Alex Winter Doesn’t Mind if You Only Know Him From ‘Bill & Ted’

With his latest film ‘Showbiz Kids,’ the actor-turned-documentarian profiles former child stars like himself. In a wide-ranging conversation, he discusses his career pivot, life as a sexual-abuse survivor, and the joys of bringing back the beloved Bill Preston

Showbiz Kids is a film Alex Winter has been wanting to make for years. Premiering tonight on HBO, the documentary is a thoughtful collection of interviews with former child stars who share their experience of being famous way too young. That description might suggest a tawdry, Behind the Musicstyle trawl through drug addiction and bad behavior, but instead Winter offers a sober assessment of what celebrity does to children, while also spotlighting just how cruel and predatory the entertainment business can be. Featuring everyone from Henry Thomas to Todd Bridges to Evan Rachel Wood, Showbiz Kids isn’t so much a cautionary tale as it is an honest accounting of how debilitating Hollywood can be for those who weren’t old enough to process how surreal their lives had become.

Winter understands. Turning 55 this Friday, he was born to parents who were dancers, and as a child, he was on Broadway as part of the companies for The King & I and Peter Pan. Figuring he’d quit acting to focus on directing, he enrolled in film school only to end up getting cast in the beloved 1980s vampire film The Lost Boys and then landing one of the two leads in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, alongside his lifelong friend Keanu Reeves

As the goofy but goodhearted Bill Preston, Winter found his signature role, at least in the eyes of the public, but he still saw himself as a filmmaker, making shorts and a few features before deciding to focus on a movie about Napster. But after years of working on a script that eventually went into turnaround, Winter had a thought: Why not do a documentary about the subject? (After all, he knew all the major players intimately and could get them to talk on camera about what had gone down.) Out of that came 2012’s Downloaded, a sturdy, fascinating overview of the firestorm that Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker unleashed in the music business with their file-sharing service.

Since then, Winter has just kept making documentaries, including Deep Web (about Bitcoin and Silk Road), The Panama Papers and a forthcoming Frank Zappa film. And that’s not even mentioning some interesting short-subject nonfiction he’s done, particularly Trump’s Lobby, which Winter shot in Trump Tower shortly after the 2016 election, offering an impressionistic snapshot of the different individuals who came to visit the President-elect. (Hi, Mitt Romney. What’s up, Bill Gates?) 

It’s a remarkable career pivot if you just know Winter from Bill & Ted, but the politically outspoken artist was there from the start. (“I grew up in an intensely political family,” he tells me.) And although Winter doesn’t include his own story in Showbiz Kids, you feel it in the film — especially when the topic of sexual abuse comes up. In 2018, Winter went public about his own sexual abuse that he suffered in the 1970s, lending his voice to the #MeToo movement. As he explains to me over the phone, he felt it was his responsibility to stand in solidarity with others. “The more people, especially male, that come forward and say, ‘This is incredibly common,’ the better,” he says.

Winter had become reacquainted with his most famous character recently — Bill & Ted Face the Music, the first movie in the franchise in nearly 30 years, is currently set for a late-August release — but during our conversation, we only talked about Mr. Preston briefly. I was much more interested in discussing Showbiz Kids, how it felt to recall his own childhood stardom and the path he took to become a respected documentary filmmaker. But he was also quite open about how the #MeToo movement changed his life — “I had never assumed, in a million years, that I was ever going to speak publicly about what happened to me while I was alive,” he admits at one point — and his hopes for the political uprisings that have happened in America this year. 

He knows he’ll probably always be associated with Bill, and he’s okay with that. (He loves that character.) But as you’ll see, there’s a lot more to Winter than that. “If you’re at peace with yourself,” he says, “you can do whatever the hell you want and you’re fine.”

