Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Buena Vista Pictures
In the mid-1980s, you were more likely to find an actual time-traveling DeLorean than a big-screen offering at the Cineplex featuring a woman in the top-billed role. “I really can’t think of any, can you?” Elisabeth Shue asks. “Everyone was the girlfriend.” That’s why, in 1986, the actress — then best known for playing, ahem, the love interest in The Karate Kid — was so intent on auditioning for a comedy titled Adventures in Babysitting.
The premise was ripe for maximum high jinks: After her date night falls through, Shue’s suburban high-school senior, Chris Parker, reluctantly agrees to watch teen Brad Anderson (Keith Coogan) and his younger sister, Sarah (Maia Brewton), on a wintry Saturday. The ho-hum gig becomes ultra-chaotic as the group — along with Brad’s horndog pal, Darryl (Anthony Rapp) — travels via station wagon to downtown Chicago to pick up Chris’s panicked best friend (Penelope Ann Miller) at the bus station. Along the way, they become embroiled in a car-theft ring, sing in a blues bar, tussle with a street gang, get revenge on Chris’s louse of a boyfriend (Bradley Whitford), hang at a fraternity party, narrowly avoid a run-in with the Anderson parents in the city’s diamond-shaped skyscraper, and meet a mechanic (Vincent D’Onofrio) who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Norse god of Thunder. “I loved that the comedy came from me just reacting to situations,” Shue says.
Opening on July 3, 1987, against the Dennis Quaid–Martin Short sci-fi comedy Innerspace (and one week after Mel Brooks’s Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs), Adventures in Babysitting landed in ninth place at the box office. But Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, kept it in theaters throughout the summer. The film ultimately became a sleeper hit, not to mention a future sleepover staple. Thirty-four years later, it remains a totally watchable charmer stuffed with amusing set-pieces — starting with a bedroom dance number to the Crystals’ 1963 hit “And Then He Kissed Me.” That’s a full three years before Martin Scorsese used it in Goodfellas. Just saying.
Shue, now an Oscar-nominated, veteran actress who will next co-star with Julie Delpy in the female-centric Netflix dramedy On the Verge (premiering September 7), took a break from her family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard to talk about landing the role of Chris, her crush on Whitford, and how she ended up at the Playboy Mansion.
If you believe the trivia page on IMDb, everyone from Valerie Bertinelli to Sharon Stone auditioned for this role. How did you land it?
Wow, Sharon Stone? That would have been an interesting version. So I did The Karate Kid, then I did a not-great horror movie called Link with Terence Stamp. My career wasn’t going well, so I went back to Harvard and did a full year there before I realized that if I didn’t go back to Hollywood, I’d probably lose my career entirely because that’s how quickly they forget about you. I made a Disney TV movie called Double Switch and played the girlfriend. The next thing I knew, I was screen-testing for Adventures in Babysitting. There was zero pressure on me because I didn’t think I was going to get it. You just get used to that feeling of getting, like, one out of ten projects. That helped.
Did you have babysitting expertise?
I was a babysitter before I was an actress! I made $1.50 watching the neighborhood kids, and I’d usually fall asleep watching Saturday Night Live. And I have two younger brothers, so my parents paid me 11 cents an hour to watch them. One time, we were making candles and then we went to watch Frosty the Snowman and forgot about the wax and I almost burned our house down. So I was not a great babysitter. I’d say Chris Parker was definitely my attempt at taking care of people and saving people from disaster.
Looking back, what stands out about the production?
Before Adventures in Babysitting, I was in my comfort zone. This was the first time I was really flung out into situations where you just wonder whether it will work. There’s a scene in the stolen car when Chris is yelling at the kids and telling them to brush their teeth and that she’s still in charge. I was terrified I couldn’t pull it off because it was so over-the-top. I was legitimately afraid I couldn’t do the scenes. I have to say, that was the real joy of filming.
It’s still crazy to think that a movie so synonymous with Chicago was shot mostly in Toronto.
Yeah, we were only in Chicago for approximately two weeks. Everything else was in Toronto. I’m sure you’ve read this, but it was so clean there that they had to put trash on the streets — and then the Sanitation Department would pick it up right away! But we did shoot the blues-bar scene in Chicago.
I was going to do this chronologically, but let’s just hit that iconic “Babysitting Blues” scene right now. What do you remember about filming it?
I’m not a singer, so I was very nervous about that scene. I kept on saying, “This is terrible!” And the music producer kept saying, “Chris is not a singer, so it will work if she can just barely pull it off.” That kind of calmed me down. One thing that helped was that we did prerecord the song so I didn’t have to do it live. The actual scene of being onstage with these amazing extras, doing take after take after take with that musician [Albert Collins], was one of my favorite experiences of all time.
And you’re doing it with Anthony, Keith, and Maia. Were you guys close offscreen?
Oh my God, how lucky were we that they were such sweet and funny actors. I just adored them. And they were a little Method. I think Keith would pretend to have a crush on me just like his character.
As a matter of fact, Keith once said he did ask you to dinner and you brushed him off just like Chris did.
I mean, that’s entirely possible. But I’m not positive. We have to find out.
Can we please discuss Bradley Whitford, who was the quintessential ’80s yuppie jerk? Did he go Method too?
Awww. Brad and I became very good friends after Adventures in Babysitting, and I actually ended up going out with him!
Wait, describe the exact circumstances of this happening.
