Lea Thompson is three minutes late for our interview. She’s a bit frazzled after a long day of doing press, but she’s still the shining, brilliant actress you fell in love with so many times.
The reason she’s so busy today — and the reason she’s sitting down with me — is that her directorial debut is finally seeing its theatrical release and she’s covering all her bases when it comes to publicity. The Year of Spectacular Men — a project written and starring her daughter, Madelyn Deutch; also starring her daughter, Zoey Deutch; and produced by her husband, Howard Deutch — isn’t the first production Thompson’s helmed, but it is her first, full-length feature for the big screen. Perhaps the first of many.
When Alyssa Milano’s October 15, 2017, tweet entered the zeitgeist, Lea Thompson said “me too.” In doing so, she opened herself up to the proverbial slings and arrows. Perhaps in a parallel fashion, she was among the first; the first of many. But looking at a shifting Hollywood landscape, one in which boys may no longer be excused as “being boys,” is there hope that some young actress may be the last victim of such a culture?
Lea, bubbly and effusive in her exhaustion, brings a frantic, eager joy to our conversation, the same that she doubtless brings with her to every set onto which she steps. She opens up about watching her daughters grow up into strong women, coming out of a shell in which she allowed others to diminish her, and reclaiming her power. Oh, and Howard the Duck too.
Here’s what she had to say.
Kevin Tall: Hey Lea, how are you doing today?
Lea Thompson: I am good. I’ve been talking a lot, so I’m sick of myself, but other than that… [laughs]
KT: I would think talking kinda comes as part of the job for what you do.
LT: It sure is, especially on a day like today when people are nice enough to take the time to help you get the word out, thank you.
KT: Well I definitely appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
LT: Where are you?
KT: I’m in Tampa, Florida.
KT: Tampa, Florida.
LT: Oh, I thought you said South Dakota. I was like ‘I’ve never done an interview with anyone from South Dakota.’
KT: Neither have I!
LT: I was just in Fort Lauderdale and I had the most wonderful time.
KT: Spring Break action?
LT: No, a bar mitzvah.
KT: So, ‘The Year of Spectacular Men’ is hitting theaters. This was your first feature-length project in the director’s chair. How does that feel?
LT: It was so great. It was just such a… really the greatest experience of my long career. Because it combined the two things I love most: directing and my family. [Laughs] I managed to combine them. I guess you could say acting as well. It was really great. I was lucky enough to direct some TV movies, so I kinda understood the long form, and I’ve directed a lot of episodic TV, but this is the first piece of work that I’ve been on the ground floor to create, like, on the ground floor creating with my daughter. It’s incredibly personal and gratifying to have it finally done and coming out.
KT: While it’s billed as a comedy/drama, production-wise it was very much a family affair.
LT: It was. We had incredible help from our producers, who got the money and managed to get all those crazy locations. Have you seen the movie or no?
KT: I haven’t yet, but I plan to.
LT: We had to shoot in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe, and New York City. We had to shoot in summer, fall, winter, and spring. So that was, like, an impossible thing to do in any movie, but extremely impossible to do with a very low budget. So my producers were really amazing in trying to figure that out, and our actors were super cool… We had to shut down and start again three times, so that was really nice, that the actors would put up with that. We had a big cast, we have six spectacular men and then we have Maddie, Zoey, Me and y’know, we have a big cast and that was hard to figure out and wrangle.
KT: Well, you have to expect that at least part of the cast is used to taking orders from you.
LT: [Laughs] Do you have kids?
KT: No, I do not.
LT: Well, it’s hard to get kids, especially grown-up women, to take orders from you. But we really do have a lot of respect for each other as artists and as people, so that went a long way in taking orders or giving orders. It’s very collaborative, even just writing a script. Working on developing a script with Maddie, that took years to just get the script in good shape. That was really collaborative, she was really open to my notes. That showed me that she was a real professional, a worthy professional. So we didn’t get into little, petty [snares] with each other at all.
KT: That’s good because there have been some rather historic clashes between writers and directors.
LT: Yes, and actors and directors and actors and writers…
KT: Nobody gets along, is the short version.
LT: [Laughs] Yes.
KT: Tell me about the film itself, story-wise.
LT: Well, the film is about the year you graduate from college. This young woman graduates from college and she doesn’t really know what to do with her life. She’s kind of looking to these guys to kind of, like, make her life have meaning and it just all turns into a disaster. And she moves in with her sister, who’s a movie star, and starts to be her assistant, and just really learns what life’s all about. During the movie, they kind of uncover a family secret that’s been haunting them both the whole time and kind of keeping them from being whole. So in the end, it’s a romantic comedy about sisterhood.