In Showbiz Kids, many of your interview subjects talk about the fact that they didn’t get to have a childhood. It’s far from a glowing portrait. Were you expecting that?
I did. I was a child actor, and I started acting very, very young. I worked in two long-running Broadway shows back to back, so it really overtook my life for the bulk of my childhood. I knew the general way in which those experiences can impact us and how we perceive them. I’ve known a lot of other child actors. I’ve been close friends with Henry Thomas for years — we actually worked together as adults on a film of mine. There are other child actors, who aren’t in the film, who I’ve known very well my whole life. 

But I also knew that the experience wasn’t black-and-white — that it wasn’t all negative, nor was it all positive. It was much like life — more contradictory and multifaceted. That isn’t to say I had all the answers. It isn’t to say I went in with some kind of smug know-it-all attitude. There were a lot of things that were surprising, and there was a lot of what came up that I certainly didn’t know and hadn’t heard before.

Early on, we see a picture of you as a kid, but other than that, you aren’t in the movie. Did you ever consider having your story be one of the narratives?
I was open going in, just because you’re open going in on docs. You don’t exactly know what you’re making — I tend to build a structure that’s very specific but also completely changeable. At the beginning, I knew that the film that I had in my head didn’t include me — it didn’t make sense to. The story I wanted to tell was a collective experience across time. I felt like that would have the most impact and have the most relatability — as opposed to either a very salacious, tabloid-y rise-and-fall story about a child actor, or an autobiographical story just about my life. Those things just felt less relatable and too hyper-specific. I felt that if I talked to someone as old as Diana [Serra Cary] ended up being — she was around in the silent era — all the way to someone like Cameron Boyce, who came up through Disney and had a massive Instagram following and really embodied the modern showbiz kid, it would hopefully be more universal and more relatable for people. 

A couple of years ago, you went public about the sexual abuse you experienced. While watching Showbiz Kids, which is partly about child abuse, I wondered if the process of making the film was therapeutic.
Yeah, it was more cathartic than I expected. It wasn’t the reason why I did it. I didn’t expect to have that response to it. I certainly expected to have an emotional response, because these are very intense experiences that I had — like anyone’s childhood, whether you’re in show business or not. 

I’m middle-aged. I’ve been dealing with these issues, thankfully, for the bulk of my adult life. So I felt like I reconciled them all — not in a flippant way, but I’d reconciled them. I’d done an enormous amount of labor to reconcile them all. I’d done a lot of therapy, a lot of PTSD therapy, a lot of work with sexual-abuse survivors and assault survivors. I do a lot of outreach and activism work with those organizations — I’m involved, and I rolled up my sleeves and did the work. I felt like I had moved past it, in a way. 

And then you sit down with all these actors, and I didn’t know the intimate details of their stories — other than someone like Todd Bridges, who had been very public about it. But I didn’t know Evan’s story. I didn’t know Wil [Wheaton]’s story and Mara [Wilson]’s story. I didn’t know Jada [Pinkett Smith]’s story. Some of the things that Jada talked about, I found very moving, because our stories are so incredibly similar. Not all of this is in the film, but I talked to Diana Cary for a very long time, and her experiences with assault and predatory behavior were unbelievably similar to mine — in the experiences themselves and the way she processed them, and the path her life took as an adult as a result of them. It was very moving. That was completely unexpected.

When survivors tell their sexual-abuse story, we often say that they’re “brave.” Did you feel brave opening up about your experience?
I didn’t feel brave. I certainly have felt brave along the journey — [for] survivors, it requires a certain amount of bravery just to do the work. But that’s not the public bravery — it’s more like an internal “Oh my god, I’m actually going to deal with this” kind of bravery. 

The situation in my instance didn’t require bravery, as far as I was concerned, for two reasons. One is that the #MeToo movement had completely blown the doors off the taboo nature of discussing this stuff publicly. I just cannot emphasize enough how absolutely watershed that movement was for survivors like us. I had never assumed, in a million years, that I was ever going to speak publicly about what happened to me while I was alive. It never occurred to me that that would ever happen — it was such a taboo subject, and there was no easy, open discourse around these issues at all. You went into self-help or group therapy — or you talked to your family, if you were able to do that, or they were able to hear it — but in no way, shape or form were you going to go to the press with this stuff. [#MeToo] just changed everything. Not only did it make it more comfortable, I felt a responsibility to [speak up] at that point. I thought, “Well, I’ve just got to add my voice to the chorus, because it’s really important.” The more people, especially male, that come forward and say, “This is incredibly common,” the better.

