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For an aspiring actress from Sandusky, Ohio (population 25,000), auditioning for and getting cast in the role of a fresh-out-of-college gym teacher in John Hughes‘ The Breakfast Club was the big break I’d been hoping for. My character — who was at school for a Saturday practice — originally began as a swim instructor but evolved into a gym teacher because I actually taught aerobics professionally at the time. John told me that my part was meant to bridge the gap between the students and the establishment. For my big scene I’d deliver a speech in the library to the five kids saying, “This is just a small part of your total life history.” What that meant was that even though everything feels intense in high school, that time ends and then real life begins. And the life I had dreamt of felt like it was just beginning.
We had been filming in Chicago. One morning I was at the hotel getting ready to leave for set when the phone rang. It was Jackie Burch, our casting director. I was being sent home. That day. What?! The information didn’t compute. I asked her why but she didn’t know. What happened? It felt sort of like, well, exactly like high school. One day you’re in with the cool kids and the next day you’re an outcast — as in out of the cast.
I still don’t love flying, but let’s just say that plane ride home was the worst one I’ve ever taken. I thought about the scene we’d filmed in the library a few days prior. John kept whispering random jokes into my ear so that my lines would crack Anthony Michael Hall up — I remember one was about Lionel Richie. Each take took on a slightly different tone. In hindsight, if I’d been told this scene was going to be cut, I would’ve been shocked because it seemed to be going so well. On the plane, despite my soft seat in first class, I couldn’t find any comfort. In the absence of any real explanation I filled the void with lots of possible ones — each one more negative than the next.
Karen Leigh Hopkins then and now. (Photos by Firooz Zahedi, left, and Diana Ragland)
Call it magical thinking or insanity but I still held out hope I’d be in the final cut. Jackie [Burch] had seen footage after I was sent home and told my agent it was good. So when the film opened I was still pathetically hoping there’d be a glimpse of me. I know. Don’t say it. I went to an afternoon showing alone and guess what? I wasn’t in the movie. My mother called and said, “Honey, just come home. I’ll bake you a white cake.”
Leonard Cohen has said, “Writing is a desperate activity.” I was living in an alley apartment at the time, had 21 bucks left and was trying to figure out how I’d pay my rent in two weeks time. I wrote my first script, The Kindness of Strangers, in those 14 days and gave it to my acting agents to sell. The script was never produced, but was bought — by Paramount’s Ned Tanen, who had produced The Breakfast Club and recognized my name when the script landed on his desk. I called my mother, who worked at a car factory making rubber parts, and asked for her to be pulled off the line to talk. “What happened?” she asked, panicked. “You can quit your job, mom. I’m going to buy you that house on Cedar Brook Lane.”
It was a surprise when friends recently sent me articles from Vanity Fair (an excerpt from the new book John Hughes: A Life in Film) and The New York Post saying that my Breakfast Club character was merely there to provide a gratuitous nude scene where the kids sneak out and watch me showering through a peephole. What shower scene? I don’t remember one in the script, and I never filmed one. John kept conveying that my part was meant to be the slightly older person who makes it safely to the other side of high school and shows it can be done. There was a provocative scene in the script where the principal was meant to watch me working out but that scene didn’t get shot. While I’d been waiting for an answer for years — and as a writer I understand re-writes — this version of events doesn’t click. If the filmmakers had been scouting for a “buxom” bombshell, they could’ve done better than me. And if the other female cast members felt the part was misogynistic, as a recent Vanity Fair article suggested, I never heard anything to that effect. It certainly doesn’t seem true to the character John created or conveyed to me. But if that was the reason I could’ve handled it; instead I was left to speculate. The truth may hurt but it’s always better than not knowing
As the 30th anniversary re-release of The Breakfast Club approaches, the mention of my role in the press has felt oddly validating. It’s given me permission to reflect on that time and affirms that being a part of the film wasn’t a figment of my fertile imagination. It was a beloved movie — a cult classic — and I will always wish I could’ve been a permanent part of it, but that doesn’t erase the joy of simply being cast and getting to shoot it. I never did get to see myself on screen delivering the wise speech John wrote — the speech that was meant to remind audiences that a confusing and sometimes painful period like high school ends, and then you can either leave it behind or get stuck in it forever, but I did have the opportunity to live the lesson of those words.
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