Judd Nelson is a man who needs little introduction. A multi-faceted performer, he has entertained audiences worldwide for more than three decades. Whether it was his role as the rebellious John Bender in ‘The Breakfast Club,’ the politically-minded Alec Newbary in ’St. Elmo’s Fire,’ the laser-focused Nick Peretti in ’New Jack City’ or countless other memorable characters, he always manages to leave his mark on the material. While on this journey, his dazzling body of work has continued to impress and he has become ingrained in the fabric of pop culture. There is simply no denying his staying power and best of all, he seems to just be getting warmed up!
As Nelson continues to challenge himself as an actor, the material he seeks out has become more complex. His latest project, ‘Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story,’ teams him with director Terry Miles for his very first Western. The hardscrabble period piece is loosely based on the real-life exploits of 19th-century American outlaw Nathaniel Reed. A gritty tale of vengeance and redemption, the film pairs Nelson with Grammy-Award winning country music superstar Trace Adkins and Kim Coates (Sons of Anarchy). The frontier thriller debuts on Digital HD, On Demand, and theatrically in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Kansas City on November 4th.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Judd Nelson to discuss his journey as an actor, his process for breathing life into the characters he brings to the screen, his time on the set of ‘Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story’ and much more!
You have become very familiar face to moviegoers over the past several decades. Let’s go all the way back to the beginning. What intrigued you about the world of acting early on and made you pursue it professionally?
Well, I was studying philosophy in college and it seemed if you could do a role in a good play, it was almost as if you were personifying a concept. You know, in college, you end up doing plays by Shakespeare or Shaw; plays with big ideas an it seemed to be the natural extension. My first experience auditioning came in my freshman year. A guy asked me if I wanted to go with him to audition and I said, “No!”. He said, “Come on! That’s where all the girls are!” I said, “Ok, that makes sense. Ok!” So, I guess, chasing girls is how it all really began! [laughs]
Pursuing a career as an actor is a big step to take. Did you ever have any reservations about taking the plunge?
My father, who I have been close to my entire life and is probably the smartest guy I know, is an attorney. No one else and my family was in the entertainment industry, so it was kind of a shot in the dark. He said to me, “Well, if that’s what you want to do, that’s great. However, you should realize that it is a profession where merit is not necessarily rewarded and you may find that troubling.” I was like, “Yeah, whatever.” [laughs] Of course, years later, the truth of that is very sharp. I picked a very good acting school to go to and I studied with Stella Adler in New York. I thought that was doing everything to put myself in the right position so that if I were provided an opportunity, I would be able to do what was expected.
Do you have anyone in your life who served as a mentor and gave you that extra push when you needed it?
Not really but I have been really fortunate in that almost all of the older actors that I’ve worked with have imparted some knowledge of some part of the craft and that has been very helpful. I find the community of actors much less competitive and more inclusive — the idea that success is a plateau not a mountain peak. There’s room for everybody and I think that all of the people I have worked with have taught me one thing or multiple things. I’ve been very lucky in that way.
Obviously, you have been very successful in your career. In your opinion, what are the keys to longevity in this industry?
You have to be lucky to a certain degree. You have to be in the right place at the right time. When you’re provided the opportunity, you have to be able to deliver on whatever that might be. I think you have to try not to take things too personally. I mean, you’re going to be rejected a lot more then you’re going to be accepted. When you are auditioning for a part, the odds are that you’re not going to get the role. Do you take that personally? Do you get bitter about it? Do you get angry? Or do you just roll with the punches. My mom always says, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!” in this profession, you’ve got to know that it’s not always going to be coming your way. In fact, if everything is coming your way, you’re probably in the wrong lane! I try to think of it as if I were professional boxer. If I was a boxer and I wasn’t involved in a professional fight, I would just be training in one way or another. I be working on my cardiovascular fitness or my hand speed or foot speed. I would be trying to work on things that I might help me down the road, so at least it keeps you connected with what it is that you want to do. I try to keep working and I try to keep busy on the better projects that might be available. Certainly everyone wants to work with the best actors in the world, the films with the biggest budgets in the world, or with the biggest A-list director and cast, but that’s unlikely. It’s been my experience that if you keep working, do the best you can, and try not to break anyone else’s process, that you can keep yourself moving forward.
What do you find yourself looking for inspiration these days?
I’ve been doing a good deal of writing now. I think the world is a rather scary place and the times are tough for a lot of people right now. I think that if you work on projects that have a message, that might be a little bit more than just the escapist entertainment, I think that in and of itself is inspiring. There’s a lot of work to be done in this country and every country really. We all hear the golden rule of “Treat other people the way you want to be treated.” However, it seems to be a tough thing to achieve. I like to keep that as my anchor. That’s what I aim for, that the work will be clear, expressive enough, and hopefully helpful for people who are trying to negotiate a very difficult world.
That’s a great segue to one of your latest projects, “Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story.” What drew you to this material?