The other thing was that my perpetrator was dead. And I’ve got to tell you, had he been alive, it would’ve required much more bravery. My hat is far more off to the people who have the courage to come forward while their abuser is still around — that’s terrifying. It’s a funny thing: When I did it, it was probably close to a 40-year gap between when these events occurred and when I came forward. The idea of coming forward — knowing that he was still alive — would have filled me with utter dread.

#MeToo has been so important, obviously, but I feel like your story is meaningful because it still seems, in our society, that we haven’t accepted that men are also sexual assault survivors.
Oh, not at all — the organizations that I work with, that’s the lion share of their labor. Whether it’s 1 in 6 or RAINN or whoever, breaking that false narrative takes a great deal of work. That’s why the #MeToo movement was so powerful. Even though the #MeToo movement wasn’t about males or boys, it certainly did extend to them in a meaningful way. 

These are statistics I’ve known my whole life, obviously. The scope of abuse isn’t institutionally related. It’s just in every household in the world. It’s vast. Global culture is only just starting to wrap their heads around that.

The last 10 years of your career have been so interesting as you’ve dovetailed into making documentaries. Were you into documentaries as a kid?
I kind of fell sideways into it. It was always an interest of mine — I loved documentaries. The first documentary I tried to get made was in the early 1990s, but I couldn’t get it off the ground and abandoned it. In my case, it became a matter of necessity. 

I was working mostly in narrative, and that’s what I came up in. I had a movie about Napster that I wanted to make, and I was very, very immersed in the Napster story and was around for the backend of their trajectory as they were going down the tubes. It struck me as an incredibly important story, but one that I had a huge emotional investment in. I sold it to a major studio, and I wrote many drafts of it there — and then a whole wing of the studio was fired, as what tends to happen at studios on a regular basis. [Laughs] 

The movie went into a protracted turnaround, but I really wanted to tell the story. By then I’d done years of labor on it, in terms of research. I’d traveled the country and met everyone and gotten friendly and established trust with everyone in the story. At a certain point, it seemed obvious to try to make it as a doc if it wasn’t going to go as a narrative. And it was very easy to sell as a documentary, while it had been extremely difficult to make as a narrative. I loved the experience so much, I just kept going.

I still work in narrative — I’m working on a political satire right now, a 30-minute series that my partner and I are writing, and there’s other stuff that I want to do in that space. But the thing that hooks you with docs — if you’re of a certain mindset — is the lack of didacticism. Not to say that docs inherently lack didacticism, because often that’s the opposite of what they are. But the docs I like lack didacticism. With narrative, it’s absolutely imperative to have to fall on one side or the other: Who’s your protagonist? Who’s your antagonist? There’s a center of good in there somewhere — even if they’re a thug or a gangster, they’re still your center of good. Docs don’t have to do that — they work very, very well not doing that. It’s extremely liberating. It’s much more true to the human condition. It’s more inherently contradictory and paradoxical. I love all of those nuances. And that’s why I love the doc space so much. 

With Showbiz Kids, it’s not a story with a thesis. It’s not like, “Don’t put your kids in the business.” Or, “It’s all terrible.” Or, “It’s all great.” Or, “The [stage] mothers are all bad.” It’s all of the above and none of the above. And life is much more like that, frankly.

