In high school one of my favorite things to do was go to a teen nightclub called Tommy’s. James was my only friend who could drive, and because we lived in the same south Phoenix neighborhood, he would pick me up first in his dad’s white Bonneville, which had blood-red upholstery. By the time we we got to Tommy’s, five of us were jammed into the backseat with another four up front, the car so weighed down that we had to lean forward all at once to keep its tail end from scraping the curb in the parking lot. Inside, we danced frenetically to “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash then surrendered to the melancholia of Morrissey singing “How Soon is Now?” To cure cottonmouth and the munchies we’d visit the snack bar for pop and overpriced frozen pizza.
On school nights we hung out at the abandoned railroad bridge that crossed the dry bed of the Salt River in downtown Tempe, or at the library, or in my friend Jenny’s bedroom smoking Marlboro Reds out the window. Once, we took a picnic to Sky Harbor Airport’s Terminal 3 — it was the ’80s; you could walk right up to the gate without going through security. We spread a sheet on the floor, and had Jack-in-the-Box tacos and Cokes while watching planes take off and land. I liked to imagine where the passengers were going. What I couldn’t imagine was why anyone would want to come to Arizona. In the summer it was hot as hell. Nothing exciting ever happened.
Then, in the winter of 1987, when I was 15, something did. It was my mother who found out about it first, from an ad in a Pennysaver circular. A movie called Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure would soon begin shooting in the Valley of the Sun. It was going to be a comedy about a pair of dopey high school students who use a magical phone booth to travel back in time in a desperate attempt to pass their history final and thus avoid expulsion and a transfer to an Alaskan military academy. (I could totally relate, having flunked freshman algebra just a few months earlier.) A society 700 years in the future that’s based on the music of the duo’s band, Wyld Stallyns, depends on their success or failure. Producers were looking to cast extras.
The star was named Keanu Reeves. He was a floppy-haired 22-year-old from Toronto who’d been in a handful of CBC television productions and had had a small role in Dangerous Liaisons and a larger one in River’s Edge. George Carlin was Rufus, an emissary from the year 2688 who appears before the boys at a Circle K convenience store. I was a little disappointed — where were the real movie stars?
I was excited about Jane Wiedlin, guitar player for the Go-Go’s, who was playing Joan of Arc. For my 12th birthday, I’d received the band’s second album, Vacation, as a gift. The jacket featured the quintet in pink swimsuits, white tutus, and tiaras, doing a synchronized water-ski routine. As part of their effort to collect historical figures for their last-chance oral report, Bill and Ted pack Joan into the phone booth and zap her six and a half centuries into the future, from medieval France to their hometown of San Dimas, Calif.
For the casting call, my mother picked me and my younger sister Jasper up at our schools and drove us in her 1971 Volkswagen van to a cheap motel in Phoenix, one of those places laid out in horseshoe formation around a swimming pool. My stepsister Danielle was 9 and uninterested, and my half brother, Evan, 5, was too young to participate, so the two of them stayed home under the dubious watch of my stepdad, a part-time construction worker with a full-time reliance on Coors beer and Camel cigarettes.
The production office was on the second floor. It seemed kind of sketchy, but the door was open when we arrived, and the heavy window treatments had been drawn back to let in natural light. An assistant handed my mother a clipboard with forms to fill out, then we took turns standing against one of the room’s white walls so another crew member could take Polaroids. My mother had done a modeling job for a local boutique called The Company when she was 16 — just two years before I was born — and she struck for this headshot the same demure pose she’d used in a print ad for poster dresses, a series of mini A-line shifts emblazoned with oversize black-and-white photographs. Her dress — the “Pussy Cat” — had on it an image of a tabby. All three of us got the gig.
When we showed up on set the following week at Metrocenter Mall, off the Black Canyon freeway, the casting director was annoyed. “Why did you cut your hair?” she asked. After landing the job my mother had made a family salon appointment so we’d look our best on camera. For reasons I cannot explain, I’d decided to forego my crimped asymmetrical bob in favor of a cut that made me look like Little Lord Fauntleroy. Jasper’s hair, chin-length in the Polaroid, was now short on the sides, her bangs sprayed with Aqua Net and teased into a fan. My mother had a mullet.
In spite of our altered appearance we were kept on, and my sister and I were allowed to skip school in favor of three overnights at the mall, for which we were given $40 cash at the end of each 12-hour shoot and unlimited access to highly caffeinated Jolt Cola, the Red Bull of its time.
