Something was happening in the late 1990s. The New Queer Cinema wave that blossomed in the first half of the decade had changed the DNA of even mainstream genre films: Gay screenwriters were flourishing with Kevin Williamson’s Scream, Don Mancini’s more queered Child’s Play entry Bride of Chucky, and Silvio Horta’s Urban Legend. And just on the outskirts was Darren Stein’s blackhearted horror-comedy Jawbreaker. Following in the grand high-bitch footsteps of Heathers, Jawbreaker gave us teen femmes so dolled up they were nearly in drag and an all-time evil high-school hellcat, Courtney Shayne (Rose McGowan). Cementing its mission to give the gays everything they wanted was a double serving of Judy Greer as both mousy outsider Fern Mayo and her vampire-glam alter ego, Vylette.
Greer was hardly removed from her college theater days, still planted in the Midwest and only visiting Los Angeles for casting calls. But thanks to a “911” page from her agent, Greer skipped a flight to audition for the role that would ignite her career and make her an icon for young queers obsessed with Stein’s campy, candy-colored fairy tale of adolescence. Greer’s performance was, to be extra but accurate, everything. She was an outcast who sat silently in awe of the dream girl, then seduced the school in skintight Manic Panic–pink pedal pushers; in the parlance of the mean-teen subgenre, she learned to fly and got to fuck with the eagles. In honor of this legacy, Vulture checked in with Greer to break down her cult hit and talk about the notes people still pass her all these years later.
Jordan Crucchiola: Your performance is so fascinating because it’s almost this drag version of a high-schooler. What was it like having this world built around you that sprung out of Darren’s fantasy?
Judy Greer: It was pretty — I was gonna say overwhelming, but I edited myself because I didn’t even know what I was doing at the time. It makes sense now, but I didn’t know we were acting out Darren’s fantasy. I was just starting to be an actor. I was getting a lead role in a movie. I didn’t care what it was. And I just acted my heart out, you know what I mean? I wasn’t going for camp. I wasn’t going for horror comedy. I was just playing this role with all my heart and soul, just like I’d been taught in theater school. It wasn’t until I saw the finished product that I was just like, Oh my God, this movie is larger than life. It just was so big and we managed to get all of it right somehow. My amazing producer friend, Helen Estabrook, told me once that the toughest thing for a first-time director is maintaining tone, and the tone of Jawbreaker is tricky. He nailed it, and I would never have understood that at the time. But I can look back on it now and say that because it was so clear to him.
What was it like getting the call and going to audition for Jawbreaker?
Well, I was in line to board a flight from Los Angeles, where I had been auditioning for pilots and stuff, to see a friend San Francisco. At the time, I had a beeper; I get a page from my agent and it has 9-1-1 at the end of it. And I’m like, I’m not a fuckin’ doctor. Why is it 9-1-1? I got out of line and ran over to a pay phone, and I’m like, “What’s going on?” They’re like, “Where are you? There’s an emergency audition.” So I go get in the cab, the address is Hollywood and Vine — like, can it get more Hollywood than that? — get out of the taxi, I’ve got my overnight bag with me, and I go up to the room, the casting office, and they’re like, “Hi, oh, okay, great. Here are the sides. Come on in.” I was like, Hold on a second, I need a minute to, like, read the scene and figure out what I’m doing. So I take five minutes. I read the scene. I go in, I do my audition. They’re like, “Okay, we wanna offer you the role.”
And I was like, Well, hold on a minute. I’m thinking of myself as this serious actress who just graduated from acting school. So I need to read the script before I decide if I’m going to accept this role. And they were like, “Oh yeah, no, totally. You should read the script, but we’re gonna cast you. And while you’re reading the script, can the costume designer just come in and get your measurements so that she can shop for you over the weekend? And then we’re gonna need on Monday to give you a haircut and dye your hair.” And this is all just happening around me. They’re so happy because they’d found their girl. I still went up to San Francisco for the night to visit my girlfriend. I was so excited. I definitely paid for dinner, and then came back and started shooting Jawbreaker, this job that like, you know, changed my life. I mean, I had been in Los Angeles for like five days.
One of my favorite things that Darren has said about Jawbreaker was when somebody asked him how he would sort of describe it, and he said it was really, for lack of a better word, “cunty.” When you got this script, how was it reading it for the first time?
It was really fun, because I’m playing two roles. So I just had the best role in the whole movie and I had the most fun. I was always looking at it in terms of Fern versus Vylette. I felt like Fern was such a specific character that I understood, but then everything about Fern became different than Vylette. And then when it got into Vylette, I had to just play the opposite of Fern. So I was thinking of it more in terms of like, how do I make sure that these are two different characters, but the same person.