But after Downloaded, you just kept going. Did you catch the bug? Were there just more nonfiction stories you wanted to tell?
The doc did well enough, within the realm of what that means in Doc Land — which is not a whole lot, to be honest. [Laughs] It’s a very small wing of the entertainment industry, which is also somewhat comforting unto itself. But it did well enough that I was being approached to do more. Funnily enough, the next doc I wanted to make was [Showbiz Kids]. The whole conceptual idea was worked out almost 10 years ago, and nobody wanted to make it. So, I just put it aside and kept moving. There were more stories that I wanted to tell, and I did catch the bug. 

I remember I spent so long writing [the] Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker [characters] — especially Fanning, because the narrative was about Fanning primarily. It was really a first-person experiential narrative. I had been writing him and writing him, and [I was] in his head and in his home. So [he] was the first interview I shot for the doc — by then, I’d known Shawn for 13, 14 years. To aim a camera at him, ask him some pretty intense questions — as soon as he started talking, I was like, “This is so much better than what I wrote!” [Laughs] I was just like, “Oh, thank god I didn’t make that [fiction] version.” This was so nuanced and complicated and odd and paradoxical — so, yes, I wanted to keep doing that thing.

What’s funny with docs is this perception that people often have of the work when you’re dealing with real people. They will come to their own conclusions and be 100 percent sure that’s your perspective — and it’s almost never my perspective. And I like that. 

I’m surprised that people passed on Showbiz Kids back then. What was the rationale?
There were two things, I think. One, people just wanted a really salacious “Go find the person who had the biggest disaster, train-wreck life and make it about them” [movie]. And I said, “No, that’s not what I want to do. I want to make something that’s about a group of characters spanning time.” The other thing was, about 10 years ago, the big trend in docs were these kinds of recreation, vérité, “blur the line between narrative and documentary” things, and I didn’t want to do that, either. It seemed kind of pretentious to me. I really wanted an intimate dialogue. 

It’s kind of a sad thing but I think, before #MeToo, people didn’t really understand what was unspoken [in the entertainment industry]. I think that in the aftermath of #MeToo, the average person has a much better understanding of what is unspoken. You don’t know that until it’s in your face in a major way within the media. You said something at the very beginning of the interview about how people think you’re brave [for speaking out] — they respond to an admission of past experience by saying you’re brave. And they do, but just as equally they respond by doubting you and questioning your motives and asking why you didn’t come out much sooner — [like] you’re just trying to get attention. It’s a really difficult issue for most people to address who haven’t gone through it, in which case you have no choice but to address it. So I think there was an aspect of that, too. When I pitched [Showbiz Kids], people were like, “Ew, really? Isn’t this the thing we don’t talk about?”

Evan Rachel Wood is especially articulate in Showbiz Kids about this sense of confusion that child actors face when they think, “Why am I doing this? I don’t like acting.” Did you feel that way when you were on Broadway?
Well, I don’t think that those people didn’t like it — I think they liked it, but I think they all hit a point where they didn’t know who they were. They didn’t know if that’s what they were supposed to be doing. When you’re doing something when you’re a child — when your whole life is really being run by your parents, even if it’s something that you like to do — you don’t have your own agency yet. And you certainly don’t view yourself as having agency yet. So at the point at which you do have agency, almost every single child actor I’ve ever met who’s being honest with me told me they didn’t know who the hell they actually were. They had a crisis point of going, “I could keep doing this, or I could not, but I don’t really have a firm grip on who I actually am.”

I think, to your point, Evan [expressed] exactly who I was at that age; it was just such a refreshing thing to hear someone else say. It’s not like she stopped acting; she kept moving. I think there’s a lot of parallels with the athlete world: If you look at the Williams sisters, they were very vocal about the fact that, at a certain point when they were young, they didn’t know if that was what they wanted to be doing anymore. Both of the sisters talked about other careers that they may want to pursue, and then they kept going with tennis. 

As a child actor who grew up, I don’t look at the Williams sisters or at Evan and think, “Oh, well, you just gave up. You just said, ‘The hell with it, I’m going to keep [doing this same thing].’” You come to understand, “No, this is a part of my identity and I do like to do it. And I am really good at it, but I also have worked really hard at it because I like it.” It can be very challenging to hit that fork in the road and not really know who the hell you are, not really know which route to take. 

