Before getting into movies, she joined the renowned Los Angeles Groundlings improv troupe and did stand-up at the Comedy Store, back when David Letterman was just a no-name emcee.
Improv led to her getting cast in her first film, 'Carrie,' alongside Sissy Spacek. But McClurg is probably best known for her work with director John Hughes, particularly in 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' where she has some choice words for Steve Martin, and as Grace, the high school secretary in 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off.'
As 'Ferris Bueller' celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday (wow, right?), Moviefone talked to McClurg about the movie's timeless appeal, what scenes were improvised and which jokes made John Hughes laugh the hardest.
Turns out, she's a righteous dude.
Moviefone: In the scene where you're listing all the different groups of kids who like Ferris Bueller, was it hard to keep from laughing?
Edie McClurg: Well, it was very hard to memorize that list so I had put "and" in between, you know to try and pair them up and John [Hughes] said, "No, no just say the list." I really had to concentrate when I was doing that though I was looking like it was very easy. I said "the dweebies and dickheads, sportos and bloods" because that was the way I was able to memorize it and I had to take out the "ands." He said, "No, no, just the list." I did it in one take.
Did you know what all those words meant?
Well, dweebies are nerdy guys, dickheads are guys who are always mouthing off and messing around, sportos play sports, bloods are [in gangs], and whatever's left over. I don't remember. I knew at the time, but it was a long time ago.
Edie McClurg as Grace in 'Ferris Bueller':
Do people constantly quote that back at you?
A lot of people liked it, but it was another movie John Hughes did, 'Planes Trains and Automobiles' where people want me to say "You're f*cked" when they see me out.
Regarding 'Ferris Bueller,' I was in the Czech Republic once, in Prague, making a movie at the same time as Jeffrey Jones, who played the principal, who was making a different movie. The Super Bowl was going to playing at this bar at midnight so we decided we would go watch the Super Bowl at this bar at midnight in Prague together.
We show up and there were a whole lot of American young people there. There were screens all around. We found seats right in the front, but then I had to go to the bathroom so I walked down halfway through the club to go the restroom, and then when I came back I was walking past this table and somebody said, "Grace!" I turned and I said, "Yes?" and they said, "We thought that was you!" I said, "And Mr. Rooney is right over in the corner." So they had to get up and come over. One of them was from Wisconsin and he had a cheese-head on and he talked Jeffrey into putting it on and taking pictures. That was a lot of fun.
'Ferris Bueller' is my favorite movie, but it came out before I was even born. What makes it so timeless?
I think it's the anarchy of taking the day off and how much fun you can have. He wasn't a bad kid. He wasn't a bad student. He just ... It was a beautiful day and they knew they'd be going to different schools after they graduated. It's the end of the semester. You know how you get itchy. I think that's what people really identify with.
Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck had been in the Broadway production of 'Biloxi Blues' together. They knew each other so well. It was a long run on Broadway, so they became very close friends. Then, when the movie came up, Matthew had gotten a good reputation already, and he suggested Alan for the best friend part and it was just perfect. Then, the people who played his mom and dad, they actually met and got married. They're not married now, but they have beautiful kids. You're put together and familiarity breeds.
And you and Jeffrey obviously became close.
Yes. I had not met Jeffrey up to that point. Later, he used to come watch me do improv with the Spolin Players, which I'm still a member of.
What do you love about improv?
It's like a high-wire act. You try to keep your balance and try to stay grounded but you are up there, flying on your own.
Did Jeffrey ever improvise? [Laughs] He was petrified. He was used to a script. He was a stage, script actor and that was it. And John Hughes loved improvisers. So when we had done everything that was written, John Hughes said, "OK, now let's just do some going back and forth between the offices" and Jeffrey's eyes got really wide and he said, "What are we going to do?" and I said, "We're just going to play a game called 'Help, Hinder.' It'll look like I'm helping you, but I'm going to be hindering your progress so whatever way I'm going, you go in the opposite direction and I'll produce obstacles for you to get around." So he says, "OK."
We started out with the phone thinking it's the father of the girl but it's really Alan on the phone and I'm looking through the pieces of paper and getting in behind him and he's trying to get away from me and then he runs out and he runs back in and I run out and back and forth and then we finished the scene and everybody laughed and John said, "Check the gate," which means, "That was perfect, let's move on."
The scene in 'Ferris' in the office was improvised?
Totally improvised. The running back and forth and what we said up until "Ferris Bueller's on line two." That's when all of the hectic stuff started.
'Ferris Bueller' phone call:
Is allowing so much improvisation what made John Hughes stand out as a director?
He was totally willing to let you improvise within the framework of the scene. I worked first on 'Ferris' and then I did 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles,' 'She's Having a Baby' and 'Curly Sue.' I did four films with him and one of the editors told me after John had died, "You know, every movie you did after 'Ferris,' he'd say, "Well, where's the part for Edie? Where's the part for Edie?" And that's how I did four films with him.
