Catherine Mary Stewart appeared in several iconic films during the eighties, including two science-fiction classics that couldn’t be more different: “Night of the Comet”, in which she stars as one of the only “survivors” in a world scorched by a you-know-what, turning humans into either red dust or deranged, flesh-eating zombies; and “The Last Starfighter”, as the small town girlfriend of a teenager rocketed into another universe to help fight an interplanetary civil war. She then co-starred in the eighties sex comedy set in the fifties, fittingly titled “Mischief”, and the comedy blockbuster “Weekend at Bernies”.
In this interview, Catherine shares her scene-by-scene experiences in these, and other, timeless gems (including the Sylvester Stallone thriller “Nighthawks”), and provides insights into the joys of acting, a profession in which she’s still fully active.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actress and how did you go about becoming one?
Later, at about 14, I took up dance seriously. I had taken ballet at 7, but it was not fun for me. I found my niche with jazz-dance and by 16 was performing professionally with a dance company. The first time I performed in front of a crowd, my whole body and soul knew that performing was what I wanted to do. The feeling was inexplicable and overwhelming! I also performed in several plays at my High School.
At 18, our company, “Synergy”, traveled to Germany and the Middle East to perform in a Christmas variety show for the Canadian UN peacekeeping forces. It was an unbelievable experience. We got to walk through the pitch-black tunnels of the interior of one of the pyramids; we crossed the Sinai Desert in a UN bus and were stopped by Egyptian soldiers with BIG guns. They boarded the bus (with the guns) to check us out. We crossed the Suez Canal; we saw much of Egypt, Israel and Cyprus.
Later that year I decided to further my dance training in London, England. The school I went to, the London Studio Centre, offered classes in not only every conceivable dance form, but acting, singing, dialects, etc., etc. It was a wonderful foundation for how my career would unfold.
It was on my way to class at the London Studio Centre, that I was sidetracked by a couple of fellow students who were on their way to an open audition for dancers for a new rock musical movie called “The Apple”. I showed up for this “cattle call” and shook my booty the best I knew how. (Incidentally, the choreographer on this movie was Nigel Lythgoe, creator/producer and judge on “So You Think You Can Dance” and created and produces “American Idol”. His assistant choreographer on “The Apple”, Ken Warwick, is also his business partner today.)
I ended up being asked to read and sing for the lead role in the movie, and I got it. Another adventure began for me in Berlin, Germany – pre the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Thus began my career as an actress. It was a whirlwind.
Tell us more about your first film “The Apple”…
Mostly it was surreal in so many ways. I was thrown into a situation I knew little to nothing about, so I was learning as I went. We were located in one of the craziest cities in the world at that time. Berlin, pre-Wall coming down, reminded me of a kind of human circus. It was a colorful crazy place, and to be dropped there with a massive cast of dancers, actors and crew, all of whom were strangers to me, was pretty wild.
I think my naiveté and youth worked for me. I had no expectations or particular fears so I just went with the flow. It’s looking back in retrospect that I just say, “Wow”! It was a life altering experience. I would not be sitting here answering your questions if it wasn’t for that crazy film “The Apple”!
You had a small but memorable scene in the Sylvester Stallone movie “Nighthawks” where Rutger Hauer, a suave guy who’s really a terrorist, is charming your character, a naïve salesgirl…
Rutger Hauer was a VERY intimidating man. He scared the crap out of me. I’m not sure if he was just in character, or he really didn’t care for me. Of course I wasn’t supposed to forecast my own demise, so I went for the sweet, perfume salesgirl thing. A little piece of trivia: I was supposed to be British and having lived there awhile I had a pretty good accent, but apparently they had to overdub me and did so with someone in LA, I assume, because that was not my voice (and the accent wasn’t good, I thought…).
It was a thrill to audition for Sylvester Stallone. At that time he was very famous for “Rocky”, and he was pretty cute in my mind. I was so excited when I got the role and after the scene I was in was shot he invited me to view the department store blowing up, from right next to the camera. I was beside myself! He invited me for lunch with about 20 other people and didn’t say a word to me during the meal but it was pretty cool. That was the extent of my relationship with Sly. My early brush with super fame!