It can be paralyzing — I absolutely experienced that. At 25, 26, even though I’d been doing a lot of directing by then, I was mostly known as an actor, and I had a lot of success with movies. I’d gone to film school thinking I wasn’t going to act anymore after being a kid. But I love acting, and I was super-grateful to be in the Bill & Ted movies. They were really, really fun, and I loved making them. But I didn’t know who the hell I was. I was at a crossroads of “Am I supposed to be a director? Am I supposed to be an actor? Am I supposed to be neither? Is there some other thing that I don’t even know about that I’m supposed to do?” 

So I quit acting and I left L.A. I did it to protect my head. It wasn’t reactionary — it was just, “It would be better for me not to be in the public eye for a little while,” so that whatever decision I end up making, I don’t have to make it in public. That was really helpful for me, mentally, because I was heading in a bad direction had I not done that, for sure.

I think everyone has that moment where they fantasize about, like, going off into the woods and disconnecting, regrouping. Was it that extreme for you?
I had been on a very specific train since I was about 10 years old. And it had just chugged along and chugged along and chugged along. Even though I stopped acting full-time when I was about 17, in order to go to film school, I was acting all through film school, doing voice-overs and commercials and some TV. I still had my managers and my agents, and I was chugging along, chugging along, chugging along. At 25, 26 years old, I really wasn’t burned out, but I had just been at it too long, and I had too many internal questions about who I was actually supposed to be. I knew that if I didn’t leave my environment and I just kept all of these mechanisms in place, I’d never stop — and if I didn’t stop then, I knew I was going to fry my circuitry. 

It was beginning to happen — I was already beginning to feel pretty confused and unhappy — so I just got out. I moved back to New York and just focused on writing and directing. Then I set up a commercial production company in London, because I’m half-British. And I worked mostly out of the U.K. for the next eight, nine years — all over Europe, shooting TV commercials. It was just a clean break from everything else I’d done. I worked through a bunch of stuff on my own, psychologically — the abuse history, the PTSD — and I did a lot of work. Then it was time to come back.

Reading old reviews of your documentaries, you’re often referred to as “Alex Winter, Bill from Bill & Ted.”
[Laughs]

Obviously, there’s no getting around that association. But when you were starting in the nonfiction realm, was it hard because people just thought of you as “that Bill guy”?
No, because by the time I was doing docs, I was a fully-fledged grownup and had done all the work on myself and felt very at ease about who I was. 

When I made my first independent film — which was in 1998, a film called Fever — it was a very serious movie about very serious psychological issues. It was completely unlike anything I did. And that film was very little — it was a teeny little independent movie — but it got accepted into the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, and it got a really good review in The New York Times. But that [period] was really challenging for me, because I wasn’t really reconciled with all this stuff yet — I still felt all over the place. It wasn’t like I felt no one could take me seriously — it’s more of an internal thing. I just didn’t fill that hole yet — I felt very fragmented. Like, “I’m this Bill guy over here, [but] I’m [also] this serious indie filmmaker” — I was pretty confused still at that point in my life.

But by the time I started making docs, I felt very reconciled, and I wasn’t fragmented in any way. I’m perfectly happy to go back into playing Bill again and have no concerns about it. If you’re at peace with yourself, you can do whatever the hell you want and you’re fine. I think it’s sweet that people will say, “He was Bill,” because I like Bill & Ted. It was a very happy experience for me. I certainly understand why [people] would say that — it’s certainly the thing that’s had the most global awareness. 

