Pack mentality

From Breakfast Club rebel to indie cinema star, Judd Nelson’s near 40-year career has made him more Hollywood than most. But the Brat Packer comes without airs and graces

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Judd Nelson is waiting to talk to me. He’s somewhere in Los Angeles, between acting jobs. I’m in Manchester halfway through walking my sausage dog. A missed email means I’m slightly late for our call and I’m a little concerned this star, whose career spans time-capsule classics and thought-provoking indies, might get a little Hollywood on me when we finally connect. Turns out, I needn’t worry. “I’ve had dogs for years – and they win!” he sympathises, the smile evident in his voice despite our lack of Zoom visuals. “For a while I had two dogs. Never have two dogs – it’s just too tough.”

“We’re raised to think if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – but if you succeed, what do you do then?”

I thank him for taking the time to speak with me and apologise again for my tardiness – but he won’t hear it. It’s exactly the kind of laid-back attitude you might expect from someone who shot to fame playing the coolest kid in the biggest teen movie of all time. As The Breakfast Club’s bad boy John Bender, Nelson once told Paul Gleason’s prickly Principal Vernon that “The world is an imperfect place,” so it’s no wonder he’s not fussed that I’m a little behind schedule. He seems to have carried this relaxed worldview into adult life. “I’m always stunned when actors don’t want to do press,” he tells me. “It’s part of the job.’’

He should know. Now 61, Nelson has been in the public eye for over 35 years, making him fluent in the fine print of movie star life. Odds are, you’ll know him best as the scruffy tough guy with a heart in director John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club or perhaps as career-hungry graduate Alec Newbary in Joel Schumacher’s sax-filled drama St Elmo’s Fire. Both hit screens in 1985 and both helped make Nelson – alongside his frequent cast mates and pals Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall and Demi Moore – household names.

Before long, this gang of teen stars had taken over 1980s cinema, earning themselves the media-coined-moniker the Brat Pack, a not entirely welcome term that still lingers to this day. Megastardom, with all its glitzy trappings and public pitfalls, followed and at every turn, the tabloids were never too far behind. Despite these hurdles Nelson’s career endured, taking him through stints on the big and small screen that led all the way to his latest role as part-time poetry teacher Mr Sonquist in director Max Newsom’s touching and visually striking coming-of-age drama Iceland Is Best. Much like Bender’s depiction of the world, Nelson’s career has taken him to some varied, unexpected and sometimes imperfect places but it’s a journey that’s very much still ongoing.

“I didn’t have a plan,” he tells the Big Issue North, taking us back to the start of his career. “I studied philosophy in college and, in freshman year, a guy came to me and said: ‘Do you want to audition for the school play?’ I said no but he said it’ll be great. I asked him why and he said: ‘Because that’s where all the girls are!’” he laughs. “You can’t stay and watch other people audition unless you audition yourself so in order to watch the girls, I had to audition too. I got the play – it was Oresteia by Aeschylus – and I was hooked.”

Bitten by the acting bug, Nelson moved from his hometown of Portland, Maine to New York City to start his acting career in earnest in the early 1980s, despite having no industry connections. What did his parents think?

“They were very supportive. My dad is an attorney and not involved in the entertainment industry at all. He said to me: ‘If you want to be a professional actor that’s a good thing to want to do but you should realise it’s a profession where merit is not necessarily rewarded and
you might not like that.’ I was like: ‘Yeah, whatever!’” says Nelson, chuckling at his naivety. “Years later I was like: ‘Damn, he was right!’”

Undeterred, Nelson made his way to the Big Apple where he studied with acclaimed actor and teacher Stella Adler whose ex-students included Marlon Brando, Elaine Stritch and Robert DeNiro. Similar to his recent turn as an aloof poetry teacher in Iceland is Best, Adler offered her students cryptic advice wrapped in poetic prose.

“I don’t know if I was aware of it then but in retrospect, if you can work for her, you can work for anyone,” says Nelson. “She’s tough. I once asked Stella what to do when you’re doing the best you can in a scene but you sense the person you’re working with has a different understanding of it. Stella told me that other actors are like icing on the cake. You have to make sure that you alone are the cake. I don’t know whether that makes any sense – but it did to me.”

Much like his decision to get into acting, the next big turning point in Nelson’s life and career was once again inspired by the opposite sex.

“I was dating a girl who lived in New York and LA and she asked if I wanted to come back to LA with her. I said: ‘No, I’m going to stay in New York and do theatre.’ She said: ‘Well, I’m going to date other people.’ Suddenly I was like: ‘Oh, I can go to LA!” Following his, erm, instincts, Nelson arrived in LA, where things quickly took a dramatic turn. Having appeared in 1983’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel, 1984’s Making The Grade and 1985’s Fandango, he met up-and-coming filmmaker Hughes and his life changed forever.

