Grease 2 is better than Grease. The first movie is undeniably a cultural touchstone full of classic songs. But the sequel has better characters, including a stronger female point of view and a true dreamboat for a leading man. Actor Maxwell Caulfield made his film debut in Grease 2. His character is a gender-swapped version of Olivia Newton-John’s foreign exchange student who falls in love with one of the cool kids. But instead of changing everything about his personality for love, he gets to be both a mild-mannered nerd and a devil in skin tight leather.
To celebrate the movie’s 40th anniversary, Caulfield chats with Nerdist about Grease 2‘s legacy as a cult classic. And what is was like to play both Clark Kent and Superman.
Nerdist: Your character gets tongue-tied and asks his crush if she’s read Superman comics. Did you use Superman’s dual identities as motivation for Michael Carrington?
Maxwell Caulfield: Funnily enough, I don’t know why I should take credit for that line, but I actually can. The scene didn’t have a button to it and we were kind of scrambling. And I think they’d only put aside a certain amount of time to shoot that scene that morning. They had a big, big sequence to shoot after lunch or something. And I remember we were really in a hole. And [director] Pat Birch, God bless her, she said, “Well Maxwell, then come up with something.” And so that’s one of the reasons you see me looking a bit cross-eyed as I deliver that line. Like, “Uh, this is my best shot, take it or leave it.”
Did the costumes help you separate the two characters, mild-mannered Michael Carrington and the Cool Rider?
The dual personality, as it were. Well, I mean, it’s sort of written into the script, isn’t it? Because, you know, he dons the leather. I dropped my voice half an octave and suddenly became all sort of quasi American cause I was trying to seduce her. Stephanie Zinone was not impressed by the nerd. She wanted a guy in skin tight leather. And so, you know, I took the hint.
I mean, it’s like getting to play twins on a soap opera, you know? We all relish it. As actors, you love the opportunity to show off and hopefully show your versatility. It was fun, particularly getting on that motorbike that I supposedly had built myself. All of that just played right into my James Dean fantasies. Let’s put it that way. Marlon Brando, James Dean fantasies.
How much motorcycle riding did you get to do for the film?
I did a little bit. It didn’t help on the first day that I was showing off and crashed the dirt bike into a chain link fence on the outfield. The stunt coordinator said, “Okay. All right. This hot head, we better make sure we choose what he does on top of that bike carefully.” But seriously, the guy who did the big jump at the end of the movie was the guy who sometimes subbed for Evel Knievel. Gary Davis, he was amazing. That big jump at the end, Gary actually overshot it.
The first time he jumped, he went so high and so far that he went out of camera range. And they had about eight cameras rolling at the time. And none of them got it because Gary just went so far into that night sky. I think he was showing off. In fact, I know he was showing off. I know he was just showing how far he could actually make it go if he wanted to.
What was the casting process like for you?
Funnily enough, I got my break in New York playing a character in black leather jeans. So there was a nice synchronicity there. Yeah. I think [producers] Allan Carr and Robert Stigwood, I think they saw I could wear black leather jeans. So that helped. I still don’t know. I know I couldn’t sing as well as the other candidates. Some of whom had, you know, real top 10 singles and huge fan followings. I was frankly amazed that I got the part. I beat out a whole bunch of genuine teen idols for it and was in a film that 40 years later people are still talking about. So that’s something. It’s nice to have made a film that stood the test of time, even though it got lambasted.
Well, you had a lot of competition that summer. Grease 2 came out the same day as E.T. and only a week after Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Poltergeist.
Yeah, I know. Little did we know. ’82 was a really standout year for films. It’s one of the reasons we got clobbered at the box office, the competition was too thick.
Which Grease 2 song gets stuck in your head?
You know, the best song in the movie as far as I’m concerned, is “Prowlin.’” I hear they’re making a TV series called The Rise of the Pink Ladies. I’m curious to see how that comes out. Good luck to the young actors who are lucky enough to land the roles. I hope that Grease launches their careers. Grease is a great brand. American high school, it’s the coolest of the cool, from the fifties and early sixties. I mean, the fifties was actually a very repressive time for adolescents, but boy, did they make up for it in the sixties. And that’s just what our movie’s about. It’s about the kickstart of that whole swinging sixties.
On a non-Grease related note, do you celebrate Rex Manning Day the way many people do on April 8?
I marvel at it. But actually, of course, it’s not so much a celebration of the character of Rex Manning. It’s a celebration of Empire Records, the movie. The kids just love that movie. They love that soundtrack. On some level, I’m definitely realizing some fantasies. You know, you get into this business to achieve a certain notoriety and immortality. But I hope it’s not what’s written on my gravestone, let’s put it that way. “Here lies Rex Manning.”
What’s a favorite memory from filming Grease 2?
It was obviously just a fabulous time for all of the actors involved. We were so excited to be in such a high profile movie. And with such a fun script and really great tunes. And some of the holdovers from the original, they brought their experience and their authenticity to it. I was playing a kind of fish out of water anyway. So it was just fun for me to just watch it all going off around me. All I had to do in that movie was react, including to Michelle Pfeiffer’s beauty. It wasn’t very hard.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She is also celebrating her 40th anniversary this year. Melissa also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.