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Personalities

To the Teen Beat of His Own Drummer

Maybe you only know him as “the other one” from Weird Science, but Ilan Mitchell-Smith is a former actor turned real human being (and Ph.D. candidate, no less).

‘A standard question is ‘What was it like to kiss Kelly LeBrock?’ The truth is that it’s weird to be 15 and kissing a woman who is 30, who wouldn’t be kissing you unless she had to. It’s weird in all kinds of ways and not really that great. But that’s not the answer the guy wants. Because no matter what I say, the next thing he says is, ‘Dude, I would have FUCKED her.’ You’re 15. She’s married to Steven Segal. How are you going to bring that about?’ —Ilan Mitchell-Smith, 2002

‘We know about the reality. Don’t ruin the fantasy, okay?’ —Gary (Anthony Michael-Hall) to Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) in Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985)

In the ’80s, Ilan Mitchell-Smith was a teen actor. He had a slim build and a face cute as a puppy dog: soft and eager to be loved. He starred in two minor teen films—The Wild Life and The Chocolate War—and one major one, Weird Science, in which he and co-star Anthony Michael-Hall created the perfect woman by hooking up a Barbie doll to their home computer and putting bras on their heads. (It was, after all, the ’80s.) Mitchell-Smith had dark floppy hair and a high, helium-tinged voice. And a mole on his cheek, just to the left of his nose.

I know all this. I know this because in the ’80s I read teen magazines like some boys that age read porn. At the checkout I shoved my Bop or my Teen Beat between the copies of Newsweek or Time that I would never open, burying it all in my bag until I could get home, shut the door to my bedroom, and ogle the gleamy pin-ups and ‘Fun Facts’ like a money shot. Charlie Sheen: friends call him Chas. Jason Bateman: best buds with sister Justine. Kirk Cameron: loves karate. And River, oh River: restless nomad, animal activist, and boyfriend to one Martha Plimpton (damn her!). My walls disappeared beneath their pictures, which covered every inch, even the ceiling. This was the golden age of teen bourgeois drama, when filmmakers like John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, those poets of suburban angst, wrote male characters so crafty and tenacious and impossibly endearing—Ferris Bueller, Lloyd Dobler—that they would forever skew my expectations for the opposite sex. What can I say? I was young and impressionable and a wee prone to fantasy. Teen actors were the closest thing to royalty I had, and Ilan Mitchell-Smith was one of them. He had access to a world that girls like me went to bed dreaming of: parties with famous people, glittery premieres, the two Coreys. But as the decade came to a close, so did Ilan Mitchell-Smith’s career. Following an embarrassing run of roles (he hit bottom playing a rapist on Silk Stalkings), Ilan Mitchell-Smith quit Hollywood. He enrolled in a junior college and got married and started a family and rediscovered an altogether different passion. As it turns out, Ilan Mitchell-Smith also spent the ’80s fascinated with medieval literature and participating in historical re-enactments. ‘One of my first memories is looking at a little knight that I have and thinking, ‘This is the neatest thing I own in the world,’’ he says. Today he is a Ph.D. candidate in Medieval Studies at Texas A&M University. He lives with his wife and two children in Bryan, a lonely two-hour drive from where I live in Austin. I know this because I turned my youthful obsessions into a career too: I became a journalist.

When the local hipster movie house announced that Ilan would be hosting a screening of Weird Science, I was maybe a little excited. ‘I want to visit your classes,’ I wrote him in an email, ‘I want to hear EVERYTHING! I am a fan and a nice person and I can’t wait to meet you!’

He didn’t write back.

I wrote a second email, with fewer exclamation points this time, and eventually he agreed to lunch. What I didn’t appreciate was that Ilan doesn’t talk much about the whole acting thing. It was so long ago and his feelings are so conflicted and personal. Of the three classes he teaches this year, only one knows about his past. It’s tough because when the students recognize him—sometimes halfway through the semester, sometimes on the first day—it usually takes up an entire period. He didn’t tell anyone in his department, either, and one day a colleague pulled him into a room and closed the door. ‘I heard that the guy from Weird Science is teaching here,’ she said.

