In the '80s, she was the red-hot young star of hits like 'All the Right Moves,' 'Some Kind of Wonderful,' 'Red Dawn,' and, of course, the 'Back to the Future' trilogy. After giving birth to her first daughter in 1991, Thompson turned to family-friendly entertainment like 'Dennis the Menace' and 'Little Rascals.' She spent the second half of that decade on the tube, as the singleton cartoonist approaching middle age in 'Caroline in the City.' Reinventing herself is nothing new for Lea Thompson.
In the '80s, she was the red-hot young star of hits like 'All the Right Moves,' 'Some Kind of Wonderful,' 'Red Dawn,' and, of course, the 'Back to the Future' trilogy. After giving birth to her first daughter in 1991, Thompson turned to family-friendly entertainment like 'Dennis the Menace' and 'Little Rascals.' She spent the second half of that decade on the tube, as the singleton cartoonist approaching middle age in 'Caroline in the City.'
The '00s haven't been as easy to classify for Thompson. The actress has mostly shuffled between low-profile indies and TV movies. Her latest, 'Splinterheads,' falls in the former, but has more breakout potential than anything she's done this millennium. In the quirky, 'Napoleon Dynamite'-esque comedy, Thompson plays mother to a lovable loser (Thomas Middleditch) trying to find his way.
Of course playing mom is nothing new for Thompson; she's been doing it since 22, her first time around as Lorraine McFly. We chatted with the gracious actress and mother of two about her past, present and 'Future.'
Do you ever look back and analyze the various phases of your career? It's been so varied.
It has certainly been interesting, and it's full of all kinds of twists and turns, but the best thing is that I still get the opportunity to do some really great parts and I still get to do it. I'm still an artist that's creating after all these years. First time I went on stage, I was 12, so it's been a long time for me to keep creating. And this might sound metaphysical or something, but your past kind of opens up in front of you and you do what's there. I feel grateful that I had so much time to be with my kids, to be a mother, to raise my kids not in an insane environment, or being gone all the time, and being uber-famous. So I think it's unfolded the way it's supposed to and I feel really blessed and really lucky; mostly because I've gotten to work with such wonderful people and that is awesome.
Seems like 'Splinterheads' was a fun shoot to be on?
Yeah, it really was. It's fun when there's not that much pressure from a studio ... you can just kind of create and no one's messing with you. [Writer-director Brant Sersen] is a really great guy. He's strong, but he's very collaborative, so that's a perfect combination for a director.
Is that the main appeal for you in working in independent film?
Yeah, I mean, there's a certain group of us that just love to work in different styles. Not all actors are like that. I just love to work and I love to meet new people and be a part of something and be supportive of independent films and not just do it for the money. Some people don't like to do that, but when you have time and when that presents itself to you, it's a lovely experience. And I also don't want to work with creepy people or annoying, mean-spirited scripts. So this was just perfect.
Do you find yourself bringing real-life motherly tendencies into your roles?
Well, I don't know, [Thomas] is just a little old to be my son [laughs], so it's hard for me. But, yeah, I've been playing a mother since I was 22, so definitely. But there's a million different kind of mothers. There's a million different permutations of that, and one of the great things about being a mother myself is that I don't feel hemmed in by that, like I'm supposed to be some certain way ... And most women become mothers at some point, so you really can't play women without being a mother [laughs].
Is there every any hesitation on your part to sign on to a film with a relatively unknown filmmaker?
There's always a risk, because you're really putting yourself out there. But he inspired confidence at the very onset. And I really enjoyed his taste. I was impressed that he picked Thomas, he could've had any number of people play that part ... that he took a chance on someone that nobody knows is very brave. Most of the time the financiers will not allow that.
How do you make your career choices?