I don’t wanna compare my performance to Billy Crudup in Almost Famous. But I once asked him a question about making it, and he said — I hope it’s okay that I say this — he said he wished looking back on it, he would’ve had more fun making it; he was so focused on making sure he looked like a rock star and like a guitar player. And I thought that was so perfect. Because the character he played is so concerned with being the guitarist in a rock band. So when he told me that story, I was thinking of the things I’ve overlooked because I was like, Fern was obsessed with being Vylette, and when she was Vylette, she was nothing like Fern, unrecognizable. And I was obsessed with that as the actor, making sure that the two people were two specific people.
How much is that you working on your own and sort of building these different personalities, these distinct personalities, and how much of that was you working with Darren?
Oh, it was all Darren. He had such a clear vision of this movie and who these people were. I brought me to the table, but everything was him.
When you were becoming Fern, was there a thing that you put on or a thing that switched you over where you were like, “This is Fern”?
Oh, I mean, the wig. The wig made it so easy and so dumpy, but I loved it. I loved having the wig on, I loved being Fern, because I felt like I could just disappear into her. With Fern, I just relate more to her. I relate more to being a wallflower in high school and doing a nice thing for a stranger, like her dropping off Liz’s homework and stuff like that is so something I would do for someone who barely gave me the time of day.
There’s something so visceral about this sort of abandon with which you play Fern as this girl starstruck by Liz Purr. Obviously you want the character to feel authentic; was there a Liz Purr that you could connect in a through-line to your own life, bringing that to Fern to make that resonate so hard with people?
My first scenes were of Fern and Rebecca Gayheart, who is the nicest person in the world, and she was so sweet to me and so kind. I had just moved to L.A. and didn’t have any friends there, and she really took me under her wing. I thought she was so beautiful and famous and nice and perfect, so I would just follow her. I have so many snapshots from set of me sitting next to Rebecca as Fern. It’s so funny looking back on it. I was like, Oh, Rebecca was my Liz. I was obsessed with her. Anything Rebecca Gayheart told me to do, I would do. Anywhere she told me to go, I would go, I would eat at the restaurants she told me to. She was talking about some sheets that she bought, and I went to the store to go buy the sheets. But I couldn’t afford them at the time — I was like, Oh, okay, yeah, I’m not there yet, I’ll go back to Macy’s. And it was very easy to see how I was able to sort of translate that into the character of Fern being kind of obsessed with Liz, but then also ultimately obsessed with being one of those girls.
And then Fern gets to participate in one of the ultimate makeover montages of all time! Tell me about living the dream.
Nineties movies were all makeover movies. Like, everyone kind of got a makeover, and I was obsessed in high school with getting a makeover because for so many years I was so gross. And I just thought, If someone could just teach me a few things. This was before YouTube. I didn’t know how to do my hair. I didn’t know how to do my makeup. I didn’t know what was cute. You can’t go on Pinterest or Instagram and see how people are styling themselves. I was reading Vogue at a very young age, but that does not translate to, like, suburban Midwestern high-school fashion. I would see a woman in Vogue, like Linda Evangelista wearing an amazing, long trench coat, and I would go to the thrift store and buy a long trench coat, and then people thought I was gonna shoot up the high school. You know what I mean? But it was a really cool makeover. Very stylized and …
Yeah. Kind of witchy. Yeah.
And when you’re stepping into Vylette, what is the sort of key that unlocks her? Is it the magnificent pink on pink on pink? Is it the hair?
It was kind of everything. It was like the clothes and the blonde hair. It was just so girly and trying so hard to sell it. And even though everybody knows you on set, you do get treated differently by the crew, by the other actors, when you look a certain way. There’s just a difference. And when you’re Vylette, you get to wear high heels. I was towering over all of them and that just made me have more presence. So it was much easier for me to relate to Fern, which is why I felt like I had to really push myself for Vylette.
Then when you get to go full Vylette, how fun was playing the bitch?
It’s the best role! Well, for me, I’m midwestern and I try so hard to be nice to everybody and I just wanna be liked. And so to be able to just be the person that is saying the things I’m silently thinking in my head, but not saying out loud, it’s very cathartic. And when you’re bitchy, people are a little bit more afraid of you. People walk a little faster when you ask for something, there is a bit of a sea change. You just can’t help it. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to leave it at work. Like, I do a voice-over on a children’s show called StoryBots for Netflix. If I’m recording StoryBots all day, I’ll come home and be like, “Honey, what do you want for dinner?” And he’ll be like, “Please, please don’t talk to me in your StoryBots voice.” I’m certainly not a method actor, but it is hard to not let this stuff spill over a little bit.
