On July 13, 1984, Nick Castle’s The Last Starfighter was released in theaters everywhere by Universal Studios. Written by Jonathan Betuel and starring newcomers Lance Guest and Catherine Mary Stewart, as well as seasoned actors like Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy, The Last Starfighter was a landmark film of its time in regards to what it managed to accomplish with CGI graphics and quickly became my personal Star Wars once I discovered it in late 1985 on VHS.
For those who may have never experienced Castle’s underrated classic feel-good sci-fi tale, The Last Starfighter follows teenager Alex Rogan (Guest) who is recruited to be part of an alien defense force after he beats a video game. A trailer park kid who never expected his life to be anything but ordinary, Alex is suddenly tasked with saving the universe from the evil Emperor Xur (Norman Snow), who has wiped out all that oppose him, leaving Alex left to fight Xur’s armada of ships with only his trusty sidekick Grig (O’Herlihy) there to guide him along.
Being a kid who also grew up in a trailer park and never had any sort of real expectations for my life either when I was growing up, The Last Starfighter is a movie that always spoke to me and still continues to do so three decades later. The themes are timeless, the story hasn’t aged a bit and it’s simply impossible to not fall in love with The Last Starfighter's wonderfully quirky charms and characters.
With it being the 30th anniversary of The Last Starfighter, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to celebrate one of my very favorite sci-fi films of all time with Lance Guest and Catherine Mary Stewart, who discussed their experiences working on The Last Starfighter with director Castle (who most genre fans know as the original Michael Myers and frequent collaborator with John Carpenter), as well as their co-stars, and chatted about some of the film’s classic moments.
At the time he was cast as Alex Rogan for The Last Starfighter, Guest was unaware that it was his feature film debut- Halloween II- was the reason he nabbed the role of reluctant-hero-turned-space-warrior. “I did not know this before, but I had heard on the special features that Nick had chosen me for The Last Starfighter because of Halloween II. I just went in and read for him, totally unbeknownst to me that Nick brought me in because of my performance as Jimmy. Apparently, he went in to look at dailies with Rick and John one day and thought I’d make a perfect Alex, which is really flattering because Halloween II was the very first movie that I did. All I was hoping was that I didn’t screw it up (laughs).”
“For me, The Last Starfighter was a regular audition process,” said Stewart, explaining how she was chosen for the role of Alex’s girlfriend Maggie. “When I went in for the callback, I was coupled with Lance who ended up playing Alex and I can specifically remember Lance and I in the callback audition, lying on the floor improvising a scene at the lake as we gazed up at the stars.”
Stewart discussed how she always appreciated The Last Starfighter’s timeless and sweet-natured story about dreams and young love, saying, “The story is sweet and simple and relatable with a wonderful adventure/fantasy element to it that certainly every young person dreams about at those ages. It’s so easy to love.”
There’s a moment in The Last Starfighter that has always stuck with me, when Alex chooses to return to his home and give up his destiny to be one of the greatest Rylan Star League fighters the universe had ever seen. It was Alex’s “I’m just a kid from a trailer park” mentality that drew Guest in as an actor and felt that it gave his character some humanity and balance as well.
“What I liked about Alex was how reluctant he was to become the hero,” said Guest. “If you think about it, he spends a big part of the movie acting very cowardly and doing all he could to avoid this huge responsibility that’s being thrown at him. And the script really supported it, there was a lot to work with on the page for Alex and I thought it was very clever how the story had to work so hard to prove his own skepticism in himself wrong. That’s what makes the story much more fun than if he were to just jump right into everything. Otherwise, there’s no build-up.”
“But I thought everything about this idea was just so genius- the reluctant hero who gets recruited through a video game to save the entire universe from these evil forces. Who wouldn’t want to see that movie (laughs)? I was just surprised that no one had ever thought of it before, it’s such a great idea,” added Guest.
Another reason The Last Starfighter is still so darned easy to enjoy is due to the infectious chemistry between both Stewart and Guest’s characters, Alex and Maggie, and how their relationship could withstand anything that was thrown at them along the way. Stewart chatted about how she and Guest prepared for their roles in The Last Starfighter and the onscreen chemistry they shared.