I rewatched the first Bill & Ted somewhat recently, and I was struck by how sweet those guys are. We tend to think of teenage boys as immature assholes — especially in comedies — but Bill and Ted aren’t.
I don’t fault anyone for responding to movies any way that they care to, but a lot of times [Bill and Ted] are talked about as stoners, and that couldn’t be farther from who we are and how we played those guys. The thing that I think connected the director to us in the first place is that [Reeves and I] both happened to play them the same way. We both came up in theater, and we both built characters from the inside out, having been trained in theater. We both came into that audition playing them totally straight — not like attitudinal teenagers, not like stoners, but very innocent, joyful, kind of childlike teenagers. That’s, to this day, how we view those guys, and they’re really fun to play because they’re sincerely innocent — it isn’t meta at all or self-reflective. 

So when we set about doing the third one, there were a lot of discussions that Keanu and I had all along. The prep was about how we come at them — how you retain some form of innocence in middle age. Solving those problems was fun. [The screenwriters] write great dialogue, and their use of language is really, really great. It’s got nothing to do with us — it’s 100 percent them. But they’re super-fun to play emotionally — they really do view the world in a very innocent and joyful way.

I also like your nonfiction shorts, like Trump’s Lobby and Relatively Free. It’s a terrible label, but your films could be loosely described as “issue docs.” You speak out about political issues on Twitter. I guess I’m wondering where that political consciousness came from in your life.
That’s all nurture. I’m very reactive against injustice — but maybe that’s nurture, too, because of the abuse history. But I grew up in an intensely political family. My grandmother worked for Mayor LaGuardia. She and my grandfather broke Tammany Hall together. My earliest memories are of protests. I was canvassing for George McGovern when I was really young. I was at an anti-Spiro Agnew protest when I was really young. It’s just a big part of my upbringing. Having a very direct relationship to what’s going on around me politically has been my whole life. 

There’s always some element of it in the narrative work that I did — sometimes it was more obvious than others, but I’m usually driven by sociopolitical or social issues. The docs, obviously, allow me to do that [more openly], which is unbelievably satisfying. You’ve got to be careful, though, because I don’t like to make message movies — I like things to be nuanced — but there are sometimes where you just come right out and do what you’re doing. Like Trump’s Lobby, it is what it is, right? And The Panama Papers, there are clear-cut good guys and clear-cut bad guys in that situation — we’re pretty clear about that, and we’re not trying to create dualities where they don’t exist. But most of the time, I’m trying to come at things in a way that isn’t so cut-and-dried.

Even with Deep Web, that’s a film that ends up being about the War on Drugs, which isn’t what a viewer might be expecting.
That was a very interesting journey. That movie started as mostly about Bitcoin — and, in fact, I shot a Bitcoin movie. I went all over the country interviewing everybody involved in Bitcoin while I was investigating the Silk Road, because I knew the Silk Road was my primary narrative driver. But while telling that story, I was really telling the story of Bitcoin because, to me, Silk Road was a Bitcoin story first and foremost. I would argue to this day that the trial of Ross Ulbricht and the hyper-punitive way in which he was prosecuted has more to do with Bitcoin and the government’s fear of it at that time than really anything else.

But that’s a really good example of how much things change while you’re shooting — I got such incredible access to the Ulbricht family and was able to really dig into what was going on in this case. And it became evident that it was a drug-war story, and I knew a lot about the drug war — it’s something I’d researched heavily for years. Especially at that time, it had struck me as one of the bigger issues that wasn’t being discussed in the U.S. Nixon really started it, but heavily through the Reagan era — and even during the Obama era — it was still a major problem [because of] the hyperincarceration, mostly, of minorities. It became much more of a drug war movie — obviously, Bitcoin factors heavily into this story, and attaches into why Ross was prosecuted the way that he was — but the drug war and the government’s need to come down really hard on anyone they saw as a threat in that world became the larger theme of the film.

We’re seeing a political uprising in this country right now. How are you feeling about the state of the nation?
It’s a very, very challenging time because we have the administration we do at the time of a mass-casualty event. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances — it’s kind of the worst people leading at the worst possible time. The concerns that I had before have just become magnified — we’re losing a lot of people unnecessarily, and we’ll probably lose a lot more unnecessarily. 

