it's coming

Erika Christensen Answers Every Question We Have About Swimfan

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Twentieth Century Fox

“Teens behaving badly” has been a foundational film narrative since 1955’s iconic Rebel Without a Cause, and once teens found their way into the erotic-thriller genre, they behaved very badly indeed. During the 1990s and early aughts, high-school hallways and parentless ragers became common settings for the kind of seduction and betrayal common in mid-budget, adult-skewing box-office hits of the ’80s: Cue the infighting of trust-fund babies in Cruel Intentions, a rare brunette femme-fatale teamup in Wild Things, and a suburban spin on Fatal Attraction in Swimfan.

Swimfan follows star swimmer Ben (Jesse Bradford), a former bad boy who’s straightened out into a hospital volunteer. But while he and his supportive girlfriend, Amy (Shiri Appleby), make college plans, his attention strays to new girl Madison (Erika Christensen), in town under mysterious circumstances. Whatever she’s running from, she runs straight to Ben — and you can probably guess where the story goes from there. As a genre effort, Swimfan ticks a number of erotic-thriller boxes. There’s an underwater sex scene, a love triangle, a deliciously heightened tone. In a recent conversation with Christensen, the Cheaper by the Dozen and Kimi star discussed the appeal of bunny boilers, which teen star got unnecessarily waxed for pool shoots, and the possibility of a Swimfan sequel.

It’s been 20 years. When I say “Swimfan” now, what is your first thought?
Literally my first thought is, You love me, I know it.

How did Swimfan come to you?
Originally, I think they had come to me wanting me to play Shiri’s character. I started acting when I was 12, and by the time I was 15, I was so frustrated with just being the cute girl next door. I wanted to see what else I could get cast doing. I got a couple little opportunities of like, Yes, thank you, please let me try something. And then Traffic. And then when they came to me with the sweet character again, I was like, Nooo. I remember meeting with director John Polson and being like, “I know how to play Madison, that’s what I want to do.” And then they were like, “Okay.”

Were you looking to play a femme-fatale villain, or were you uniquely drawn to Madison?
No, it was more of the latter. To oversimplify, I was like, She’s so crazy. But like most crazy people, she doesn’t know that she’s crazy. I was like, She thinks she’s right at every stage of this story.

But she is actually really smart! She makes some choices that I’m amazed by even now. I never would have come up with planting her underwear in Ben’s car. Good job! 
Way to play the game!

Did you know Jesse or Shiri? All of you were relatively famous at the same time. Had your paths ever crossed?
I don’t think so. You’re right, we all just came up right then, but I didn’t know them yet. I watched Bring It On for sure.

Filming for Swimfan was in New Jersey and New York. Can you talk about your first week on set?
I don’t know if I’m remembering this wrong because of that idea that you always film the love scenes first, before you get a chance to discover that they don’t like each other. But I feel like that might have been near the top of the shoot. The pool stuff.

Wait, I have to tell you the best tidbit, which is that the wardrobe department fucked with Jason Ritter and told him he needed to get waxed because they were wearing Speedos. And he did. A pain he had never imagined! I think the guys were all actually training, and Jesse was like, All right, I am going to get super-lean for this because I’m going to be walking around in a Speedo all day.

But I was super-nervous about the love scene, because while it was certainly not my first, it was sensual in a way that was my first. And the previous scenes had been such a different vibe. I remember being to Jesse like, “Please help me understand if this is going well.” I had the sound department — on the first take when we start making out — play Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” over the loudspeakers. I thought it was going to be hilarious, but it didn’t really play loudly enough. It was like … [Listens for music.] “Oh, okay. Let’s get on with it, fine.”

How many takes did the sex scene take?
It must have taken the better part of a day. There were definitely setups that didn’t make the final cut. I specifically remember there was a close-up over him onto my face, and I think over me onto Jesse’s face. John Polson did us the courtesy of showing us the scene cut together, and it was so incredibly intimate, and I was just like, “I can’t handle that. Can you just make it about what’s happening, and not so much about what I’m experiencing?” He was completely on board — he was really nice about it.

That scene really is intimate — when she says, “Tell me you love me.” How did you handle the line delivery?
I think the most important thing for me was trying to make it seem like it was not a red flag — trying to get what I needed, but not freak him out in the moment, because otherwise he just might call things off immediately. So I was like, Play it cool, play it cool, play it cool.

Some of your other line deliveries are cheekier. I’m thinking of Madison’s description of Amy as “so sweet and uncomplicated.”
Madison thought it was funny because she knew she was being awful. That was her: You’re making this easy for me. She was delighted in the game of it. That’s what carries through the whole time. Right up until the end, she’s like, I got this.

Madison’s outfits in this movie are interesting. They never seem like something a high schooler in the early 2000s would wear — there’s a trench coat, Peter Pan collars, cardigans, blazers, these really lacy bras.
She almost dresses like it’s the ’40s. She’s living in this noir version of high school. I remember the costume designer Arjun Bhasin, he was working with me and saying, “Okay, you’ve really got curves, let’s lean into it.” It speaks to her supreme confidence. I don’t know how intentionally she built her image, or if she was led by instincts, but all of that speaks to the femme fatale she thinks she is and that we let her be.

Did you have to learn to play the cello for this role?
Definitely tried to play. Definitely took some classes. It’s extremely difficult to play cello. And while clearly the audio is not me, there were some technical aspects that I was like, It’s not even visually where I want it to be. But I worked on it.

