Emilio Estevez on his lost 'Apocalypse Now' scene, playing a 'creeper' in 'St. Elmo's Fire' and what he really thinks of the term 'Brat Pack'
With his drama "The Way" rereleasing, Estevez looks back at "The Outsiders," "The Breakfast Club," "Young Guns," "Mighty Ducks" and more.
Ask Emilio Estevez how he feels about the term “Brat Pack” — the nickname attached to him and an evolving group of young actors shooting to fame in popular teen movies (many directed by John Hughes) in the 1980s — and be prepared for an unfiltered answer.
Spoiler alert: He doesn’t like it. At all.
But first, the 61-year-old actor, writer and director would like to point out a few paragraphs from David Blum’s 1985 New York magazine cover story that spawned that sticky moniker — sentences that everyone has long glossed over.
Amid breathless tales of boys’ nights out in Hollywood with Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson and a Playboy Playmate Estevez was dating (while noting the young actor’s “superstud” reputation at the time), Blum detailed that Estevez was also a promising screenwriter. He had penned a “surprisingly sophisticated” script called Clear Intent (later retitled Men at Work) that blew Hughes away. “Emilio wants to direct it, and I’m sure he will be able to,” Hughes told Blum. “He can do anything. He can act, he can write, he can direct.”
Says Estevez in a new Role Recall interview with Yahoo Entertainment: “It's two, three paragraphs that are about me as a filmmaker when I was 22 years old. And I've made good on any sort of promise that was teased in those three paragraphs, I think, as a filmmaker. And yet it's been completely ignored by the media. They would rather talk about me, you know, walking off with some Playmate in the night or how much I drank.”
Indeed, Estevez has made his mark as a filmmaker over the years. Following his directorial debut with the 1986 romantic crime thriller Wisdom (in which he co-starred with then-girlfriend Demi Moore), he helmed six more features — including, yes, 1990’s Men at Work (in which he starred with brother Charlie Sheen). His most personal — and arguably most accomplished — directorial effort is 2010’s The Way, starring his father, Martin Sheen, as a man mourning the death of his son (Estevez) who makes a pilgrimage along Spain’s famed Camino de Santiago. (The tearjerking drama, which has attraced a cult following over the years, is being re-released in theaters this week.)
The New York City-born, Los Angeles-raised Estevez is still better known to the masses for his acting credits, which have afforded him a front-row seat to many maestros working behind the camera. After filming bit parts in two of his father’s most famous movies, Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (from which his scene was ultimately deleted), Estevez became a star in his own right in films like Tex, The Outsiders (also directed by Coppola) and Repo Man.
Future hits would include Stakeout, Young Guns and Mighty Ducks movies, as well as one-offs like Freejack, National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 and Judgment Night.
And, of course, there were the Brat Pack ensembles The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire. So how does Estevez feel about the term affixed to him and his cohorts, and for which he elected by Blum as the “unofficial president"?
“I thought that it was wildly unsophisticated,” he says, playing off Blum’s backhanded compliment of his screenplay. “To come up with that and sort of label us the way he did.”
In our interview, Estevez shares stories from several of his most popular projects as an actor, writer and director.
On making his film debut at age 9 in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973):
“It was part of what I like to call our immersive travel upbringing. … My parents insisted that we travel to every location that my dad would get a job. So whether it was Mexico for Catch-22, or whether it was La Junta, Colombia, for Badlands, we went and we picked up from whatever we were doing. If we were in school, we left school, got in the car, the plane, the train, and off we went. So this was no different. It was the summer of 1972 and my father was cast. It was a movie that he never thought he would get, he thought he was too old for the role. But nevertheless, Terrence Malick thought he was perfect.
“And there was a moment in the film where he’s gone off to record a self-recorded album. [Sheen played a 25-year-old man who runs away with a teenager, portrayed by Sissy Spacek, after killing her father.] And she’s left alone in the house, and she's taking a moment to reflect. She looks down on the street corner from her home and sees two boys playing under a street lamp. And that was my brother Ramon and I. Charlie is oftentimes credited as being the other boy under the lamppost. But it's actually Ramon Estevez. That was both his and my first experiences in front of the camera.”