There’s something that feels so sort of natural to that with the character too, because, I mean, Vylette is pure effort, like a creation.
And even the scene where I’m talking to Pam Grier and I’m like, holding my purse just so and doing everything perfectly rehearsed the way the girls told me to do it. Yeah. It was really helpful to be like, “I’m performing now. I’m performing, I’m performing.”
When we encounter Vylette on the hood of a Corvette, and you are just going wild on the top of that car and everybody’s rushing out around you. What is that like, filming that scene where you’re on the hood of the car and you were just throwing your hair around?
Darren, just screaming with laughter, like laughing so hard that at a point I’m like, “Stop it,” like, “Stop laughing at me! This is uncomfortable for me! I don’t do this naturally!” And he was like, “Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry,” but he just was so excited. It was just everything he wanted. But also I was really stressed out because I couldn’t drive the car because it was a stick shift. No one asked me if I could drive a stick shift! So when I’m pulling into my spot, the reason you can’t see the back of the car is because two Teamsters are pushing it.
The second thing that stressed me out was when I was sitting on top of that car, that pink suit had rhinestones on it. I was so afraid of scratching the paint with those rhinestones. Like, I’m so my dad’s daughter and I’m like, This is such a beautiful American car, and it’s like mint. I mean, this shit was cherry. And I’m sitting on there with these like, little, teeny-tiny metal spikes. And so while I’m rocking out, I’m really trying to focus on keeping my butt in one place and not scooching around so that I wouldn’t scratch the paint. Those were the things that were running through my mind.
I once spoke to Karyn Kusama and Megan Fox about making Jennifer’s Body and asked about the on-set dynamic between Megan and Amanda Seyfried. Karyn said it was not as extreme but definitely mirrored the needy Jennifer relationship, even when the cameras were off. What were things like behind the camera when you and Rose McGowan and everyone else are so conditioned to be in these really hierarchical roles around each other in front of the camera?
I was always — and probably still am — a little terrified of Rose. She was terrifying to me. I hid behind Rebecca. She was never mean, there was never anything terrible directed toward me, you know? It just is hard to separate that on-set dynamic off-set. It is hard for me, but it is especially hard as a 22-year-old person who doesn’t know who they are anyway, who doesn’t have a fully formed brain or personality or off-set life. It was very hard for me to differentiate a real relationship with Rose and the on-set relationship between our characters. And so I just left it at that.
Yes. Fair enough.
And like, yeah, she was the boss.
How was that, then, like the day on-set where Vylette is getting roughed up by Courtney? You are thrown into that mirror.
That was not a great day. I think all of us could have used a few more rehearsals ahead of time. Looking back, seeing that scene and seeing like memes of it and stuff — it was so good. But I was probably my most nervous of all the days at work because I knew I had to give it back. I knew I had to come back at her level. I knew Judy had to give it back to Rose as much as I knew that Vylette had to give it back to Courtney. And I was so scared I wasn’t going to be able to match her. The first time I saw the movie was at the premiere, and I was just like, It worked! Because the whole rest of the movie kind of lives and dies on that scene.
It’s amazing how many things this movie did that sort of became the definitive of what they are. Like one of the greatest things I think can happen on a movie screen: the beautiful girls slow walking down the high-school hallway.
I’ll never get tired of that shot. It was pretty cool, but I was also, like, very nervous that I was gonna be able to sell it. It’s definitely more fun to watch than it was to do. Not that it wasn’t fun to shoot. That’s what you want after a makeover scene like that, the slow-motion walk down the hallway.
You’re walking down a long hallway past, or perhaps over, other people, and you get to be both in Jawbreaker; you are both walked over and you do the walking.
I mean, no one loved that more than Rose McGowan. She was like the queen, like walking down that hallway was —I just had to watch her. I was like, I’ll just do what Rose does, because she is working the runway. It was amazing to watch her and the hair flip.
That’s the fun of Jawbreaker. The stakes are actually life-and-death living under the boot of Courtney Shayne.
I mean, it’s so funny to think that at the end of the movie, the cops don’t come and arrest her, everyone hates her. Like the end of the story is that people hate her and throw things at her and don’t like her anymore and are not scared of her anymore. Which is the end of the world in high school.
The way that Jawbreaker has been able to follow you guys, it feels like the sort of movie-star version of music-star fame; you have the hits, and no matter how many albums you’ve put out since some of those hits have happened, people are like, “Play ‘Free Bird’!”, play the hits.
