Ally Sheedy interview: 'I was constantly told what I should look like'

'I didn't know what I was doing'; Ally Sheedy in 1983 - Getty
'I didn't know what I was doing'; Ally Sheedy in 1983 - Getty

As Allison in The Breakfast Club – sat at the back of detention, dressed in black, goth eyes hidden beneath her shaggy hair, and near-mute for 30 minutes – Ally Sheedy was the outcast of the group: the “basket case”, as the movie’s heart-punching essay says.

Thirty-five years after John Hughes’s coming-of-age movie first hit cinemas, it’s an image that still serves Ally Sheedy well: a Hollywood outsider. Cast in The Breakfast Club at 21 years old, Sheedy was already strangely prolific. She had written a bestselling book at 12, performed ballet, and starred in Bad Boys (with Sean Penn – not Will Smith) and WW3 teen thriller War Games.

“I don’t know why I accomplished so many things when I was young,” Sheedy says. “It was just the way I was.” She tells me that even at the height of her commercial success she was “very much a loner”. But Sheedy was also huge star during those heady days of the Brat Pack, with a hot streak of War Games, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Short Circuit – all steadfast pillars of the purest Eighties nostalgia – in the space of just three years.

But Sheedy soon left Hollywood, moving back to her native New York to get as far away as she could – for reasons that will soon become clear.

In the years since, Sheedy has been an outspoken critic of female sexualisation in Hollywood, an issue that many others have only just caught up with in recent years (“It has changed,” Sheedy says, “but the power structure is still what it is. We know that”). Under the renewed, increasing scrutiny of sexual politics in the #MeToo era, even the most beloved John Hughes films have come under fire.

Sheedy would find a creative path that sometimes defined her against mainstream cinema, typified by her starring role in the blistering lesbian drama High Art. “I still love those parts,” says Sheedy. “The complex ones. The dark ones.”

In the decades following The Breakfast Club, other Brat Pack alumni (a name invented in a 1985 New York magazine article) have continued to renounce and distance themselves from their Brat Packer status. Writing in his autobiography, Rob Lowe pondered if he was a has-been at 17. Judd Nelson called the Brat Pack “fictional” and said the association hurt his career opportunities. Emilio Estevez has resisted looking back and moves forward as a director. Even at the time, the troupe of youngsters hated the Brat Pack moniker.

Indeed, I tell Sheedy that I’m almost embarrassed to use the term – lazy shorthand for a group whose talents and due credit extends beyond a handful of nostalgia-inducing Eighties films. But Sheedy, now 57, says she enjoys looking back at The Breakfast Club – even though she claims to have only watched the film twice since its release.

Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick in WarGames - alamy
Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick in WarGames - alamy

This Sunday (June 7), Sheedy takes part in a watch party of The Breakfast Club with NOW TV, celebrating 35 years since the film's UK release. Sheedy will provide commentary on the movie and take questions from selected participants over Zoom. “It’s not a usual part of my life,” she says of the film. “I don’t think about it a lot. But when it comes up it’s nice to go back and revisit. I like hearing what people think about it.”

I’m quick to tell Sheedy what I think of The Breakfast Club. Despite her character's assertion in the movie that "when you grow up, your heart dies", as an alleged grown-up I still find it to be deeply affecting stuff.

It's the story of five high school teens – “Brain” Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) “Athlete” Andrew (Emilio Estevez), “Basketcase” Allison (Sheedy), “Princess” Claire (Molly Ringwald), and “Criminal” Bender (Judd Nelson) – who are thrown together for Saturday detention. Charged with writing an essay on "who do you think you are?" by bullish teacher Mr Vernon (Paul Gleason), they break down the stereotypes – “the most convenient definition” as they write.

The Breakfast Club has transcended and its exploration of the angst, confusion, and wonderment of teen life still resonates today. But more that that: it stirs up those feelings long after you think you’ve grown out of them, all thanks to the curious, incomparable touch of John Hughes.

Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club - getty
Ally Sheedy and Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club - getty

“I know The Breakfast Club was a very personal film to him,” says Sheedy. “Every one of those characters was something he wrote about himself. He didn’t feel that he was much beyond the way that he was living, and the feelings and thoughts he had, when he was in high school. There was something authentic in that for him – specifically in that movie. I think that’s what people connect to.”

In recent years, the outdated sexual politics of Hughes’s films have been criticised. Molly Ringwald, Hughes’s one-time muse and Sheedy’s Breakfast Club co-star, wrote a lengthy article in 2018 about the legacy of her own sexualisation in Hughes’s films, and how they stand up in the era of #MeToo.