We were at Metrocenter from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. Much of that was down time. Box lunches were served at 1 o’clock in the morning. To pass the hours, we played word association games, the kind that families engage in while on road trips, where the last part of each word or phrase informs the next player’s response. For example:
This could only go on for so long. One night, tired, having developed a tolerance for Jolt, we rested in the aisle of Musicland, across from CPI Photo Finish and the clothing retailer, County Seat. Our little sleeping nook was bounded by bins of vinyl LPs. Electric guitars hung from hooks on the walls. We were soon uprooted. The store was needed for a scene with Ludwig van Beethoven, the first syllable pronounced by Bill and Ted to rhyme with “beef.” Snatched by the boys from 19th-century Germany, he draws a crowd when he unleashes his talent on an assemblage of organs and Yamaha synthesizers.
One night Jasper and I shot a crowd scene. It required us to walk from one side of an escalator bank to the other while Keanu, as Ted “Theodore” Logan, and co-star Alex Winter, as Bill S. Preston, Esq., rode the staircase to the mall’s upper level, escorting the historical figures. “This is the San Dimas Mall, and this is where people of today’s world hang out,” Bill explained. With him was Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Sigmund Freud (Frood), Socrates (Sew-crates), Billy the Kid, and Genghis Khan. (In the movie, Napoleon’s AWOL; instead of being at the mall with his counterparts he’s at a water park called, well, Waterloo.)
Keanu took up the rear. As he alighted the escalator the director called “cut.” This landed him 5 feet from me. While awaiting instructions, we made eye contact. Keanu smiled. I smiled back. For days, I’d seen him in the same outfit: a black vest over a Van Halen 5150 T-shirt, knee-length shorts, and a faded red denim jacket tied around his waist. He’s cute, I thought to myself. I hadn’t noticed before, but I now saw he was pigeon-toed.
Jasper did a scene in the food court. The script called for Keanu to deliver to the historical figures a tray of red and blue Slushies as they sat at a table in front of New Jade Chinese Food. In between takes he chitchatted with Jasper. He asked how old she was and what grade she was in (11, sixth, student council president), and if she was missing school to be on set (yes, orchestra practice too), and he wanted to know if she was having a good time (she was). She used a small notepad to start an autograph collection. On the back of the paper signed “To Jasper — XOXO! Jane Wiedlin,” my sister made a note about something the two of them had in common: “She is left-handed.” When the mall shoot ended she used the $120 cash she earned for three days work to shop for new clothes. The class bully had been teasing her for wearing the same hand-me-down shorts on alternating weekdays, and now she could do something about it.
For a few days, Bill & Ted’s filmed at Coronado High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. It was a daytime shoot. Only teenagers were needed. Cut loose from my mom and sister, I lolled around on a Mexican blanket spread out on the grass with my friend Orlando. He and I were new friends, having met a few months earlier in summer school after we’d both gotten failing grades, the very fate the film’s main characters were seeking to avoid. (My F in freshman algebra was largely the result of cutting class; Orlando, more dedicated to skateboarding than his junior-year course load, had managed to tank worse than I had.) We passed the time taking photos of one another and listening to a small tape deck that we kept loaded with cassettes by Bauhaus, the Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
When we weren’t listening to music, I pulled from my purple knapsack a small hardbound edition of Franny & Zooey, about two precocious New York City siblings. Lying on my back, dressed in a long-sleeve red polo shirt, turquoise Converse high-tops, and vintage long johns that I’d purchased at St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop, probably while ditching math, I read, using the book to shield my eyes from the high western sun.
I’d venture to guess it was my geek-chic ensemble that led some sharp-eyed casting professional to select me for a nonspeaking scene that we shot in the quad. With the camera trained on me, I ran with and dramatically dropped on cue a 2-foot-tall stack of textbooks. I did that scene over and over again. And while my star turn didn’t make it into the movie, the books did. Keanu carries them in one of its early scenes.
Shooting in the auditorium was like being at a pep rally, though I can’t really say that with complete authority because at my high school I ducked out of those too. Hundreds of teenagers filled the seats while actors took the stage as students delivering their oral reports. We cheered vigorously when it was demanded of us, especially when Bill and Ted came through at the last minute with a most triumphant presentation. The room went dark and spotlights circled, and Keanu addressed the audience:
“Hello, San Dimas. Please welcome, for the final report of the afternoon, from all throughout history, some of the greatest people who have ever lived, in their 1988 world tour.”
