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Lea Thompson Interview: "I Have to Remind Myself 'Dancing with the Stars' Is Not Life or Death"

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Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson is perhaps best known for her role as the various incarnations of Lorraine McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy and as the title character in the 1990s NBC sitcom Caroline in the City. Since 2011, she has co-starred as Kathryn Kennish in the ABC Family series Switched at Birth.

Other film appearances are All the Right Moves, The Beverly Hillbillies, Howard the Duck, Jaws 3-D, Red Dawn, Thin Ice, J. Edgar, The Trouble with the Truth, Some Kind of Wonderful and Left Behind opposite Nicolas Cage.

“Oh, come on, it’s live TV! It’s live TV. Anything can happen. It’s insanely scary, but I’m starting to get into it now, and it’s not quite so scary. I have to remind myself it’s not life or death. It’s one minute of dance. Calm down (laughs).”

Thompson has joined the cast of Dancing with the Stars for its 19th season, pairing up with international Mirrorball Trophy holder Artem Chigvintsev. She and husband, film/television director Howard Deutch, have two daughters, Madelyn and Zoey.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lea, I read an article a couple of years ago where you described reality series as “traumatic.” Has your time on Dancing with the Stars been traumatic?

Lea Thompson: You know, it’s not. It’s not that tramatic. It’s actually really fun. I’m having a really good time, a much better time than I thought I would. Everyone is so nice on the show. I’m really having fun and making some great friends.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any nervousness out there on the dance floor?

Lea Thompson: What do you think? (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I would be petrified because I don’t have the dance training that you do.

Lea Thompson: Oh, come on, it’s live TV! It’s live TV. Anything can happen. It’s insanely scary, but I’m starting to get into it now, and it’s not quite so scary. I have to remind myself it’s not life or death. It’s one minute of dance. Calm down (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you become more nervous because you changed partners for the “Switch Up” episode?

Lea Thompson: I want to make my partner so happy. I want to make him so proud that I think it adds more nervousness to me. Having Val who’s also awesome and my bro, is actually a little more relaxing, which I’m surprised about. I really dig him.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s the toughest part for you?

Lea Thompson: First of all, it’s really humbling. It’s super humbling because you’re doing something you’re not used to doing at all, and you’re working with someone who is great at it. They’re trying to teach you really fast, and it’s very humbling. It’s emotionally … you gotta keep up and not get upset that you can’t get yourself to do what you want to do. Also your body really hurts.

We really don’t ever get a day off, so my body really hurts (laughs). I’m tired … I’m really tired (laughs). I haven’t even started my TV show Switched at Birth yet, so that’s gonna get really hairy when I’m doing a TV show and trying to … if I don’t get eliminated. Then I’m going to be even more tired, and my house is gonna be even more messy (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you going to win?

Lea Thompson: Oh, I’m not even thinking about that! I think my chances are naturally getting closer to being in the semi-finals just because there’s less and less people. That would make me really happy to get that far.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Hopefully that will happen! Will a new season of Switched at Birth start next year?

Lea Thompson: Yes. We’re about to start Switched at Birth season four. I guess it will go on in the spring or maybe January or February. I’m going to get to direct my third episode around Christmas, which I’m really excited about. I don’t really know the storylines yet, but I’m sure the will be juicy and fantastic because we left with a really great cliffhanger.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read something about a Christmas special to air before the new season.

Lea Thompson: That’s true. We did a beautiful little Christmas show, and I’m really excited about it. It looks really good. I think that was a great idea because everyone loves their Christmas movies.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You also co-star with Nicolas Cage in Left Behind, but you won’t appear in the sequels?

Lea Thompson: Not me. I disappear in the very beginning, so I don’t think they go to heaven. I think they stay on earth.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What drew you to the film?

Lea Thompson: They offered it to me, and I knew that so many people loved the books, so I just said “yes.” I was doing Switched at Birth and didn’t have to be gone for a long time to do the film and just thought it would be great to be Nic Cage’s wife. I love him. I’ve always loved his work, so I thought it would be cool.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did the first Back to the Future film affect your career as a young actor?

Lea Thompson: Well, it was just a great part and a great movie, so what more could you ask for? People still love it and love it as much as when it came out. It’s so weird. It just has a great shelf life, and I’m super proud that I had a great part. I wasn’t just like walking around in that movie. I really held up my end of the story, so I’m endlessly proud of that movie.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you do any background research on the culture of the 1950s to prepare for the role?

