Thousands of actors strive to find iconic, defining roles, and Curtis Armstrong was one of the lucky ones depending on how you look at it. The 58 year-old actor and Michigan native landed his first screen role in 1983 opposite Tom Cruise in “Risky Business,” but cemented his legacy as an iconic comedic actor in the 1984 cult-classic film “Revenge of the Nerds,” as the snot-loving nerd, Dudley “Booger” Dawson.
“Revenge of the Nerds” propelled Curtis into a string of other movies, from “Better Off Dead” to “One Crazy Summer” to all 3 “Revenge of the Nerds” sequels (the final two were put out as TV movies in the 90s). Since this early success, he has appeared in countless television and movie roles, and regardless of the role he is instantly recognizable as Booger, whether he welcomes this recognition or not.
Curtis Armstrong pops up again this weekend in the new stoner-comedy “High School,” playing one of the many faculty members that unknowingly get high off of tainted brownies. He’s only in a few scenes, but his are among the film’s best.
I spoke with Curtis recently in a revealing interview about his Michigan roots, his role in “High School” (a film he barely remembers making), and his infamous role as Booger and how he’s dealt with that comparison over the years. He also reveals plans for an upcoming reality series that may be a bit of a Nerd reunion.
Tom Santilli, Detroit Movie Examiner: It’s great to speak with you!
Curtis Armstrong: Well thank you.
I know that you have some ties to the Michigan area, tell me about that.
My parents came from there, I was born in Detroit. I was there from 1953 until about 1964 when my folks were transferred over-seas. I came back in 1967 and at that point, my parents had relocated to Berkley, MI. I was there through high school and then I went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo for one year, before then attending Oakland University’s Academy of Dramatic Art in Rochester. At one time, they had a two-year intensive study acting academy there. It was sort of connected with Meadowbrook Theater. I started working at Meadowbrook, and co-founded a company called “Roadside Attractions” which eventually became The Attic Theatre. Aside from frequent visits, that was the last time I lived there.
You make frequent visits, so you still have a lot of family here?
Oh yah, my parents still live there, and cousins. I’m usually there three times a year at least.
So you knew from a young age that you wanted to go into acting?
Up until then I had always wanted to be a journalist, that was my first choice. When I came back from Switzerland, I was not fitting in very well. I was going to middle school in Berkley, and I did not fit in at all. Like a lot of kids, I found theater to be a good place for me. [There were teachers there that were had real acting experience], which was great to learn from, as opposed to the teacher who ended up drawing the short straw and teaching drama.
When you got your first big break in 1983 with “Risky Business” and the films that followed, you made more of a name for yourself as a comedic actor. Was that your intention, to pursue comedy?
I always had an ability in that area, but when I was working in the theater [prior to “Risky Business”], I did whatever I was hired to do. In the movies, you tend to get type-casted a lot easier. So with “Risky Business,” “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Better off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer” all coming out within three years of each other…those are the movies people remember. It was very natural that people just think of me as a comic actor.
Of course your most famous role is Booger in “Revenge of the Nerds.” All these years later, do you like the attention you get from that role or does it grow tiring?
I don’t think it’s ever gotten old, particularly. I’m perfectly happy with it. I think that it’s obviously something that appealed to people on some sort of level and “Revenge of the Nerds” is something that has really lasted far beyond what any of us could of ever expected. You have to look at it a little philosophically and I know that many actors do not feel this way. But if you have a career as an actor and you have one role for which you are known – whether its on stage or television or whatever – you’ve done something, that’s an accomplishment. So I’ve had that and I’ve had a couple of other [successes] too. So I have to say that I’ve never resented it at all. I mean, I’m not remotely anything like that character, so I tend to look on Booger as a pretty good acting job.
With “High School,” you play a high school teacher who unknowingly gets high from some tainted brownies. Any research of your own that went into preparing for the role?