Well, I’ve never done a western before. It was like, “Ok! Wow! This will be fun!” and it was! I got to work with some really great people. Trace Adkins is really a mench. He’s really good guy and I really enjoyed working with him. If you have to be tortured by anyone, there is no one better than Kim Coates! [laughs] I enjoyed it! We did this fast and we didn’t have too many shooting days, so we had to hit it running. In a situation like that, you can’t be worried. You just have to get out there and do it. It’s kind of cool and I really liked it. To say I’m an adequate horseback rider would be an exaggeration! [laughs] I was fortunate that I didn’t have to do any galloping. I was able to do the slow stuff, the turning and the on-and-off. That was fine. The galloping is not really in my wheelhouse! [laughs]
Be in this world or any of your others, what is your process for bringing a character to life in your mind before you ever hit the set?
I try and treat every script like a treasure map that it hopefully is. The more time you spend with the script, the more understand the story; not just the pieces you were involved with, but the entire thing. I just read it and read it and read it until I can figure out where these things are hidden. I think that if the piece is primarily a tragedy, I will look for moments of levity. If a piece is primarily light, I will look for those moments that ground it in reality. What’s great is that since I was trained as a theater actor, I love rehearsal. I don’t think I could ever wear it out. The more time I can spent going over things, the better I am. It’s hard on a project like this, or most movies because you don’t get much of a rehearsal. They kind of consider a table read like a rehearsal, which it is not at all. On this film, the comradery that all the actors had was almost like an actor’s camp. That makes it much easier to take chances and risks because you know you aren’t going to be punished for it. You might be ridiculed, but so you should be! [laughs] Ultimately, it’s a really welcoming and positive environment. I enjoyed working with the director very much. I think we had 12 shooting days. In a situation like that, you can’t take time to be self-indulgent and you just have to get to it.
What do you feel director, Terry Miles, brought to the table for a project like this one?
I’ll tell ya. Like a seafaring vessel, there is only one captain and everything comes from that. If you have a Capt. Bligh, you might have a mutiny somewhere in the Pacific, but this guy was a very even, pleasant man. He had no ax to grind and he had nothing to prove. I don’t think he said a single mean thing to anyone. He was also responsible for some of the roles being switched. For example, the real killer in which Kim Coates enlists to help him get his revenge was played by a woman. Originally, the role was to be played by man. Doing something like that opens up the story wonderfully and all of a sudden it takes on some new meaning. You have so little time to shoot a lot of stuff and action stuff. We had four stagecoach robberies to shoot in one week! That’s not easy! He was always pleasant, he always knew what he wanted, had a great relationship with the cinematographer, and no time was wasted. He was just such a pleasant guy to work for. So, I think what he brought to the project was it its completion. I’m not sure how many people could have done it. If someone had a bad temper or was super bossy, I don’t think they would get this thing done in the amount of time we had. You can’t treat it like a military maneuver when you have no room for people to throw a wrench in the works. You want to keep it all going smoothly and he was wonderful at doing that.
Speaking of directors, you have worked with some greats in your time. What project or director had the biggest impact on you and the way you approach your craft?
They have all had some of fact, no doubt. Certainly, working with John Hughes on the ‘Breakfast Club’ was my first experience on a project that would get me national attention. Hughes was an incredible director work for. He was a legitimate collaborator. He didn’t just pretend that he cared what the actors had to say. He really listened to us and it reflects in his work. He is the first filmmaker to view young people without viewing them as being less. He wanted the material to sound authentic. If we have things we wanted to try, he was very welcoming. We had a real rehearsal process and shot mostly in sequence. So, I thought all movies were going to be like that really. They are not! They are really not! [laughs] He told me that it is possible to collaborate with your performers and have no one suffer as a result. I’ve also learned from people that we’re just beginning. I think the filmmaking is primarily problem-solving. The more problems you can anticipate in preproduction, the better off you are. There will always be things that will happen when you’re shooting that you can’t anticipate. Obviously, you can have weather problems, health problems, cars may not work when they’re supposed to, or any number of other things. I’ve learned from a lot of first-time directors that the more you can prepare, the better you will be at handling slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
You mentioned early that you have been doing a lot of writing. What can we expect from you in the future in that realm?
I have a writing partner, Nancy Fulton, and we haven’t really tried to do much with our stuff yet but we have about 75 pieces that we have written. Some are shorts, some are feature lengths, some are pilots, some are episodes after the pilots, and some are short stories. I’m also working on a novel that is really the journal of a homicide detective. I really like the writing process but we haven’t turn that corner to try and raise money for things or get them made. I think pretty soon I’m going to see about directing one of the shorts to see how much I like that. I won’t act in it, just direct it. If I do like it, I may do another short and direct and act in it and see if that sits well and then take it from there, I don’t know.
Looking back on your career I’m sure you see many milestones along the way. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as an actor?
Don’t quit. My mother always says, “Your life is an occasion, rise to it.” My father always says, “Be as smart as you are.” Hopefully, I can help to impart those nuggets of wisdom that have guided me! Whether what I am getting at is clear or not, I don’t know. Be as smart as you are, work hard, expect no handouts, and be pleasant. My mother always says, “It takes more muscles in your face to frown than it does to smile, so be lazy. Smile!”
Words to live by! Thank you so much for your time today, Judd! It’s been absolute pleasure and I wish you continued success!