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.
What was your reaction when you saw how they put it all together? Were you impressed?
There are so many things to experience when you see it for the first time. I’m going to be honest, some of my first thoughts were like, “I wonder if this girl with me could ever be into me.” Because my manager had set me up to go to the opening on a date with Yasmine Bleeth, who is beautiful, was beautiful, and I didn’t know her very well at all. She was going out with a soap-opera star, so I remember being very nervous at the opening because I was there with this super-gorgeous girl that I didn’t know, and I didn’t have any game. Then it started and I thought, “Oh my God, is my voice really that high? Is that what I sound like?” Because I hate watching myself and I had seen myself in movies before, but the energy of that meant that I was squeakier than I had been otherwise. So, if we can get past all that insecurity and angst, besides that, I thought it really came together. It was cool to see it.
What did your date think of the movie?
That’s why I was nervous. She was really sweet to me, but she was also very quiet. It could be that, you never know, when you’re as nerdy as I was, and I think I was nerdier than anybody else. [Laughs.] And I still think I’m nerdier than anybody else, and you find yourself with a beautiful woman, there’s always a part of you that’s like, “What’s going on here? I don’t even know what to do.” That’s always the case. That was the case with my wife when I was first becoming friends with her.
[Bleeth] was very quiet and it was hard to get her chatting. I took that as a sign that she’d rather be out with her boyfriend. It could have been intimidating for her to go to my opening. I never even considered that that might be the case. It was awkward and I felt like I couldn’t get her chatting. When I was young, one of my best friends told me that he thought that the best way to get a girl to like you is to make her laugh a lot. I don’t know why that stuck in my head, and I don’t know if that’s probably the best way to be a good person and hope that they’re attracted to you, but that stuck in my head as something. I couldn’t get her to laugh at all. So it wasn’t a train wreck, it was just a train that just never left the station.
This is not the great love story that never was. After that night, we never talked again. And that was really okay. I went to that high school that was for people in film and dance and there were a lot of girls that I could generate crushes on at the time, and I did. [Laughs.]
You mentioned that a lot of people ask about wearing bras on the head. We really want to ask you that question.
[Laughs.] I thought it was funny and the kind of brilliant move that John Hughes did. The simplest possible decision in writing or directing that made all the sense in the world. It’s perfect and I couldn’t point to a painting or a photo or an old movie that is inspiration for it. It was funny and it made perfect sense. It never seemed like that much of a thing except a great idea. But I think because it was ladies’ underwear and I had it on my head, it breaks some gender lines, which makes it more outrageous. That’s why a lot of people want to bring it up. Like, “Dude, you had to wear a bra on your head! That’s crazy, what was that like? Was that crazy wearing a bra on your head?” No. I think you’re probably familiar with the way bras are. It’s just a thing you tie on your head and it’s no big deal. But I think that’s why a lot of guys talk about it. It’s the abject break with masculinity.
There are also a lot of scenes where Anthony has his nutty, hilarious lines, and you were the straight man of the pair. Did you ever have issues with breaking in scenes with some of the things he would say?
It was hard not to laugh all the time. That’s one of the things when I’m watching that I’m like, “Oh my God, you can see me trying not to laugh there.” Maybe that worked with the movie? Maybe it didn’t. I don’t know. He was also very playful, so, just for the hell of it, when he was off camera, he would try to get me to laugh. Do crazy things, act like a gorilla, just try to get me to laugh during one of my serious scenes just because he liked fooling around. It’s probably difficult for a lot of straight men to be that way unless you’re a natural and you can just turn it off and not smile and not laugh at all.
How was it filming that insane party crashing scene?
It was fun, but we were in a closet for most of that. Our two characters were not actually in the party til the very end, so for a lot of craziness of the party, we weren’t even on the set. But I love that scene, I always thought it was great. One of the high points of that whole movie was meeting Vernon Wells. In The Road Warrior, there was a group of motorcycling wasteland scavengers. There were some that were much cooler and weirder than others. And the star of these bad guys was this crazy guy with a mohawk. The bad guy who leads the motorcycle gang in Weird Science is the same guy in the same outfit from The Road Warrior. That’s why he has an Australian accent, that’s why he’s dressed like that. He had this wrist crossbow kind of thing that was in one of the scenes of The Road Warrior. The kind of nerd that I was, that was huge, I was squeeing. I kept my shit together at the time, I didn’t completely lose it in front of him, but that was a really big moment for me.
When was the last time you watched Weird Science?
The last time I watched Weird Science was at an event put on by my wonderful friend Heather who runs Street Food Cinema, this huge event that happens in parks where people come with blankets and picnic chairs. Then all around the park are dozens of food trucks, like the best food trucks in Los Angeles. She invited me out to a double feature that was Weird Science and Pretty in Pink. There was this great ’80s-themed band called The Flux Capacitors. I introduced the movie, then afterward, there was a Q&A with me and Robert Rusler, who played one of the bullies. That was the last time I saw it, earlier this year.
Viewing it on that occasion, what struck you most? Especially when you’re with this crowd that is probably reacting strongly.
I still think, “Oh my God, does my voice still sound like that?” [laughs] I still have those same insecurities that happen when you see yourself. But I was able to relax a little bit more into it. I think I’ve seen the movie less than five times, all told. When you see yourself, or when I see myself, there seems like all this pressure. Like, “Oh my God, how are people not seeing that?” Or “How are people enjoying me when I sound like that?” But when I was off to the side watching, there were a couple thousand people there because these are big events, and there was none of that.
These were just people who were watching and waiting for the next laugh and laughing when it came and enjoying something that I did. Outside of the problems of watching yourself on film, it’s nice now to ease off a little bit. Anyone who shows up to watch Weird Science these days wants to really see it, and they get joy out of something that I did, and that makes me feel really lucky and really good.
Do you ever hear the rumors about remakes of the movie?
They’re more than rumors. I don’t know if it’s going to happen because there are all kind of ways that projects get shot down or misplaced or dropped along the way in the film industry. Adam F. Goldberg is the writer and producer of The Goldbergs, an ’80s-themed television show, and it’s brilliant and he’s brilliant and it’s really funny. He’s a friend and he told me that they came to him first for an idea for a script and his idea was the best. He said, “Okay, here’s how Weird Science is going to go: Gary and Wyatt are grown up and they have daughters, and the daughters are huge computer nerds and geeks, and they find their old stuff, and then they make a guy who’s going to be Channing Tatum.”
That’s a brilliant idea. That’s exactly what the sequel or the remake should do. It should leave the original alone for the people who love it, and it should address not what used to be the issue in geek culture, which Weird Science does, but it should address what the issue is right now, which is the emerging, overwhelming presence of girls and women who have been neglected or pushed aside or outright criticized for being nerds in the past. I love that idea. I wish that was going to happen. But it’s not, apparently. I hear that there’s an announcement that a remake’s scheduled, that they were casting for a remake. I think it probably will happen sooner or later because they’re remaking everything. I can’t imagine it being good, but the hope is that it would be.
But if they cast two new guys as Gary and Wyatt, would you feel like, “Who are these kids?”
I don’t think so. I know the score. There’s a part of me that’s afraid that it will be so much better and that the person playing me would be such a better actor and such a better comedian that everyone would be like, “Oh yeah, that first guy was horrible.” [Laughs.] I cringe that that could happen. But I would hope for its success. I would hope that for everybody who loves Weird Science, this would be for them. That they would enjoy it. That it would add to the experience. I would love for the best people to be cast and for it to be a great movie. Based on some of the other remakes out there, it just doesn’t seem like that’s the case. It seems like most of the remakes are horrible.