(Laughs) Not any sort of recent research (laughs). It’s funny, it has to have been about three years ago when we made this movie, it’s a very strange thing the way that it’s sort of popped up. I had gotten to the point…they had premiered it at Sundance and it did extremely well. That was all very exciting and good for the movie, I mean I don’t have a very huge role in it…
Yah I was sad to see that actually…
…Well, it’s just one of those things where somebody calls up and says will you do this for a couple of days, or whatever it was. I don’t even remember now. A lot of what you do as an actor is that sort of thing. I heard that it was done well, so I thought that was great. But then nothing. It just sort of vanished. For a while I thought maybe it was just coming out on DVD and I missed it or something. But no, now it’s coming out in theaters. In trying to recollect the experience, it has been a little hard to remember. I vaguely remember doing one scene and I realized when I was thinking about it that I had actually done two movies around the same time where I was playing almost exactly the same role. When I was thinking about “High School” I was wondering which one it was (laughs). I still haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t have any idea how it finally turned out.
Well you were great in your scenes, some of the funniest in the film.
Were they really?
I thought so. In one scene you are very high and hooked on the word “beverage.” You keep saying it over and over again.
(Laughs) God, that is so funny I don’t remember. I don’t remember that at all. OK, wait, I vaguely remember now, I was up in front of the class?
Yes, you were in front of the class…
OK, yah, yah, yah, I remember that. It’s just one of those things where when you are working on something, especially something small like that, you just work on it, you do it and then you go home. And unless they bring you in to loop it later, you never see it again until the movie comes out. In the meantime you’ve moved on to other things and you just tend to forget. I’ll be eager to see how it turns out. I know that I remember thinking the whole movie was funny at the time.
Because the movie deals with drug-use, do you have any feelings on the legalization of marijuana?
Oh, I absolutely think that marijuana should be legalized. I’ve thought that for a long time. No question. I don’t believe that marijuana is any worse than alcohol, so if you’ve got alcohol legalized…I mean it sounds simplistic and I’m sure that many others may be able to prove me wrong, but I think absolutely it should be legalized. I mean it’s crazy that is not already. Legalize it and tax it. It’ll help things all the way around.
So Hollywood these days seems to be very nostalgic and they seem to want to re-hash or re-do many classic films and TV series from the 70s and 80s. If they successfully re-made “Revenge of the Nerds” today, would that be an honor to have another actor play Booger or would you somehow feel slighted?
No, it wouldn’t make me feel slighted. I tend to not really care for re-makes in general. Mainly they are horrible. They actually tried to re-do “Revenge of the Nerds” a couple years back and they pulled the plug on it, it was never even finished. Whatever the reasons for it were, it was a bit of a disaster. I don’t have any yearning to see it. Strangely enough, last week Robert Carradine and I [Carradine co-starred with Curtis in “Revenge of the Nerds”] announced in NY that we are developing and executive producing and hosting a new show on TBS called “King of the Nerds.” Which is actually a non-scripted show in which we have picked a handful of nerds from around the country. We basically put them in a nerd house in the same way the movie did, and it’s a contest/elimination show where they are faced with very nerd-like challenges that they must overcome. That’s starting to film in July. It’ll start airing in January. So I can’t very well get all snuffy about people trying to cash in on “Revenge of the Nerds,” because we are doing it ourselves. But I figure that we get to.
So if they ever re-did the film and wanted your involvement, is that something that you would ever consider?
I don’t know. I’d be hesitant to do that. In the first place, we’re all a little long in the tooth for that. I think we sort of did it with the last two TV movies. We visited the characters in later life and it certainly didn’t work very well. It is lovely that we have it and we can watch it whenever we want, and fans can watch it ad nauseum. Which is wonderful. I still think it very much speaks to people. It was a metaphor for tolerance. It was obviously a funny movie and a gross-out movie, but it was really a metaphor for tolerance. It works on that level as well as the humor. I can’t imagine the point of going back and doing it again.
Is there any way fans of yours can find you on Twitter or Facebook? You are on Twitter, right?
No I’m not. I probably will end up being on something once the show starts because I’m going to have to. But I’ve resisted it my whole life (laughs).
My full review of “High School” will be up on Friday, June 1st, 2012, which is also the day that it hits theaters here in the Detroit area.
Follow me on Twitter, @tomsantilli, and at tomsantilli.com.