She wasn’t joking. ‘It was surreal,’ he says. ‘I had to tell her, I’m him. I’m me.’

I don’t know where I thought teen actors ended up (Hollywood Squares? Jail?), but I never imagined them in Bryan, Texas. It’s the kind of college town that could only exist in isolation—known for its peculiarly Southern ardor, a mandatory school spirit that demands, for instance, that all students rush the field after every touchdown—and the roads that reach it are lined with haystacks and cows lingering in the shoulder of the road. We meet at a restaurant near campus, where the waitress will stop me on the way out. ‘That guy, like, used to be an actor, right? But now he, like, teaches here or something?’ Word is spreading.

We talk for two hours about his Hollywood career, from the time he was discovered at age 10 while dancing with the Joffrey Ballet to the final, humiliating death throes of his career. We talk about the happier times—flirting with Lea Thompson, ‘shrooming with Robert Downey, Jr., making friends with the gaffers and the prop guys—and the bad—the rejection of constant auditioning, the roles lost to Corey Haim, the time Rex Reed wrote that he sounded like Shirley Temple. ‘But there’s no question that being a working actor is good,’ he says. ‘It’s nice to be called the Talent. Even if you don’t have any.’

‘I had such a crush on you,’ I tell him.

‘But did you know me as the Other Guy from Weird Science?’

‘I suppose so. I never knew how to pronounce your name, that’s for sure. [It’s ‘Ee-lahn.’] But I really was a fan. I never knew why all the attention was on Anthony Michael-Hall. It wasn’t all about him.’

‘But it kind of was,’ he says. ‘He was good and funny. I wasn’t.’ Ilan is critical of his acting (‘If you watch Weird Science knowing that when I get nervous I smile,’ he says, ‘my performance will make sense.’), and it’s true that as Wyatt, the high-strung second banana, Mitchell-Smith pales beside his more famous costar, the pinnacle of over-the-top dorkdom. But Weird Science is not Ilan’s best movie. No, Ilan’s best movie is The Chocolate War, the underrated adaptation of the Robert Cormier young-adult fiction classic, in which Ilan plays Jerry, a private-school kid singled out for a little prank by The Vigils, an ominous secret society: For 10 days, he will refuse to sell chocolate bars for the school’s annual fundraiser. He complies (they always do) but when the 10 days are over, Jerry still refuses to sell chocolates. He refuses and refuses, like a high-school Bartleby, which alienates him even more. In one scene he gets beat up by a bunch of little kids all yelling ‘Faggot! Faggot!’ As director Keith Gordon shot it, it’s an amazing moment: these little kids beating the living shit out of him and the Yaz song ‘In My Room’ thumping in the background and the sky swiveling as he drops to the ground. He goes home and says nothing to anyone, just lies there curled up in bed, bleeding.

To me, Ilan’s is a unique American story—from acting to academia, from royalty to normalcy—but he disagrees.

‘I don’t think it’s uncommon,’ he says. ‘I think it’s that nobody cares. And they shouldn’t.’

‘But what about all those child actors who spiraled off into a life of drugs and crime?’

‘I don’t know, I don’t really watch TV,’ he says.’ But he returns to this later. ‘Maybe it can be hard to be treated so well and then not,’ he says. ‘but I’m hesitant to assign that as any cause. I mean, how many child actors have turned to a life of drugs and crime? Probably less than 20. Think about how many child actors there have been in sitcoms and movies, and they have all made something of themselves. Like Winnie from the Wonder Years, she’s a mathematician, and apparently a good one. That’s just not really sexy. That’s not somebody we used to laugh at on TV with a gun in a liquor store.’

 

There is a spotlight in the center of the stage, but it is too bright. Every time Ilan drifts into it he steps immediately back into shadow, squinting, his hand shielding his eyes.

‘Thanks for coming,’ he says. ‘I’m Ilan Mitchell-Smith. But most of you probably know me as the Other One from Weird Science.’

‘No way!’ shouts a girl from the audience. ‘You were the Cute One! I’ve seen that movie 25 times and I know!’

