Stars Remember ‘The Last Starfighter’ Three Decades Later
On July 13, 1984, the young stars of The Last Starfighter saw their careers blast off into outer space, as a friendship was born that carries on three decades later.
Today marks the 29th anniversary of the original theatrical release of the groundbreaking sci-fi classic The Last Starfighter, so we figured it’s a perfect time to take a fun look back at the film through the eyes of its stars, Lance Guest and Catherine Mary Stewart, both of whom attended a Q&A panel at the second Blood at the Beach Convention in Virginia Beach in 2012.
Guest plays Alex Rogan, a dreamer and video game master who learns that he is actually the titular hero in an interstellar war that inspired his favorite video game. At the panel, he talked to the intimate audience about how he got into acting and how his previous work in the horror sequel Halloween II (1981) lead directly to Guest becoming The Last Starfighter.
“I was pretty serious about acting by the time I was out of high school,” he recalls. “I went to college and I was a theater major, and I started working before I graduated from college. I went to an open call once and this casting director said ‘Do you have an agent?’ I said ‘No’, and he said ‘Well you should have one.’ I said ‘Okay, tell me about it’, and she called up some agents and they called me. It was kind of straight forward. I expected it to be a lot harder than that. I was about 20 years old.
“I grew up in a place where nobody was into movies, I didn’t grow up in L.A. or anything, so I didn’t think about doing movies, I just thought about being a theater actor. Then I moved to L.A. and it was like ‘Oh there’s people who make movies here.’
“The first movie job that I ever booked was Halloween II, and the producer of Halloween II (John Carpenter) is really good friends with the director of Last Starfighter (Nick Castle, who played Michael Myers in Carpenter’s original Halloween). Nick was saying ‘Hey, I’m looking for this guy for this movie’, and he was editing Halloween II with John and Nick’s like ‘Wait, who’s that guy?’ So I kind of got Starfighter and Halloween II together. One lead to the other thanks to Nick.”
Catherine Mary Stewart plays Maggie, Alex’s more grounded all-American girlfriend, and she remembers getting the role as her career was just taking off.
“I did theater in high school,” she said. “I started when I was about 7. I was a serious dancer from Canada originally, and I was in a company called Synergy there and we did lots of travelling. So I decided to pursue that in London after I graduated from high school. I went to a performing arts school with a focus on dance called the London Studio Center. I went there for a couple of years, and while I was there, I went to an open call for a movie called The Apple. They were looking for dancers.
“As I was dancing away at my audition, the director spotted me I guess, and said ‘Do you act?’ I said ‘Yes I do’, and went through this whole audition process with them and ended up with the lead role for this movie. That was my transition from the dance realm to acting. After London I moved to Los Angeles and the first movie I did was with Lance in The Last Starfighter. My story’s a little bit more of a fairy tale I guess.”
Catherine was appearing on the daytime soap Day of Our Lives when she got her part in Starfighter, and she went on to star in the cult favorite Night of the Comet and the comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s, which was filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, among many other projects.
After going through the early audition process for Starfighter, Catherine and Lance first met during a script reading prior to filming.
“During the call backs,” said Catherine, “we were paired together. I think we had a really good chemistry. We were up against the hot young actors in Hollywood of the day. Ally Sheedy was up for a role.”
Lance added a few other notable names he recalls also auditioning, including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Eric Stoltz.
“We were cast,” said Catherine, “and it just felt very, very comfortable and natural for me, from the very beginning, shooting with Lance. It was kind of organic.”
Guest agrees that there was a special chemistry between the actors, who have remained close friends for the last 30 years since filming together.
“It really worked out well,” said Lance. “It was just sort of simple and not complicated, and our director, especially with our scenes, he wasn’t pumping up the energy in our scenes. We had romantic scenes and comic scenes.”
Catherine adds, “It was fun loving, not really heavy duty romantic.”
Lance remembers the fast pace of filming with a challenge to get used to.
“It was pretty quick,” he said. “That’s what I remember, it was always like ‘Hey, let’s get it. Alright we got two takes, let’s move on.’”
To which Catherine adds, “But Lance is also a perfectionist. He is such a professional. He wanted to have it perfect and right every time, and I was just kind of like ‘This is fun! I don’t have to work on a soap opera today.’ He had an enormous amount of pressure on him because he was carrying the film.
“I worked for maybe three weeks on it, and I just had the best time. The atmosphere on the set was so pleasant and supportive. Nick Castle, the director is kind of like a big kid himself. It was a joy for me to go to work every day, but again I didn’t have the enormous pressure that Lance did. I didn’t think of it in the multi-dimensional way that he thought of it.”
