Back to the Future’s Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker)

Future Perfect

Oct 21, 2015 Web Exclusive
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Claudia Wells couldn’t have landed a better film to make her big screen debut. As a young television actress, she was cast as Jennifer Parker, the girlfriend Marty McFly leaves behind in 1985 when he’s accidentally sent back in time in Back to the Future. It was a part that changed her life, and one that she’s still approach by fans about today.

We spoke to Claudia about her role in the classic movie, and about her involvement with Kids in the Spotlight, a non-profit organization which teaches foster children how to make their own movies. (For more, check out our full anniversary feature on Back to the Future in Under the Radar’s new fall issue.)

You’d done a lot of television before Back to the Future, but it looks like it was your first major film role. I’m curious how that jump was made – were you actively looking for film scripts, or had the producers of the film seen one of your TV parts and approached you for this?

Claudia Wells: You know, that’s a really good question and I’m not entirely sure how it came about. I’d auditioned for movies, but Back to the Future was the first movie I ever did, so it was a big jump, as you said.

I didn’t really have any thoughts one way or the other whether I might get this one – I just thought [the audition] was part of the process. My first audition was with Bob Gale, Bob Zemeckis, Neil Canton, Steven Spielberg, and Kathleen Kennedy. Everyone was in there. That was my only audition. I was in there for two and a half hours reading with a guy who was on his eleventh callback for the role of Marty.

I got the role when Eric Stoltz was cast. We did a photo shoot together, and when he would call me at home he would ask to speak to Jennifer, because he was a very method actor. And then I found out a TV pilot I had shot the previous spring—Off the Rack with Ed Asner and Eileen Brennan—had been picked up. It was a Friday night show that was supposed to go at the same time as my Jennifer part in Back to the Future, and the network wasn’t willing to share me with Amblin. So, I actually had to back out of my part and they had to recast it because I was no longer available. And then after they recast it, the other girl never filmed—they’d shot other scenes for the next eight weeks. At that point, Michael J. Fox was brought in, and I was done with my seven or eight episodes of the TV series, and so I was brought back in. So, I got my part twice!

What was the audition itself like? Did you read blind?

I hadn’t been sent the script, and I didn’t really know anything about the part. The scene that I was given was the one where Marty and Lorraine are in the car, and she’s smoking and drinking during the dance. I did that scene so many times, and then Steven [Spielberg] was asking me so many personal questions. I remember I kept saying, “Promise me you won’t tell my mom, and I’ll answer them.” And then towards the end of the audition, he said, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize the camera was still rolling that whole time!” [Laughs] He’s a funny man.

Were you nervous? There were a lot of people in the room at your audition.

I was accustomed to that, because I did a pilot series every year, and in between I would do several guest starring roles on episodics and movies-of-the-week, after-school specials, stuff like that. So for me, at that point in my career, my first audition was usually with the top executives, because all of the casting directors already knew me at that point.

I had a callback for a commercial that afternoon, which would have been after my Back to the Future audition. I was more nervous about the commercial audition than I was the Back to the Future audition, because I was more accustomed to that kind of auditioning. So, really, it all came as a great big gift from God. It was just amazing. And the fact that all these years later that I get to be the Jennifer who travels the world and gets to do these interviews—that’s just a huge aspect of my current life. I just can’t be more honored or excited about it. I just have a love for Back to the Future and all of the people involved with it—I love them with all of my heart.

Once you landed the role and were given a script, do you recall your reaction to it?

Oh, yeah. When I was finally given a script, Bob Gale told me that each page had a secret number where if the script was ever Xeroxed, that number would come out really bright and everyone would know whose script wound up in someone else’s hands. It wasn’t until about a year or two ago when we were on a panel discussion and I mentioned that, when Bob looked at me and said, “Did you actually believe that?” [Laughs] I was like, “Yeah, I did!”

When I did read the script, I had a full two pages of questions.… “If he’s here then, and then later he’s there…” and things like that, just so it would all make sense in my head. I called Bob with all of these questions, and he’d answer them, but sometimes he’d say, “You know, you shouldn’t think about it that much. Just do it.” [Laughs] I just have so much love for all of them … for that to be the first part that I actually got, I couldn’t ask for better.

So, you had to back out because of a TV commitment, but were able to come back when Michael J. Fox was brought in. Was that an emotional roller coaster for you? Landing your first big role, then being told you couldn’t do it?

It wasn’t at all. I remember being in our apartment in Beverly Hills, and my mom came in and said, “Claudia, you’ve now been released from the movie.” And I just said, “Okay.” I just remember being very calm and relaxed. Somehow in my being, I knew that fate was in charge. And then when it worked out the way it did, I wasn’t shocked or excited. I always knew somehow or in some way that this would work out in the end. I had a real peace about the whole situation. It just felt right.

