30 Years Later, Lea Thompson Looks Back on 'Back to the Future'

As devoted fans of "Back to the Future" will remind you, Oct. 21, 2015 marks the day Marty McFly traveled through time from 1985 into what's now the modern day. And looking today at co-star Lea Thompson, still as Lorraine Baines-like as she was 30 years ago, one might wonder whether she's been taking advantage of a time-traveling DeLorean herself.

But no, Thompson has been front and center in Hollywood ever since she made such a big impression as Marty's misguidedly smitten mom – and temporal variations thereof – in the "Back to the Future" trilogy: From follow-up hits like "SpaceCamp" and "Some Kind of Wonderful" (and misses like "Howard the Duck") through her popular ‘90s sitcom "Caroline In the City" to her current ABC Family drama "Switched at Birth,” Thompson has adapted to every era with the same ease as her big-screen "son" Marty.

As "Back to the Future" is collected for Blu-ray in a new 30th Anniversary Trilogy set, Thompson joined SPINOFF to reflect on the profound impact the films had both now and then – no DeLorean necessary.

Spinoff Online: How are you enjoying this year-long celebration of this terrific movie that you probably had no idea was going to be a movie for the ages when you made it?

Lea Thompson: How could I not celebrate people enjoying work I did 30 years ago? No, it’s so exciting! Are you kidding me? I’m so happy and honored. Also, I always feel a little grateful that I’m known for a part that was actually a great movie, and that I was actually really good in. It could have been a movie I was not good in, or that was a stupid part, so I’m really happy that I had such a great part in such a great movie. So awesome.

Tell me about your first encounter with this story, and with Lorraine Baines, as you read the script and prepared for your audition. Tell me about wrapping your brain around this – especially at the time – very unique and fresh kind of story and character.

Well, I’ve always had a little bit of an off-kilter sense of humor. I definitely thought it was frickin' hilarious, that there was this super-crazy, horny girl from the ‘50s who falls in love with her own son. I just thought that was hilarious. The script was so beautifully constructed and written, and really quite daring. I was super-excited to audition for it, and obviously, with Steven Spielberg involved, it was really special. Really special.

What was the thing about Lorraine that you kind of latched on to, that you brought into the room with you? You auditioned for Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale with Speilberg in the room, right?

Yeah, I did. I remember the screen test for “Back to the Future,” and Steven Spielberg was working the camera! He made me feel so good. I remember being in such a comfortable environment. Can you imagine? I should have been nervous, but I just felt so comfortable. It was just a really, really fun experience.

Tell me about finding that right, quirky, off-kilter chemistry with Michael J. Fox. Especially because you had been working with Eric Stoltz prior to that, before the role was recast – Michael came in and was keeping a crazy schedule between the film and his sitcom. That weird dynamic you share is so great. I know that that kiss in the car moment was very anxiety-ridden for everybody to make sure that it played right.

Yes, you’re right. It was a very big moment. There were several difficult acting moments that really … yeah, it was an interesting thing because the whole plot had to turn on that one second of me falling out of love with him in one second just because of the kiss. I mean, I know it happens in real life. People kiss each other and they’re like, "Meh – not so much."

I remember how worried Bob Zemeckis was. How he wanted it shot just perfectly. He wanted my eye to open in a certain way. It’s difficult to shoot in a car anyway, an old car. We couldn’t cut it apart or anything. I’m glad – I mean, it worked. The other moment that was so difficult was me falling in love with George after he punched Biff. And they shot that so beautifully and the music was so awesome that they really helped me out with pulling that acting moment off.

Your chemistry with Crispin Glover – also unusual and quirky, but also great. Was that easy to find as well with him?

Crispin is really an odd duck, but really such a wonderful, wonderful actor. He’s so wonderful in that movie. I found him to be very, very fascinating to work with. He had a lot of really quirky ideas about how to get to whatever moment he needed to get to. Every time I watch the movie, I admire his work so much.

This was only Robert Zemeckis’ second hit, really He had made a few other movies before that got some critical notice, but he'd hit at the box office with “Romancing the Stone,” and then this one. He’s since become one of our greatest filmmakers. What did you see in him during the making of “Back to the Future” that might have given you an inkling that this guy was going to be a force to be reckoned with?

I’m a director now, and I admire him so much. I took a lot from him. He never stops working. Even the last take of the last shot of the last scene, he never stops trying to think about how to make the shot, how to make the scene more interesting. How to pack the frame in with more information that continues to tell the story. Those are my greatest moments of joy with him. My greatest moments of joy in the movie were when I can make him happy. When I can make him giggle with glee about some crazy, new detail. How he loved to watch his crazy ideas come to life.

When you look back, when you sit down and watch the movie again on occasion or just when you think about making that film, is there a day or a scene or something that always stands out in your memory? Like, "Oh, yeah, that was a great day to go to work."

Well, I think it was just that magic of watching them reconvert the courthouse square three times. When you watch an art department just go ham on stuff, an art department just be so amazing, the magic of stepping into a world that’s new and original and completely, wholly created, it’s crazy. To walk into that prom and all of a sudden be in the ‘50s, to me, that’s the magic of making a movie. That’s always so spectacular to me. Everyone working together and doing amazing things. So to me, that’s what I think about when I think about making the movie and how beautiful it was.

When it hit, it was truly a phenomenon – like, amazingly popular. How did that change your world, in the wake of the movie becoming such a humongous success?

