’80s heroes: Sean Young


by Phil de Semlyen |
Published on

Adorning the cover of the first ever issue of Empire, dated June/July 1989, is a young Hollywood siren and an ominous-sounding headline. ‘Hell hath no fury’ it thundered of its subject, Sean Young. At the time, Hell would have had no arguments. Among the topics covered by the interview was a stint, less than amicable, working for Oliver Stone on Wall Street, her well-publicised dust-up with her The Boost co-star James Woods and other Tinseltown scuttlebutt that had been doing the rounds. There was also some chat about algebra.

Empire, now 27 years old, finds her happy to reflect on a sometimes stormy but often pretty golden period in her career. She made her breakthrough on Stripes, starting filming on her 21st birthday on a loose and limber shoot that also boasted Bill Murray and John Candy, before gracing Blade Runner with a terrific, delicate turn as replicant Rachael, and then playing No Way Out’s free-spirited femme fatale, Susan Atwell. Then came Wall Street. Somewhere in those heady years was a first-hand view of David Lynch’s far-out Mexico shoot for Dune.

She’s fresh from dance class when she takes our call – she keeps up with her first passion – and enthuses about her recent stage work and a homage to The Thin Man series, Nick And Nicky, she’s recently shot. Of the ‘80s, she has fond memories, with maybe the odd tinge of regret mixed in. Hollywood is a capricious, unforgiving place – even more so for young actresses – but Mary Young (Sean is her middle name, adopted because SAG had another Mary Young on its books) definitely made her mark. She’s one of Empire's ‘80s heroes.


Picture credit: Pauline St. Denis; Hair: Joey Battista; Make-up: Virna Smiraldi for Bobbi Brown: Stylist: Andre Austin

Your first major movie, Stripes, has a screwball vibe to it. Was that the mood on set too?

Well, remember it was 1980 and that was the beginning of a decade that had a lot of drugs, sex and rock ’n' roll. I was never a big abuser but I certainly witnessed a lot of it... coke, booze and, of course, lots of laughter. A lot of people were very funny on that set. It was the beginning of that decadent lifestyle.

Sean Young with her Stripes co-stars Harold Ramis, Bill Murray and P.J. Soles.

You started shooting on your birthday. Was there cake?

No, I kept it pretty quiet. Contrary to tabloid opinion, I'm actually a pretty shy person. I had to learn to be egotistical. If you're too nice on the set, people just railroad you, so you have to learn some boundaries and get an ego. I had some great role models in that department (laughs).

Contrary to tabloid opinion, I'm actually a pretty shy person. I had to learn to be egotistical.

Did you feel like you were walking a tightrope between being too diffident and too brash at that point in your career?

I walked into showbusiness with a very naive, sweet personality, and after a while got the hang of being egotistical, but then I got over it.

Blade Runner came next. Did you feel like you were part of something special back then?

I did, but I was very young and had to do a lot of learning on my feet. Whenever I was on set I was always by the camera, which is the area that always interests me. Especially on Blade Runner where the lighting was very complicated.

Do you still get asked whether or not Deckard's a replicant?

I always believed that he was because that's what Ridley's always said. As I recall, at the end of the picture he has that unicorn. He was already talking about Legend – his next movie – and it had the unicorns in it, so as far as I know he was winking his eye at it. Everyone hates Legend but I didn't mind it at all, but that just goes to show how naive and innocent I am (laughs). There's been a little bit of cognitive dissonance with Blade Runner, because most people didn't recognise its brilliance straight off the bat.

Young as Blade Runner’s replicant Rachael.

You didn't get the chance to meet Philip K. Dick during Blade Runner, but did you meet Frank Herbert when you were filming Dune?

I might have in Mexico City, but I might not have had the wherewithal to realise that he was there.

You shot a behind-the-scenes film on the set of Dune. It looks like it was a fun set to be on.

Yeah, did you see it on my YouTube channel? Oh fabulous!

There's a lot of talk of Sting's thong.

His thong, yeah... Sting's thong (laughs). Yes, all the girls were quite impressed. I mean, who's not impressed with Sting? Everyone loves Sting. We'd all get picked up in these three or four cars [to drive to set] and he'd let me listen to his songs on a Walkman. He played me Walking In Your Footsteps but I didn't understand what he was singing and I said, "Food stamps?" Why are you singing about food stamps?" He was really pissed. "Footsteps!" (laughs).

Did Dune make sense to you at the time? Did you have a sense of where it was going?