Lance adds, “I was very serious, so I was constantly trying to rehearse with every actor that would rehearse with me, including 70-year-old Robert Preston, dragging him out of his trailer. The cool thing about him is that he’s like a really tough guy, but he never was like ‘No, leave me alone, I’m old.’ He was just like ‘Whenever you’re ready kid, let’s go.’ So he was really, really cool that way. So was Dan (O’Herlihy), who was a good theater guy too.
“I got in a car wreck on the day that I was supposed to shoot the beta unit twin scene in the bedroom, and that was the audition scene for me, so that was the scene I knew the best from four months earlier. I got in a car wreck that morning on the way to work and I was like two and a half hours late because I wrapped my car around an island or something. It was really bad. I guess I was nervous or something. When you (Catherine) mentioned having a lot of pressure, I was just thinking, ‘Yeah, I guess there was’.”
While The Last Starfighter might be unfairly dismissed by some as simply a knock-off of Star Wars set closer to home, the stars say their film stands on its own.
“Who thought that 30 years after the fact we’d have people that are still crazy about the movie,” said Catherine. “That doesn’t necessarily happen for a play, because the audience is there for a night, they love it, and then they leave.”
Adds Lance, “The weird thing is that actors 20 or 30 years older than us, they had to depend on revival houses to really continue the movies on, and once in a while they’d show them on TV, but now with our current cable, DVD and stuff, you can literally watch the same movie your entire life if you want to.”
“And pass it down generation to generation,” says Catherine. “The Last Starfighter is a perfect example of a movie that the original audience now has kids themselves, and it’s such an approachable movie to pass down to your kids. I love it. It’s gratifying.”
Of the comparisons to Star Wars, Lance replied, “I was more of a Star Trek fan than I was a Star Wars fan, so I was not really a Star Wars person. When they would compare my character to Mark Hamill’s character I thought, although Star Wars is funny, that we had a more tongue in cheek attitude.”
No one can deny that the computer generates imagery (CGI) used in the film was beyond state-of-the-art and quite ahead of its time 30 years ago, as The Last Starfighter was the first movie ever to do almost all special effects on a computer.
“All the stuff in the trailer park was just a trailer park,” Guest recalls of filming, “and the soundstage stuff was at MGM. Inside the ship was (done with) green screen. I had this gyroscope cage that I sat in, and instead of moving the camera, they moved me. When Centauri and I land, that was on a stage filled with fake rocks. The ending scene was all just flat with green screen, and they just filled in all the stuff later.”
On the iconic final scene, Catherine adds, “When the spaceship lands in the trailer park, they just had this giant fan blowing dirt on us, because it was a dirt trailer park. And the director was just like ‘Look up there, you see this giant space ship’, because there was nothing there. That was all put in afterwards.”
In the film, the hero’s training for saving the universe turns out to be the arcade-style video game he’s been playing every day for years, and though Atari did produce prototypes at one point, the game itself never existed.
“The video game (in the movie),” explains Lance, “was I’m sure taken from Space Invaders or any of those shoot-things-out-of-space 2D things that they had back in those days. All it was is a frame with a phony joystick and some phony buttons with lights on them. And there was a TV monitor, and it would just play a tape. The game had already been played out. All I had to do was sort of lip sync if you will the video game prowess. I had to sort of memorize the visuals, but that was it.”
So did the last Starfighter himself take away any souvenirs from the set?
“Shoes,” replies Lance. “Adidas. And I think I got a couple pairs of 501 Levis. When I say shoes, I mean several pairs. I think I gave some to my brother.”
Brought together by fate in a working relationship, that initial chemistry between Lance and Catherine blossomed into a great friendship that carried on after filming ended and continues even now.
“Lance and I are still friends today,” said Catherine. “We both live in New York at the moment with our families, so we get together on occasion. And it’s fun to go to these conventions together, because we’re buddies.”
Fans of The Last Starfighter have been begging for a sequel for almost 30 years, and the stars say they are more than ready to reprise their roles three decades later.
“There were talks,” Guest says when asked about the possibility of a sequel. “We were approached by some creative folks, and think they’ve written scripts, but getting a movie made in Hollywood is a pretty daunting task. A lot of elements need to come together and the studio has to bankroll it.”
“It’s set up perfectly,” Catherine says of the ending of the original film. “We would love to do a sequel, but we don’t really have the power to decide that.”
Looking back on their otherworldly time together making The Last Starfighter, Catherine sums it up best.
“We got into it at the most fun time,” she said. “There were a ton of movies being made and a ton of money out there. It was a wonderful time in the business. And there were stories being told that were simple and character driven and original. Something special to me about The Last Starfighter is that it’s just a sweet, simple story about two people in a fantastical situation, but it’s a metaphor that every young kid can relate to.”