NIGHT OF THE COMET
Your first scenes: playing the video game, and working with Michael Bowen in the movie theater…
The whole theater scene was fun to shoot. Playing the irritated, hormonal teen that hates everything. Lord knows how she kept that job. I liked the outfit though. I didn’t have a clue of how to play the game, but it was fun pretending to beat the pants off DMK.
Michael Bowen was cool. He’s a terrific actor and I loved working with him. It’s strange when you have one scene with someone who you are supposed to have an intimate relationship with, yet you have literally zero time to establish any. It happens a lot in this biz and it’s challenging, but fun, especially when it’s with a character you probably would never be with, in real life. His character was hilarious.
The confrontation with the zombie bum outside the theater…
That may be my favorite scene in the movie. I love all that rough and tumble stuff. There was no stunt double for me, except to actually ride away on the motorcycle. I don’t know how to ride those things. The zombie was a stunt guy, so I felt safe because I knew he knew what he was doing when he threw me. Then I got to crack him with a 2 X 4. Such FUN! Everything was fun for me in that scene.
The scene where you’re telling your sister “Samantha” (Kelli Maroney) that it’s the end of the world…
What is cool about scenes like that is that they are like a double-edged sword for my character and in that way it makes it more believable to the audience, because while I am trying to convince Sam, I’m also trying to convince myself. Maybe in some way Reggie is hoping Sam has an explanation and it gets more and more frustrating when her response doesn’t answer anything. I think Reggie is in denial in the beginning too. So the scene isn’t as simple as me trying to explain something to Sam, which makes it meatier to play.
Kelli and I remained friends for a while after the movie. We lost touch for a long while when I moved to NYC but through the miracle of the Internet we are back in touch and had lunch together last spring. We hadn’t seen each other in close to 20 years! It was great to re-connect. I’ve always thought that Kelli was such a talented actress. She was asked to be in a Woody Allen movie right at the time of “Night of the Comet”. The schedules conflicted so she couldn’t do it. It was a huge disappointment for her but certainly a testimony to her talent.
Working with Robert Beltran, who plays the male survivor…
Robert Beltran is a pretty sexy guy. He was so charming and mellifluous, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. As Reggie, I had no trouble being attracted to him. I liked the scenes with him in the radio station because they were intimate and a little more adult. They had a different tone to them than in the rest of the movie. Reggie reveals a more vulnerable side, I think.
When you and your sister are in the deserted mall…
Another fun, crazy scene! We had the whole Sherman Oaks Galleria mall to ourselves, which was pretty bizarre in and of itself but it helped us with our characters. As I mentioned earlier, I love the rough and tumble stuff, so the firefight with the zombies was a gas. Things blowing up; squibs firing off everywhere; and ultimately the showdown with the zombies after we’ve been captured and tied up. So funny! Talk about running the gambit of emotions!
The scene talking to your sister after shooting those guns…
Those are nice moments. It’s important to have lots of contrasts in a story. I think intimate, human moments like those in amongst the insanity of the story are important for the audience so that it keeps it on a level that they might be able to relate to as opposed to just slamming them with one improbable situation after another.
Your character ends up in a government-run compound in the desert… What’s the character going through here?
I loved the scene where I’m being interviewed by Geoffrey Lewis’ character, Carter. I think Reggie is confused, defensive, scared and with the fact that she is a young woman, hopeful that this scientist is who he says he is and will take care of her. She answers the questions as only a teenager would, perhaps not quite realizing the gravity of the situation in the beginning. I love Carter’s reactions to some of her responses. He’s trying so hard to stay focused and not only is he feeling the affects of the comet, but he had to deal with this nut.
What stunts did you do on this shoot?
Was it a success when it opened?
At the time that we were shooting it and when it was released, I didn’t really think a lot about its’ popularity or longevity. I knew it was a quirky little film. Even the producers weren’t sure exactly what to do with it. Thom Eberhardt, the writer/director, had always intended it to be tongue in cheek – a kind of salute to the old-fashioned horror genre with a twist of wry humor. The producers looked at it in terms of being a serious horror film, perhaps knowing that there was a more solid market for that sort of thing. Fortunately, it ended up the way Thom had envisioned, which of course makes it stand out and adds some sort of weird validity to it.
