By the summer of 1985, director John Hughes had already established himself as the king of the high-school comedies with the critical and box office hits Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. In 1986, he cemented his legacy with Pretty in Pink, directed by Howard Deutch from a Hughes script, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, while other studios and directors desperately tried to get in on that sweet ‘80s teen comedy action. But lost in the Hughes shuffle, at least at the time, was the off-the-wall 1985 Weird Science, which was (and sometimes still is) criticized for not being anything like the director’s other hits.
One of the many things that make Weird Science work is the youthful innocence actor Ilan Mitchell-Smith brought to the character of Wyatt Donnelly. Prior to living every young actor’s dream of working with Hughes, Mitchell-Smith had only three credits to his name. But soon after Weird Science was released, the 16-year-old was suddenly appearing in Tiger Beat and receiving “a ton of fan mail.” Unlike other stars of Hughes’ films, though, there weren’t as many opportunities for more roles because of how tepid the overall response was to Weird Science at the time.
Now 46 and a professor of medieval studies, Mitchell-Smith has long since retired from acting. Instead of pursuing a career on the big screen, the self-confessed nerd chose education when roles started interfering with his classes. “Finally, I asked myself some questions that I already knew the answer to,” he says. “I had already gotten used to the idea of never being a millionaire, which I was okay with. And so it seemed like a logical thing.” But even with show business behind him, Mitchell-Smith still recognizes the film’s legacy and is happy to offer some insight into what it was like making this extraordinary film about two horny teens creating Kelly LeBrock out of thin air.
What did you feel like was the big difference for you after the film came out, in a personal way?
When Weird Science came out, it made a little bit of a splash and I did get recognized more. I have answered the question of what it was like to kiss Kelly LeBrock a lot of times. Or what it was like to wear a bra on my head, because those were the things that people would always ask. But I think the weird thing about Weird Science is that when it first came out, it was like, meh popular. Over the years, it somehow became more and more popular. At the time, I never would have compared it to Pretty in Pink. Now it seems like Weird Science is more remembered than Pretty in Pink and some of the other big-name John Hughes movies. There was the option for some more roles, which was great, but it didn’t make as big a splash as it might have. It wasn’t as big a hit as it seems like now it is.
When you first auditioned for Weird Science, what did you think of the story?
I thought it was very funny, and I really wanted to be part of the project, but I was a little bit concerned because I wasn’t really a comedic actor. I was just going to do the best that I could. There was more pressure in that audition than in some of the others that I had gone to because I was filming The Wild Life on the Universal lot, and they were casting for Weird Science. To audition, I literally just walked over to John Hughes’ office and sat down with him and Anthony Michael Hall. There wasn’t the initial meeting with the casting director or any preliminary round, it was all immediate. I was nervous and really wanted to be part of it and thought it was really funny.
Since the two of them had already worked together, did it make it more comfortable? Could you learn a lot from how they worked together?
I was learning from them. I also felt a little bit out of my depth, and a little bit like a third wheel sometimes, but not in a horrible way. They made me feel included. I was also the youngest person on set. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a little bit by design with the casting. The dynamic between our characters in the movie was very much like Gary acted like he knew what was going on and he pushed the envelope and really wanted to try things. Wyatt was quiet and wasn’t sure what was going on, reticent and unsure of himself. That was a little bit of the dynamic of the actors, as well. That’s how we were operating. I think that worked in the movie.
Were you nervous at all, like in the scene where you’re standing in the shower with Kelly LeBrock?
[Laughs] No, I wasn’t really. Everybody asks about that scene and I wish I had better things to say about it. I was very clear that I didn’t want her to see me looking down. So I just didn’t look down at all, because, in any sexual situation, if somebody would rather you not do something, then you shouldn’t do that thing. That scene was only vaguely sexual because people were standing all around, and she had these pieces of round thick tape over parts of her breast so that if the camera dipped too low, they couldn’t use it, because she didn’t want it to change into an R-rated movie and for her breasts to be seen.
The only people who could have made it sexual would have been us if we had been ogling her, and there was no way I was going to do that, because there was not a marked absence of consent. I just wanted to make sure I was a professional about it and we were a little bit chilly standing there in the shower, so I guess that worked out pretty well. But the bitter truth of it is that was not really an erotic experience for anybody involved.
The scene where you’re making Lisa, it’s this very ’80s interpretation of and commentary on the power of computers. What do you think of that scene now? And how was it to film?
It was very different to film. It’s hard to explain what the set feels like when you’re looking at a dead, unplugged computer screen and there’s no music or sound, and they’re just like, “Now react like there’s something crazy going on in that screen.” We didn’t know what the crazy thing was going to be… Who knows, but it’s going to be out there. That leaves it all up to you to be like, “Okay, let me run through the series of surprised and scared expressions that I have.” Then you see it in the movie and it all makes sense. The screen is doing things and there’s music and sounds in the background. Instead of the mundane whir of fans blowing at us, it sounds like a cyclone.