Like in 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles,' I'm at the counter with Steve Martin and I'm trying to keep him steaming even more because he's so angry. On one take, I picked up the phone and was dealing with a customer on the phone just to put up a finger and make him wait, get him a little more steamed.
So I did that for a couple of takes and John leaned over from behind the camera and said, "This take, be on the phone talking about Thanksgiving" so I just let fly about, "We gotta get Mom up so we can get the sweet potatoes done." I just let fly and he said, "Check the gate." Then, he and the writer took over and he said, "How do you do that? I say, "'Talk about Thanksgiving'" and you give me a monologue. How do you do that?" And I said, "John, I'm a cannibal. Just like you, I take everything in my life and I'll use it. Everything I used in that run about Thanksgiving, all of that was just my family." He said, "Oh yeah!" He's a writer. I'm a writer. He understood.
What kind of stuff could you do to make John Hughes laugh?
He liked physical and he liked quirky. Like that run in 'Ferris Bueller,' the running back and forth thing, that cracked him up. The car rental thing when I came up with that stuff about Thanksgiving, he just loved it.
Also, we did 'She's Having a Baby' and that was about his and his wife's moving to the suburbs and he worked as an ad agency writer in Chicago so he'd be on that train every day so that whole story is his and his wife's early life. The baby had the cord around his neck and they had to do a C-section. It was fraught with peril but he wanted to do a story about his early life and how he got into advertising just by lying. His boss knew he was lying but he was really good at it so he thought he could write advertising copy because it's mostly lying. The truth made him laugh.
You know, every time I think about John, I just weep because there was so much talent that was messed with in Hollywood and that's why he moved back to the Midwest and took his kids with him.
Did you talk to any other actors after he passed away?
I talked with Jeffrey right away and Alan Ruck, later. They had a midnight screening of 'Ferris' at the American Cinematheque Egyptian Theater down on Hollywood Boulevard and we came and did a talk.
But when he died, we were all just so shocked. His oldest son had just given birth to their first baby and they were living in New York and he came to New York to see the baby and he went for a walk in the morning and fell dead on the street. Heart attack. It was so shocking. But the thing is he was a chain smoker. I think he was 59 and then it was like, "You're gone." [Pause] So never smoke.
I know you've talked in other interviews about John's staging the parade scene. Did you actually get to see them film it in Chicago or were you in LA?
I was actually there. They brought me to Chicago as a rain scene, because they planned to do all outdoor shooting but if rain happens, they have to have something else they can shoot, they can't just shut down because that's just too expensive to have people sitting around waiting for rain to stop so they have indoor scenes planned in case of. They built the desk sets and bookcases and all that stuff in Chicago.
I was there for a week and then they were moving back to LA to do the indoor scenes so they had to take everything they built for our two offices and pack it up and ship it out to LA and put it in this high school out in the West Valley. I said, "Wow. That's pretty expensive." They said, "Yeah, it costs $10,000." I said, "That's more than I'm being paid to be in the movie. The desk I'm sitting at costs more than my entire salary. I think that's wrong!" [Laughs] That's movies!
Do you feel like over the years you've told every story about the set there is or are there some details you've never mentioned?
One quirky little thing; Mia Sara was playing the girlfriend and she had long hair so they hired her hairdresser to do her hair but he didn't know how to do any other kind of hair. I wanted to have the bubble hairdo. He didn't know how to do it. I said, "You pick up the hair and you back comb it down and smooth it out." He was pulling my hair. I said, "Give me the brush. I'll do it myself." So I did my own hair for the movie.
Grace's bubble hairdo was your idea?
Yeah. Oh! Here's a good story. I didn't ask anybody, I just did it. In Chicago, we did wardrobe for me. I tried on three different outfits and John came and looked and said, "Okay, this is a good one." And so, we chose the dress together and then I just decided I would do my hair like I was a woman from the 1960s, early '70s and that's when women teased their hair and had big bubble hairdos.
I walked on the set and he's just looking at me and we were gonna do the scene where I'm sitting at the desk, the first time you see me and he said, "How many pencils do you think you can stick in there?" I said, "Let's just see." I put in one and leaned my head down and it stayed so I put in another and leaned my head down and it stayed and another and it stayed and I put in a fourth one and leaned my head down and it fell and I said, "I can hold three," and he said, "Okay, let's start with that." So he just had me going up into my hair and finding pencil after pencil. [Laughs]
It seems like John was really collaborative. That's rare in a director.
He was totally not ego-filled with sharing ideas. He really wanted people to contribute. There was a whole group of us people that he used over and over again and we were those small parts which would be not small characters, you know what I mean? We're memorable because he made us memorable.