On having his scene cut from Francis Ford Coppola’s storied Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979):
“On the set of Apocalypse Now, I was 14 years old. I desperately wanted to be a part of it, because why wouldn’t you? You're there [in the Philippines], it’s summer, you’re out of school. I knew that I was going to be there for some time. I didn’t know how long, but I wanted to be a part of it. And so I was enlisted to be part of the Do Lung Bridge sequence, to play just one of the grunts. We trained for about three weeks learning how to shoot guns. I was on the M60 machine gun. The scene took well over three weeks to shoot. But there was one moment where I was asked to scream out for a medic when my loader was shot. And so it was a moment where my father’s character, Willard, runs past me, and I didn’t tell the crew, nor did they know that I was participating as an extra on the film. And so [assistant director] Jerry Ziesmer, says, ‘You’ve got your marching orders, you know what to do.’ I said, ‘Yes… when my dad runs by me in the scene, that's when I yell the line.’ And Ziesmer says, ‘What do you mean, who’s your dad?’ And I said, ‘It's Martin.’ He looks at me, he says, 'What the hell are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I wanted to be a part of something epic.’ And certainly we all know that, yes indeed, that movie is an epic.
“So I yelled the line and it was cut out of the film. I’m sure Francis probably looked at the footage and said, ‘Why is this child in the scene?’ Because I was 14 years old. I looked every, every, every bit of 14. … I didn’t know [I was cut] until years later, until the film finally came out. But of course I was disappointed because, you know, you go back home and you start telling your chums about it, ‘Ah, yeah, I got a line in the movie.’ And then… where is it? [laughs]
[Estevez was not on set the day his father suffered a near-fatal heart attack]: “I wasn’t there that day, but I was there for a lot of other days that were equally harrowing.”
On going to auditions for The Outsiders (1983) with longtime friend Tom Cruise and making friends with a cast that also included C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze and Ralph Macchio:
“We knew each other through [my childhood friend] Sean Penn, because they had just done Taps together. Tom was from Louisville, and so he was in L.A. and doing the audition rounds along with all of us, really. And for a young actor to be able to get in the door and audition in front of Francis Coppola was a dream come true. And of course, we’re all 19 years old and we’re sort of stumbling through our audition process. And walking in the door is Mickey Rourke and Dennis Quaid and all these extraordinary actors. And you’re like, ‘Oh gosh, I don't have a chance. I’m never gonna get this. Look at this group of actors, one after the other.’ And so the audition process was amazing. … So Tom and I would drive to several of these auditions together. Then we made the cut of the L.A.-based actors to travel to New York to audition with the New York-based actors. And out of that came the final cast that was what you see in the film. … It was huge.
“I thought at the time, ‘Man, if this is what it’s like to be in a movie with all your friends and be able to have this sort of experience working with [Coppola], then I don’t ever want this to end.’ It was like a boys club, you know? It was like being part of a gang. We were greasers, we were every bit greasers in that, in terms of our camaraderie and our palling around.”
On why he and Breakfast Club (1985) co-stars Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy worked so well together — and playing a high school teen at 21:
“It was an opportunity to work with John Hughes. … you know, he passed so young and you just have to imagine the movies that he would’ve made had he lived longer. [Like The Outsiders], we got there very early. We got to the location in Chicago in January, and we didn’t wrap till May. So we had a lot of rehearsal period. We really rehearsed it like a play. So we knew each other’s lines. We were already a well-oiled machine before the filming began. … I just lament the fact that the studios and the actors, cause the actors are guilty of it, too, that we don’t make the time to do that anymore. … Oftentimes actors will get the script and go, ‘My part, my part, bulls***, bulls***, bulls***. My part, my part, my part, bulls***.’ … But knowing where your place is in the movie also allows you to know the kind of movie you’re making. Then you’re all playing in the same orchestra. … You’re all making that piece of music together.
“[The chemistry we had] was magical. It was absolutely magical. Once we had a great camaraderie, we had a great love and respect for each other because of the situation, because it was so unique and because we were sort of put together in a way that forced us to know who each other were before the cameras started rolling.
“[Molly and Anthony] were high schoolers. I had turned, I was 21 at the time of shooting. I think I had my 22nd birthday while we were shooting in May. For me it wasn’t odd because I was just pretty much just out of high school. They put us back in school, almost like a doing a refresher course, for a week. I remember 'cause it was winter, somebody had put a pound of Limburger cheese in the heating system as a prank. So it was blowing all this cheesy hot air throughout all the vents in the school. And I remember thinking that that was a pretty clever prank. Not something I would’ve done, but I thought that was a pretty clever prank.”
