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John Milius’ Reagan-era action hit “Red Dawn” wasn’t just a running “Hot Tub Time Machine” gag; the Cold War fantasy of guerilla patriot youths marked a new peak of commercial success for the “Wind and the Lion” director and stimulated the careers of several of its young stars.
The story, of teen freedom fighters repelling commies in Soviet-invaded Colorado, was a box-office smash in the summer of 1984, nestled alongside the Los Angeles Olympics — which the Soviets were boycotting after the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics four years prior. Filled with All-American treasures like Chevy pickup trucks and Coca-Cola to defend, the movie depended on strong performances from the actors who would play the “Wolverine” partisans. These kids weren’t particularly political; their claim was a simple 1:1 reaction to being invaded. Among them, city sisters Erica and Toni Mason — played by a pre-“Back to the Future” Lea Thompson and a pre-“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” Jennifer Grey — do what it takes to survive.
Such mental toughness was a trait that Milius would keep due north when searching for his teen Wolverines; he couldn’t have any namby-pamby actors playing gun-toting, traitor-executing characters. In a featurette on the film’s Shout! Factory release, Jane Jenkins, who has cast some of Hollywood’s supreme movies from “Stand By Me” to “A Few Good Men,” looks back on the casting process for “Red Dawn,” painting a picture of a “rugged” and “macho” Milius filtering out actresses with a single, slightly jarring question.
Pop Quiz, Hotshot
Throughout the course of the movie’s 114 minutes, the Mason sisters would do their best to repel occupying invaders from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Despite not knowing what a flank or a defilade is, the girls prove themselves capable warriors and heartfelt avengers. The young women who would play them needed to carry a certain amount of intestinal fortitude, something John Milius would discern by asking candidates what they were willing to do to survive.
In the featurette, Jane Jenkins recalls:
“When the girls would come in he would have a conversation with them before they even started to read, and he would say, ‘So, what would happen if you were in the wilderness and you were starving? Could you kill a bunny?’ And the girls would look a little horrified, and he would always say a bunny, not a rabbit, and he would say, ‘Could you kill a bunny, skin it, and eat it?’ The girls that were horrified at that suggestion, needless to say, didn’t go any further. The girls who said, ‘Well, if it was life and death and I really had to …’ those girls got to go on and read for the parts they were eventually going to play.”
Clearly, Thompson and Grey answered with confidence and earned their respective roles. To Jenkins, it’s an indication of the actors’ resilience in an industry that digests people and spits them out so much that movies like “Babylon” are still being made about its viciousness.
“Both Jennifer and Lea had the smarts, the moxie, the fortitude, the ambition to say, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do whatever I have to do to get this part, to make it in this business, to survive in my life,” Jenkins continues. Both Grey and Thompson are still active and Wolverine strong.
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