And have you noticed a cult following has grown throughout the years?
It’s only in the last few years that I’ve become aware of the cult status of NOTC. I had been somewhat detached from the business for a number of years having moved to NY, raising my kids and doing only small bits and pieces, here and there. A few years ago I returned to the industry full force and it was then that I was made aware of its’ longevity and following.
I’m so proud to be a part of this film simply for the same reason I was attracted to the script in the first place. It was a story about two young women, who find themselves in a dire situation and have to muster everything they have to survive, and they do! They do it themselves. I think it’s a very strong message to send to young women everywhere and I hear from women who were influenced in a very positive way by that message. I love that.
I’ve heard from lots and lots of male fans as well, that appreciate seeing that side of a female character. One fan recently said to me that as a young man he fell in love with Maggie in “The Last Starfighter”, but when he saw me as Reggie, now that sealed the deal! Gotta love that! :D
THE LAST STARFIGHTER
How was it working on this film, a big budget science-fiction flick?
TLS was a special movie to me because it was the first major role and movie that I was cast in, in Los Angeles. It was obviously the REAL THING! Everyone and everything was so professional and well done. It was an absolute joy from beginning to end with the tone set by the director, Nick Castle.
Scenes with Lance Guest in the trailer park…
Lance was no exception. From the moment we auditioned together to preparing our characters and relationship before the shoot, I knew I was working with a consummate professional. I adore Lance Guest – who at the moment is starring in a Broadway show called “Million Dollar Quartet” and getting literally RAVE reviews! Everything was just easy and natural for me in the character of Maggie. It fit me like a glove. I loved the setting. It was hot and dusty and for a Canuck from the north who spent the first 18 years of her life cold, I was in heaven. I loved the intro scene. It just felt easy and right.
Scenes with the Beta-Unit…
Well, he was a robot. There was nothing there. I think Alex and Mags had probably known each other at least most of their lives, so they knew each other through and through. Their lives were in a kind of transition anyway with college looming and a possible change in their entrenched lives. Mags knew that Alex wanted to get out of there, and she certainly wasn’t as confident about making that choice, and so when he starts acting so completely weird, perhaps she associated it with his need to separate from that simplistic life and I’m sure it added to her own anxiety.
How would you describe “Maggie”?
I think just to add to what I said above is that Maggie was afraid of change. She found security in her life in the trailer park and had a fear of the unknown. There was a predictability that she was comfortable with and she could justify her feelings to herself, if not to Alex, with excuses such as her responsibility to her Grandma. She was absolutely conflicted though, because of her real love for Alex.
And then “Maggie” must decide to stay on earth or join the man she loves…
Again, this very juicy conflict that Mags had to face. To take the leap into the unknown and hope you don’t sink, or to stay comfortable. We have all faced that in our lives, so this is another example of bringing the audience into a story of most unlikely events. Of course the message is LEAP…LEAP! And she does, even though she needs to know Grandma supports the idea. Perhaps Grandma knew what was at stake too. We’ve all had opportunities that we’ve passed on and had levels of regret. Grandma’s no dummy.
What do you feel about the large following this film has gained?
My response would be the same as with NOTC. I had no idea of its’ long term impact until I was back in the game. Fortunately, I was around to be a part of the 25th Anniversary edition DVD release of “The Last Starfighter”. Again, the message is a strong one for young people at a pivotal time in their lives. I think that is why both NOTC and TLS made such an impact on those who saw them at that time in their lives. The message was, you could be young, strong, independent – make smart choices, take care of yourself in dire situations and pursue your craziest dreams. You are valid and worthwhile.
Any thoughts on the upcoming remake?
