With his feature film debut Heathers, director Michael Lehmann set the world of high school comedies ablaze with his timelessly satirical examination of the horrors of the teenage experience. With its blisteringly pitch-black tone and its razor-sharp dialogue, one of the biggest reasons Heathers continues to resonate with audiences—whether it’s fans who first saw it three decades ago or new generations of fans who continue to discover it to this very day, thanks to the home media market and various streaming platforms that feature Heathers—is the film’s engaging and ingenious cast, who were all able to bring both the memorable characters and screenwriter Daniel Waters’ iconic dialogue to life.
While the entire ensemble of Heathers all played their part in establishing the film as a cult classic in the making, it’s the core quintet of young actors—Winona Ryder (Veronica Sawyer), Christian Slater (J.D.), Kim Walker (Heather Chandler), Lisanne Falk (Heather McNamara), and Shannen Doherty (Heather Duke)—who instantly made Lehmann’s first feature-length movie into one of the most unforgettable dark comedies to ever come along.
When she was first considering joining the cast of Heathers, Falk immediately knew it was something she just had to be a part of. “At the time when I did the movie, I was actually in this two-year acting program and I wasn't supposed to take any acting jobs. But, of course, I was going up for auditions on the side, and it was one year into the program that I got hired for Heathers. I knew there was no way that I was going to pass up this part, and I'm very glad I made that choice.”
“Back then, I was having auditions and most of them were pretty average, but Heathers was like nothing I've ever read before. and I got it right away, but I have to be honest, I don't think I was in that space where I realized what kind of effect that it was going to have on people. I knew I had an immediate response to it, but there was no way to know just how Heathers was going to connect or how people would react.”
“And when I read Dan’s script, I definitely related to Heather McNamara the most, so I was really glad when I was cast in that role. When we went in and auditioned, everybody auditioned for Heather Chandler because they were just trying to get a vibe about how people handled the dialogue and what kind of personality they had. When I went in, I thought it was a really fun character to play, but it didn't feel like my essence of who I was. Heather McNamara felt way more like someone that I should be playing.”
“She was more vulnerable and I would say the attraction to me of that part is that in the beginning, she's just following along. She’s probably not the most profound thinker, and she’s attractive, has nice clothes and comes from money, so I'm with the cool kids, and that's always nice, because that should make life easier, right? But then it starts to go downhill—her best friend commits suicide, her boyfriend [seemingly] commits suicide, and her life starts crumbling and things aren't what they seem. On the outside, they seem perfect and yellow and sunny, but that veneer to her life crumbles and you see that human side of her.”
“For me, the two scenes that are still my favorites to this day are when I am talking to the radio host and being real probably for one of the first times in my life, and then the scene in the bathroom with Winona when I was attempting to kill myself just because I figured that was what I was probably supposed to do. Both of them make me a little sad for the character, but I still think they hold up and I'm very proud of both of them,” Falk added.
When it came time for Heathers to head into production, Lisanne discussed how quickly the whole experience flew by for her. “We only had 30 days to shoot this, so it went by pretty fast. In fact, I think we had a read-through and a get-to-know-you dinner, but I don’t remember us doing any real rehearsals because we didn’t really have time. So, everything you see on screen comes down to Michael’s direction, our abilities, and Dan’s script—although I do think the script really just took care of itself.”
“In terms of off-set connections, though, my biggest connection was with Winona, and then also with Michael and Dan as well. Those were the people that I hung out with and was closest to, even though Winona was the youngest on the set. When she wasn't in a scene, which wasn't that often, she was off doing school work, and the same with Shannen, too. We all had a lot of fun, and I think it was the perfect project to come along at that point in all of our lives.”
Beyond the great script, strong direction, and tangible chemistry she shared with her co-stars, Falk also credited the work of costume designer Rudy Dillon as being yet another tool that helped immerse her in the world of Heather McNamara.
“I think the wardrobe and each of us being a certain color was definitely key in helping defining and delineating the differences between us as characters, and helped us build these character arcs, too. I know that when we had the wardrobe fittings, usually you have a ton of choices and you try them all on and then you walk out and you're like, ‘Oh, this isn't working for me at all,’ but you still have to wear it.”
“But Rudy was great, and she was so spot-on with her choices that I think we all loved everything we had to wear in the movie. I don’t think they would have forced us to wear something we hated, either, but I don’t think there was much that we were given that any of us really hated. We were also going with these exaggerated looks, with these ridiculously huge shoulder pads. We took those looks right to the edge before it became a total cartoon, so all of that did definitely help inform our characters.”
Once production on Heathers wrapped and the film was released into the world, Falk found the initial theatrical push to be somewhat disappointing, but was thrilled to see how the story continued to live on over the years.
“When you make a movie, you just hope it's going to be good. You never know what that magic formula is to make a ‘hit,’ but we were all quite young and eager and excited, too, because we felt like we were doing something that was different. But I never, and I mean never, would have imagined that it was something that was going to have legs and be talked about 30 years on. I think we were all disappointed with how it was treated in theaters, because it came out during the time when New World was in the process of getting shut down, so when it actually came out, there wasn't a ton of marketing money they could put behind it. Plus, Heathers really is a niche movie, anyway.”
“But over the years, Heathers became this word-of-mouth movie, where teens would rent it, and then they’d share it with their friends and so on. And it’s been fascinating and amazing and interesting to explore just how this movie continues to grow. In fact, it’s probably more popular now than it was when it first hit video stores. It always makes me wonder about what are the different things that have made it be so on the radar and so relevant for people now? Maybe it’s the Heathers lingo? Maybe it’s because you don’t really have to rely on marketing anymore for people to know what kind of movie it is? It’s hard to tell. But for me, it’s just so interesting for me to reexamine Heathers now, because obviously I'm in such a different place than I was back then.”
“I do think one of my favorite things about how people respond to Heathers is that people understand that even though it’s this really dark story about murder and suicide, it’s really a story about how we’re all struggling. Nothing is what it seems on the outside, especially when you’re in high school, and everybody's just trying to do their best to try to look good on the outside, regardless of what’s happening on the inside. And I think that’s something that really resonates now, especially in these days with social media, where everyone feels like they have to live up to the expectations.”
“And that was all Dan—he was amazing at tapping into these universalities, and I cannot praise him enough. He just saw something about all these teen films from that era that bothered him and examined them in a far less sincere, saccharine way. He took on so many issues in Heathers and really just made you laugh and cringe at the same time as he was exploring them on the page. And really, that’s why the themes in this film are still relevant, and this story has impacted all different kinds of generations now. It's not just people who are our age, either, and so to see it continue to live on has been wonderful, and it’s something I never could have predicted.”
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