Interview: Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly) | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly)

Looking Back (at Back to the Future)

Oct 21, 2015 Web Exclusive
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Although she starred in more than her fair share of ‘80s classics—including Red Dawn and Some Kind of Wonderful—Lea Thompson is probably best known for her part as Marty McFly’s mother, Lorraine, in Back to the Future. She showed her broad range as young actress by playing multiple versions of that character in the film—including the prudish, alcoholic middle-aged woman in the movie’s 1985 timeline, and the rebellious teenager who unknowingly falls for her own son in BTTF’s version of 1955. (After the first movie’s success, Thompson returned to the sequels to play even further variations of the McFly family matriarch at various points in history.)

We chatted with Lea Thompson about her most iconic role in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary. (For more, check out our full feature on Back to the Future in Under the Radar’s fall issue.)

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: I was watching the original Making Of feature, which had interviews that look like they were shot on set of the film. The cast is asked about where they’d want to go if they had a time machine, and your answer at the time was “the future.” Would your answer to that question be the same now, or has it changed?

Lea Thompson: I don’t know! I always have a hard time with that question … Probably not [the future] any more, because then I’d be really old or dead. So maybe back to when I was a little kid, just like in Back to the Future.

This part came to you early in your career. I know you’d done a few features earlier on, but had Red Dawn even come out in theaters yet when you were auditioning for this role?

Hmmmm. I don’t think so.

I believe I read somewhere that the producers saw you when they were scouting Eric Stoltz in The Wild Life

Yes, definitely. I was doing The Wild Life and they were looking at him when they saw me.

Do you recall a few of the specific things that really excited you about the character or the story?

It was a great script! [Laughs] I mean, it was a great part, getting to play all of those different characters. It was such an amazing opportunity to get to show off as an actor, and the script was great. It was funny and it was subversive. I mean, my character was pretty subversive.

I was really fascinated with the 1950s, and the propaganda that women were told because they were trying to get them back out of the work force after World War II. There was all this weird propaganda, like “you just need a better blender and you’ll be a better person” and “you need to take care of your man.” All that stuff was going on at the time, which was really odd. It was a fascinating time for history, and the history of women. The sexual politics of the time were really interesting to me. 

Were you nervous at your audition? I know Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Bob Gale were all there. I imagine that could have been pretty nerve-wracking for a young actress.

I don’t remember it being nerve-wracking! I remember how warm they all were. It was actually kind of dimly-lit. I just remember how much fun we had. I know I must have been pretty nervous, but they put me at ease. Maybe I already had the part? I don’t know. They were very kind, and I remember them making me feel very relaxed about the whole thing. I don’t know why! [Laughs] Usually auditions aren’t like that.

Robert Zemeckis was relatively early in his career, then, too – he had made a few films, but was coming off his first real hit [Romancing the Stone]. What was he like as a director on Back to the Future?

Well, he was very, very prepared. Very sure of what he wanted. But he was also into coming up with new inspiration as we shot. They kept re-writing and re-writing and changing things and adding things, and that was cool. I like it when filmmakers are still inspired and have the confidence to go with their instincts, and that’s what it really felt like.

Screenwriter Bob Gale stayed pretty closely involved once production was underway. Did you ever discuss your character with him, or were you mostly working with Zemeckis at that point? 

You know, I don’t think Bob Zemeckis is a super, like, fuzzy actor’s director. Especially at that time. We weren’t really discussing my character; it was my job to come up with that, and it was in the writing. There was no sitting around a campfire and talking about what the characters had for breakfast, or stuff like that. And it was also a comedy, so there were very specific beats that needed to be hit along the way. The precision of that was really important.

You’ve talked about some of the research you did to get into the character of a 1950s teenager, looking at propaganda and advertisements, listening to music, and such, which is really neat. Were there any older adults you talked to who lived through that time period?

