When she speaks, Lea Thompson, the actor, director, and producer, sounds so strikingly like Lea Thompson — so sunnily Minnesota-by-way-of-Hollywood — that I’m afraid that, ten seconds into this interview, I mentioned it. “You sound exactly like you,” I exclaimed. No stranger to persevering in the face of men’s silliness, Thompson laughed it off and pressed on, offering an expansive, insightful account of what she’s learned from her daughters, Madelyn and Zoey Deutch, about how to navigate a world still ruled by men.
Thompson’s new movie, the sharply funny figuring-out-your-twenties comedy The Year of Spectacular Men, hits theaters and on-demand services on June 15. Her daughter Madelyn wrote and scored the film; Madelyn stars in it alongside Zoey, and Thompson appears with her daughters in the featured role of — you guessed it — their mother. This is the first feature film directed by the star of Back to the Future/Caroline in the City/Switched at Birth/Some Kind of Wonderful, but Thompson has cut her teeth helming TV comedies and dramas, and her keen understanding of actors and characters distinguishes every scene. I spoke with Thompson on June 11 in New York’s Bowery Hotel about the film, her daughters, and what has changed in Hollywood’s depiction of women onscreen.
What was the most gratifying thing about being in charge on the set of your first feature?
It’s really taken me a long time to find my own voice in a lot of ways as a woman. I started as a dancer, then I was an ingenue, and every one of my words was always written by a man, and I spent a lot of time trying to make everybody comfortable. I’m a nice person from the Midwest, and that’s a whole thing: making people comfortable. When I used to coach Madelyn and Zoey on their acting, I would say, “Can’t you just tilt your head?”
[She inclines her head toward her right shoulder, smiling widely, making herself smaller.]
“Can’t you just go, like, ‘Hi!’?”
They didn’t understand that. They were strong. They would face people like this, directly, and they would talk to them, to men. Even though they’re beautiful women, they would not tilt their head. I spent my whole life kind of tilting my head. I still like the idea of making people comfortable, but doing that kind of robbed me of my own power as a professional, as an artist, as a person with a voice and strength and knowledge. It kept me from stepping up to my own plate.
I kind of didn’t want that responsibility before. This movie was really the first time where I wasn’t the paint at the end of the paintbrush. Now I was the hand controlling the paintbrush. It was the first time that I got to take total responsibility for what’s going on. That’s difficult, especially because I didn’t want to let Madelyn or Zoey down.
That’s what I love about independent filmmaking. To see someone’s honest vision. With big movies, it gets diluted by everyone’s opinions, unless you’re Bob Zemeckis or [Steven] Spielberg. But when you make a small movie and everyone’s just running, doing a lot of jobs, there’s no one to tell you you can’t do that. It becomes more like art. That’s what this movie is, Madelyn’s singular vision but with my own firm hand.
Are you surprised that it’s still rare in film comedies to have the young woman as the center of the film, making her own choices about her sex life? Casual Sex? was three decades ago!
Yes. In movies and TV, women pretty much disappear in their twenties as protagonists. Women are always in their thirties, single and looking for love. Maybe that’s why Friends was such a big hit — that was the only show about people in their twenties.
There’s this vicious thing an agent told me a long time ago. She goes, “Here’s your business: virgins, whores, and mothers.” Luckily, in Back to the Future, I got to play all three. In your twenties, you’re probably neither a virgin, a whore, or a mother, so you’re not worth making a show about. But the twenties are now a peak, a time of great upheaval for young people, and it’s worth telling that story.
It’s also still somewhat new in comedies for sex to be something a young woman is freely participating in, without coercion or judgment. None of the men that Izzy — Madelyn’s character — sleeps with in the film have tricked or pressured her into it.
That was important and something we thought out, and also a struggle. She always gives consent, she’s always a part of it, it’s always frank and honest and funny. And that’s difficult to navigate, for me and for our producers. I had to make very specific assurances that she only sleeps with three guys in a year, not four or five. That’s what was prescribed by the world.