“It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot,” wrote Ringwald.

In The Breakfast Club, Ringwald’s character is teased and abused by Judd Nelson’s Bender – even assaulted under the desk. But still, she falls for him; the bad boy gets the girl. Sheedy's character Allison – who Sheedy tells me she based on New Yorker beat poets – gets the geeky girl makeover in the final minutes. (Hilariously, she doesn’t just get a fresh coat of make-up – but a whole new outfit, which was presumably stuffed in Molly Ringwald’s character’s bag for glow-up emergencies).

Sheedy fought to change the scene – to have makeup taken off instead of put on – but had to settle for a toned-down compromise. “Molly and I tried our best,” Sheedy says. “It was much more extreme before. We managed to get some things neutralised and get our little tweaks in it. But it was determined by the studio that that scene was going to be there.”

Ringwald and Sheedy also banded together and lobbied Hughes to excise another scene entirely, in which the male characters would spy on a naked swimming teacher through a peep-hole – the kind of Porky’s-like scene that teen movies felt compelled to include during the era.

“That was a horrible scene,” remembers Sheedy. “Me and Molly were pretty happy that we could get that out of there. What are you gonna do? It was the Eighties and it was John Hughes. Somehow or other, they had to have someone in a bathing suit in every movie.”

Speaking earlier this week, Sheedy said The Breakfast Club would be a very different movie if it was made in 2020, and would need to reflect more diverse voices and issues. “Hollywood in that time, and still to a great extent, was very much controlled by the white straight male perspective and that movie absolutely was, so that is where that voice was coming from,” she said.

“It was coming from John, he was writing from that point of view. I don’t think anybody would be particularly interested in hearing a story like that yet again, yet again, yet again, right now. It would have to be a completely different movie, told from a different perspective.”

St Elmo's Fire
St Elmo's Fire

St. Elmo’s Fire – Joel Schumacher’s yuppie-fied take on the coming-of-age movie – came next, released just four months after The Breakfast Club.  “It came out of a weird synchronicity of things,” says Sheedy about the back-to-back hits, both produced by Ned Tannen.

Fellow Breakfast Clubbers Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson also starred in the film, which tells the story of seven (slightly odious) twentysomethings in Georgetown, DC. A studio executive told Schumacher about the script: “In the history of movies, you have managed to create seven of the worst people I have ever seen on a page.” But the stirring power of the movie's big sax sound is undeniable.

Sheedy plays Leslie, fiancé to Nelson’s adulterous young Republican. Her character goes off with Andrew McCarthy’s photographer, requiring the pair to film a shower sex scene. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2017, McCarthy recalled how Schumacher made Sheedy cry with his demands to increase their passion. “You’re f––––––!” he shouted at them.

“I made a terrible mistake, and I’ve regretted and felt embarrassed by it,” said Schumacher about the incident.

Ally Sheedy in 1990  - Getty
Ally Sheedy in 1990 - Getty

As seen in both The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, discovering oneself as a youngster is turbulent enough. And most people, I’d wager, look back between the ages of 18 and 21 and shudder at themselves. It must have been tough for Sheedy and the gang to do the emotionally intense business of growing up under such bright spotlight.

“I’d just turned 18 when I went to California from New York,” Sheedy says. “I didn’t have a strongly grounded sense of myself. There was a lot of sudden attention on everyone.”

It was after St. Elmo's Fire that the infamous Brat Pack article by David Blum was published. Susannah Gora, author of Brat Packer book You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, described how it ruined the gang's friendship at the height of their newfound popularity, framing them as spoiled, arrogant hedonists.

“They weren’t comfortable hanging out as friends anymore,” Gora told Vanity Fair. “Ally Sheedy told me she thought it was heartbreaking [...] she had finally found this group of friends who she felt totally at home with, totally at peace with, comfortable with these wonderful fellow actor friends, and then this article’s out, and that was basically the end of it.”

Sheedy’s next big role came opposite sentient robot Johnny 5 in Short Circuit. It’s another nostalgic belter, but audiences revolted against Sheedy’s sort-of romance with the robot. Test audiences reportedly hissed and booed at scenes of Sheedy and Johnny 5 hugging and kissing. The scenes were apparently cut from the final version.