KT: Production for ‘The Year of Spectacular Men,’ this family affair, happened to line up exactly 30 years after you met your husband, Howard, while working on ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful.’ What does that mean to you?
LT: It’s really sweet. It’s amazing to be married or be with someone that long, but it’s also amazing that we’ve had two daughters who ended up in the same business, who wanted to be in the same business, as us. That we could all create something together is astonishing for me. It’s like, my life’s work. Together. Completed. Obviously, I’m a very big family person; I love my children, I love my husband. I love my family. So getting to work with all of them was the best. There were problems, trust me. And it was so much work, it’s been so much work, it still is so much work, just trying to get it out into the world since we don’t have a budget for TV ads or radio ads. We don’t have anything. Nothing. So we all have to go out and do interviews and do interviews together and do Q&As together so we’re still all together, which is my plan exactly! Trying to keep us all together.
KT: There you go. Touching back on ‘Some Kind of Wonderful,’ you worked with Eric Stoltz on that film. What was that like, after his notable exit from ‘Back to the Future,’ your previous project together. I know you guys had worked together before and were friends at the time.
LT: That was hard. It’s a real thing in this business. I did a pilot for Fox this year and apparently, every single Fox pilot, they fired an actor after the table read. [Laughs] They fire people all the time! It’s an unfortunate fact of our business, and a really difficult one. I love Eric. We both had movies at the Napa Film Festival this year, so Eric finally got to meet my daughters, which was really fun for me. He’d never met them. He’s such a great guy. So now we’re both directors, which is hilarious.
KT: Does your experience making ‘The Year of Spectacular Men’ give you any new appreciation for the other side of that relationship between actor and director?
LT: Yeah. I mean. The reason I love to direct is that, at a certain point, when you’ve been doing something for a really long time and you’re at a certain age, I feel like if you don’t teach, if you don’t try to give back, there’s something wrong. So I feel that way about directing. I kind of get to teach, I kind of get to give back all that has been given to me. I kind of get to use all the parts of the things that I’ve learned.
I feel like it’s just a natural progression and I really appreciate the opportunity to do it. I really learned a lot about movie making during this movie; because we had no budget, I had to learn how to do so many things along the way that you would never have to do directing TV. We had all these locations and no money.
I had to kind of help the set decorator, I had to make sure everything looked right. I had to work on all the songs. There are like, 50 locations and 40 songs. I had to find all this music that we could afford. I had to learn about sound and special effects, all these different things that I had to learn. And it’s so great to keep learning later in life. It’s so important to stay interested and to learn new things and to feel like you’re growing forward instead of sliding backward.
KT: And as part of that process of continuing to learn and also passing things on, you got to do so on this project with performers you actually birthed.
LT: [Laughs] I know. Yeah, it’s a crazy thing. It’s a really, really, really crazy thing and it’s a crazy thing to read the writing of your daughter, about her love life, how she views men and sex and rock n’ roll. It’s really an interesting thing, as a mother, to grow up and accept that your children are people; full-on people, women, with all the same kinds of wants and needs as you have. It’s a very interesting thing, and very necessary. So I don’t know. It’s just been a real journey, a real learning journey, and I think, between my two daughters, it’s been a real exploration because some of the things are true. Like, my daughter, Madelyn, came home from college and all of a sudden her little sister was a movie star. So she had to put that into the movie too, like, what is that like? To come home and what happened? ‘My little sister is making all this money and she’s so famous and how does that happen?’ It’s slightly autobiographical, which is interesting.
KT: I can’t think of a better answer to lead into my next question, which was originally kind of a throwaway. As a mom, what was it like seeing Zoey cozying up with James Franco in ‘Why Him?’ assuming you’ve seen it?
LT: I have seen it. I think I’ll not talk about that [laughs].
KT: Fair enough. Is that a function of the suspension of disbelief or just ‘ehh…. I’ll pass’?
LT: I’ll just pass on that particular thing. I mean, I don’t have any problems… [Flustered] I like that movie. I thought it was funny. I thought she was really funny. I thought James Franco was really funny. The love scenes in my movie with Madelyn are much more, you know, crazy, wild, you know, difficult to deal with, the ones I had to direct.
Zoey’s such a good actress, I love everything that she does. Her movie, ‘Flower,’ that just came out was really amazing. And that movie was crazy. But I just see them as… sometimes I cringe a little bit. They cringe more about me; they hate watching me kiss other guys on screen still. They hated it when they were kids and they hate it now. They used to cry, all the time.
