Skip to main content

Judd Nelson takes a long, slow draw on his cigarette, watches the smoke curl up and around his face, and explains why he signed up to play an eccentric, spike-haired scientist in the upcoming family movie Cybermutt.

"My mom suggested I do this movie," insists the 42-year-old actor with the bushiest eyebrows in the business. He takes another haul off his Natural American Spirit, a brand of smokes that Nelson says (poker-faced) isn't bad for you because of "its all-natural tar and nicotine."

"She's thrilled that I'm playing a good guy for a change," adds Nelson, who's been shooting the $5-million picture in and around Toronto the past few weeks. "In this film, I'm a cordial sweet guy as opposed to a sociopath or a murderer. She's pleased about that."

Nelson, slouched in a chair in the makeshift cafeteria on the set of Cybermutt,is just about to launch into the merits of making a film that his sister's toddlers can see, when he's interrupted by a big, burly guy in Kodiaks, who asks Nelson if he would please butt out. "There's no smoking anywhere on the premises," the guy explains to the Hollywood star who made teenage girls swoon as the hoodlum with a heart in The Breakfast Club in 1985.

Nelson looks askance, but quickly recovers. "Sure, man," he says with a grin. "No problem." Then the actor stubs his cigarette into a plastic plate. As the crew member heads back to his corner of the room, Nelson whispers conspiratorially: "At least I got half a cigarette in. The way I see it, it's much easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission."

That's the Nelson we want to remember. The pensive, brooding actor with the swarthy good looks who was there at the dawn of the Brat Pack in the mid-1980s. Back then, Nelson was the oldest, one of the most cocksure of that legendary crew, who everyone knew by first-names, Judd, Emilio, Rob, Demi, Ally, to name a few.

To a large extent, Nelson's career has been defined and measured ever since by the roles he played in a scant three-year-span from 1982 to 1985, when he burst onto the scene as a hood in Making the Grade,as a cynical waster in The Breakfast Club and then as a self-centred yuppy politico in St. Elmo's Fire. Those films have been described as the definitive Reagan-era portraits of pre-college and post-college angst. (The penultimate scene in St. Elmo's Fire features Demi Moore, strung out and moaning, about how old and tired she feels at the age of 22.)

All the involved actors became hot commodities. All of them -- except for Moore, who had commercial success through the nineties -- have since struggled to regain a toehold in mainstream Hollywood.

Nelson, dressed in a woolly green sweater, with tiny coke-bottle spectacles, baggy jeans and work boots, readily admits his career has had major highs and lows. But, today, filming at the Steele Technology Company in Markham, Ont., Nelson seems perfectly comfortable with his job and his life.

"Time will tell when people will finally get over it," Nelson says, referring to the Brat Pack label, a term he claims was the hyped-up invention of New York Magazine writer David Blum in 1985. "It was 15 years ago," he adds, shaking his head. "Most people in the southern part of the United States have stopped talking about the Civil War, so maybe -- someday soon -- everyone will get over this [the Brat Pack label]too."

For years, Nelson was portrayed by the media as poster boy (along with his girlfriend for a time, Shannen Doherty) for bad behaviour. If he partied hard (and he admits, with a sly grin, he did), his face bears few telltale signs. Those almost-black eyes are as sharp, his grin as infectious and his face almost as unlined as it was 15 years ago when John Hughes directed the early Brats in Saturday detention for The Breakfast Club.

In person, Nelson is charming and self-effacing. He's clearly got a twisted sense of humour. A dry wit. But he has no airs. And, apparently, few axes to grind. He jokes with the crew, and is well-liked on this set. He says Cybermutt,directed by the Australian director George Miller ( The Man From Snowy River, Neverending Story II),is a role he agreed to because he liked the script and, well, steady work pays the bills.

"I like the notion that you can make a watchable and exciting movie without profanity, violence and sex," says Nelson. ". . . My sister has a 3½-year-old daughter and a six-month-old son. I probably haven't made a movie that easily could be seen by kids those ages."

Cybermutt is a story about a young boy, played by Ryan Cooley, whose dog Rex has been killed while saving the life of a scientist, Alex (Nelson).

Indebted, Nelson's character rebuilds the dog with bionic parts that the bad guys, of course, are dying to get their hands on. It's a light romp. No epiphanies here. And, no one denies, a huge departure from a great deal of Nelson's previous work in which he mostly brooded, scowled or plotted on-screen.

Ask him how it felt to be so famous, so young, and Nelson's answers are well-rehearsed. Clearly, the man has dealt with these questions so often he could do this in his sleep. "That was '85," Nelson says. "It was a wonderful script. When you have a very fast racehorse, you don't use the crop, you let the horse run."

So, were those years the high point of your career? Nelson, patient as a saint, responds in kind: "It's like being a jockey. You hold onto the reins of this fast-moving horse, but you've got no clue where you're going."

