DVD Verdict Interviews Judd Freakin' Nelson

Judge Patrick Bromley

September 13th, 2005


John Bender.

This is the name that races through my mind at the very prospect of interviewing Judd Nelson: John Mothertrucking Bender.

It might be the role that the actor is best known for: the burnout/rebel hero of John Hughes seminal 1985 teen classic The Breakfast Club, whose triumphant fist-pump at the movie's end gave hope to legions of young male filmgoers that you can tell the principal to eat your shorts and still bag yourself a Molly Ringwald. That's John Bender.

But we're not going to talk about The Breakfast Club—partially because it's not my assignment, and partially because I'm scared of coming across like the doubtless thousands of others that have interviewed Nelson over the past two decades. I'm not even going to bring up St. Elmo's Fire, the 1985 Joel Schumacher-helmed epic of yuppies in crisis that cemented Nelson's status as a charter member of the oft-maligned (perhaps most so by its own members) "Brat Pack." His character in that film was the polar opposite of John Bender—the yuppiest of the bunch—but Nelson can still lay claim to the movie's best scene: the "division of the albums" breakup scene between him and ex-girlfriend Ally Sheedy.

But we're not going to talk about St. Elmo's Fire. And while I would like to ask about his participation in Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I won't. Nor will I ask his over-the-top courtroom speech at the end of 1987's From the Hip. Mostly, though, I want to ask which was more surreal—playing a character with a third arm growing out of his back, or acting opposite Shaquille O'Neal?

But we're not going to talk about The Dark Backward or Steel. Today, we'll be talking about New Jack City, Mario Van Peebles's 1991 hip-hop gangster classic, released today as a two-disc "special edition" DVD by Warner Bros. In it, Nelson plays detective Nick Peretti, a "big, crazy, jarhead, motorcycle-freak reject cop" (and a good picture of what it might have been like if John Bender had joined the force), who teams up with fellow cop Ice-T to take down Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes, in his first leading role), a notorious gangster and fictionalized founding father of the late-'80s crack epidemic.

I'm nervous as hell—maybe because it's my first interview, and maybe because it's JUDD FREAKING NELSON—and it shows almost instantly.

"Patrick?" Yep. That's Judd Nelson on the phone.

"Mr. Nelson, how are you?"

"Mr. Nelson? Oh, is my father in the room?"

He cracks a joke and I lighten up, apologizing for the formality and simply insisting that I didn't feel comfortable busting out "What's up, Judd?" right out of the gate.

Judd (I can call him that now—he even tells me so) ask how Chicago is. Funny he should mention it, as today happens to be the second most beautiful day of the year (yesterday was technically nicer, but yesterday I wasn't talking to Judd Nelson). He tells me he used to date a girl from Chicago and would spend about one weekend a month here.

"It's a great city," he says. "So many great museums. It's like New York with manners." Now, I've never been to New York, but I'm willing to take Judd Nelson's word for it. I think to myself that his quote ought to be adopted by the city and printed on t-shirts.

"So," he continues, "I have to ask: Cubs or White Sox?" Truth be told, I know less about baseball than I do about New York—but when Judd Nelson asks you a sports question, you answer.

"Cubs, I guess."

"That's ok; I'm a Red Sox fan." He's from the East originally (Maine, actually), so he can at least justify his answer. I have no rationale for picking one team over the other. Sophie's Choice this ain't.

We talk about Steve Bartman, the unfortunate young man who became an enemy of Chicago when he caught a fly ball back in Game 6 of the Cubs' most recent attempt at a World Series run. Nelson is sympathetic: "Any one of us would have done the same thing," he says. I agree, pointing out that Bartman's not the guy who gave up three games straight and forced a Game 7 in the first place. "He didn't throw or hit a ball," Judd says, "but he's blamed for the loss."

With the sports-related pleasantries out of the way, I decided to launch right into it. I ask Nelson how be came to be involved with New Jack City.

"I went to school with Mario Van Peebles, actually," he tells me. The answer's simplicity trips me up; here I am expecting a whole long story, and he informs me that the role came out of an established friendship. Nelson, it seems, told Van Peebles (the film's director) that he would like to work on "whatever project" the director came up with. When that project happened to be New Jack City, Van Peebles thought Nelson might have some reservations. Nelson didn't balk, and the role was his.