“We were lucky,” admits Nelson, reflecting on the runaway success of The Breakfast Club, a story about five high school students in detention, each from a different leg of the social ladder. “We knew it was a risk because there was no movie where kids just sit around and talk. We didn’t know whether it was going to be successful. It was like riding a fast horse: just hold on, don’t fall off and let it win. John was an important filmmaker and an American social icon. He was the first filmmaker to not judge someone as less just because they were young. Times are tough for a lot of teenagers. Love doesn’t work out, your life doesn’t look like it’s going to work out – Hughes was like a seer and under his great shadow, most of us were shielded from the harsh rays of the sun. He was
an exceptional man.”

Releasing The Breakfast Club and St Elmo’s Fire just five months apart meant Nelson ended 1985 famous and in uncharted territory. “It’s a strange thing to have things go well because most of us are raised to think if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – but if you succeed, what do you do then?” he asks, remembering the whirlwind experience of being plunged into the public eye. “It’s not like we’re raised on how to translate initial success into lasting success. Where are those lessons?
You’re kind of on the wind.

“When I was younger, I was linked with an entire generation of actors. They called us the Brat Pack. That’s not really a very complimentary term but over the years some people think it’s become endearing. For me personally, it was a time where we were convinced not to work with each other. We all got along great. We really loved each other and loved working together. We were all prepared, professional, on time and enthusiastic but we were portrayed as a certain type of person, someone entitled, someone out of control, someone selfish. It puts you in an odd place where people think they know me but that’s not me.”

I ask Nelson whether social media would’ve made his experience better or considerably worse. “Oh absolutely worse,” he shoots back without hesitation. “My heart goes out to all those younger performers having success who have just one second where they act like an idiot. You’ve got to be careful with that. Maybe it’s a good way to get us more aligned with trying to treat others the way we’d like to be treated but if everyone had a cell phone and video camera when I was 20? That would’ve been bad.”

Still, Nelson’s career endured and in the years since he left that famous image of John Bender in the final frames of The Breakfast Club – fist raised high and Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me playing in the background – he’s appeared in everything from the animated Transformers franchise and TV hits like Two and a Half Men and Empire to this month’s independent drama, Iceland is Best.

Our time is coming to a close so I ask about his lasting impact on pop culture. If his work has inspired others to get creative, surely that helps make a brighter – less imperfect – future?

“In a public profession you’re aware it’s possible to have an influence on someone’s life and you hope that influence is positive,” replies Nelson, pondering the question. “When you hear that something you’ve done has affected people in a positive way it really gives you a sense of the human community and that you’ve done more good than bad – and that’s a wonderful thing. I’m thankful for that. The world we live in is a scary, isolating place. Anything we can do to bring people together is a good thing.”

A phone beep signifies the end of our chat. “Now go have fun with your dog!”

Iceland is Best is out now

Don’t forget about…

Although there’s no definitive list of what officially constitutes a Brat Pack movie, here are five features starring combinations of Nelson, Estevez, Ringwald et al that definitely fit the bill

Sixteen Candles (1984)
John Hughes’s first movie took audiences to a location he’d call home for most of his oeuvre: the all-American high school. He didn’t stay long though as birthday girl Sam (Molly Ringwald) battles love, social anxiety and resident geek
Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall)
during a crazy, night-long party.

The Breakfast Club (1985)
The film that defined a decade, The Breakfast Club will likely go down as Hughes’s masterpiece and the film that birthed the Brat Pack. A jock (Emilio Esteves), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a weirdo (Ally Sheedy), a nerd (Anthony Michael Hall) and a criminal (Judd Nelson) gather for a day of weekend detention that’ll forever change their (and our) lives.

St Elmo’s Fire (1985)
With St Elmo’s Fire, director Joel Schumacher showed us what happened to these high-school brats after their education ended, while throwing in some new faces including a very-1980s-looking Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. Work, relationships, love: the heat was on in this young adult classic.

Weird Science (1985)
You probably couldn’t get away with it now but back in the 1980s, finding the perfect girlfriend was as easy as programming a computer and wearing a bra on your head. Anthony Michael Hall (perhaps the definitive Brat Packer) headlines Hughes’s third movie, alongside Ilan Mitchell-Smith, a young Robert Downey Jr and their dream woman, Kelly LeBrock.

Pretty In Pink (1986)
Often thought of as a Hughes movie (he penned the script but Howard Deutch directed), Pretty in Pink brought Ringwald back to high school to tell the story of love and social cliques. It also introduced us to the bouffant-haired dweeb Duckie, played by future Two and a Half men star Jon Cryer.

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