By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Lea Thompson will forever be known as Michael J. Fox’s pretty mom who develops a crush on her time-traveling son (not knowing he’s her offspring) in “Back to the Future.” The actress has worked steadily for 28 years, though she took some time away from moviemaking to raise her two daughters with director Howard Deutch.
With her girls now grown, Thompson, who stars in the TV series “Switched at Birth,” is eager to get back into making movies. She had a supporting role in the Leonardo DiCaprio starrer “J. Edgar.” She now has another supporting role in the dark comedy “Thin Ice,” starring Greg Kinnear, Oscar winner Alan Arkin and Billy Crudup. Thompson plays the frustrated wife of a crooked insurance salesman played by Kinnear, who attempts to scam an elderly client out of a valuable violin in order to pay off his mounting debts.
The Wisconsin-set comedy is directed by Jill Sprecher, who co-wrote the script with her sister Karen, who grew up in that state.
Front Row Features: How did the project come your way?
Thompson: Oh, I have a good story. I have a cat named Stinky Pete that goes to everybody’s house in the neighborhood, pretending he’s got no home and begging for food. One day, my neighbor called me up, and my neighbor happens to be Jill Sprecher. She said, “We have your cat.” So I went to get my stupid cat for like the fourth time that week, and we started talking. I realized Jill is a director and writer whom I really admire, and she said she might be doing this movie, and there was a part I might be interested in. So Stinky Pete, the cat, got me the job.
Front Row Features: So he gets Fancy Feast from now on?
Thompson: A crate of it, and catnip. It was one of those things that was meant to be, and I was really honored to do it. Whenever I don’t have to audition, (it’s) thumbs up. I couldn’t believe the cast we got; it was spectacular.
Front Row Features: You shot on location in Wisconsin when it was cold. Do you prefer pretending it’s cold or actually being in the real environment?
Thompson: If I don’t have to act (like it’s cold), I’d rather not. I’d rather be cold. That’s my weird way of acting. Of course, most of the time we have to act, and that’s OK too. I’m actually from Minnesota, so I’ve done my share of scraping ice from the car and waiting for the bus in the cold. When I was a little girl, I remember there were two and a half months out of the year where the temperatures never went about zero. I was relieved it wasn’t like that when we were shooting, at least when I was shooting. I know when Greg (Kinnear) and Billy (Crudup, who plays a loose cannon pest controller) were shooting out on the ice it was horribly cold.
Front Row Features: Did you predict the ending when you started reading the script?
Thompson: No. When I met Jill and Karen I was surprised this would come out of their minds, this incredible and intricate plot that’s so dark. It’s a very male kind of script.
Front Row Features: Is it still rare to get a script written by a woman?
Thompson: There’s probably more women writing and directing than ever before. I’ve worked with four or five female directors, but it’s still fairly rare. I’m a director too, so I’m trying to hold up my end.
Front Row Features: Your character has a bad relationship with her husband in the movie. But what’s your key to a good relationship?
Thompson: Humor and its friend honesty. That’s what kept my marriage together all these years, and just pure blind luck.
Front Row Features: What did you think of Greg’s performance? He’s a nasty character and yet as an audience we’re kind of rooting for him.
Thompson: This is the magic of Greg Kinnear. He plays a guy who does not nice things throughout the whole thing, but he’s such an amazing actor we still care about what happens to him. He really pulls it off. It’s so fun to watch him weave a web of lies and see how he gets tangled in it. That was fun to watch.
Front Row Features: Would you like to play a character like that?
Thompson: I don’t get to play evil, duplicitous characters often, but hopefully someday somebody will hire me to do that.
Front Row Features: Do you resent that you don’t get to play villains?
Thompson: I’ve tried. In “The Beverly Hillbillies” I was bad, and when I played Sally Bowles (in “Cabaret”) on Broadway; she’s kind of a drug addict and a whore. That was fun.
Front Row Features: Did you ever pick the brains of your directors about directing?
Thompson: I’ve always been interested, but I’ve been a mother for 20 years, and directing is a big deal so I’ve had to save whatever energy I have left after acting to be with my kids. Now that they’re older, it’s easier. Your kids learn more from how you do things than what you tell them to do. I’ve done that with directors, not so much asking them (about their work), but by watching them. I’ve worked with so many good directors, and my husband (Howard Deutsch), who directed me in “Some Kind of Wonderful,” gave me some simple advice. He said it’s all about the story.
Front Row Features: You’ve been doing TV a long time now. Do you prefer that pace to making movies, which tend to take longer to make?
Thompson: It’s strange and a bit of a mystery to me how little film work I’ve done since I had my second child, Zoey, and did (the TV series) “Caroline in the City.” It’s actually kind of shocking. I did some independent movies that never really made it. “J. Edgar” is the first big movie I did in 18 years, since “The Little Rascals.” I don’t know how that happened. I don’t know how I didn’t do a movie, but I have been working.
Front Row Features: Why do you think you didn’t do that many movies?
Thompson: I made a bunch of movies that made a bunch of money that are now becoming classics. I wasn’t in rehab, or anything. I was working and behaving. I don’t know how I didn’t do movies. The parts offered to me seemed to be on TV, with my sitcom, on Lifetime, the TV movies I did, the little independent movies and on Broadway, when I did “Cabaret.” But I can’t complain. I’ve worked steadily for 28 years, and kind of on my terms. I feel really lucky. I’ve managed to keep myself fit and strong and I know my lines and I do my job. That’s the kind of artist I wanted to be. I’m still here so that’s good.
Front Row Features: Is it weird to see some of your earlier work being remade?
Thompson: Yeah. They’re talking about putting “Back to the Future” on Broadway. I think that’s interesting. Chris Lloyd and I could still play our characters. I’m old enough to be the mom now. I can sing. (She starts singing operatically.) “My boyfriend, my son. My boyfriend, my son.” It’s weird how fast time goes. We look back on our lives and think where did that go. I still feel like I’m young.
Front Row Features: Have your kids seen your movies? What’s their take on “Back to the Future?”
Thompson: They have seen some of my movies but (I never made them watch them). “Look at this. Aren’t I good?” I didn’t do that to them. Some of them were scarring like “Howard the Duck.” When I got in bed with the duck, they were like, “No, turn it off. That’s disgusting.” It’s fun for them to accidentally stumble upon certain things. They’re both actresses now so it’s more interested for them to (watch).
Front Row Features: Have you given them professional advice on surviving in Hollywood?
Thompson: As anyone who can attest that has a teenager, you’re excited when they have something positive to put their energy into, so I was pretty happy when they decided to do what they do. My older daughter (Madelyn) is more of a musician and my younger daughter is on “Ringer” with Sarah Michelle Gellar right now. My husband just directed her, which was really funny. I coach them all the time, which actually is good for me because I’m putting my craft into words, which I never did before. I was always more instinctual and now I have to figure out why I do things and why they work. What’s really awesome is having a teenage girl listen to you.
Front Row Features: Meredith Baxter recently guest starred on your TV show “Switched at Birth.” What was it like working with her?
Thompson: I loved it. She played my mother. As you probably know, she also played Michael J. Fox’s mother on “Family Ties” and, of course, I was his mom in “Back to the Future.” Hollywood is definitely very incestuous. (She laughs.)