KT: So it’s ‘turnabout is fair play,’ to some degree.
KT: Alright. Bear with me on this next one. As someone who’s found love in the industry, I think you can offer a unique perspective on the culture in Hollywood. I know you tweeted “Me too” last October when the movement began. Is that something you’re comfortable elaborating on or addressing as someone with two daughters in the industry?
LT: I don’t know what their experience is. I think that they’re completely different from me.
KT: Let’s stick to your experience, assuming you’re comfortable talking about it.
LT: It’s so weird, because… I heard someone talk, this was amazing to me. This woman was talking about waitressing, which is a huge, entry-level job, the first job that a lot of young women get. Working at Applebee’s, working at Perkins. They don’t pay you anything, they pay you like $2 an hour or something like that and you’re supposed to make it up in tips, right? So the first thing you learn is that, in order to survive, you have to actually encourage sexual harassment or at least not discourage it. Because then the guys are like ‘You’re so cute, oh my god,’ and whatever horrible things they say to you, or grab you, or touch you, or look at you, or leer at you and then they’re going to give you a bigger tip. So then you just learn to go ‘Aha ha ha, aha, ha,’ and walk away. So that’s what you learn. And that was one of my first jobs, was in food service. So you kind of learn that that’s just how you have to be to make a living; you just have to put up with it. And her argument was that they should pay a minimum wage to waitresses so that they don’t have to deal with it. And so I had that… that’s how I started; I started as a waitress. Well, first I started as a ballet dancer, then I was a waitress for a long time. And then, when I started in the movie business, I just kind of accepted that that was the way it was; that you had to just put up with that kind of behavior.
When the #MeToo thing started, I think all women started to think back to the stuff that they’d just thought was normal or OK. Now, my daughters, I was always astonished, because they would be like ‘What are you talking about?’ if someone did something like that to them. Like ‘How dare you talk to me like that? Get your hand off me.’ They’re very strong. Like they live in a different culture; I was always so impressed with that.
I never had a thing with [Harvey] Weinstein or anything like that, but I have had things, where people were basically just trying to take my power away from me by flirting with me in a way that made me feel belittled and less than and objectified. I spent a lot of time like that, and I feel like I’m really, honestly, just coming out of that, by feeling like I have a voice. I can say no. I can stand here and go ‘Hey, I deserve to be heard. I’m qualified. I’m smart enough. I work hard enough.’ I spent a lot of time diminishing myself in order to make my life a little bit easier. For me, that’s what I feel. And of course there are terrible things that happened to me, like everybody, like every young woman, I think, unfortunately, but nothing that totally traumatized me.
How it did traumatize me was I learned to not take myself seriously, and that’s actually really brutal. I’m just getting out of that and my kids, actually, are helping me come out of that. They’re really reminding me that I don’t have to do that. Does that make any sense to you?
KT: Absolutely, 100 percent.
LT: OK, Like I said, I’ve been talking a lot.
KT: Speaking from that point of view, what do you see on the horizon, given the way the landscape seems to be shifting?
LT: Like any minority, you’re always afraid when the pendulum swings one way, that it’s going to swing back even harder and hit you in the face. I think that women can be their worst enemies, so that’s worrisome too, to me, because people can take things too far.
I work on comedy sets a lot and there’s a lot of joking that goes on. It’s fun and it’s how you loosen up and it’s just how it is. If we have to watch every single word that we say from now on, I don’t know how you can continue to be funny, especially when you’re dealing with true-to-life subjects and real people, and the gray areas that are created naturally in the world and between people. And I think sex is incredibly complicated, so I just hope that everybody’s careful and I wish that everybody could be, just, decent and kind and if they upset someone, that they can say [they’re] sorry and be big people about it. I worry that things can swing too far but I do think that, in all businesses, there is a culture of sexual harassment and a culture of putting women down and I hope that that ends.
I just saw this Warren Buffett documentary and he was talking about how lucky he was to be born in America and to be born white and to be born a man, and that, just by being [those things] he had the numbers, like a 95 percent chance of being more successful. And he said ‘My sisters were just as smart as me, but they were forced to be one thing,’ and he said ‘This country is so rich, with so many bright people, to hold half of them down is terrible,’ and he said ‘I see such beautiful things for the future, when women are going to be allowed to use their energy and influence to make things better.’ That was beautiful to me, that such a great man could say something like that and stand up for women and people of color that way.