Lea Thompson: Oh I did tons of it, yeah, absolutely tons of it. I listened to all the music. I read the magazines. I carried around coins from the time period. Everyday I listened to “Mr. Sandman” in order to get into character. I worked really hard on it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you kept in contact with Michael J. Fox?

Lea Thompson: No. I haven’t, but if I see him, I like him. He’s great.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was it difficult to transition from the 80s “teen movies” to more mature roles as an actress?

Lea Thompson: It was very difficult to … I’ve been lucky. People are used to seeing me older, but no. It’s very difficult to stay in the movie business when you’re not super young. That was the hardest part. Once I had children, I really couldn’t get a movie for 17 years (laughs). That was rough.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And you went into television during that time?

Lea Thompson: Yeah. Thank God! Otherwise, I wouldn’t have worked for 17 years.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Roles are not that available for older women in television and in film, are they?

Lea Thompson: If I was complaining about that, I would have to be the worst person who ever lived because I’ve non-stopped worked, but yes, there aren’t as many roles for actresses in general as there are for actors. I think there’s something like four or five parts for men for every one part for women.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Both your daughters are in the entertainment field?

Lea Thompson: Yes they are. They’re both very amazing actresses. My younger daughter Zoey just finished one movie and is going to do another one. She starred in Beautiful Creatures and Vampire Academy. My daughter Madelyn did a mini-series, Texas Rising, and she just finished a starring role in her own feature called Windsor. Madelyn wrote a script, which I will be directing with both her and Zoey in it, so I will be directing both my daughters in a movie. I’m really excited about it! That happens in the spring.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s great!

Lea Thompson: Yeah! Isn’t it cool? And she wrote it. I coach them a lot, so I’m not really worried about directing them because they listen to me or else (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you still worry they may fail?

Lea Thompson: Well, of course, as a mother, you worry about your kids the moment you conceive, but they’ve both seen me and their dad, Howard Deutch, who’s an amazing director, go through all kinds of ups and downs, humiliations and victories, so they knew what they were getting into when they decided to become actors and musicians. It’s not easy because I know how it feels.

Whatever they’ve been through, I’ve been there, and I know how it feels, so it’s not easy, but it’s a family business (laughs). I feel happy because I can give them advice or tell them it’s not the end of the world. Just like any business, you have to keep working and working hard in order to succeed. Some people come into the movie business, and they think, “Oh I’m just going to get my big break.” They just don’t know the business.

The business is hard, and it’s hard work, and it’s courage, and it’s tenacity, and you have to be in it for the long haul. My daughters know that, and they know that everybody has their own path. Some people will make it one age, and then you’ll kind of go up, and you’ll go down. But they appreciate the work of it, which is all you can control, how hard you work.

I was really proud because my oldest daughter was at Dancing with the Stars. There’s all this glitz and glamour and famous people, and the thing she was concentrating on was how amazing the crew was, how amazing it was they could get the sets in so fast and change the lights, and it was all live and how incredibly hard and professional they were. I was like, “Oh that made my heart sing!” She was really seeing the work not just the fame which is fleeting.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you learn that sense of responsibility and work ethic from your own parents?

Lea Thompson: I learned how to work hard form my mother. That’s for sure. She’s blind, and she’s still painting. She goes out there and works and is just an amazing worker bee, so I definitely learned that from my mom. I learned how to be an artist and work, not just call yourself an “artist.” You get out there and you work. Even when nobody else is telling you that you are good, you just have to believe in yourself. That’s a really important thing to know.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wanted to be a ballet dancer as a young person, so do you regret not taking that career path?

Lea Thompson: No. I’m really glad for how my life has unfolded. I don’t really like to think about regrets. I like to think that things happen for a reason, and it’s your job to learn what you need to learn from it. I was always happy as a dancer because it gave me discipline. It gave me knowledge of how my body works and so many things. I’m glad I spent all that time as a dancer, but I’m glad I became an actress when I became an actress.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some people out there seem to think you are just now making a comeback (laughs).

Lea Thompson: I know (laughs). I don’t understand that question at all. Somebody asked me, “So you gave up acting to become a mom?” I’m like, “No. I’ve not stopped working.”

Right now I’m starting the fourth season of Switched at Birth, and then I’m going to direct my daughters in this movie, and then I’ll finish up the season of the show. That’ll take me to the end of July, so I’m literally booked solid until July.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Good luck in those projects and on Dancing with the Stars!

Lea Thompson: Thank you so much! My partner, Artem, is the awesomest dude ever, and we want one more chance to dance! We’re doing our best to keep up with the young Internet whippersnappers. To compete with them is a little scary!

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