Afterwards. Sheedy faded into roles in middling film and TV productions. Sheedy tells me she wasn't plotting out a career, or trying to keep up the momentum of box office success. Instead, she let the people around her guide her trajectory. “Some of them were good at their job and some of them maybe weren’t,” she says.

Sheedy admits she had no perspective on her early success. “I knew it was all successful but I was trying to keep it at arm’s length," she says. "Now when I look back I think it would have been better to be a little more savvy, rather than trying to separate myself from understanding what was going on. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know who to listen to, and I didn’t know what’s the right thing to do."

Sheedy also battled bulimia and an addiction to the sleeping pill Halcion. She says her decision to return to New York was to move as "far outside Hollywood and LA as I possibly could."

Sheedy had a resurgence in 1998 with the Lisa Cholodenko-directed indie High Art. She plays Lucy, a photographer who has an affair with a younger neighbour, played by Radha Mitchell. It’s low-key, but loaded with passion and intensity (plus art and heroin).

“When I read it, I fell in love with it,” Sheedy says about the script. “I wasn’t sure if Lisa was going to take me seriously enough to actually give me that role. But I did feel this was exactly what I wanted to work on, and I was ready to do it. I wasn’t thinking about what it was going to do for my career or how it was going to change this or do that. It just felt like, 'Finally, here’s something I can really do.' That was a feeling of relief.”

High Art put Sheedy on a path towards more interesting – if not always world-beating – indie productions. She has since appeared in Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’s sequel to the blackest of black comedies, Happiness; James Gandolfini-starring drama Welcome to the Rileys; and goth nun comedy Little Sister.

High Art also made Sheedy an iconic lesbian crush for fans of the movie. “Women in general come up to me about that movie,” Sheedy said in 2011. “It's a mixture – a huge percentage of gay women really identified with Lucy or fell in love with Lucy.”

In fact, Sheedy has been a longtime supporter and activist for the LGBTQI community. Her mother is a lesbian; her son is trans.  Sheedy has been outspoken about toxic sexualisation in movies, and has described how she struggled to get roles because she refused to adhere to an industry-approved image.

“If you wanted to look up the term sexual harassment, and sexual discrimination, if there was an encyclopedia that had that in there [...] you should be able to open that book and see a picture of Hollywood,” she once said in a searing interview.

Writing in 2018, Sheedy recalled that she missed out on an early film role because of her body (“Apparently, my thighs and ass were going to get in the way of my fledgling career,” she said. “I was five seven and weighed about 130 pounds”). For another role, she was given a ThighMaster and instructed to use it. It was also suggested that she get make-ups lessons, dress more provocatively, and wear fake breasts.

“I was told point blank I had no f––––ability quotient,” she recalled. Casting directors wouldn’t see her. “Because they don’t think you’re sexy,” said the feedback. Sheedy refused roles in films that she felt glorified the sexualisation of women and refused “dates” from industry people.

Ally Sheedy in 1988 - Getty
Ally Sheedy in 1988 - Getty

She later sparked #MeToo speculation about James Franco – who had directed Sheedy Off Broadway in The Long Shrift – when she posted a series of tweets during the 2018 Golden Globes. “James Franco just won. Please never ask me why I left the film/TV business,” Sheedy tweeted. Christian Slater was also implicated by a further tweet: “Ok wait. Bye. Christian Slater and James Franco at a table on @goldenglobes #MeToo.” Sheedy later deleted the tweets.

Franco said in response: “I have no idea what I did to Ally Sheedy […] I had nothing but a great time with her, a total respect for her." But other women came forward and accused Franco of inappropriate behaviour.

Sheedy says rejecting Hollywood's sexualisation was “connected” to the creative path she took, steering away from the industry’s control and image of female artists. She now teaches at City College at the City University of New York.

“I found it really difficult in my twenties to be told what I should look like,” says Sheedy. “I felt like, 'I’m trying to please people and I don’t know what they want.' Acting for the sake of acting started to lose meaning for me, unless something wonderful showed up like High Art. It was a combination of a conscious and a subconscious choice to move over and look for roles in independent films which were coming around.”

While the power of The Breakfast Club hasn't faltered in 35 years, things have moved along since then – but progress has been slow.

“Back in that particular decade there were not a lot of female voices,” Sheedy says. “There was a lot of pressure about looking a certain way, unfortunately. I did live through that. It has changed but the power structure is still what it is... it takes a long time to change.”

Ally Sheedy is hosting the NOW TV Breakfast Club 35th Anniversary watch party on June 7