less involved in the business. When I decided to jump back in, I certainly noticed how things had changed. It seems to be less personable, colder, more cut-throat in a way. It seems to me that there are huge productions with massive budgets that stick with uninteresting formula themes and hire huge stars in the hope that the combination will make tons of money.
On the other hand, I’ve been lucky to be involved in some smaller productions where the directors and producers are less jaded and the scripts are interesting to me. Sadly, there is very little money involved and making a living as an actor for me is challenging to say the least. The one thing that is encouraging is that smaller productions are getting some recognition, so hopefully the trend will shift.
Q: What role do you feel you get remembered most for? Do you still get recognized in public a lot? For which role do you get recognized most?
Catherine: There are different kinds of recognition. 'Days of Our Lives,' of course, had a huge following. A different and separate group would be sci-fi/horror genre fans that know me from 'Starfighter' and 'Comet.' Guys of a certain age, I would say are synonymous as fans with 'Bernie’s', and a lot of stuff I’ve done lately for Lifetime or Hallmark have a whole different fan base. I live in New York, so people give you a lot of space, but I do get the occasional nod here and there.
Q: Between 1993 and 1999 you did not have any acting roles that I could find. I assume this was the time when you were starting your family. How have your priorities changed since back in the '80s? How do you balance family and work now?
Catherine: I was focusing on my family to be sure. Certainly my priority is my family. I’m fortunate to be married to a man who is willing to take over if I’m on location. I have also spent some extended periods in L.A., but I will fly home often. The kids are older now, so it’s not as challenging.
Q: Have your children watched your early '80s movies like The Last Starfighter or Night of the Comet yet?
Catherine: A few years ago, both my children decided to have a sleepover with a bunch of their friends for their birthdays. They celebrated by “screening” some of my movies. It was totally their idea, but I can’t say that I wasn’t tickled. It was pretty cute, especially when the girls screamed at the scary bits during Comet.
Q: What has Catherine Mary Stewart been up to more recently? Both acting and otherwise? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?
Catherine: I feel like I’ve been busier than ever! It’s great and I’m trusting in the theory that work begets work. My ambition at this point is to produce and direct. That would be very interesting to me. Regret is a waste of energy. There is so much left to do!
I am delighted that Catherine took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. It was very cool to find out more about films like The Last Starfighter, Night of the Comet and Weekend at Bernie’s which I have found to be favorites to so many. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Catherine Mary Stewart for her contributions to '80s pop culture especially with her roles in those classic films and, even more, for going back to the '80s for a little while with us here as well.