They think that if she had sex with one more, audiences would no longer root for her?
Maybe. There’s still so many constraints on women.
Sibling relationships are intense and intimate. What was it like guiding them through scenes of sisterly trust and bonding?
Honestly, the hardest thing about it is that making a movie is always fraught with anxiety and tension. And then making an independent movie adds to that because you don’t have a staff. Everything is scary — will the cops come? or whatever it is. The hard part is they know me so well they knew when I was freaking out about something.
But they’re such good actors and artists that they were able to grab the ball and throw it back without you seeing any of the anxiety. Maddie wrote a ski scene, and Maddie, Zoey, and I can’t ski. We had no money, and there was a terrible snowstorm, so we had to carry all the equipment up on chairlifts. We literally had an hour, an hour and a half to shoot that whole scene and then get down — and I’m in the scene, too. Fighting through that anxiety often resulted in them laughing like crazy people. That’s the only time I got mad at them.
But I can’t tell you what a special experience this was as an artist, a mother, and a friend. We all got to know each other in new ways, and we got to boost each other up. Women don’t take partners often enough, and we gave each other jobs that no one else is going to give us. That was inspiring — to band together as artists, women, and professionals to create something out of nothing together.
At what stage in her scripting process did you get involved?
[Maddie] was in the car with us on Mulholland, telling us about what a terrible year she’d had. Now, she’d always been a writer. She had been in the jazz program at the conservatory at the New School, where they tried to give her English for Dummies, and she was like, “No. I’m taking screenwriting from these great teachers.” What’s hard about writing is exposing yourself, and I knew she could do that. She’d always written songs that were super-personal, and she could sing about her broken heart right in front of the guy. Most people can’t do that.
So, she told us about her terrible year. We said, “You should write a movie.” She goes, “I could call it The Year of Spectacular Men,” and we all went silent.
[whispers] That’s a really good title.
And then she wrote it! That doesn’t always happen — not everybody can do that. And it was unbelievably good. It was personal and interesting, a take on life and writing I’d never seen before. Zoey is tough on things, and even she thought it was amazing. And then she was nice enough to let me direct it.
Watching the film, I kept thinking of Molly Ringwald’s essay in The New Yorker about revisiting her Eighties films with her daughters. This project seems related in that some ways it’s a corrective to the ways that women characters and the actresses who played them have so long been treated. Was there a sense as you all worked on this that you were putting something right?
I have felt the general frustration with having to portray idealized women, especially young women. I think that’s why men like this movie, men in their thirties and forties and fifties. We were surprised by that, but I think they’re refreshed by getting a peek inside the vulnerability of a beautiful young woman. It’s not this weird idealized sense that makes women untouchable. Most movies are written by slightly nerdy dudes, and they have women on some love/hate pedestal. And that’s a difficult thing to act — that’s not a person, that’s an idea.
And I had to work through my own prejudices doing this movie! From tilting my head most of my life, to making the men comfortable and trying to make this pedestal thing work out.
I’m lucky that I had good parts. The John Hughes movie that I did, Some Kind of Wonderful, I think is one of his best as far as how the women are portrayed. He had a certain compassion for women and liked to write about them, and the speeches I have in that movie, like the one about beauty, are really good. Back to the Future was such a good role, that crazy, demented character. I played the young Lorraine as a sexually frustrated product of the Fifties and thought a lot about what that [repression] would do to a woman. She had to keep a lid on it!
If your daughters somehow got sent back in time thirtyish years themselves, to the 1980s, what advice would you have for them?
They’d basically be wearing the same clothes. They’d fit in that way, except for the big hair — they steal my clothes from the Eighties. My advice would be, “Do what you’re doing now, but do it then.” I don’t know why I never thought to create my own stuff. Why didn’t I ever do that, until I was this age? Maybe it seemed impossible then for women to do it? Maybe everybody held actors in such low esteem that nobody would take a meeting. Zoey’s producing something like four movies right now. They inspire me to take my destiny into my own hands for the first time — and I’m 955 years old.