When you joined back up, everyone except for you and Michael had already been shooting for several weeks. Did you have any time for rehearsal?

No. We rehearsed on set before we did each scene. What’s interesting was that I was used to doing 24 pages of dialogue a day, because that’s what I’d gotten used to with my TV experience. So, to do half a scene all day long was very unusual for me. I felt like I should be doing more. It was very relaxed, and that was all new to me.

I knew Michael was a big deal from Family Ties, but I didn’t know anything about anyone else on set, except Steven Spielberg. All I could think was, “Wow, I’m on a Steven Spielberg set.” And I didn’t see Steven! I saw him at the two-and-a-half hour audition, and that’s the last I ever saw of him. [Laughs] So that was my Steven Spielberg experience. I’d still like to go have lunch with him and say, “By the way, Steven, I really love acting again.” You can quote me on that one!

The shoot had to move pretty fast once they brought you and Michael in midway into filming. You mentioned that you were pretty relaxed, but what about everyone else? What was the overall vibe like?

It was very peaceful and relaxed! Michael and I would hang out in the BMW in the driveway and just listen to music. It was a relaxed, easygoing experience. There was only one time where I remember stress and that was when it was the clock tower scene, and there were so many things that had to be perfect at the same time. The girls doing their aerobics, and all of those pan shots—that was all one scene. That was the only time there was stress on set, but it wasn’t with us. It was with the technical guys wanting it to be absolutely perfect. Other than that, I never noticed anyone stressed ever, on any level.

My thought process wasn’t about what the movie was going to be like when it came out. My thought process was that I was an actress on set, and I was going to do the best job that I can. I never really thought about after all of that, other than “Oh, no!” Because when you do television, it’s over after it airs. I remember thinking, “This movie is going to be shown all day every day, all over the world. I sure hope I do a good job!” [Laughs]

Do you look back at any particular scene as being the most fun you had on set?

I would say my favorite memory – I never really had a boyfriend in high school, or any of that. I was mostly filming or working. So when Michael and I were walking and he’d stick his hand in my back pocket like a boyfriend-girlfriend did, I just felt like I’d reached the pinnacle of, “Wow, this must be what it’s like to be a girlfriend!” [Laughs] Because I’d never really experienced that normal life experience that everyone else by the age of 18 had experienced. To me, that was very specials.

And, you know, hanging out in the car and listening to the radio stations that he chose. I grew up listening to opera, and symphony, and he was playing all of the popular music of the day, and for me all of it was brand new. So, it’s just those simple things that meant a lot to me. Not necessarily things that I ever thought would.

Even now, I hear some of these guys who say, “Oh, you were my dream girlfriend,” or “I went to the movies that night with my girlfriend and broke up with her after, because she wasn’t as nice as you.” All of these different stories I hear, and I think, “At the time, I didn’t even have a boyfriend!”

You mentioned that Bob Gale answered all of the character and story questions you had early on. It sounds like he made himself very accessible to actors.

I’ll say one thing about Bob Gale: he made himself completely accessible from the very beginning. We just connected. He was the one I called, and he took my calls and answered my questions. We’ve kept in touch … to this day, I always e-mail him every trip I take. I’ve been blessed enough to travel the world and continue to, and only because of Back to the Future’s popularity. I’m always e-mailing him and saying, “I’m going on a trip next week. Thank you, thank you, thank you for casting me.” I’ve been doing that for years.

He always tells me the truth. My inner circle of friends I most look up to are the ones who always tell me the straight-up truth, good or bad. I can count on their integrity. Bob has a lot of integrity, and he’s full of honesty. I saw him at an event a couple of years ago—I’d always wanted to try being blonde, and the first thing he said to me when he saw it was, “Your hair looks terrible. Change it.” I thought, “Okay, that hurt. However: he’s right.” [Laughs] So for years after that when I’ve seen him, I’m always like, “How’s my hair cut? Is the color okay?” … He’ll be my friend to the day I die.

Do you recall your reaction when you got to see the finished movie?

Yes, completely. It was at the screening, and I was nervous, nervous, nervous. I’d never seen myself on huge screen, just TV screens. I went with one of my best friends at the time, and he said I squeezed his hand so tightly he wanted to yell but he couldn’t because we were in a dark theater. One of my favorite things that I was so excited about in the movie was when they filled the whole screen with the clock tower flyer. It was my handwriting, the “I love you, 555-4823.” I learned cursive only in elementary school—it was a private French school any they never taught us normal writing, only cursive. When I saw my handwriting on the screen, I was so excited. I thought, “Wow, if I had known, I would have written it much more carefully!”