I wonder if it was his friendship with Van Peebles that got him the "and" credit on the film (he receives the cooler-than-cool final cast credit: "...and Judd Nelson"). He tells me he thinks it was in lieu of money. "That might be more of an agent thing...instead of cash, you get cache." I point out that by this point in the conversation, Nelson has already laid down "milieu" and "cache." He tells me it's all about the French he has. (Later, he'll even drop "homage" as well, demonstrating his understanding of the Rule of Threes).

I ask if there was a great deal of material involving his character left on the cutting room floor, and he tells me he doesn't know. I only ask, I tell him, because upon revisiting the film for my review, I notice a number of moments in which reference is made to Peretti's past and heritage, but nothing ever comes of it. Judd says his character was never meant to be of "commensurate importance" to the story—that he has his few moments, but the film really belongs to Ice-T and Wesley Snipes. "I'm there to take the gun out of (Ice-T's) hand," Nelson says, referring to the movie's climactic showdown. "I've always been a fan of less."

When asked to theorize on the lasting power of New Jack City—why we're still talking about it today—Nelson is quick to respond. "It's a classic gangster movie—a classic story of good versus evil." He cites other reasons for the film's durability, too: the "great, operatic" scene between Snipes and Allen Payne's Gee Money ("Am I my brother's keeper?"), or the iconography of the two cops who begin as total opposites, ".but who really have more in common than either of them thinks. It's not like Lethal Weapon, though, where they have to be the two central characters." Nelson starts describing specific scenes and sequences in the film, and begins to get a little worked up.

"I'm a movie fan," Judd says, and I believe it; he's no longer talking about New Jack City as one of its stars or as the subject of an interview, but simply as a guy who really digs the movie. We talk about the chase sequence that, for all intents and purposes, opens the film, and his voice gets faster as he talks about that scenes energy and impact. "And that shot with the train?" He's referring to Pookie's (Chris Rock) near-death experience, shot with just the oncoming train and the spinning wheel of Pookie's escape vehicle—a child's tricycle—in the frame. "I'm like...is he dead? That's a great shot! And it's right at the start of the movie!" There is a brief pause as he reconsiders. "But first we have to drop the guy off the bridge."

I mention that Mario Van Peebles says on the DVD commentary that the sequence was originally written as a car chase, but had to be altered for budgetary reasons. Nelson—who more than once refers to Van Peebles as "such a smart director" and that he would "love to work with him again"—confirms, but is ultimately happier with the finished version. "It's hard to do one of those better than the classics—movies like The French Connection or Bullitt, you know? Although I did like the one in Ronin." He asks if I've seen that film; I tell him I have, and he responds in true "movie fan" fashion: "Awwwwwwww."

Since we're talking movies (sort of, anyway), I bring up Brian De Palma's Scarface. There are multiple allusions to it in New Jack City—some subtle, some forcibly direct—but there's a key difference to the two films.

"Tony Montana is allowed to go out in a—for lack of a better phrase—blaze of glory," I say. "Nino's death has no glory. Only justice."

"It's almost as if Nino misses the point of Scarface," Nelson replies. "Whereas Tony Montana comes out with a face full of cocaine, the only thing Nino has on his face at the end is marble."

That tangent leads me to my biggest question. The one I've been waiting for. The one I've wondered about since seeing New Jack City theatrically back in 1991, a mere 8th grader on vacation to Florida.

"What is probably—no, what is my favorite shot in the movie," I begin, "is at the end, after (SPOILER ALERT) Nino falls to his death, and there's a shot of Ice-T, who's just like "yeeeah." And then it cuts to you, and you just smile. Was that written into the script, or was that something you came up with on the day?"

"It wasn't in the script," he answers, and no response could have thrilled me more. "I told Mario 'I will do it every way you want me to, but I guarantee you'll end up using the smile.'" What I love about the shot, I tell him, is just how genuine it seems. "It's an unguarded moment," Nelson continues. "It couldn't have worked out better." He's referring to Nino's eventual fate, decided not by the police but by an outraged elder citizen, played by Bill Cobbs. "Peretti would be thrilled."