Well, it’s still changing my world. I’m sure that I still get hired for stuff because of my work in “Back to the Future.” It changed my world in the sense that I still get to make my living as an actress. I mean, I’ve done a lot of good work since then, and I work hard and I try to behave and be professional and all that. But I think, it changed my world in the sense that I’m known for a movie that was good and that I was good in it. So that specifically changed my world in the sense that I’ve been able to support myself as an artist for thirty years now, and in large part due to that movie, honestly.

Tell me a little bit about your experience – especially this year when I know you’ve been to a lot of anniversary events where you’ve gotten to revisit your friendships with people like Michael and Christopher Lloyd and the other members of the cast of “Back to the Future,” that actors don’t always get to do. You become close for about three or four months on a shoot, then you don’t see each other except at awards galas. To have 30 years to be able to reunite periodically and revisit your experiences together, what has that been like for you?

That’s the beautiful thing about our business. You cannot see somebody -- the connection that you make while you’re working is one that is endured really, forever. Then, you can kind of pick up where you left off, even if it’s like 10 years, or 20 years, or 30 years. It’s really nice to see all these other people and have this celebration together. I get to see Chris Lloyd a lot. I’ve actually done a lot of movies with Chris Lloyd, so I’ve actually gotten much closer to him in the last five, ten years because we’re always at events together. Michael doesn’t do so many of them, but I see him. It’s just lovely. It’s lovely to experience that kind of feeling of continuity, since we are, essentially, gypsies. It’s a strange business that way.

Michael’s taken some challenges that life has thrown him and done some pretty profound things with them. Tell me about seeing how he’s handled what’s been dealt to him and what he’s done with it.

Well, you know what, he’s a very, very, very smart, very funny guy. That’s what I end up appreciating about him. How he can continue to, like, I really like his books -- how he continues to be very honest and very frank. He’s dealt with a lot. But he also knows a lot of people deal with that stuff, you know what I mean? He’s very cool and honest and humble and how can you not like somebody like that?

I watched “Back to the Future” recently at the Hollywood Bowl. I really realized what a great, old-fashioned comedian he was in “Back to the Future.” How he had drawn from such great old-fashioned comedians. The spit-takes and fall-downs and his cracky voice and his double-takes … falling off chairs. People don’t do that stuff anymore. People don’t study the great old comedians like Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy, and The Three Stooges. He was very hard on his physical comedy, and I really grew to respect his work even more as I watched it as a director, and as an older person now. I really grew to respect his acting and his work in “Back to the Future.” He’s a cool dude.

Was there anything fun about being able to see him recently at a couple of the things you’ve done? Was there something new or fresh spin on your dynamic together?

He seems to whisk in and out like a big, big, big star! I don’t really get a lot of time to talk to him. I’d love to. I miss him. You miss people. No, he’s a great guy. What can I say? He’s just a great guy, and it’s great to see him. And it’s always great to know that the experience that you had with people, however long ago, is still real. Like, your connection with them is always there, even if you don’t have dinner every weekend.

When did it start to dawn on you that this film wasn’t just a big hit, but it was a movie that was going to endure, and that you were going to be able to talk about for the rest of your life? Was there a point where you realized that, “Oh, this ‘Back to the Future’ thing is kind of one for the ages?”

I don’t know – it seems like the last few years, it seems to have really taken that on. I mean, when I realized that my mother-in-law was watching the movie with her daughter, her daughter’s daughter, and her daughter’s daughter, like four whole generations of people could enjoy a movie together, I was like, "Wow, that’s the coolest thing ever."

Was there a particular version of Lorraine, the variations you’ve played in the three movies that was the most fun for you, the one you got the biggest kick out of playing?

Well, I guess it would have to be the first Lorraine, the young Lorraine. Then, a close second is the Lorraine in “Back to the Future 2,” the boozy one with the big boobs – Biff Tannen’s love slave. He was pretty great too.

Everybody in the culture right now seems to be obsessed with the things that “Back to the Future 2” predicted that we either do or do not have right now. Anything that you’re particularly like, "Hey, why do we not have this yet?"

No, not really. [Laughs] I knew at the time. I was like, "There’s not going to be flying cars in 2015. It’s just not going to happen." I think I remember Bob Z. or Bob Gale saying, "We can’t make a future movie without a flying car. You just can’t do it."

What do you miss from the ‘80s?

Big hair, but you know what, I don’t care. I still have big hair! I won’t give it up. I was just doing something at CNN and there were four correspondents in little boxes, four girls. And they all had the exact same hair that I had at the moment. We all had the same hair. So I was like, "That is hilarious!"

Has there been an interesting side phenomenon that came out of “Back to the Future” for you? Something that you got involved with because the movie and the movie brought to you that’s been rewarding or something close to your heart over time?

I don’t know how to answer that. Except for the fact that I can go all over the world – but people know me from different things. I’m always actually surprised when they don’t know me from “Back to the Future.” When they’re like, “Caroline in the City”! Or like, “Switched at Birth”! Or, “Some Kind of Wonderful”! Or “Red Dawn”! I’m always surprised when it’s something that’s not “Back to the Future.” But it’s just the fact that I’m kind of known all over the world, which is pretty kind of great. That’s pretty great, pretty awesome. Every once in a while, I can get a table at a restaurant when it’s full because I was in “Back to the Future.” That’s awesome.

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