For decades, many of the most beloved children of the big screen all belonged to Our Gang. The short film series, also sometimes referred to as The Little Rascals, was created by Hal Roach (the producer and studio executive behind Laurel & Hardy) in 1922 and spurred 220 shorts starring over 40 child actors before ending in 1944. Characters like Spanky and Alfalfa, and the high jinks they got caught up in, became instantly recognizable to legions of fans.
Of course, few children knew about the storied history of this IP when they were taken to the movie theater 50 years after Our Gang came to an end to see the 1994 feature-film reboot, The Little Rascals. Unlike many other family-friendly films that year — which included The Lion King, The Santa Clause, and The Flintstones — the movie did not break $100 million at the domestic box office (it took home a mere $50 million), but for some millennials of discerning taste, the VHS became a staple for those summer mornings when no playdate had been arranged, but you still wanted to hang with a large crew of wild, poorly supervised children.
While most of the child actors who were cast in the 1994 adaptation had few, if any, big acting credits to their names prior to The Little Rascals, Blake McIver Ewing — who played the villain vying to steal the heart of Darla from Alfalfa — was certainly familiar to a certain subset of the audience. Before delivering withering disdain as the rich new kid, Waldo, Ewing got his start singing on Star Search, and then stole the show as the “Yankee Doodle”–belting classmate of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s Michelle on Full House — a guest appearance that landed him a recurring role on the series. These days Ewing is mostly focusing on directing live theater (before the pandemic, he’d just directed a show starring RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Jackie Cox) and has a podcast with confidence coach Alison Robertson, The Con Artist. But with The Little Rascals now available to stream on Netflix, Ewing took Vulture’s call to talk about how the movie led him to meet the director of E.T., Marty’s mom from Back to the Future, and a future president.
What do you remember about auditioning for Waldo?
I auditioned probably five times for the movie. They announced this big, nationwide search. In the beginning it was publicity-heavy, looking for lookalikes for the original characters from the way-back-when. I was doing Full House when it came across my agent’s desk. They sent me in for the pre-read: nothing. Didn’t hear for months and months and months.
Then, they had narrowed down each character to about 10-to-20 kids per character that were in the running. When it got down to two people per role, they had a giant final callback at Universal, on the backlot. We were all in this holding room, and it was so awkward because you could look across the room and you’d be like, “Okay, well there’s the other one. It’s me or him.” There were two Spankys, two Alfalfas, two Darlas. It was so awkward. Luckily, my parents come from show business so I couldn’t have been more prepared for a moment like this. At the end of the day, they were like “Okay, we’re all going to do one more round.” When I went back into the room it was set up completely differently then it had been for the rest of the day. There were suddenly professional lights and a real film camera, like a screen test, and [Steven] Spielberg was sitting right in front of me, where the director [Penelope Spheeris] had been sitting. It’s not every day that you walk into an audition and you’re less than six feet from Spielberg’s face. So that was jarring, because even at 8 I knew who Steven Spielberg was.
Did you watch any of the original Our Gang shorts to prepare for the audition?
Yeah, I actually had a VHS box set of them that was given to my dad. It actually wasn’t very helpful because the Waldo in the original Our Gang was nothing like the character they had written for the “new” — old now, but then new — movie.
I think I read that the other Waldo was more into poetry or something?
He was very much an intellectual and it was more about the intellectual supremacy that made him a villain. Whereas what they wrote for the new movie, he was just a dick. [Laughs.]
You have a big musical number, when you sing Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E.” Were you already familiar with that song?
Well, this is a very telling part of the story as far as my very precocious little-kid personality. We were in rehearsal for the film, and it was just me and Brittany [Ashton Holmes], who played Darla, and Penelope, the director, in her office. And we were running a scene that ended up getting cut, and she had the idea in the room: “Oh my gosh! What if we did a talent show where you sing perfectly, Alfalfa sings horribly.” And then she looks at me and goes, “Oh honey, don’t worry though, this is Hollywood. We’ll get someone to dub you. You don’t have to sing.”
And I was like, “Oh no, but I sing. I really sing.” She goes, “No, you won’t know the song. It was an old song, you wouldn’t even know the artist, you wouldn’t know Nat King Cole. You wouldn’t know the song. It’s ‘L-O-V-E.’” And I started singing it, because at the time Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable album where she sang all the duets with her dad had just come out, and my parents were obsessed with it.
So I started singing “L-O-V-E” and she freaked out. She gets me on the speakerphone on the desk, calls like every executive, says, “Sing it again, sing it again!” So I’m just singing “L-O-V-E” a million times into a phone, having no idea who’s on the other end of the line, big Universal executives, higher-ups. She asks, “How did we not know that you were a singer?” And I went “Well, I won Star Search. It was on my résumé.” [Laughs.] Here I was at Universal, talking to Penelope, this accomplished director, and saying, “You didn’t read my résumé?!” What a little twerp!
You were wearing that white tuxedo in “L-O-V-E” and you actually wore a very similar white tux in a Full House episode where you’re singing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”
Yes, and both of those go back to Star Search. When I won Star Search I was wearing a white tuxedo, singing “Before the Parade Passes Us By” and that’s what inspired the Full House writers and then that trickled down all the way to Rascals. So the white tux followed me for many years. Which in hindsight is so hilarious to me, because I’m so pasty white and it’s really not the best look.
One of the big appeals of the movie for me as a little kid watching was the lack of adults. They have little cameo appearances, but it’s really just the kids running the show. What was that like on set?
