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Lea Thompson: ‘I love that science fiction can use the future to talk about the present’

The star of Back to the Future plays a prepper in a new romantic comedy, Unplugging – a role she says reflects the state of the world right now, where our reality is crazier than any fiction

Lea Thompson is familiar with the future. In the trilogy of Back to the Future films she played Marty McFly’s mother Lorraine at three ages: a 17-year-old high schooler in 1955 who almost dates her time-travelling son, two alternative versions of her 1985 – the film’s present day – 47-year-old self, and a 77-year-old who lived in what back then was far in the future, but now seems quite long ago: 2015.

The future in Back to the Future had flying cars, hoverboards, self-tying shoelaces and another 15 Jaws sequels. We have the internet and a load of Biffs running the show.

“The internet came on too fast and too strong and is too addictive,” Thompson says, over an internet connection from her home in Los Angeles. “The echo chambers that we create in our online life are so destructive to the fabric of our wellbeing that evolutionarily, I don’t think we can handle it.”

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Technological progress has brought about dynamic changes to all aspects of our lives – positive and negative. Would it be better to go back to the Eighties, though?

“I don’t know,” Thompson says. “I’m not happier because of the internet. I’m happy to be able to connect with people, with fans or friends. I love taking a picture and sending it to my sisters and brothers, but the addiction to these things is extreme.

“I always feel bad for writers,” she adds. “You couldn’t have written this, that a reality TV star who was clearly a charlatan would bring democracy in America to the brink of extinction. And that a comedian in the Ukraine would bring democracy back into focus. It doesn’t make sense. It’s crazy right now. Maybe it always has been, but now it happens so fast.”

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I know what you’re probably thinking: another Hollywood type talking politics. Thompson knows you might be thinking that too.

“One thing I take issue with is the idea that if you are in movies, or live in Hollywood, that you’re completely out of touch with the rest of the world,” she says. “Actually, in my experience, the opposite is true. I’ve worked in 43 states across America. I’ve spent a lot of time in Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Montana – all over. I’ve eaten in the little restaurants, I’ve hung out and worked for hours and hours with people all over America. I am not out of touch.

“I’m a poor girl from Rochester, Minnesota,” she says. “I was born in a place called the Starlite Motel. It takes a particular type of rich celebrity to be completely out of touch. It actually takes a lot of work.”

Thompson starred in a string of hits through the Eighties, including the infamous cult classic Howard
the Duck
. In the Nineties, she played the title role in popular sitcom Caroline in the City, and has since coupled acting with directing TV, most recently a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Picard. (Click that link if you want to find out more about how Picard could lead to Thompson directing a sequel to Howard the Duck…)

“The little flaming liberal in me loved Star Trek when I was a little girl. I love that science fiction can use the future to talk about the present,” Thompson says.

Lea Thompson
Thompson (second from right) in Red Dawn Photo: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

Another film from her back catalogue is eclipsing Back to the Future’s relevance today. In 1984, Thompson starred in Red Dawn alongside Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. The film depicts a group of high school students who, in true Stranger Things style, use guerrilla warfare tactics to protect their Colorado town after the Soviet Union invades the US.

The kids spray paint the name they gave themselves, the Wolverines, on disabled vehicles. Across Ukraine, burned-out Russian tanks are being tagged with the same word. 

There are Instagram and Twitter accounts, @wolverinesukraine and @13thGroupUA, with thousands of followers, sharing updates from the frontline. A pinned post reads: “Hello World! We decided to set the record straight. For many years, we are training, fighting and protecting the innocent in Ukraine.”

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In the film, the outnumbered, outgunned Wolverines overcome. It would be bizarre to think the same could happen in Ukraine thanks in part to tactics borrowed from Eighties Hollywood.

A character Thompson plays in her latest film shares similar roots. Unplugging is a romantic comedy about a couple (Eva Longoria and Veep’s Matt Walsh) who try to revive their marriage by disconnecting from the modern technology that has driven them apart. Escaping to the remote wilderness – far from the nearest phone signal – they come across Thompson’s character Perkins, who is a devoted prepper.

Lea Thompson in Unplugging. Credit: Signature Entertainment
Lea Thompson in Unplugging. Credit: Signature Entertainment

“If my character in Red Dawn grew up that’s what she would be like,” Thompson says. “It’s kind of a commentary on a lot of people in America right now, with the conspiracy theories and all of that. I love Matt Walsh and Eva Longoria so it was really fun to be able to play with them.

“It was also the very first thing I did right after lockdown. I found myself in a car with two people and a raccoon. So that was odd.”

Unplugging is available on digital platforms from 13 June

Follow Leah Thompson on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed, marginalised and vulnerable people the opportunity to earn an income.

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