I’m not a fan of remakes per se. In this case the original should be left alone because my feeling is they will never do it justice and will no doubt ruin it with lots of high tech outer-space stuff and SFX, and the message will be lost. The human aspect of the film will disappear as has happens with most contemporary American films, remake or not. I do think a sequel is definitely in order. Both TLS and NOTC were left wide open for a sequel. I would especially like to see “The Return of the Last Starfighter” (or some such title for a sequel). I know Nick Castle, the director, has a wonderful idea for it that has kept the integrity of the story. It’s not easy to get the attention of producers or the studios. They live in the moment and have no idea how big the following is for the LAST STARFIGHTER. We need to rise up and be heard!
Your characters often have a tomboy, down-to-earth appeal…
I think the “tomboy” aspect was a necessary part of Reggie’s character in NOTC. I think that it is a natural part of my personality anyway, so if Maggie had a bit of that too, well it’s not surprising, but had it been cast differently it could have gone another way.
Being set in the fifties, what ways do you play the character differently than an eighties girl?
Well, this is going to sound cliché, but I do think it was a more innocent time. People just weren’t exposed to the things that we’re bombarded with these days, such as instant global news, information and entertainment. I think the 80’s were the birth of the instant gratification whereas in the 50’s you really had to make an effort and be creative to connect with each other. Life was a learning process that couldn’t be googled, or Wikied, or FB’d. And somehow there was calmness to life. It was OK to take your time, enjoy moments and create moments.
Bunny led a sheltered life, but that was not unusual. I think her life was fairly typical for that time. She knew what her small town provided, so when Gene enters the picture I suppose it’s like Grig showing up in the trailer park in the 80’s. No one had ever seen anything like it before. Of course Gene was much cuter than Grig, but the natives were suspicious none-the-less, because he was different. Gene was Bunny’s version of Maggie boarding the space ship, that leap of faith. Was Gene the bad guy everyone assumed he was or was Bunny’s judgment of him correct?
Again, a young woman taking control and responsibility for her decisions, just in a more traditional yet still hyper-romantic way. It is a movie after all.
As I answer your questions it’s so clear that I was fortunate to have been able to work in movies with stories that portray young women as characters that can take care of themselves. I’m not so sure that they make many movies that send that message anymore, unless they have a super hero outfit on, or are carrying a big weapon.
This was a group of young actors thrown together in Ohio. None of us at the time were terribly experienced, save for Doug McKeon who had done lots of work on film and perhaps best known at that time for his role in “On Golden Pond”. We were not out of control, but we had a lot a fun with inside gags and high jinks on the set and off. We all got along well and really enjoyed our experience together.
What was your favorite scene to be filmed in?
I suppose my favorite scene in terms of just enjoying it was when we rode horse back. I love riding, so for me that was like a fun holiday. Chris Nash and I got along very well so it was easy to fall for his character. He was new to the business and unassuming and wanted to be the best he could. Not a hint of attitude. Again through the miracle of the Internet, Doug, Chris and I got back in touch and all had lunch together in December. They are both as lovely as ever and we have vowed to stay in touch. I have no doubt that we will.
WEEKEND AT BERNIES
What are some memories working on this popular comedy?
The first memory that stands out to me with this movie was with the audition itself. I went in to read for Ted Kotcheff, the director, and Jonathon Silverman, who had the role of Richard already. I knew that this was a pretty big movie, so I was a little nervous going in. I read with Jonathon and at some point stumbled over a line. I was devastated!! I wanted to do so well! Afterwards, I called my manager at the time sobbing saying I’d blown it. I don’t know what happened but obviously I got the job.
We had a great time with Terry Kiser (at his expense). Ted Kotcheff would let the camera roll just a little too long after a scene had been completed when Terry was playing dead. He would slowly turn blue, determined to stay in character. Finally Ted would call “cut” and we all had a good laugh. He was a good sport about it.
Being such a fun, jovial movie, was it this way on set?
You know, there are very few times as an actor that I didn’t have “fun”, in case you didn’t notice my over-use of the word, and I wouldn’t tell you about the times that were not good experiences. Given that, I had so much FUN on… Bernie’s!! We shot the first part of the film in NYC. I hadn’t spent much time here so it was a real culture shock to me. I thought it was insane, that people would actually choose to live in this way. It truly is a concrete jungle! (I’ve lived here now for about 16 years!) I was definitely out of my comfort zone here. It was pretty wild and I was pretty intimidated.