(‘They were cheering,’ Ilan will say later. ‘That was weird.’)

Ilan can’t get over how many people came tonight. Like that 200 people came to see him—him, Ilan Mitchell-Smith—paid ten bucks each and drove downtown on a drizzly Sunday and nosed around for parking and all of it just to hear him speak and watch an old revenge-of-the-nerds teen-sex romp. ‘What are they going to ask me?’ he asked while he paced in the wings. And I could tell he was getting nervous, that his mind was starting to churn out worst-case scenarios, the awful sucking sound of the audience staring blankly, the cheap smug laughter of ironic youth. He had even made up a comeback in case anyone yelled out ‘You suck!’ during the Q&A. ‘It’s not really a comeback as much as an acknowledgement that I did suck in that movie, you know?’ He’s joking but he’s not. He peers into the audience. ‘I think they want blood,’ he says. ‘Is there maybe a cage we can put up?’

But when he takes the stage the audience is warm and polite and full of questions. ‘How did you get discovered?’ ‘Why did you quit acting?’ ‘Did you acknowledge on the set that Weird Science is a retelling of The Cat in the Hat? You know, the Dr. Seuss book? How the parents leave for the weekend and the kids concoct a fantasy creature bringing fun and spontaneity into their drab lives but it wreaks havoc instead? No? Huh, just wondering.’

He answers each question with charm and self-deprecating wit. He is, after all, a teacher, who stands in front of crowds all day, trying to connect and earn their attention and respect, which is probably harder than this group, so quick to laugh, in thrall with who he once was and who he became.

‘Do you miss acting?’ someone asks.

‘I don’t miss worrying about how I look.’

‘What did you really think of your co-stars?’

He pauses. ‘Oh what the fuck, right?’ He tells us about Anthony Michael-Hall and Kelly LeBrock and Robert Downey, Jr., and the whole thing was so beautiful and hilarious and real that it would be wrong to tell you here. It was honesty borne of freedom from the press, freedom from that criticizing eye that catches every misstep, every ungrateful complaint. The liberating moment when a nice guy tells everyone, for instance, that his redheaded costar was kind of a prick or that Bill Paxton is truly the nicest guy.

‘What kind of salary did you make?’

‘Well, I don’t think most people talk about this, but what do I care? I made $150,000. Which is a lot of money, especially for a 15-year-old. But I think some people think I’m still living off Weird Science, and I’m definitely not.’

‘What kind of salary did Anthony Michael-Hall make?’

‘I think he made $300,000,’ he says. ‘Wait, why are you booing?’

Afterward, a line forms for autographs. ‘I wish I had breasts like Kelly LeBrock,’ says one man, ‘I’d get you to sign one.’

They keep coming. ‘Can I take a picture with you?’ ‘Can you make this one out to my brother?’ ‘Can you sign this DVD?’ ‘I don’t have a DVD, can you sign this dollar bill?’ More fans than he’s seen in decades, and he is smiling and blushing and laughing but afterwards, when he’s gone, I will wonder if he’s just playing the part.

 

Ilan won’t stay for the film—he can’t watch himself on screen—so he doesn’t hear the audience erupt when his name appears, when his face appears, when he wins the girl at the end. I write him an email the next day to tell him about the screening. ‘In the lobby after the show,’ I said, ‘people talked about how great you were. This one woman told her friend, ‘What he doesn’t realize is that he was the new guy. I couldn’t wait to see what he was in next.’ And I don’t know exactly what you represent to this woman, or to me, or to the lady who said she saw the film 25 times —and maybe it’s something weird and twisted about celebrity and our culture—but I somehow think it’s healthy and important for us to see that the guy who played Wyatt is a real person, that he has a real family that he really loves.’

He never wrote me back. He’d gone back to his life.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Sarah Hepola is the Life editor at Salon. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Nerve, and on NPR. She lives in Texas with a sweet orange cat who is not fat, he’s just big-boned. If you just read her story about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, she’d like to point that it is fiction. More by Sarah Hepola