I've certainly picked projects that fit in with our lives, which doesn't necessarily mean the most high-profile jobs. For ['Splinterheads'], we were actually on vacation [in Fire Island] in the summer and I could stay on vacation and do this job, so it worked out for me. It was very close to where we were shooting and I didn't have that big of a part, so I didn't have to be there all of the time. If you don't have kids you might make all your decisions based on what you perceive to be best for your career. I make them on how I perceive what is best for my family, and my career is second.
That has to present some difficulties.
The big feature film business has definitely eluded me as of late, for 10-15 years. It does surprise me that I haven't had the opportunity to do any bigger films, whether that's because I did too much TV I have no idea ... But I've had the opportunity to do Broadway and lots of cool little movies and direct [two 'Jane Doe' films for the Hallmark Channel], so I've had lots of really lovely opportunities. But I don't rule that out. I betcha some day they'll need some fabulous old broad in some big movie and I'll be the one they call.
Do you think that pigeonhole existed after 'Caroline and the City' where they said, "Oh, she's a television actress now."?
Well, I think the field gets narrower as you get older, the amount of people that people know [decreases] because people just fall by the wayside, they quit or they uproot their lives, or they do some movie that's so bad ... [laughs] I just think that I don't have a big feature name right now and haven't for quite some time.
Well, speaking of big features, what is your fondest memory of making 'Back to the Future'?
Watching Bob Zemeckis laugh at his jokes ... he just had so much delight in what he was creating and this story, I'll never forget that. I just found that so endearing and so creative. That's the beautiful thing about what we get to do, when you get to see someone just having a good time.
Do you follow the rumors about a sequel? Every once in a while you hear about a 'Back to the Future IV.'
[Laughs] No, that's so ridiculous! Well, I suppose they could probably remake it someday, but that was the problem, because Michael J. Fox was always supposed to be 17. And I suppose if they really wanted to they could figure out how to do that, but I don't see it happening. I certainly would love to make a big movie again, so that would be nice to happen.
Would you be game to revisit that character?
That character was the best ever! Come on, I got to do so many different characters in the one character. I'm not entirely sure anyone has had that opportunity since, to create so many aspects of one character.
So that's your favorite role of all time?
I'd say that, but also when I did 'Cabaret' on Broadway, that was great too. Because sometimes you almost have no control over it, a character just fits you so perfectly that it's not even work and other ones are like pulling teeth, so when you find that, it's such a great gift. And, it's the best thing that ever happened. So, I'd say, yeah, 'Cabaret' and 'Back to the Future.'
What about the opposite side of the spectrum? Anything you regret?
You know, I try not to think about that in my life, it's not really useful to me. I would think that more about just stupid things I say in interviews [laughs]. Not parts. Of course, what you would be luring me to talk about at that point, and generally in these interviews, would be 'Howard the Duck,' which I really don't think. Anyone would've done that part. I think it's kind of fabulous that anybody even still mentions that movie, because trust me there are great bombs every month that people have long since forgotten about, so it's kind of nice that people think about that movie.
I swear I didn't specifically mean 'Howard the Duck.'
[Laughs] It was subversive just like 'Back to the Future' was, which is why I'm proud of it, proud of those movies that had subversive themes about them, kind of off-kilter. You know, my comic sensibilities are right there, which is what I did enjoy about this movie 'Splinterheads.' I liked the kind of sweet but off-kilter sensibility of this movie, which is ideally what I really love, that kind of artistic expression.
So it's been a few years since we've seen Caroline, what do you think she's up to?
God, I hope she got married before she had to get all kinds of in vitro [laughs]. Hoping she got married before she turned 40, that's what i hope, that she married somebody. But that was a really loving experience for me, too. I really enjoyed that and I hope someday it has a better life in re-runs because the shows are really lovely. They're funny and the characters are so interesting and I'm still friends with everybody in that cast. I just did a little tiny movie with almost the entire cast of that.
What's the movie?
It's called 'I Was a 7th Grade Dragon Slayer.' Andy Lauer, the guy who was on roller skates, directed it and Amy Pietz is in it and so is Eric Lutes, so I had to do it just to hang with my buds. It was a very joyful experience.