Judd Nelson: ‘Wearing a giant papier-mache head and smoking pot was a great way to spend the summer’

The Breakfast Club and Iceland Is Best star on his love of British punk, the cool of Steve McQueen and how Björn Borg inspired him to calm down

Mosh pits, gravity and hydrophysics

I’m from Portland, Maine, on the coast of the Atlantic. When you look out over the sea, there’s nothing until Britain. It’s just a huge expanse of scary Atlantic Ocean. And then there’s you.

Growing up, I liked punk and I liked ska – anything with a rapid, fast, hard beat. A moshpit was a good way to spend a Friday night. The first band I saw was Aerosmith – at the Maine Fair in Portland when I was in fifth grade, I think. It was the same year that, in science class, I learned about gravity and the Earth spinning incredibly fast on an axis and travelling through outer space at thousands of miles an hour.

That was a big inspiration for me. I didn’t realise that the water in my glass that’s not moving at all is actually moving incredibly fast. It probably explained why I was always jumping around and had so much energy. We’re not standing still: we’re all flying.

The Sex Pistols

I liked the Ramones. They led me to the Sex Pistols. I liked the sound of their music before I really knew they were English. Then the Sex Pistols led me to the Rolling Stones.

When I auditioned for The Breakfast Club, I first had to audition in New York. I was called to a second casting in Los Angeles. I remember I was listening to Holidays in the Sun by the Sex Pistols on my Walkman.

I don’t know why exactly, it just seemed to fit the bill. I had taken the headphones off and turned the volume up, so they were like little speakers. The casting director tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Can you turn that off?” I thought: “Yes, you’re right, that probably shouldn’t be on right now.” And then I got the part.

Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club, 1985.
Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club, 1985. Photograph: Allstar/UNIVERSAL

Connery, Eastwood and McQueen

Acting is a profession of illusions. If you do your job well, you are confused with the product. It’s very rare that a baker is confused with the cake. But it’s easy to confuse Sean Connery with James Bond. If I was in a restaurant and a fight broke out and Connery was there, I would assume he would get in the middle and stop it. Connery, I imagine, could have done that.

It’s like why you wouldn’t mess with Clint Eastwood. In Dirty Harry and The Outlaw Josey Wales, he’s the most heroic guy in the world. It doesn’t matter the odds; it doesn’t matter the numbers. He is always on the side of right, so you just don’t mess with him. Then McQueen is just … Holy moly. He’s just incredible. So those are the three actors that I liked as a younger person. I’m still waiting to decide what I want to do when I grow up.

‘If there was a fight in a restaurant and Sean Connery was there, I’d assume he’d stop it.’
‘If there was a fight in a restaurant and Sean Connery was there, I’d assume he’d stop it.’ Photograph: Danjaq/Eon/Ua/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The munchies

As far as acting goes, it’s not a very helpful memory drug. But as a teenager, I must say that I liked marijuana. I thought that was a very fun way to slow down. I just couldn’t believe it. At grammar school, I followed the smell into the boys’ bathroom and had my first smoke. I remember feeling that my sense of time was getting messed up. I felt I was in my buddy’s garage for hours and hours, but it was only five minutes. I thought: “Wow, that’s kinda cool.” It was all fun and games until someone in authority found out.

When I went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania, they had a supermarket chain called Pathmark. Everything is Pathmark. It’s like in the Road Runner cartoon, where everything is Acme. But there’s something about supermarket lighting and the munchies: it’s too damn bright. I’d go to Pathmark with the munchies, walk through the door and the lights would feel as if they were giving me an X-ray.

The Oresteia by Aeschylus

My parents were – and still are – unquestionably my heroes. I didn’t realise how fortunate I was until I first went to dinner at a friend’s. I was like: “Wow, your parents suck.”

I was really loud at school, so in sixth grade, I was put in a play called The Baron of … something. It was some weird semi musical where I played some old burgomaster. I think they just wanted to distract me to calm me down.

I joined The Shoestring Theatre Company, who would travel around with a four-piece brass band. Half a dozen of us would wander behind with big papier-mache heads, on stilts or juggle. Wearing a giant papier-mache head and smoking a little pot was a great way to spend the summer.