I think that this world will be a better place if everyone is allowed to blossom to their full potential… I think it’s just better when people are allowed to be themselves.
KT: Switching gears for a bit, some people may not realize you’re a genuine triple-threat performer. Obviously, you can act, and you did Season 19 of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ — how did Tommy Chong outlast you, by the way? — and you also sang on the ‘Howard the Duck’ soundtrack.
LT: Yes. True story. 100 percent true. Yes, I have a lot of threats. I can sing, I can dance — or, I used to be able to dance. I’m a little long in the tooth for the dancing part, but that’s the beautiful thing about directing. I feel like I can use all this crazy stuff that I’ve learned. As a dancer, singer and an actor, not only have I done all those things, but I’ve done them in all different styles. Like, I did modern dance and ballet. I can sing opera, kind of pretty good, and I can sing jazz and country western. I can act in sitcoms and dramas. I’ve had this beautiful education. I mean, it’s spectacular. So I can use all of that when I’m directing, which is great. It’s great to feel you can use all that you’ve learned.
KT: On the topic of Cherry Bomb, do you ever fake consider an imaginary reunion with your fictional band?
LT: [Laughs] That would be awesome. You know, ‘Howard the Duck’ is so beloved, for being so maligned. I go to conventions, I go to do ‘Back to the Future’ panels with Michael Fox and Chris Lloyd and Tom Wilson. I sit there and I meet the fans, and a good one-third of them say ‘I am the only person who liked ‘Howard the Duck.” It’s hilarious. And then they keep making new Blu-rays for it. I just wish that ‘Howard the Duck’…
I love Howard the Duck, the person. I love the duck. I loved the duck in the movie; maybe I took my part too far and now I still love the duck. I wish that he had his due because I don’t think they had the technology to do ‘Howard the Duck’ well. So I hope that Marvel does do another ‘Howard the Duck,’ and does him proud.
KT: I’m not going to lie, I pulled up ‘Hunger City’ from the soundtrack on YouTube and listened to it on repeat while I was writing my interview questions. I’m not ashamed to admit that.
LT: It’s a good song! That’s Thomas Dolby. I learned how to sing, I have to say, I learned how to sing a lot better after that. In my 40s, late 30s, I really learned how to sing.
KT: Speaking of ‘Howard the Duck,’ I know you lent your lovely likeness to the comic a couple of years ago, but since he, Howard himself is breaking back into the Marvel Universe in a few cameos, are we going to see Lea Thompson going there any time soon?
LT: Oh my god, from your lips to God’s ears. I don’t know. To tell you the actual truth, I am going to Marvel to pitch ‘Howard the Duck,’ a new movie.
LT: In like three weeks. I want to direct the ‘Howard the Duck’ remake [laughs]. Why not dream big, right?
LT: I’m into it.
KT: Are there any comic characters you could see yourself portraying?
LT: I don’t think… do they allow women to be over 30 in a comic book [adaptation]?
KT: I mean, he’s not a woman, but Paul Rudd was Ant-Man, how old is he these days?
LT: Yeah, I know, but he’s a man, dude, like, women disappear. Men are still sexy at 900-years-old. Yeah, I don’t know. I think that Marvel has done a really good job with getting women parts. I really appreciate that they’re…
Considering that they’re pretty much the movie business right now, I’m super happy that they’re giving a lot of women jobs; I really admire them for that and I think it’s smart. Maybe the next thing is women over 45. Maybe they’ll start giving some women over 45 who have no jobs in movies…
KT: I tell you what, when you’re with Marvel, just tell them that this really brilliant guy who interviewed you said that you would be the perfect Squirrel Girl. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the property, but that’s A-1 casting.
LT: Squirrel Girl?
KT: Squirrel Girl.
LT: Alright, I’ll tell them that! Squirrel Girl! You are, actually, a great interviewer. I mean, I really appreciate that you ask such good questions and you’ve done so much research. I honestly really appreciate it.
KT: Well, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t at least somewhat knowledgeable about what you’ve got going on. This is what I live for; this is what I do.
LT: You would be surprised at the people that interview me; it’s just scary. They just don’t even ask… they just don’t even… I’m always amazed at, like, you’re in front of your computer, open up IMDb at least, you know? [Laughs] It’s crazy. So thank you, you’re really so lovely.
KT: Aww. I’m not going to stop smiling today.
LT: I really appreciate you talking to me. Thank you, I really appreciate talking to you. Say hi to Tampa for me, OK?
KT: Alright, thanks Lea. Take care.
The Year of Spectacular Men hits theaters Friday, June 15.