On playing a college grad that same year in St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) — and how his “creeper” character Kirby, who obsesses over his undergrad crush Dale (Andie MacDowell), has not aged well:
“I never went to college, so I had to pretend that I was a Georgetown grad. I didn’t have that college experience to lean into. And that film, St. Elmo’s Fire, I know it lives in the hearts of fans. But it’s not one of my favorites [laughs]. Some of the cast members from Breakfast Club came back and were in that film. … But if you look at the movie, I’m kind of a creeper in the film. You know, that character. … I don't think that character would exist today in the movies. I think they’d probably like, ‘Yeah, this guy’s got to go. Yeah, this guy’s a creeper.’ [laughs]
“But that role kind of afforded me to have my own sort of separate storyline from the others. So, it was an interesting experience. [Joel Schumacher] was an interesting character, as a director. What do I say about Joel? He was very passionate about his ideas, about how he saw the film. He who loved everyone. But he was very clear about the type of movie that he wanted. And it sort of lived in that fantastical world of unreality. And so, after coming off of movies like The Outsiders or Breakfast Club, which was all about human interaction, human relationships, and grounded in some measure of reality, St. Elmo’s Fire almost just felt like it was on another planet.”
On how he convinced Young Guns (1988) director to give him Billy the Kid role instead of Kiefer Sutherland:
“At the time, I owned a house in Montana, so I was around horses and guns. So for me, the opportunity to get on a horse and actually get paid for it, and play this historical character, [was great]. When I read the script, I lobbied hard because I was not the first choice. The director [Christopher Cain] was looking at a lot of other actors to play that role. I actually called the director who I knew I’d worked with before [on 1985’s That Was Then... This Is Now], and I said, ‘I was born to play Billy the Kid.’ And he says, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I was born to play this role, and you can go on and audition whomever you want.’ I said, ‘I’ll come in, I’ll audition, whatever you want, you’re going to end up casting me in this film.’ And he says, ‘Well, what about you playing Doc? You’re more of the sensitive guy. I’m really thinking about Kiefer Sutherland to play Billy.’ I said, ‘You got it the wrong way, bro. You got it the wrong way. Switch ’em.’ And he did. Sorry, Kiefer.
“It was a [tight-knit cast]. We had three weeks of just horse training where we would just ride, and the wranglers got us more comfortable on horse playing tag. So again, you have to get real close to people, if you want to touch 'em and tag them. But, you know, the horse doesn’t necessarily want to get that close. It was always running in and cutting one way and cutting the other. And so it was three weeks of kind of a boys camp of learning how to ride and shoot better and really train at that.
“But the thing where Kiefer made the mistake. … I'd say this to his face. He insisted if he come back for Young Guns II (1990), that he only was available to play a smaller part. I think he was only available for three or four weeks. And that he had to be shot in the shootout at Stinking Springs, which is a historically documented shootout between Billy the Kid’s gang and Pat Garrett. Well, Doc Scurlock wasn’t there. It was Charlie Bowdre. Doc Scurlock lived on to be a 90-year-old man. So Kiefer made sure that he’s not in Part III [laughs] by getting himself killed in Part II, which again, is historically inaccurate.” [Estevez notes Young Guns III is still currently in the works, though he jokes that based on the age of the cast, they won’t be able to still call it Young Guns.]
On getting to colead the garbage collector comedy Men at Work (1990) with brother Charlie Sheen as both of their careers were red-hot:
“It was a romp. It was never written as two brothers. And consequently we didn't play it as brothers. We probably should have. There was no reason not to. We certainly look enough alike. And it could have just been a very simple tweak in the script. I still sort of wonder about that decision. But it was fun. And sort of true to form, as, as we now know, I planted a very important environmental aspect in the movie, in that there was this pollution happening in the Santa Monica Bay, which we now know is true. And that was threatening the lives of not only the fish, but also the recreation, surfers had to stay out of the water now because of it. And so all that was baked into the movie in a way that the producers really pushed back on. They said, ‘You can keep your environmental green stuff [to yourself].’ I was like, ‘OK.’ So we ended up cutting a lot of that out, but it was a much more environmentally conscious movie, masquerading as a comedy.”
On why he was hesitant to sign on to play hockey coach Gordon Bombay in Disney’s The Mighty Ducks (1993):
When I first read the script for The Mighty Ducks, I didn’t want to do it. I thought, ‘This is kids fare, no one’s going to be interested in this. I’m a very serious actor and I can’t be doing a Disney movie where I’m playing a coach to a bunch of kids.’ You know, isn’t that the first rule [in showbiz]? No animals and no kids. So I was reluctant to move forward. And Disney just made a case and they said, ‘You’re perfect for this role, and we won’t take no for an answer.’ So off we went to Minnesota to shoot what was a very kind of smaller independently minded movie. It was not something that was a big sort of tentpole movie for Disney. It was kind of a programmer for them. And then we test-screened the movie, and the studio was like, ‘These [approval rating] numbers are in the 90s [on a scale of 100], so this is impossible.’ And they didn't believe it. So they screened it almost immediately after that and it scored in the 90s again. … They said, ‘People love this movie.’ And the film obviously went on to not only create a hockey franchise, but two sequels after that and, and an ill-begotten series. A couple of them. [The Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series, which ran from 1996 to 1997, and the recent Disney+ reboot series The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, which was canceled after two seasons in 2022.]