Maybe a little bit. But a lot of my research was reading—I had stacks of magazines from the time, and I carried coins from that time. I wore the right type of lipstick. I was really a stickler about the hair and makeup. How many times have you seen movies where someone won’t wear the exact right hair or makeup of the time? It’s really stupid, in my opinion. I cut my hair—which I didn’t like—so that it was right, and I made sure there were no streaks in it, because people didn’t highlight their hair at the time. I hate when I see a period movie and people have highlights in their hair. It’s like, “Come on! Really?” Work for it!

So I was a real stickler about the makeup and wardrobe. I didn’t wear mascara because people didn’t wear much mascara back then. And I read a lot of magazines and listened to the music. I hummed “Mr. Sandman” before every single take. [Laughs] That’s how I got into the character of young Lorraine.

The makeup process for playing the older Lorraine looks like it was pretty grueling. Did wearing all of those prosthetics make it harder to act, or was it easier to get into the older character?

I’d say it’s probably both. I think that would come under the headings of both easier and more difficult, because when you look different you feel different. I think that helps you get into character more, looking different. But it’s also physically annoying, and grueling, and it makes you anxious. It made me anxious! The makeup was very hard to get off, and it itched, and felt really tight. You feel a lot heavier when you’re wearing it. [Laughs] But when you look a different way, people treat you a different way. That’s a very sad truth about the modern world, but that helps you act.

But, I did enjoy that. It’s a great part, and it’s a great movie to be mostly known for in my career, so I feel really grateful for that.

You were only a few years older than the young Lorraine when you played her. Were you able to pull from any of your personal experiences as a teenager?

You know, I would say I was pretty different than Lorraine, so no. [Laughs] Lorrain McFly was a completely created character in my mind. I grew up in the 1970s, in a completely different mindset than she was; that kind of super horny virgin, pretty overt and, you know, repressed. None of that was what I grew up with—I was a modern dancer. So, yeah, she was a completely-not-me character. You pull certain parts from yourself, sure, but she bore absolutely no resemblance to me. That’s why I had to sing “Mr. Sandman” before every take, because it kept me in that kind of demented, fake innocence that I had to create for her. [Laughs]

Of course, you and Michael were fantastic together. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Lorraine and Marty are in the car together during the dance. You two kiss, and you can just see the light just suddenly go out in your eyes when she realizes that there’s something familiar about him. It’s a wonderful reversal.

Thank you. It was a mentally important moment. I remember how important it was, because you had to completely change—it was such an important plot point, and the audience had to believe in that change, and that I could immediately fall in love with Crispin. It’s rare that you have an incredibly short and small moment to make a giant change in the plot of a movie. That moment, and the moment that I think I’m proudest of: when I fall in love with Crispin when he gives me his hand, and I stand up. Those were really, really scary moments for the director, because the audience had to believe it and only the acting could do that for him. There were no special effects. Only the acting could convince the audience of that huge plot shift. So, I was proud of that. I’m really proud that I could pull that off.

Your chemistry with Crispin Glover was really great, too, especially in that moment.

It’s constructed brilliantly! As a director, the way he shot both of those scenes was pretty brilliant.

I’ve spoken to Crispin previously, about another film. He’s a strange and brilliant actor. Did the two of you do any preparation together to better understand your characters?

We did, actually. He’s an amazing actor, and he’s amazing in this movie. His most difficult moment was at the end of Back to the Future. He really didn’t like that our lives had changed, and that we’d become smug and rich, and that was how we were going to show that we had a better life. He really hated that scene, and I think he was really nervous about it. His way of dealing with it or working through it is that I went to his apartment and we painted a volcano before that scene together. We took some oil paints and we painted a painting. [Laughs] That was what he wanted to do. He’s a really funny guy. But yeah, he didn’t like that scene, so that’s what we did to prepare.