The reaction that everyone had to the movie made me happy. It was such a good movie, I was into it like everyone else was. I saw it again recently at the Hollywood Bowl when they did the philharmonic performance, and I hadn’t seen it in so long that watching it again I was having as much fun as everyone else was.

Nowadays it’s a true classic, but it was successful from the get-go when it was released. What did that do to your level of fame? Were people recognizing you on the street?

Once Back to the Future came out, there was a slight change but not a big change. It wasn’t very noticeable to me, personally, until years and years later. It grew and grew and grew as the years went by, and now it’s more than ever. I’ve got fans from all over the world coming into my store in Studio City [Armani Wells] on a daily basis. Today it was France, yesterday it was the Netherlands, the day before that Italy. They just know that’s where they can find me. So it’s today that I’m noticing it more than ever before, and that’s incredible.

You didn’t return for the sequels, but you had a good reason for turning them down. [Wells stopped acting to care for an ailing family member.] Did you go to see the sequels? Were you still interested in watching how the story played out?

I was! When I saw it, I went all by myself to the movie theater. I got my popcorn and I slumped down in my seat and I watched the movie. It was an odd experience, because I was like, “Wow, yep, that’s the movie I’m not in!” [Laughs] But I knew that it was my choice and decision, and it was a decision that [the filmmakers] honored.

I saw Part II in the theaters, and I saw Part III in the theaters. Both times I went by myself and slumped down in the seat and watched the movie with everyone else. It’s funny that Elizabeth Shue got the part, because I’d screen tested for Adventures in Babysitting. That role had come down between her, me, and Phoebe Cates. So, the fact that she wound up getting my role in Back to the Future is a funny synchronicity.

Almost every movie in the 1980s came down between the three of us and Sarah Jessica Parker. It was the same group, no matter how many people auditioned, it was almost always the same people it came down to, just switching up who got it. Phoebe Cates got Gremlins, and then I got Phoebe Cates’ role, Linda Barret, in Fast Times [the TV series]. So, literally, it was a very small group of people that got most of the parts.

There was one audition one morning where Sarah Jessica Parker and I were trying for the lead in a movie, and then that afternoon it was between the two of us for the starring role in Martin Sheen’s directorial debut, Babies Having Babies. When I saw Sarah again that afternoon, I went to her and said, “Sarah, let’s make a deal. You get one part, and I’ll get the other. Let’s shake on it.” [Laughs] As if we had any power. So we shook on it, and she got the morning part, and I got the afternoon part.  

You’re a board member for the non-profit organization Kids in the Spotlight, which teaches inner-city youth to write and direct their own short films. It sounds like a fantastic program. How did you get involved?

A friend of mine from church called me one day and said she’d been up since 3:30 AM crying. Her heart was going out to foster kids who just get lost in the world and lost in the system, by none of their own doing. She came up with this idea: let’s go to the foster care facilities and make movies with them. So the board of directors started with the founder, Tige Charity, me, and two or three other girlfriends that she had. That was six or seven years ago, and now we’ve grown.

The whole deal is that we go in to foster care facilities, and we bring them a 10-week program where we teach them how to write a script. We try to teach them that they were made for a special purpose, and there’s a reason that they’re here and that there’s a future for them. We give them a creative outlet. And then after a 10-week course, we film what they’ve written and they’ve cast. We bring in actors—I played the mom in a film about a year ago—and we bring in professional directors and producers, and then at the end of the year we have a ceremony where we dress them up and do their hair and makeup, and bring them to Beverly Hills, where we screen their films and give out awards.

The whole point is to honor these kids, and give them a reason for being … It gives them a sense of purpose and belonging, and a whole outlook of different careers they can look at doing. We hope it can change their lives.

It sounds amazing. Have any of the kids you worked with recognized you from Back to the Future?

Oh, yes! When I went on set to play the mom, these kids were so excited. “The girl from Back to the Future is in it!”

You can see the same excitement [about Back to the Future] and pink, rosy cheeks from the young ones to their grandparents. You get the same response from every generation; it’s that same joy. One of the great blessings from having been in the movie is the joy I see in other people.  

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For more on Back to the Future, check out our anniversary feature with Claudia, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and writer Bob Gale in Under the Radar #55, on stands this fall. (Click here to read our other online Q&As.)

For more on Claudia Wells, head to her personal website. You can learn more about Kids in the Spotlight’s outreach here.

The Back to the Future trilogy is available in a new, deluxe 30th anniversary Blu-ray collection. Head to the series’ website for further anniversary celebrations.



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