“It was very surreal [when they launched an NHL franchise in Anaheim]. It was very difficult to separate the franchise from the films, and to be so heavily identified with both was pretty thrilling. And something that I obviously had no experience with before. The only thing that was difficult was taking all the cracks from real hockey players about the name of the team. ‘Why would you call the team the Mighty Ducks?’ There was a lot of ribbing in that department. But I think when they went to play for [and win the Stanley Cup after changing their name to simply the Anaheim Ducks ahead of the 2006-07 season], it was a whole different ball of wax.”
How he ended up with a memorable cameo in Mission: Impossible (1996):
“[Tom Cruise and I remained friends over the years]. In fact, he visited the set of Young Guns. We dressed him up like a cowboy. And we actually shot him in the film. You have to make sure you don’t blink, 'cause he’s killed pretty quick. And a lot of people speculated that because he joined us in Young Guns and was killed, that I would join him in Mission: Impossible and be killed. But that really wasn’t the case. The way Tom explained it to me, ‘We’re going to populate the opening of the movie with very recognizable faces, and then we’re going to kill all of you.’ So that it really increases the level of peril for Ethan. That’s a great idea. And it was understood that all of those actors in the beginning were going to be uncredited. And I thought, that’s even cooler.”
On spending six years writing Bobby (2006), the star-studded ensemble drama about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which he also directed:
“That process of not only just trying to craft a fictional account around a historical event, that in and of itself is a challenge because it comes down to a lot of legal stuff. It’s like, ‘Well, OK, yes, it’s about the night Bobby Kennedy was shot.’ But in my research, I discovered that five other people were shot alongside him with straight bullets. So you look at that and you say, ‘Well, who were these people and what were their lives like?’ And I began to construct why they were in the kitchen, what relationship they had to Bobby, what relationship did they have to the Ambassador Hotel. And it sort of just blossomed from that. But then it became a legal issue because it’s like, ‘OK well if you’re saying this is the name of somebody, I know that person and I was standing next to him, and that must be me in the film. And so I had to then fictionalize all of the characters that were shot alongside Bobby and then reconstruct their lives in reverse as to why they were there and how they got there. That writing process alone took a long time to figure out. And in fact, I had a horrible writer’s block that lasted for over a year. I think I was terrified of tackling the project. I think I was looking for any excuse to not write. And yet, there’s the other part of me that knew that I had to complete this. And I think the scariest thing for any writer, anybody who creates anything, whether it’s a blank piece of canvas or a blank page. … Now what? It’s just the terror of that.”
On savoring the experience making The Way (2010) with his father, Martin Sheen:
“It was a movie that was inspired by my son, my dad’s grandson. It’s dedicated to my grandfather Francisco, who was born not 50 miles from Santiago de Compostela, where the film ends. And it stars Martin Sheen, one of our national treasures. And so for me, putting all of these pieces together was. … A lot of people say, well, it’s a labor love. It was a mission. And putting all the pieces together and making the film started as a family project and then really turned into my own pilgrimage of sorts. Going to Spain, spending time there with Taylor my son, learning about the pilgrim’s journey and then, and then embarking on my own and writing the script for Martin with his involvement. 'Cause he was very much a part of the development process. He’d come up with ideas, ‘How about the bag falls in the river? And I swim after it.’ But knowing that I was going to go into these studio executive’s offices and try to sell a movie about four people walking across Spain, I knew what my chances were. I knew that I was not going to get any traction. I knew that I ultimately had to go to Spain and find true believers and start putting the pre-production on my credit card and using my mileage to fly not only myself, but other actors over. And it came together. And I think at the end of the day, people saw my passion and that it was infectious. ‘He’s working at that sort of, you know, high vibration. We’re going to follow it because he seems like he might know what he’s doing.’ [laughs]
“It really is amazing [seeing it grow in popularity over the years]. I may never make another movie that actually inspires people to see a film, hit the off button, pick up their phone, make their plans to go to Spain, get off their couch and go and walk 500 miles. I mean, it’s bonkers. But people are doing it and they’re inspired by the film in a large part. … It waits for you. Do you know what I mean? The Camino’s been there for a thousand years and it will be there for another thousand and it’s there for you to enjoy. … I want to do it without a film crew. I’d like to do it without any cameras. I’d like to just put my head down and go. That’s a dream of mine to do in this lifetime.”
The Way will be re-released in theaters on Tuesday, May 16.