It was very strange for me at first, because I was very comfortable in adult environments already — as a kid, I started working when I was 5. I was very much in that world. For me it was a little bit jarring, because I was like, “Oh my God, there’s kids everywhere.” I was not good with my peer group! At the time, school was a problem: Set life was great; school life was iffy at best. But then, what was great about this group was because we were all on set, all together, almost every day at the same time, it really did become like, “Oh, these are my friends now!” We were a unit. It felt like for almost a year I didn’t go anywhere without another Little Rascals cast member with me. It was very much like a weird summer camp — just not in the summer.
How did the director handle having so many kids at all times?
The famed blooper reel over the credits in the end was very real to what was actually going on. There were many days where she tore her hair out, because she had never worked with this many kids before. The on-set teachers and social workers became her big liaisons. The parents were more involved in that time than in the projects I worked on afterwards, where the industry had sort of gotten wise to the terror of stage parents, so they were allowed to have much more visible influence on the kids in the space than I saw later in other projects.
[Penelope] didn’t always love it, to be honest! I definitely remember her screaming at the top of her lungs — not to us, and not at us! — but just in frustration at the situation, because it was unlike any project she had ever done before. I think they wrapped Wayne’s World a few weeks before they went into pre-production for Rascals. You can imagine going from Mike and Dana to crazy kids.
How did you feel about playing the bad egg?
On set we all got along so well, so it was fun actually playing the jerk while we were filming it, because [the director] would call cut, and we would just crack up. I was like, “I can’t believe I’m being such a jerk to you! We’re best friends!” It felt like doing a school play, just on the really high-budget level.
But when it got difficult was when the movie came out. We became the archetypes of our characters to our peers, to kids. Because kids watching it aren’t thinking, “Oh, those are actors playing a role.’ No, it’s like, “You’re that guy! You’re him!” When I look back at old footage of press interviews, I was so apologetic. No matter what the question was, I would somehow spin it and pivot it back to, “But you know, I’m really not like Waldo, in real life.” I was so traumatized! I still get hate tweets about stealing Darla from Alfalfa, and I’m like, “Y’all! We are in our mid-to-late 30s. You all need to give. It. Up. I understand that damaged you as a child, but we need to talk to our therapists about that.”
I do have to ask about that big reveal of your character’s father, which definitely hits different in 2021.
It’s really jarring now! And I feel bad for people who are experiencing it for the first time.
Did you actually meet Donald Trump?
I did. And it’s very weird. It sort of made sense — you know, rich kid, rich brat, like sure, that’s the celebrity, that’s the cameo, great. The day he came to set he was extremely nervous, because I think the only thing he had done up until this point was the quick scene in Home Alone 2 where he just said one line in the lobby of the Plaza, so he’s out of his element, he’s crazy nervous.
His first demand on set was to have lunch with the kid that’s his son — like, he demanded that. So here we are, outside at the bit catering tent in Lake View Terrace — long folding plastic tables and chairs — and on one side is me and my mom and my dad, and on the other side is Donald Trump, Marla, his wife at the time; and baby Tiffany, who is screaming bloody murder the whole time, literally an infant, to the point that my dad takes her, because my dad’s great with babies. He takes her and gets her to stop crying and walks her around the Carnival set. I remember nothing from the lunch, because he’s so horribly unmemorable in-person, but what was hilarious is that when they got him on set, he didn’t realize that the whole conversation is just over a cell phone. So he was never going to interact with me anyway — the whole thing was for naught. Well, isn’t that the perfect encapsulation of Trump as a human? That it was all for naught.
Are there any other big memories you have from the set?
From the time I was little-bitty, I was a Back to the Future superfan. And so for me the most exciting day on set was when we did the ballet sequence and I was just in the audience for that. I didn’t even have any lines. I was just watching while they were doing the ballet recital, but Lea Thompson was the ballet teacher and so for me, I’m just like, I’m in a scene with Marty’s mom! It was the coolest. And we had some big celebrities on set. We had Whoopi Goldberg and Reba McEntire, Daryl Hannah. I actually got to do a scene with Daryl, which was amazing. But for me, it’s just where my kid brain was, it was just “Marty’s mom is in a scene with me!” I was so starstruck it was crazy.
Your YouTube profile mentions that you’re a self-described “recovering child actor.”
You know, I say that kind of half-kidding and half-serious. I wanted to do it, and I had to convince my parents since they were show-business people and they really didn’t want me to do it, I had to push the whole time and be like, “No! I’m still in it. I want to go to the audition. Cancel the playdate. Disneyland can wait! I want to do this.” Because I drove that desire, I used to think in my early adolescence, Oh I’m not going to be like those other child actors who were forced into it and they have all those problems. It’s different for everyone. And what I’ve found is it doesn’t really matter. Even though I made the choices and the choices weren’t made for me, you still give up things, and you still develop as a human and as an adult in a completely different way than anybody else. It is the thing that all child actors share.
Do you have any advice you’d want to give directors or producers now who are working with a lot of child actors that would have made the experience better for you?
I guess it was very damaging for me to see the kids who were definitely being forced into it or the kids who had the kind of stage parents that were living vicariously through their child’s success. Because that was the total opposite of my parents, it was just shocking to me. It was horrifying. I wish there was some way that we could avoid that. I wish there was some way that there could be advocates for kids to say, “No! I don’t care how much your mom wants you to do it, you’re not doing it. You don’t want to be here, so you’re not going to have to be there.” We can’t regulate that, but I wish we could.