“We had really great chemistry right from the start, I believe,” Stewart explained. “Lance and I were able to get together before the shoot to get to know each other better and discuss the characters more too. And Lance is the consummate professional- he truly brought out the best in me. We are still good friends to this day.”
Guest added, “Catherine was so easy to work with. I knew immediately from the moment I met her that working with her on The Last Starfighter was going to be great because she has that kind of energy to her. It sounds kind of weird but she’s one of those people where you feel like you’ve known her forever even if you’ve only known her for a few hours. And because our characters Alex and Maggie had to feel like they had known each other since they were kids, working with Catherine made it so much easier to achieve that feeling. “
There’s one scene in particular from The Last Starfighter that Stewart found to be one of the more memorable moments she had during filming, which also happened to be a pivotal moment for the relationship that her character Maggie and Alex shared. “The lake scene that I shot with Lance was a gas. It was so much fun emerging from under the blanket with him, frustrated by everything that was happening between us- it’s such a funny but very sweet scene too. I also loved the physicality of the lake scene as it proceeded into the truck chase, where we’re just speeding along the road. And then, when I leap out of the truck right before it crashes, I’m watching everything and my character has this huge dramatic moment where I yell out, “I love you, Alex Rogan!” and I thought that was such a great moment for Maggie.”
Guest discussed how much he also enjoyed working alongside two the huge talents of both veteran actors, Preston and O’Herlihy, on The Last Starfighter, saying, “I have such a respect for older actors and what they bring to the table, so I really loved working with Dan and Robert. Dan had so much fun in this role; he was almost like a big kid even though he was this ‘proper’ kind of guy. But he was never concerned about himself or anything like that- he just wanted to have fun with his performance and that shows.”
“With both Dan and Robert, I spent a lot of time while we were shooting The Last Starfighter just constantly trying to impress them both because I so badly wanted to get their approval (laughs). I was just this kid and we didn’t have a lot of takes for each scene, so I would ask them to rehearse all the time just so I could get that time with them- I probably drove them a little nuts (laughs),” added Guest.
And even though it’s not usually a film that immediately gets recognized for its huge achievements in CGI technology used in film, The Last Starfighter was a pioneering project for visual effects company Digital Productions and filmmaker Castle, who wanted to bring fully-rendered 3D space environments to the big screen for the first time ever.
“Something I don’t think people realize about The Last Starfighter is how cutting-edge (at the time, of course) the technology was that they used to create those 3D environments,” Guest explained. “I really had no idea what they were talking about in regards to all the computer graphics stuff while we were shooting, but I just know that Digital Productions developed this 3D software so that we could create the illusion of space and moving around in it. Of course, Tron was the first to do a lot with these types of visual effects, but I know The Last Starfighter took it to another level where environments felt more complete or fully realized. And I think that’s another reason why the movie ended up being so special- Nick believed in what we could do.”
Stewart reflected on her experiences working on The Last Starfighter director Castle, calling him “one of the loveliest, generous most supportive directors. This was his baby and he directed it with love and joy and I think that is more than apparent in the final product. Shooting The Last Starfighter was one of the best experiences of my career and it was a joy to go to work each and every day.”
“My whole experience with The Last Starfighter felt like one big blur really,” added Guest. “I really only remember bits and pieces, but I had the time of my life making it. And Nick was a huge part of that. I think I enjoyed doing all the trailer park scenes the most though just because everyone had so much fun working together on those. It felt like a real family on the set and I remember we found this cool creek up in the mountains in Agua Dulce and Lancaster so us younger cast members would sneak away to go skipping rocks. It felt so idyllic, almost like we were at summer camp or something, and I think that was a perfect atmosphere to be working in for a movie like The Last Starfighter. There was never any BS, no drama- just a lot of great memories of a film that I was so lucky to be a part of.”
I want to give a very special thank you to both Lance and Catherine for taking time to speak with me about one of my very favorite movies of all time and being a part of my 30th anniversary celebration of The Last Starfighter. To see what Ms. Stewart is up to these days, be sure visit her site at www.catherinemarystewart.com, follow her at @cmsallon Twitter, or check out her page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/catherinemarystewart?ref=ts.