Anyone who grew up in the 1980s would be a fool to pass up an interview with Lea Thompson. But guess what? This beloved actress has kept quite busy since her “Back to the Future” days—especially on cable where she’s a regular on ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” and will take a romantic turn on Hallmark Movie Channel’s light-hearted family romp “The Cabin” about a single mom who finds an unlikely suitor at an outing for descendents of a Scottish clan. It premieres July 30, 8p ET. CableFAX Executive Editor (and child of the 80s) Michael Grebb spent a few minutes on the phone with Thompson, who says she’s having more fun than ever despite her girl-next-door, wholesome image.
CableFAX: You’ve worked with Hallmark before and done other TV. What intrigued you about this particular role?
Thompson: Well, I’d never done a romantic-comedy movie and so I was really excited to do that. And I really thought it was a funny idea—the whole Scottish theme—and I was really excited to do a movie in Ireland, even though it was supposed to be Scotland. I just thought it was a cute idea. I love tackling different forms—adventure, sit-coms, musicals. I love doing all sort of different things, and I’d never done this before, so I was really excited to be asked.
CableFAX: So “Casual Sex” doesn’t count as a rom-com?
Thompson: It wasn’t supposed to be. It was supposed to be a girl buddy movie, but it kind of ended up as a rom-com.
CableFAX: In “The Cabin,” you and your kids are stuck in a cabin with a guy you don’t like very much and his kids because the resort screws up the reservation. Have you ever faced a situation like that in real life? One in which you’re thrown together with random strangers?
Thompson: [LAUGHS]. Well, every movie is kind of like that. So I can definitely relate to it. I’ve been married for 22 years, so I can’t relate to it romantically. But I have a big family, and we’re always smashed in together at some point. We take a vacation, and we’re all too cheap to get lots of rooms—which I think is part of the fun. I always think it’s weird when people buy these huge vacation homes so they can not be together.
CableFAX: You’re keeping pretty busy these days. You just finished shooting Clint Eastwood’s new “J Edgar” movie about the controversial FBI chief.
Thompson: I don’t have a big part in the J. Edgar movie, but I shot that, and it was a great experience. I always wanted to work with Clint Eastwood. And Leonardo DiCaprio is such an inspiring actor. It was real fun to all of the sudden be in the 30s. It was really exciting. And I just finishing my new series “Switched at Birth,” which is a big hit on cable. It had the biggest debut ever for ABC Family. So that did really great. And that’s a really interesting character: An uptight housewife who just thinks her whole life is perfect, and then she finds out that she’s been raising someone else’s kid for 16 years.
CableFAX: I hate when that happens.
Thompson: I know. Me too. But it’s a really great series, and it’s being received well critically. I’m having to learn sign language, which is really interesting because one of my daughters is deaf in the show. We really have to learn it. There’s experts on the set all the time making sure we do it right. It’s a really fun thing for an actor/dancer to learn sign language. It’s really amazing.
CableFAX: You could create your own sign language dance.
Thompson: I know. We were thinking of doing the all-silent musical version. [LAUGHS].
CableFAX: And of course you are a trained ballerina. I think I caught you doing a few ballet moves in “The Cabin,” actually.
Thompson: Yeah. They let me do a little dancing. It was fun doing that, and it was fun doing all the Scottish games and everything. I love doing physical things in movies. I really do. It was quick, and because of the rain a lot of times we had to sit there and wait because of that… I just really had a good time. It was such an international cast and crew. And the food in Dublin was so good. You don’t think of food in Ireland as being good, but it has been such a renaissance. I literally can’t wait to get back and eat the Irish food.
CableFAX: You’ve also done some directing on Hallmark with the “Jane Doe” series.
Thompson: Yes, and I’d love it if they gave me the chance to direct again. I had a great time doing those. It just seems to be the natural conclusion of all the work I’ve done in my life—all the different styles of acting and singing and dancing and comedy and drama. So I’m hoping that in the next few years, I can do some more directing.
CableFAX: What attracts you more these days: Acting or directing.
Thompson: I definitely find directing much more interesting… It uses a multitasking part of my brain. You reach a certain point in your life where it’s time to give back and to teach. I think that’s a graceful way to pass things on. It keeps you young and in touch, and not bitter. Directing can be about teaching…
CableFAX: So you’re definitely hoping to do more directing?
Thompson: I hope they’ll let me do that on my series… And also I produced this movie that’s coming out on DVD called “Mayor Cupcake,” and my daughters are both in that. So that was a lovely experience.
CableFAX: Have they got the acting bug now?
Thompson: Yeah, my oldest daughter just graduated from college, so she’s just starting acting. But my youngest daughter has been acting for a year, and she’s done extremely well for herself. She’s extremely talented. They’re kind of following in my footsteps, which is fun.
CableFAX: You started with light comedies in the 1980s, but you’ve been involved with so many genres since then. Do you have a favorite?
Thompson: I really like doing different things—sometimes I think to my detriment. When I was a dancer, I did all kinds of styles of dance, so I think that bled over to my whole artistic life. I like doing dramas. I like doing musicals. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to do that, because sometimes people try to pigeonhole you into one kind of style. So I’ve been really lucky.
CableFAX: You also had a nice run in the sit-com world with “Caroline in the City.” That was a broadcast show, and you’ve done a good mix of broadcast TV and cable since then. Any difference at this point?
Thompson: You know, it’s really evening out. It’s really evening out in terms of how many people watch it. What’s been great about the cable channels is that they open worlds for people because of the specificity. Because they’re specifically designed for a specific audience, they actually open up jobs for actors… ABC Family is designed for mothers and their teenaged daughters. That’s the audience they’re going for, and that’s perfect for me… The networks seem to be really about actors in their early 30s. So younger people can get jobs on Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel, and older people can work on other networks. So cable has been a real blessing for our industry. There’s just more work. Usually about 2 million people watch a Hallmark movie, and that’s a good number for the CW. So it’s kind of evening out.
CableFAX: Are the budgets keeping up on cable?
Thompson: Well, the best budgets are on HBO.
CableFAX: Sure. I wasn’t counting the premiums.
Thompson: Yeah, well HBO is the place to work. They put so much money in those shows, and they have such quality work. They’re not even making movies like that. The business is changing a lot, but luckily they still need actors.
CableFAX: Until they get computers to replace us all—including writers.
Thompson: Exactly. But really what I notice are that movies are an incredibly hand crafted project. It’s the most hand crafted export that America has. When you’re working on it, you realize how many people work on it, how each scene is totally unique and will never be recreated. And it takes so many artists to do it. It’s kind of awesome. It’s an awesome industry.
CableFAX: You do so much family-friendly fare these days. Would you ever look at edgier material a la Showtime, HBO, FX, etc?
Thompson: I’m a modern dancer at heart. I’m an experimental theater person at heart… And if you look at the parts I’m known for, “Back to the Future” was an incredibly subversive part. So I’m totally into that. It’s just not usually the parts that come my way. I have a wholesome image, even though I’m known as the woman who wanted to seduce her son. I think people don’t generally think of me first for those types of parts, but I would love to do that.
CableFAX: You just need to get involved in a good scandal.
Thompson: I think that’s the real problem. I’ve been married for so long, with two wonderful kids. I’m not really known for my scandals.
CableFAX: Such a horrible problem to have.
Thompson: Isn’t it? It’s actually a detriment, actually, to have a quiet life. But I’m really happy I do.