CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
Interview: Claudia Wells is the Original Jennifer in ‘Back to the Future’
CHICAGO – The classic film “Back to the Future” celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and the original cast – including Claudia Wells as Jennifer – will be introducing the film this weekend at the Hollywood Palms and Hollywood Blvd Cinema in suburban Chicago.
Claudia Wells has become a footnote in film history. She became one of the 1980s most wanted “girlfriends” with her role as Jennifer, Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) main squeeze in the memorable film, but had to forego the part in the sequels due to a personal family matter. Elisabeth Shue played Jennifer in the subsequent films.
But Wells has no regrets. Her decision to leave acting led her into what became her life’s career, that of retail magnate, with her highly regarded Los Angeles men’s fashion store, “Armani Wells.”
Photo Credit: © Universal Pictures
HollywoodChicago.com talked with Claudia Wells about her extraordinary connection to Back to the Future, during a photo session with HollywoodChicago’s ace photographer, Joe Arce. She will be introducing the film with fellow co-stars Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine) and James Tolkan (Principal Strickland) at the Hollywood Blvd Cinema in Woodridge (lllinois) and the Hollywood Palms in Naperville on February 26th, 27th and 28th.
HollywoodChicago.com: How did you develop an interest in professional acting? And how did you get your first job?
Claudia Wells: I wanted to be an actress since I could remember, even when I was two years old. I used to cry to my mother as a toddler because I didn’t think I was small enough to fit into the television [laughs]. I started performing children’s performing roles in opera when I was eight in San Francisco. I then did whatever I could in San Francisco, with modeling and acting, and then I convinced my mother to move to Los Angeles between grade school and high school. Then we moved to L.A. so I could be an actress.
HC: You did several guest spots on some memorable TV shows of the ‘80s – ‘Fame,’ ‘Trapper John,’ ‘Simon & Simon’ come to mind – do you have any memories of any of these shows that stand out?
CW: I was on Simon & Simon during Gerald McRaney’s directorial debut and I played a girl who ended up getting involved in drugs and was a runaway, so it was very dramatic and fabulous. In ‘Babies Having Babies,’ an ABC Afterschool Special, it was Martin Sheen’s directorial debut and that was an extraordinary experience. I was so blessed – I was working all the time and with great people.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com. Hair and Makeup by Angela Brasington.
HC: What were your circumstances in landing the part of Jennifer in ‘Back to the Future’?
CW: I was contracted to a sitcom with Ed Asner called ‘Off the Rack.’ It look like ABC-TV wasn’t going to pick it up for the fall. so I accepted Back to the Future and then ABC changed their mind and did pick up Off the Rack for six episodes. Even though Ed Asner was behind me to do both, ABC wouldn’t let me out of the commitment. So I had to then decline Back to the Future, and they cast it with another actress [Melora Halin].
The film shot for eight weeks with Eric Stolz. And I did the six episodes for Off the Rack. When they switched the Marty McFly character to Michael J. Fox, the girl they had cast was five-foot-seven, too tall to play Marty’s girlfriend. So I got my part back [laughs]. It was meant to be.
HC: Did you and rest of the cast going into production feel like they had a hit based just on the script?
CW: I don’t think that way, and I don’t think anyone else did either. It was an amazing script and I loved it, and I did feel blessed to be working with Michael and Stephen Spielberg [the producer] and the other great people. But whenever I did something, I never thought past the actual work on it.
HC: Describe the working atmosphere of this Robert Zemeckis production. From research it seemed a pretty exhausting shoot. How did the director keep everybody getting through it?
CW: Everyone worked well together, it was a team effort. I was used to television, where we did ten pages a day, so for me it was pretty relaxed compared to what I was used to [laughs].
HC: Okay, so after the film became a major hit, did you get more options as an actress and did you know what to do with them?
CW: I had no idea. I hear now ‘oh I was so in love with you,’ and I had no idea. Even after the movie came out I had no clue about it. Thinking of myself as far as importance or fame, my brain doesn’t work that way.
HC: Had you signed on the do the sequels? Describe the situation that made you unable to continue with the other two films.
CW: I was meant to do both the second and third sequels. My mom got cancer, and was very ill, and there was too much turmoil at home. I backed out of the industry completely at the time. That’s why I wasn’t in the sequels.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
HC: Like the two Darrens in Bewitched, do you often hear from people about comparing the two Jennifers? When a person supports you, what do they mention the most?
CW: They always say, ‘your my favorite Jennifer Parker, you’re the only Jennifer Parker’ [laughs]. In the early days of the internet, someone told me to Google myself, and I did it once. There were all these websites talking about Jennifer all over the world, and there were all these rumors about where I was, but I was such a techno-idiot at the time I couldn’t get on and say, ‘hey, I’m still here.’ [laughs]. Now I’ve done enough interviews so it doesn’t come up as much.
HC: In classic film, no matter what your age, you can live forever. What do you think is legacy of the first Back to the Future, and what makes you most proud to have been part of such a classic?
CW: The legacy is that it’s still loved, and loved by new generations. I get little kids coming up to me recognizing it. In all age ranges, like people connecting to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ just joy, love and family, that doesn’t change. And just the dream of being able to switch back and forth in time, who doesn’t want to do that?
HC: What were the circumstances of you essentially leaving acting? What did you pursue after all the smoke from that had cleared?
CW: I opened a men’s fashion store called Armani Wells when I was 23 years old with the intention of having a fabulous place for men to shop resale, especially designer labels. I shopped a lot of resale when I had to dress for industry parties, and I wanted men to have the same option. I also wanted a financial base to go back into acting. But the store became a success and it was so much fun I never really got a chance to go back to acting. But I still want to.
HC: Didn’t you also around that time meet and date a young George Clooney?
CW: He was doing ‘Facts of Life’ at the time, and my friend Mindy Cohen introduced us on the set. And even at the time, he was an amazingly hard working guy. I’d never seen such a hard working actor preparing for his future as George.
HC: How long was your relationship?
CW: Okay, that’s all! [laughs]
HC: Finally, if you could go back in that DeLorean Time Machine to that young girl that was in the film, what would you tell her and why?
CW: I would tell her not to put so much pressure on herself. And I would tell her that she’s a good person because God loves her. And not because you’re starring in something.