I’m not sure if he asked me or I asked him! And it was not immediately after the film ended. But we did go out.
Well, he was supercute.
Supercute! And his voice! So suave. He was a New York actor and very funny and cool and sweet and very sensitive, actually, and the total opposite of … what’s his character’s name? Mike! But I haven’t seen him in a long time. It’s nice that we’re both still working.
You also share a scene with a young Vincent D’Onofrio as Thor the mechanic. He seemed intimidating even back then.
I remember he was so focused that one night and cared so much about the emotional reality of Thor. He wanted the character to be fully realized and not some cartoon. He wasn’t, like, talking to people in between takes. I was really impressed.
How did your brother Andrew end up in the fraternity-party scene?
Well, all three of my brothers are in that scene. You should look for this the next time you’re watching the movie: I am in disguise wearing a hat and glasses dancing with my brother Will to Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes! Then my brothers John and Andrew are at the bar with Darryl, and the camera cuts to them, like, four times. My father is in the movie too — it’s when I’m in the building and I see Maia out the window. I’m wearing a fur coat, and I bump into him. This was [director] Chris Columbus’s first movie, and he created this family feeling on the set. So I felt comfortable putting them in it. They needed extras in that scene anyway.
Did you like that opening scene with Chris getting ready for her date and dancing in her bedroom? It could have gone either way.
It was fun! But I didn’t like that dress at first when they showed it to me. I wanted it to be quote-unquote sexier and more womanly. I went all the way from Toronto to New York City for the day with [producers] Lynda Obst and Debra Hill just to find a better dress! Then we realized there was no better dress. And now when I see the scene, I think, Oh my God, Lisa, it just had to be that dress. It’s perfect.
How did you feel about that camel peacoat? You wear it in basically every scene.
I had to wear the same clothes every single day. I did despise the pants over time because they were these very tight spandex-y jeans. Thank God, the coat covered them. I don’t remember the wardrobe fittings or how they chose the coat, but I kept one.
What do you mean “one”?
There were tons of extras in case one got ripped or food spilled on it. But it totally fell apart. The only things I still have are my Leaving Las Vegas shoes and a Vivienne Westwood bustier. I think I saved a copy of the Playboy, too [which features Chris’s doppelgänger on the cover along with a sexy centerfold].
That’s really you in the Playboy?
I had those photos taken at the Playboy Mansion!
What? Why couldn’t you do it in Toronto?
I have no idea. I think they wanted it to be authentic. Maybe it was a requirement from Hugh Hefner that if it was going to be a Playboy, then the pictures had to be there. I’m trying to remember whether I met him. I think I might have. But it was totally surreal to be there. I mean, I wasn’t naked, obviously. But I think the movie works because it has that edginess to it. I say “fuck,” and I went to the Playboy Mansion.
I was always surprised that you were allowed to say “Don’t fuck with the babysitter” in a Disney movie.
Well, I’ll tell you one funny thing: My dad wrote me a two-page letter about why I shouldn’t say “fuck” in the movie. He said I was a role model for young girls and that kids will think it’s okay to curse. And I’m like, “No, I have to use that word because it’s the language of the street!” Cut to my son watching the movie when he’s 2 or 3. He’s going around the house after, yelling, “Fuck! Don’t fuck!”
Ha! Your dad wasn’t so far off base.
No, he wasn’t! But that was another fun scene because we were on a real subway in Toronto.
When did you realize this movie had legs?
It was a very slow build. I don’t remember people stopping me on the street and being like, “Oh, Adventures in Babysitting!” People appreciate it much more now than back then.
It’s funny you say that. A year later, you played Tom Cruise’s girlfriend in Cocktail — during which you do a little striptease in the ocean. I always thought you took the role to avoid being typecast as a young goody-goody. Is that accurate?
Zero. I’ve always been clueless about my career. My brothers were obsessed with Tom Cruise, and I was so eager to work with him. Adventures in Babysitting was not popular, and I was not typecast. If anything, I slowly became typecast as someone who looked good on other people’s arms. It took me doing Leaving Las Vegas [in 1995] to push through that. It’s still a lot of hit or miss. I just have to keep swimming.
Do you keep in touch with anyone from the cast?
I ran into Penelope Ann Miller once. Anthony Rapp and I did stay in touch and did a play together with Robert Sean Leonard a few years ago. It was in a teeny-tiny theater, and there were probably ten people in the audience. But it was one of my favorite experiences in New York. And Bradley and I are both interested in a project. If it gets financing, I might see him [soon]! How funny is that?
Was there ever talk of a sequel?
Jonah Hill did somewhat of a sequel [2016’s The Sitter]. I was considering being in a small cameo as sort of a wink to the original, but then I didn’t end up doing it.
Did you see the Disney Channel remake in 2016?
I didn’t, but I saw a photo of the main character [played by Sabrina Carpenter] wearing the coat! There is an ’80s innocence that can’t be redone now. Imagine if we’d had cell phones back then? It would be doo-doo-doo [dialing] on the phone, yelling, “Please help us!” And done!
And yet the original still holds up.
I’m just amazed. I think the reason is because Chris Columbus and [screenwriter] David Simkins and the producers created a narrative that is classic storytelling. They were also smart to give it an edge with a soul underneath. You don’t hear any pop songs in it — it’s Sam Cooke and the Crystals. That’s part of the film’s dynamic, and it’s very unique and necessary. I’m still grateful to be a part of it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.