In college, this guy in the freshmen dorm said he was going to audition for the school play, and did I want to come along? I asked: “Why will that be fun?” He said: “Because that’s where the girls are.” I ended up playing Orestes in The Oresteia, the Greek trilogy by Aeschylus, where Orestes kills Clytemnestra, his own mother. My parents came down to Pennsylvania to see it. Afterwards, my mother said: “The scene where you kill your mother is very realistic.”

Björn Borg

Björn Borg, the Swedish tennis player, seemed so stoic, and I was so hotheaded. Then I found out that when he was a young player, he was very hotheaded. He lost a game, threw his tennis racket and his father put his tennis racket in a closet for a year. Then his father said: “If you throw your tennis racket again, you’ll never get it back.” It was very inspirational because I realised: “OK, it’s up to me to calm down.”

I played in the Portland, Maine open tennis tournament. I got to the finals and thought: “I should smoke this guy. I should win every point,” but he played me like ping pong, and I lost in three sets.

They gave me the second place trophy and I went to my dad: “Can you believe it?” And he went: “Quiet. We’ll talk in the car.” In the car, I said: “Can you believe it?” And my dad said: “Calm down. We’ll talk when we’re home.” We got home and I went: “Can you …?” And my dad said: “Take a shower.” I calmed down and realised: “I know why I lost. I know what I should have done.” My dad didn’t have to say a word. My parents were good at dealing with me.

• Judd Nelson’s new film Iceland Is Best is out now


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Denise van Outen: ‘I thought if I had legs like Cilla, I’d have a long career’
The TV presenter and West End star on her Vivienne Westwood bikini, attempting to replicate Club Tropicana – and crying at Beaches

As told to Rich Pelley

01, Apr, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
David Arquette: ‘Marlon Brando thought I was going to give him a cold’
The actor recalls how he got into graffiti, his love of punk and sitting in the back of his teenage idol’s car

As told to Rich Pelley

24, Jun, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Martin Freeman’s teenage obsessions: ‘I still think that rude-boy skinhead look is hard to beat’
The Hobbit actor, who is back on TV in the sitcom Breeders, recalls sharp dressing on a budget, discovering Public Enemy and how Michael Caine got him into film

As told to Rich Pelley

27, May, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Kerry Fox: ‘I still see myself as a teen: pot, joyriding and trying to have sex’
The Shallow Grave and Intimacy actor on driving at 15 in New Zealand, her parents’ disco dancing and starting an Abba fan club in her shed

As told to Rich Pelley

13, May, 2021 @11:25 AM

Article image
Richard Jenkins: ‘Oh my God, Connery was so cool. I thought Goldfinger was the greatest film ever made’
The Oscar-nominated star of The Visitor and The Shape of Water and new film The Last Shift on drag racing, doo-wop music and discovering James Bond

As told to Rich Pelley

18, Mar, 2021 @3:34 PM

Article image
Matthew Modine's teenage obsessions: ‘In Utah, the Beatles were devil music’
The Full Metal Jacket actor, who stars in new horror film Wrong Turn, on Ernest Hemingway, Sean Connery, and why he turned down Top Gun

As told to Rich Pelley

04, Mar, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Steve Zahn’s teenage obsessions: ‘De Niro in The Deer Hunter was acting on a different level’
The actor and comedian discusses his early days in musical theatre, his love of U2 and his passion for fly fishing

As told to Rich Pelley

15, Apr, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Timothy Spall’s teenage obsessions: ‘For my art A-level I nailed up apples covered in pubic hair’
The actor on studying with the Sex Pistols, being in a Bowie tribute act, the appeal of Roxy Music, the help of teachers and the power of surrealism

As told to Rich Pelley

02, Sep, 2021 @1:17 PM

Article image
Joe Pantoliano: ‘I saw acting as a way of making a living out of lying’
The Matrix and Bad Boys actor on growing up in the New Jersey projects, his love of Ginger Rogers and Margaret Rutherford, and dodging the Vietnam war

As told to Rich Pelley

30, Sep, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Juno Temple's teenage obsessions: 'Brandon Flowers was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen'
The actor, who stars alongside Justin Timberlake in Palmer, recalls her love of Eminem, the magic of Jean Cocteau and why she is fascinated by corsetry

As told to Rich Pelley

18, Feb, 2021 @3:45 PM