I didn't have a good sense of it because for one, David did seem to get more and more depressed because he realised that he'd bitten off a lot. It seems to me that when you watch Dune it's kind of static, people standing around a lot and there isn't a lot of movement, although the visual effects add some of that. He must have had [Alejandro] Jodorowsky's version in his head, and wasn't Ridley [Scott] supposed to do it at one point? It must have been a bit frightening for David.

And that group down in Mexico City... we were all staying in hotels around the Zona Rosa downtown, with (producers) Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis and David [Lynch], and there was a lot of drinking down there. It was a little wild. It was like when I worked on (1982 hospital soap spoof) Young Doctors In Love, I remember laughing a lot but also somewhere along the way realising that I had to separate myself out because I was getting burnt out before I even got my shots down. You can't have too good a time.

Is it true Roger Donaldson fought to get you on to No Way Out?

He did kinda fight for me. My character dies off pretty quickly so I did my scenes early on and Kevin Costner went on to shoot the rest of the movie.

It's a rite of passage for an actor to have a death scene. How does that one measure up for you?

I think it's great! You definitely know she's dead (laughs). Donna Evans was my stunt double for Blade Runner, Stripes, Young Doctors, throughout the '80s and into the '90s with Fatal Instinct, and she went over the railing in that shot.

Was that your favourite of the deaths she doubled for you?

Probably, yes. That one worked out well because when my character hits the ground, you really get that "wow" feeling.

As Susan Atwell opposite Kevin Costner in 1987 spy thriller No Way Out.

How was Gene Hackman to work with?

Gene was a sweetheart. I remember the first scene we did. I was in the bed in my little negligee business having unplugged the phone, and he comes in and looks at me, says, "Oh yeah, they're really going to look at me." (Laughs) I said, "Oh Gene, you're in this movie enough."

Is it true you auditioned for the role of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark?

(Cautiously) I did, yes.

How was that? What did you do for that?

Um... let's see. How about if I just say 'no comment' on that one?

Fair enough. You also shot a whole subplot in Woody Allen's Crimes And Misdemeanors that was cut. Was that a tough experience?

That was a tough film for me, because it was when Woody was still in his 'King Woody' phase and had quite a bit of support and power in terms of making his films. I'd done an interview with The New York Times where they'd asked what I was doing next and I'd mentioned that I was making a movie with Woody Allen about two brothers. He'd read it and apparently gone ballistic.

Crimes And Misdemeanors was a tough film for me. Woody went ballistic on me.


Oh my god, I was petrified to show up for work. Luckily my make-up lady calmed him down and assured him that I'd meant no harm and I hadn't known that I wasn't supposed to say anything. So I was a little nervous, and he's also got a certain technique where you'll have dialogue but then he'll get to the end of the scene and keep rolling the camera and people will get very used to improvising. I learnt that I had to improvise, and I'd learnt that with Bill Murray as well. The scene will keep going and you have to keep up with it, and that was challenging for me.

It must be a little scary to be improv'ing opposite Bill Murray?

Yeah, as a 20-year-old with a background in dancing rather than comedy. You don't even talk as a dancer. It would be a lot less hard for me now.

Young was a cover star on Empire issue #1.

What are your memories of Wall Street?

Again, I think a lot of people were doing drugs. I don't think Michael Douglas was – he was very alone in his trailer – but I think Oliver [Stone] liked jerking his chain, because Oliver's like that. I, personally, did not find working on that film to be a super-fun experience. When you're working with people who are on drugs, you have to watch your back.

Do you look back on the '80s as a happy period or a challenging one?

It's a combination. I think early success is not particularly educational – it allows you to have a lot of illusions, which can be overcome depending on how flexible you are, and at root I'm a sensible person – but I definitely found the '80s kinda wild. I wasn't very good at maintaining valuable relationship (laughs).

Early success is not particularly educational, but I definitely found the '80s kinda wild.

What advice would you have for a young star like Jennifer Lawrence?

I think she's doing it. I saw her at a screening of her film with David O. Russell and she was in the front row being real supportive. I think the best advice is to maintain and nurture those valuable relationships. And by 'maintain', I don't mean bend over.

Did you know you were on the cover of the very first ever issue of Empire?

Ah, fabulous! You should put me on the next cover (laughs).

What's next for you?

I did a movie called Nick And Nicky, an homage to Nick and Nora [in The Thin Man series]. I've been doing plays and that's been really fun. I'm getting a lot out of being a live performer. It's been a very big confidence booster.

Might we see you on the stage in London?

Set it up!

Picture credit: Pauline St. Denis; Hair: Joey Battista; Make-up: Virna Smiraldi for Bobbi Brown: Stylist: Andre Austin

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