I figure it's about time to go into cliché mode, so I ask a question I'm sure has been asked by every other joker that's interviewed him that day.

"What was it like to work with guys like Wesley Snipes and Chris Rock and Ice-T before they were really known or respected for acting?" At least it wasn't about The Breakfast Club.

Judd Nelson, of course, remains totally cool. I've come to expect this from him.

"It was great," he pipes with out missing a beat. He cites Ice-T in particular, who he can't say enough positive things about. He repeatedly throws out terms like "honest" and "real," crediting the rapper for much of the movie's success. "Because it's Ice-T, kids watch and think 'I want to be cop, but only if I get to be that cop.'" He talks about how nice T was to his fans, and how sensitive he was to the fact that it was his first time acting—always willing to seek and take advice. I find something sweet in Nelson's describing this hardcore gangster rapper as "sensitive" and "nice."

"He was just a real...mensch, you know?" Now I've heard everything.

Judd tells a story about the night he and Ice-T shot the drunken rooftop conversation (where I learn that one of the film's most quotable lines—"Drugs ain't a black thing or white thing...it's a death thing."—was made up by Nelson on the spot), where T had him sing a blues riff while the rapper-turned-actor ad libbed lyrics, and how that went on for a full hour. I ask if he would agree that Ice-T's performance in New Jack City broke ground for rappers appearing in movies.

"In most movies, though," I suggest, "it feels like a stunt. With New Jack City, it's totally organic and it works."

Judd agrees, pointing out that most musicians who act are "too cool" to be as effective as T, and that typically the only way their characters are shown any dimension or sensitivity is when "they give him a daughter, or have their dog kicked or something."

"I think I saw that movie," I respond, assuming he's referring to 2003's Cradle 2 the Grave, starring rapper DMX as a man trying to rescue his daughter from kidnappers (I don't remember a dog, though). Judd doesn't confirm this, so I could be wrong. Maybe he just didn't hear me.

I want to start wrapping things up, as I'm sure Nelson has a dozen or so more of these things after this one. I try and finish the New Jack City city discussion by mentioning how well I think the movie holds up. "I mean, some of the music and the clothes are a little dated, but otherwise."

Judd jumps in. "The clothes are hilarious!" He brings up Nino Brown's pseudo-mohawk hairstyle as perhaps the funniest example. "I used to give Wesley s-t about that," he says, "but Wesley wasn't having it. You don't want to f-k with Wesley when he's in his Nino Brown mode."

I tell him that the Color Me Badd video (for their inexplicable hit, "I Wanna Sex You Up"—an early boy-band piece of tripe, and one of the worst offerings of the 1990s) is on the DVD. "I'm not sure anything dates a movie more than a Color Me Badd song."

"Is that on the DVD?" Nelson asks. "I'll have to check that out."

My final question is to inquire what he's got coming up next. He tells me he has two movies "in the can" (marking the first time that I've heard this term used in actual conversation where it didn't feel forced or pretentious—it helps that he's a real-live movie star, and the first I've ever spoken to). First is a film for the Sci-Fi channel called Black Hole with Kristy Swanson, about a—you guessed it—black hole opening up in St. Louis (I try and make a lame joke about how some might say that St. Louis is already a black hole, which really isn't fair as I haven't been there in years. At any rate, Judd doesn't really find it funny. You don't want to f-k with Judd Nelson when he's in his Nino Brown mode.) The second is a Christmas movie for the USA network called "3 Wise Guys." It's a gangster-comedy retelling of the story of the Three Wise Men, co-starring Tom Arnold, Katey Sagal, and Nicholas Turturro. I tell him I plan to check both films out, and I'm not just saying it. Judd Nelson is my boy.

I thank him a little too much as I close, reiterating just how nervous I was about the whole thing and how he couldn't have made it easier for me.

"No—you're a natural," he jokingly strokes. I tell him that based on this interview's success, my next move is to go out and audition for Access Hollywood.

"Why would you want to do that? They'd just make you move, and you're in a great city."

Well played, Judd Nelson. Well played indeed.

Maybe next time I can ask about The Breakfast Club.

thanks CL :-)