Do any other important scenes featuring your character stand out?
The first scene I was in was on the elevator going up to the office. It carried on into the office and turned out to be very funny and sweet. It probably was the best way for me to be introduced to the shoot. It was simple and a very sweet scene in the end, but I was pretty nervous feeling so out of my element in so many ways.
I love the scene at the lighthouse where it’s so romantic and then Richard tumbles down the stairs. That cracks me up! I also love the following scene walking down the beach as Richard limps along. Jonathon is so funny in real life as he is in the movie. The laughing was totally real. Ted Kotcheff commented on what a fantastic laugher I am. It was organic, believe me. I do find it easy to muster a good laugh no matter what the situation, however. When we lie on the beach and begin to kiss and Bernie appears in the tide behind us, it is a classic moment.
Any standout memories from this indie film featuring Jon Cryer?
This was a kind of fantasy role for me. When I was young I loved cowboy movies and imagining myself as a cowboy galloping across the plains at full speed. Albeit this is not your traditional cowboy movie, it did afford me the opportunity to play cowboy (girl) of sorts. I learned to shoot that gun and spin it so it landed in my holster. And of course the riding was a particular highlight. Denim, cowboy boots, horses, heat, dust, hey, I’m in heaven.
Perhaps not surprisingly the most exciting thing for me was the prospect of galloping full tilt across a grassy plain. We set up the shot so that I would run full out towards the camera and pass it close to camera-right. As I started out and picked up speed I noticed someone pull his or her jeep up just behind the camera, camera-right. I wondered to myself if I should stop and force them to cut and start over or veer the horse hard left as soon as I cleared the camera. I chose the latter.
The horse had a different idea, and as hard as I pulled the reins left he kept going straight until we were almost on top of the jeep, and he stopped dead in his tracks. I, however, kept moving and flew headlong into the jeep. Fortunately, it wasn’t my head that made contact, but my right arm. As it turned out I had shattered my right ulna and had to finish the film with a removable cast and lots of painkillers. So it was a sort of the best of times, worst of times scenario.
What are the most challenging types of scenes to play in movies?
I’m a good laugher, but it is very difficult for me to muster tears for a scene. I was told as a child that crying was just a sign that I was feeling sorry for myself, so it was a highly suppressed expression of emotion. As I age and gain more life experience to draw on, it’s become somewhat easier to do when a scene requires it. It’s still a challenge for me. I did learn how important it is to allow children, or anyone for that matter, to express themselves through raw emotion.
Share with us some of your current and future projects…
I shot a movie called “A Christmas Snow” last February with Muse Watson and a new young talented actress, Cameron ten Napel, that will be out in October. It’s a lovely story of a woman, me, who is not a big fan of Christmas and all that it entails. She still suffers from bad memories of a Christmas long ago. Through an odd set of circumstances that she is thrown unwillingly, she begins to reevaluate her past, present and future.
I also shot a Hallmark movie for TV in December called “The Class” with Eric Roberts. He is a powerful corporate attorney and I play his unhappy alcoholic wife. Our son is in college pursuing a career in law when he realizes this might not be the route for him. When he stands up to his father, I realize that I can too. I believe it will be aired on the Hallmark channel beginning in August, so watch those listings!
What are your official websites?
I have a Facebook fan page that’s a lot of fun. I would ask your readers to join that for all the latest updates, photos, links and personal “discussions” with me. I am on it almost every day and try to answer questions or contribute to discussions as often as I can.
I also have a blog where you can purchase one or all of a selection of photos. They change periodically and I am open for suggestions of photos to post there. Type in ‘Autographed Photos’ in the search box. I also post updates and photos on the blog.
I’m in the process of updating it and improving my main website. It is still available to see.
You can also email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I get these emails directly and answer them in a timely fashion so don’t hesitate to write.
Interview by James M. Tate (and thanks to Tom Ryan for providing some pics)
JMT’S FACEBOOK FAN PAGE FOR: MISCHIEF