There are few geek-out moments that can compare to being on the phone with Curtis Armstrong, and hearing Dudley "Booger" Dawson himself say directly to you, "What the (bleep) is a thrush?"
For anyone who grew up in the 1980s, Armstrong is an iconic figure, a character actor who came charging out of the gate, starring in three classic cult comedies, back to back to back. His star cooled for a bit, but Armstrong has been working steadily for the past 30-plus years, and now his genius is being enjoyed by a whole new generation through his recurring role as Metatron on the long-running CW hit, "Supernatural."
BVB Blood, Violence and Babes recently had the chance to talk to Armstrong to commemorate the first-ever high-definition release of "Revenge of the Nerds," the 1984 coming-of-age comedy that spoke, and still speaks, to awkward adolescence and the joy of finding one’s own voice.
BVB You were featured in three of the defining films of that decade – "Risky Business," "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Better Off Dead." Films that spawned catch-phrases and cult fan bases. To have that kind of impact, to leave that lasting of an impression, so early in your career, that’s got to be a source of pride.
CA It is. In retrospect, it’s easy for me to see how significant it was. When I look back on it, how fortunate I am that as actor, I had those three jobs, and then ended the decade with "Moonlighting," my first television experience. The downside of it was, after those, it was only periodically that anything came close. Many of the roles I had subsequent to those films have been valuable to me, but didn’t have quite the same effect on audiences. I am aware of how lucky I am as far as my early movie career."
BVB I watched "Revenge of the Nerds" last night, just to refresh my memory. It had been a number of years since I sat down and revisited the film. I was struck by three things: One, the film really holds up. It has its dated moments, but all in all, it’s better than 99 percent of the comedies coming out today. Two, it seems ahead of it time, as far as the central themes of acceptance and social equality. Three, it had characters, not caricatures, which is truly remarkable.
CA The movie was of its time in some ways, and it was ahead of its time in the overall message. In that kind of film, the idea that that was the underlying message was ahead of its time. The way Lamont was depicted as a gay man, adjusting his javelin. Brian’s character, Takashi, could be from a movie from the 1940s. Those kinds of elements are very much of its time. People tend to overlook them because of the overall message, which comes out pretty clear by the end of the movie.
BVB When did you know you were involved with something special? Did the intelligence of the script jump out when you first read it, or was it a slow realization that this wasn’t your typical sex comedy?
CA Not at the beginning. The script was not entirely finished – it was finished, but there were things about it which didn’t work right. That was why they were re-writing it the week before principal photography. They brought all of us out to Tucson, AZ to work with the writers and director, which went a long way toward turning it into something more special. When I first got there, we didn’t get there thinking this is going to be a really special movie. We got there thinking this is going to be a job. From the beginning of "Risky Business," I had a sense this was a great script. Then when we saw ("Revenge of the Nerds") with an audience, that was where I began to think we were actually onto something. It turns out what we had was a movie audiences would love forever and no critic in the world would give the time of day to. They talk about critic-proof movies. That’s kind of what "Revenge of the Nerds" is. In some ways, I think it’s generational. This was a 20th Century Fox movie. The idea that 20th Century Fox would make a movie like that now is incomprehensible. At the time, people thought doing something like "Revenge of the Nerds" was beneath them. I think critics now tend to look at it slightly differently.
BVB How much ad-libbing went on during filming? I can only imagine the fun that you must have had.
CA We had quite a lot. We would sit at the hotel during the day. One after another, we would be brought in and meet with the director and writers and talk about who we thought our characters were. We did this for days. I had written a biography of Booger at the time. I was trained in a classical theater tradition. I was taught one of the things you do is write a biography to prepare for a role. I brought that technique with me. I still have (the biography) – I actually found it in a notebook from 1984. It gives you an idea of the degree that we were really focused on this movie. I would go in and explain why I thought Booger was this way. When we got to the filming part of it, we were comfortable enough at that point with the director, Jeff (Kanew), and each other, so we would get onto the set – on the very first day, we were shooting in the gym, the scene where we were running for our bunks, and Brian and I ended up next to each other. Jeff came up – ‘Why don’t you guys come up with something and I’ll come back and shoot it.’ We wound up getting a deck of cards as a prop. He came back, ‘What have you got?’ ‘What the (bleep) is a thrush?’ He said that’s great. That became the running thing, the two of us, Takashi and Booger, became friends. Every time we were in a scene together, Jeff would expect us to come up with something.
BVB Your character has so many iconic lines, most of which I can’t even repeat in the newspaper, but the scene that still cracks me up the most is when you have the back and forth conversation with the mail slot guy.
CA That was totally improvised. I had forgotten entirely about that. There was something in the script, I can’t remember, we were all out looking for houses. The guy in the mail slot was Peter Macgregor-Scott, who was one of the producers on the movie. He was just there. He said, ‘Well, I’ll go. I’ll do it.’ He gets back there. They started rolling. And Peter and I just started going back and forth at each other.
NOTE Having lost track of time, and our 15 scheduled minutes well past, Armstrong’s representative came on the line to tell us to wrap up our conversation. BVB couldn’t let the opportunity pass to tell Armstrong how ridiculously good he is currently on "Supernatural."
BVB I just have to tell you before you go. My wife and I have watched "Supernatural" since the pilot episode. We love that show. And the episode two weeks ago, ‘Meta-Fiction,’ which put Metatron front and center finally, I have to tell you, it’s one of the top five best episodes ever in the show’s history.
CA I’m having the time of my life on that show. Thanks a lot. Maybe we can finish up the nerd conversation later.