I feel like it’s very different because I don’t have to perform scenes from all my movies all the time, but I think that I definitely know actors in my life who hate that. And they’re like, “You’d think I’ve only done one TV show in my life!” But at the same time I would just think, like, Get over it. What would you rather have? One iconic movie or no iconic movie? It’s never bothered me, but I also have a lot of those for different people. Like, the love I get from 13 Going on 30 is equal to, from a very different demographic, Arrested Development. So I’ve managed to navigate my career in a way that gives me new fun opportunities all the time. I got really lucky that way. I will say it helps that the things that people love me from, I personally love the most as well. So that makes it easier. It’s not like the thing I hated that I did that everyone loves and I’m like, “Auughh! Marmaduke!” Just kidding. I didn’t hate Marmaduke. But when people ask me, “What do I know you from?”, my husband’s always like, “Marmaduke.” I’m like, “Shut up.”
In encountering Gen Z, do you know what their Judy Greer is, and does Jawbreaker factor into that?
I think it’s like Ant-Man for them. It’s like Marvel. I had a small role in Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp, and I get a lot of like, “Oh, you’re the mom in Jurassic World.” That, but what’s funny is like that generation, and that would be like my son Lucas, he’s 21, and my stepdaughter’s 25 and she went back and watched Friends, and she was like, “Have you ever heard of the show Friends?” And I’m like, “Don’t talk to me about Friends.”
There was such a kind of possibility and a recklessness to cinema in the 1990s. It feels like this is one of those movies that feels so ’90s in that it seems like it’s not possible now with, like, the alchemy of circumstances that came together. What was that sort of cinematic climate in that late-’90s era? What did that feel like to be walking into cinema at that time?
It’s weird. Everything was like, She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You. And like, we were here making this weird little campy, trashy, over-the-top horror movie. And then after we wrap Jawbreaker, I’m just auditioning for every teen rom-com there is, like American Pie, these broad teen-sex coming-of-age comedies. At the time, everyone had one of ’em, everyone glommed onto one of these movies. I look back at how desperate I was to get cast, and I’m like, there was plenty of work to go around and we were all like trying to get in these movies about high school. And we were all in our 20s and it was bizarre. It was bizarre to then be reading scripts and going on auditioning for movies about high school after doing Jawbreaker and thinking, Well, everything after this is just gonna pale in comparison.
I think you know that this is an iconic role for queer audiences — the gays show up for Judy Greer.
They sure do. God bless ’em and thank God.
You were saving lives, Judy Greer! Coming up and saving lives.
I’m here for it. I mean, I’ve had a lot of fans come up to me with tears in their eyes. Like, I’ve been passed notes by people that have said, like, “Your performance in Jawbreaker changed my life, made me see things differently, made me feel okay.” I get kind of choked up thinking about it because for a long time, I didn’t understand how important it was to certain members of the gay community who felt like they had no voice, no one saw them, no one understood. And it’s not like we were doing Boys Don’t Cry. You know what I mean? But in some ways it was just as important because there was a feeling and there was a vibe and there was a tone that, I think one person in my life has told me, “I felt like someone out there is like me.” Someone out there thinks like I think, someone feels the way I feel, someone thinks something is funny that I think is funny. To feel like you are heard, or you have, like, representation, in a time when it was still rough to come out, I can’t imagine how important that must have been for so many people. And that’s why I think this movie continues to charm people and affect people.
I’ve certainly had stories like that in my life, where I’ve seen something that has so profoundly spoken to me that I felt like, How did I not write this? Or like, How did someone know to tell my story? And so I’ll always be forever grateful for being a part of this. For all the times that I wish I did do something, like maybe more helpful with my life, you know, like maybe I should have been a nurse or something. There’s a handful of jobs that I think have really affected people. And so for that, I’m glad. I’m glad that we did that. I’m glad I didn’t know I was doing it because I think I would’ve been afraid. I would’ve felt too responsible or something.
I was so hyped to have this conversation with you because one of the best nights of my Los Angeles life was the night I went to the 20th-anniversary screening at the Film Independent, where you and Darren did a, I think, the best talk I’ve ever heard after a screening, and it was followed by the 20th-anniversary drag spectacular of Jawbreaker. I wanted to hear about experiencing your work as drag and being pulled onstage to dance with drag queens, playing your character?
You know, I think a lot of people, when they’re new to the business or they’re starting out their career, they’re like, “I wanna win an Oscar, I wanna win an Emmy, I wanna win a Golden Globe,” but I’ll tell you when you’ve made it is when you’re standing onstage during a drag show where they’re playing a character that you played, and the bar is packed and everyone’s screaming and dancing and having so much fun and saying all your lines back to you, like I’ll trade that for all the awards. It was epic. It was amazing. I felt so loved. I was so happy for Darren. I remember we were kids shooting this movie and he was like, “I wanna make, I wanna make a cult classic. I want it to be bigger than Heathers.” And I was like, That’s a big word right there. And you know, man, he did it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.