That could be despairing, [although] there’s a lot of people doing a lot of good — and a lot of people who are more politically awake now than they were before. They understand the implications that it has on them directly, which is what tends to need to be the case for things to change. 

I think there’s much more awareness of other issues now, like mass incarceration — issues that were a problem under the previous administration, frankly. Like certain actions that the U.S. takes overseas and the level to which we’re drone-bombing people. The level to which we sock away the poor and people of color in the prisons. These are huge systemic problems that need to get addressed. 

Where I’m Pollyanna-ish is that I think, out of this incredible darkness, there’s a transparency now to the problems that this country faces that weren’t as obvious before. It’s all bubbled up to the surface. There are a lot of human beings out there who don’t like what they see — whether they’re 5 years old or 90 — who are going to take action. Or they’re going to grow up with political ideas that they may not have had otherwise. That’s a definite positive.

How is being a father during quarantine?
It’s really challenging, and it’s really beautiful. We’re spending an enormous amount of time together, which is great. My eldest couldn’t make it back from the town where he’s in college — it wasn’t safe to move him, so he’s kind of stuck there. But he’s got a girlfriend and an apartment, and he doesn’t need us. He probably doesn’t even want to be around [me]. [Laughs] He’s at that age.

For my younger kids, it’s great to have them home, but it’s very challenging. It’s a real quandary in terms of their need to socialize by being in camp and school, and the fact that that’s just not safe. Then there’s the challenge that my wife and I both work. We need the time to work, but they’re home.

But I fall so hard on the side of protecting human life at all costs, even if the road is bumpy, that I’m not in a rush to stick my kids back into school. Is that going to be hard on my work? Yes, it is. Is it hard on my day-to-day life? It is. My kid’s literally 10 feet away right now. I deal with him in between interviews and everything else I’m doing. And I’m structuring his time, [he’s] taking online classes, and doing whatever he can do to keep himself occupied. It’s going to be going on a while now. But we’ve all gotten along really well for the most part — and I really do relish all the time we’ve gotten to spend together.

Joel Schumacher died recently, and he directed your first hit film, The Lost Boys, which was before Bill & Ted. Just wondering about your memories of working with him.
It was a really, really lovely experience. I was still in school when he hired me — I think I was a sophomore at NYU Film School. A big part of me didn’t want to be acting on that level because I didn’t want to get taken away from film school. But it was a really great job — it was a great project. Joel was really good at communicating. It was Richard Donner as well — they were both very involved, even in the audition stage. 

Joel was very, very good at communicating his vision. It was really exciting to hear what he wanted to do, even with something that is on the surface… I wouldn’t say “lightweight,” but it’s a fun, goofy genre movie, right? But he just had all these ideas, and they were really interesting. Then he put his money where his mouth was and he got Michael Chapman to shoot it, and he got Bo Welch to [do the] production — this incredible crew made this thing, all the best of the best. 

On top of that, he was just incredibly lovely. He would call my mom to make sure I was okay — sometimes without me even knowing about it. My mom would be like, “Did you know Joel called me the other day to find out how you were doing?” He was very parental and very protective and very conscientious. 

That was an incredibly rough era — it wasn’t for me, per se, because I was a young adult by then, but the two Coreys were going through a lot during that film. I was kind of the “den dad” on that set — I was the older actor of the young actors. There was a lot of drugs — in the mid-1980s, Hollywood was off the rails, in every conceivable way — but the set felt really safe. It wasn’t the environment [where] everything was crazy, and there’s just nothing to hold onto. Joel was genuinely that person that you could hold onto — that’s really not that common. The entertainment world is so high-stress, and most people are focused on whatever their job is — they don’t have room to take you in as well.

I saw Joel not that long ago — we were always really happy to see each other when I saw him — and I gave him a hug. And it was so funny, because I felt like I was 19 again. He has such a parental quality — I was in my 40s or early 50s, and I was like, “God, I just feel like a little kid around him.” But it was in a sweet way — the way you would around a family member that you care about. He had a lot of impact on me.