It’s an interesting thing, when you get involved in a movie like that, where people really want your acting to be – well, it was a time when you were just supposed to come and do it. You’re not supposed to talk about it, or talk about your process, or anything. But it is a craft, and it really does require quite a bit of work. I’m always surprised when I look back at the scripts that I have—and one of my prized possessions, although I have no idea where it is, is my script for Back to the Future—and I’ve done so much work and I’ve worked so hard, but it’s a kind of private experience. You weren’t supposed to share all the character work that you’ve done, because that wasn’t really the culture of film. You were just supposed to come in and pretend that it was really easy and that you didn’t work on it and put your hearts and souls into creating those characters. Especially in a comedy! I know Crispin did a ton of work, but that was the odd little piece of prep work Crispin and I did—we made a painting of a volcano. [Laughs] He’s an interesting guy, but I love his work because he’s amazing.

Looking back, was there a particular day you remember as being the most fun on set?

I remember laughing the most when we did the scene at the very beginning, where you meeting Lorraine and the family. I’ve got the vodka and the cake. Crispin was so funny there. We were all so tired and we’d been in that terrible makeup all day, but he was just so funny that no one could stop laughing at him when he did that thing where he was laughing at Jackie Gleason. He did this weird, snake-y thing with his head and he was laughing like, [she imitates George McFly’s laugh.] Nobody could stop laughing!

And then I loved the day where we did the part after we kiss, and Marty starts playing “Jonny B. Goode.” There were all these dancers, and they did that cool crane shot through the girl’s legs. That was really fun, all of that dancing.

What was the vibe like on set when the camera wasn’t rolling? I know the turnaround to release was pretty hectic.

I remember good and bad things. I remember feeling good because Bob Zemeckis would laugh at so much stuff, and how kind of tickled he was by watching it all come alive. Later, he told me “I was so tired!” but I just remember him being so excited when things went right.

But, it was also very hard because of what happened with Eric and Michael, and Crispin had a lot of really strong feelings about things, and his approach to filmmaking – he got really emotional about things, so it got difficult in some of those scenes … I mean, it was a long shoot, and a lot of hard work, and a lot of things happened.

When Michael J. Fox came in to replace Eric Stoltz and you had to re-shoot scenes with him, did you have to shift your performance at all?

Yeah, I mean, I’d have to be the worst actor in the world if it didn’t affect me, their different styles of acting. It was different … I think the mood lightened up because they were happier with what they were getting, for sure.

You did go on and do Some Kind of Wonderful with Eric Stoltz, and that’s where you met your husband. You’re a showbiz family; he directs, and your daughters are actors.

Yeah! We’re a very showbiz-y family. One of my daughter’s boyfriends is an actor, and the other is a musician, so it’s pure showbiz around here.

Do you visit each other’s sets? Does filmmaking regularly come up at the dinner table?

It’s funny. It’s definitely like a family business. We all speak each other’s language, which is the best thing about it. And there’s always something – we also understand each other’s frustrations. We were just on a family vacation and one of my daughters was going through negotiations for a movie, and we all know how frustrating and hard it can be when you’re deciding to say yes or no. We could all understand what that was like. But also, you can’t get away with a lot. We’re like, “We all know what that’s like, so come on. Calm down. It’s not the end of the world.”

My favorite part is when it’s really creative. Say, when one of us is doing an independent movie and we all raid each other’s closets to find the right clothes for a character, because they never have the budgets for that.

Back to the Future, of course, was a big success. Were you excited when they came back to you to do the sequels?

Yeah, of course! It was such a big hit, and I was so excited about it. It was exciting to have the chance to relive these characters. And in Back to the Future 2 I got to do some crazy characters! That was a lot of fun.

Across all three movies, was there a version of the Lorraine character that was most fun for you to play?

I had a lot of fun with the original young Lorraine McFly, but I would say that my second favorite was from Back to the Future 2, the one with the big boobs. That one was really fun. I love that character. I wish I could play that character now. You know, some kind of really lousy, giant character like that – drunk and pissed off, beaten down. That character was really a great one. 

Since it’s now 2015, the year they traveled to in Part II – are there any predictions about this year that were made in the movie you wish had been accurate?

I don’t remember… there was all kinds of crazy stuff. Flying cars, and the weird TV—which we do have. That one came true. I don’t know! I guess the hoverboard would be nice, if it were real. But it seems like you could really hurt yourself on a hoverboard if it were real.

***

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

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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