The first time Madison meets Ben, he’s opening her locker with a music-note hairpin. When I was rewatching the scene, I thought there was some purposeful ambiguity in terms of whether she actually needed help or she had already targeted Ben as her next crush and this was her first chess move.
I, at the time, didn’t have the capacity to have that thought, and now I totally agree with you. I love the idea that the key is in her pocket, and she’s this [high-pitched voice] damsel in distress. When you think of it like that, and imagine, Would you ever do such a thing? Would I ever do such a thing? It’s actually so cheeky and playful. If you don’t have a violent, obsessive side, that would be such a great story. Your sister would be telling that story at your wedding.

So many erotic thrillers work because they have these rom-com, meet-cute moments that answer the question, “Why is it so easy for this person to cheat on his girlfriend?”
Madison has such a poise and a confidence, and that sense that she knows something you don’t. And when she talks to you, maybe she’s letting you in on a secret: The great secret is that we’re soulmates, and you don’t know it yet, and you’re going to find out in time, and it’s the best news ever. Madison probably thought: Ben’s going to leave his girlfriend, we’ll be together, we’re going to be so happy, maybe we’re going to get married and the whole thing. If that’s what she even wants. I don’t know if as a teenager you’re going for the white picket fence, but she definitely thinks they’re going to have this great love affair.

Madison tells Ben, “When I play music sometimes, I just float out of my body up above the music where no one can touch me or hurt me. I can escape.” There’s this hint of a backstory — that she has been through some stuff, that there is a lot of darkness. Did you imagine a history for her?
With her previous boyfriend, the first hint about how bad it was was that she had to leave town. I think, just to give her the benefit of the doubt, that he was abusive in some way, or cheating on her, or both, and then she found her rage and essentially defended herself or avenged her heart, you know? You find that part of yourself that is really fucking dangerous, and you connect with your rage and your violence and all that. But then you’re a felon. She thought she was justified that time. She doesn’t see it going that way again, but she has that streak. And she really considers herself hurt, and she is.

Did you watch any classic erotic thrillers before shoots or model your femme fatale on any cinematic predecessors?
I didn’t, although I feel like there must be a nod to someone that I haven’t put a finger on. When Madison puts her arms back [mimics], I was like, This is a stolen move for sure. But I don’t know where it came from exactly.

Seeing as you played Michael Douglas’s daughter in Traffic, I’m wondering if you’ve seen Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, and if so, do you think Madison is more of a Glenn Close or a Sharon Stone? 
She’s definitely a Glenn Close. We, at that time, were referring to Madison as a bunny boiler. I did watch that because Michael was one of the producers on Swimfan, so I think we all knew going into it that it was a high-school version of that.

There were so many teen takes on classic erotic thriller stories: The Babysitter, The Crush, Fear, Poison Ivy, Wild Things, Cruel Intentions. But no one really makes erotic thrillers anymore, let alone teen versions. What are your thoughts on the genre, and why do you think these movies don’t get made now?
It is so elevated. It’s not particularly grounded. It’s so performative, which also might be true for teenagers — trying to emulate what they think is sexy, or how amusing they’re supposed to be in a moment. That falls away at a certain point, and you grow up and start to want to be present with whoever you’re with. I think these trends that we’ve had in movies — right after the early aughts, there was a very genuine moment where everything was heartfelt. Not necessarily wholesome, but super baring-your-soul genuine. And then it was super fucking ironic, and nothing was taken seriously. I don’t know how we find our way back. There’s Euphoria now, which is definitely through a different lens. I don’t know what the fresh take is now that would fit what we have. Maybe it’s kind of a mish-mash of everything goes, but everybody also wants to make sure they’re woke about it.

When I rewatched the movie, I saw that the logline describes your character as “slinky but psychotic.” Do you think a film would use a logline like that in 2022?
No, but there’s camp to it. It was campy then, and I feel like now, it would be a full satire version. Make her more cartoonishly villainy, even.

Let’s talk about the Swimfan ending. Madison has taken Amy hostage at the high-school swimming pool. There’s a lot of physicality and organized chaos. You’re trying to hit Ben while he’s in the water, you’re pushing Amy into the pool, and then you’re eventually drowning. What can you remember about filming that? 
The first thing I remember, which is also such a great behind-the-scenes tidbit, is that the stunt double for Shiri ended up not being comfortable being chained to the wheelchair at the bottom of the pool, and Shiri did it.

I do remember a lot of screaming. As is the blessing of making a film, it’s so compartmentalized. I don’t know if it was immediately after, or a little bit later on, but when I saw the footage, I was like, Oh, Jesus. She’s losing her mind … Okay, cool!

Was there ever a version of the ending where Madison lives?
Yeah! How was that communicated? I think it was just one of those tiny little I Know What You Did Last Summer nods where there was a shot of the pool being empty at the end or something like that. Where you’re like, Wait, where’s the body? We were talking at the time, like, What if this works and we’re gonna make a sequel? And I was like, But she’s dead, and the producers were like, Oh, that’s not a problem. If we’re going to make a sequel, then she’s not dead. I remember seeing — what was that teen thriller from the time? The Faculty. And that mechanism: Remember what you thought you saw, that’s not what you saw? I was like, I don’t know how much we can do that, but yes, as an audience member, yes. I want to be on board with whatever.

The movie does treat her like this formidable horror villain — I’m thinking of when Ben warns his mother, “Madison is coming!” There is space for her to be roaming the East Coast in search of a new victim. 
Yes! And having great hope for their next love affair every time. Every time! [Slams hand on table.] Like, Dammit, I was wrong again! Why do you make me do this?

Do people bring up Swimfan to you now, 20 years later?
Originally, after the one-two punch of Traffic and Swimfan, fans would say to me in passing everywhere: “You’re a bad girl.” And I was like, “Okay, yeah … thank you?” And now people just say, “I love that movie,” or “I was so appreciative of how that movie was something different. It wasn’t what teen movies were doing at the time.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

More From This Series

See All
Erika Christensen Answers Every Question About Swimfan