Then, thankfully, he throws out the script. "Theoretically, if I could do it over again, I would not have done St. Elmo's Fire. I wouldn't have done it. But I have no regrets about any of it. Fame didn't get to me. I tried to behave myself. Looking back, I wouldn't have gone out as much. I would've stayed home more." Then he adds, with a wicked smile: "I like to call it the exuberance of shame and youth."

The archetypal Brat Pack films -- The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire -- were released just months apart in 1985. After that, Nelson went on to appear in several box-office flops and mostly forgettable television specials, such as From the Hip (1987), New Jack City (1991), Blindfold: Acts of Obsession (1994), and Steel (1997).

His profile was raised in 1997 when he was hired to co-star with his friend and fellow eighties alumna, Brooke Shields, in the NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan. Comfortable on the small screen, Nelson played Shields's boss for three seasons, leaving in 1999 after the suicide of co-star David Strickland.

" Suddenly Susan was fun," says Nelson. "It was like doing a one-act play every day. I liked all those people. I just didn't like the idea of painting over David's parking space."

His favourite medium, the actor says, is theatre. In recent years, he's done a lot of it: off-Broadway roles in plays such as Carnal Knowledge, Orphans, The Cocktail Hour and Wrestlers with Sarah Jessica Parker.

"When a project comes along -- regardless of whether it's TV, film or the stage, I try to get involved with it," says Nelson. "I don't think about the medium or the genre. They're all different facets of the same jewel. But theatre is my favourite. It's always rehearsed. You always do it from beginning to the end. It's in sequence, and I like that. You can be protected on a film, mess it up 400 times, and to a certain degree you're coddled. On a stage, you need your partners to row with you. I like the teamwork. But unfortunately theatre doesn't pay the mortgage."

This is Nelson's third project in Toronto. Last fall, he completed the drama/thriller Deceived,with Lou Gossett Jr. He also did the TV movie Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story in 1999.

He found the Deceived project, directed by Andre Van Heerden, a tough assignment given they had to keep shooting the day of -- and immediately after -- the Sept. 11 tragedy. Nelson remembers walking by the sound cart and mixer and watching a monitor that showed the tower burning. "I asked the guy if he was watching The Towering Inferno,"Nelson remembers. "He said, 'No, this is real.' And then the second plane hits. The set did not shut down. And I was upset by the events, but also by the fact, that people could work through them. But I signed a contract and it was at the producers' discretion. And these producers wanted us to work."

Nelson likes to describe himself as a plow-horse actor, which means "I go to work, get the yoke on my neck, and do what's required. Just work. Sometimes I made choices that weren't quite so smart in career terms. . . I'm much more thoughtful now than I was. I'm a good example of an idle mind being the devil's playground. Left to my own devices, mayhem pursues," says the man who a few years ago got two year's probation for allegedly assaulting a woman who heckled Nelson and Doherty at a bar in Dallas. "So I'm best being busy."

The Brat, on this set anyway, is nowhere in sight. Nelson, at a just-turned 42, appears to be all grown up. He chalks that up to his family; his mom, Merle Nelson, who is a former state assembly legislator turned mediator in domestic cases, and his dad, a corporate lawyer.

If he takes issue with anything negative that's been written about him over the years, it's the portrayal of he and his Brat Pack colleagues as unprofessional ne'er-do-wells who didn't pull their weight.

"Our lifestyle shenanigans should not be confused with our professional life. I was going to prep school when The Breakfast Club was shot and I didn't travel 3,000 miles to drink beer with Emilio and the others," says Nelson, referring to an assertion made in New York magazine article.

"The fact was when the movie was over . . . we all went our separate ways. That writer drew the conclusion we were hellions. It portrayed my generation of actors as professionally irresponsible. That was not the case. It's kind of a shame we won't work together ever again."

Which begs the question, why is the door slammed forever shut on a reunion of Estevez, Nelson, Lowe and the others? "My philosophy," Nelson explains, "is this. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It was painful at the time, but as my mom says, if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen. So now I try to steer clear of volatile situations."

Tomorrow morning he's boarding a plane for New York. So he'll miss the wrap party -- which, he adds with an impish grin, may be just as well for everyone present.

He's heading home to spend the holidays with his family, and then on to Los Angeles, where he cohabits in the Hollywood Hills with his bull terrier, Tallulah Bighead.

In the past few years, he's had a few relationships, but none have worked out. It's a situation he seems rueful of, but not overly so. "My mom says when I was little, about 10, she asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up.

"I said, 'I want to live alone in the woods of Maine with 10 dogs.' She asked me 10 years later, and I said, 'I want to live alone in the woods of Maine with 10 women.'

"Now I say, 'I'd like one woman and one dog. That would be good.' "