In the final cut, my friend Orlando’s face, wild with excitement, is clearly visible in the shot.
In my three days at Coronado I got to know a couple people on the crew. One was a production assistant named Bill. He was tall and skinny and 25, and chronically unemployed. His band, which he described as schizophrenic country funk, had just broken up. The other was a stand-in named Larry, in town from Los Angeles for Bill & Ted’s. He was in his forties, a smoker with a paunch and a wavy crown of thinning hair the color of hay. One night Larry and I posed for a picture together in front of a production van. I have one hand on my hip and another on Larry’s back. Our heads are tilted inward and they touch. He’d nicknamed me Angel Eyes.
When shooting wrapped, Bill and I began to spend time together. I still wasn’t old enough to drive, so he picked me up from my house in a rusty red 1969 VW bug with a doll’s head attached to the gearshift, a Barbie leg sticking out of the tape deck, and a small glow-in-the-dark triceratops epoxied to the dash. My mother was unfazed by our 10-year age difference. “Oh, that Bill. From the movie,” she said when I told her he was coming to get me. We went to a head shop in downtown Tempe, near Arizona State University, called Happy Trails, where we took pictures in the photo booth. My smile revealed a retainer. After that, we visited a secondhand bookstore called Changing Hands where he bought me a paperback copy of On the Road for $1.75. On the inside cover, opposite the penciled-in price, I wrote my full name in bubbly cursive, and the date: 4/87.
Toward the end of that month I took an 80-minute flight to L.A. My friend Jenny and I had convinced her parents that it was a good idea to send us there to celebrate her 16th birthday. They did not know this, but we’d made a plan with Larry to pick us up from LAX. He drove a beat-up delivery van with only one passenger seat, so Jenny and I sat in the back as Larry drove us to our hotel, the Holiday Inn on Hollywood and Highland. He walked us to our room, carrying with him a welcome gift: a Playmate cooler filled with ice and a four-pack of strawberry-flavored Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. He left soon after. A couple years later he would sent me a letter on yellow legal paper: “So, what are you now, a senior? Have you thought about a little vacation to L.A. again?”
The next day Jenny and I took pictures of the Hollywood sign, then went to Grauman’s Chinese Theater where we pressed our hands into impressions left in concrete by John Travolta and stepped into the footprints of James Mason. We took a city bus to Venice Beach. We used driftwood to write and photograph a message in the sand for her mom and dad: “Thank you!” After the sun had set, I called Larry from a pay phone and he came to pick us up. He stopped for a hitchhiker on our way back to the hotel. “I swallowed the rock,” she said as she climbed into the bucket seat up front and immediately began to tell us how her crack-smoking session had gone awry.
In June, I went to the east coast to stay with my Aunt Linda, my mother’s oldest sister, in Delaware. She’d booked an itinerary that landed me at JFK. I’d never been to New York City and she wanted me to see it. After Bill had turned me on to Jack Kerouac I’d moved on to Burroughs and Ginsberg. I asked to go to the East Village. But after meeting me at the airport and pointing her Subaru station wagon toward Manhattan, the only place she would let me out of the car was South Street Seaport. We visited the Strand Book Annex on Front Street and a Banana Republic, then a purveyor of safari gear.
The rest of the tour was spent in transit. “Keep the windows rolled up and the doors locked at all times,” Aunt Linda instructed as we drove north on Madison Avenue. We got stuck in the middle of a busy intersection and were honked at mercilessly. A driver wishing to travel east leaned out of his window. “Lady, you’re blocking the box,” he yelled. When the light turned green and we began moving, I noticed to my left a ribbon of unspooled cassette tape tangled in the branches of a small tree, glinting in the sun. It was at that moment, I think, that I fell in love with the possibility of New York. I thought to myself, This is where I’m going to live.
Two years later, on Feb. 17, 1989, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was released. I was 17. In a review, the Washington Post called the film a “dilapidated comedy” and described its stars as “frisky and companionable, like unkempt ponies.” Budgeted for $10 million, the movie took in $6,167,651 on opening weekend. It went on to gross more than $40 million. Teens drove box office sales for Bill & Ted’s, and propagated the film’s stoner lexicon: “Party on, dude!”; “Be excellent to each other.”
By this time I’d graduated, a semester early, having completed summer school coursework not to make up for failing grades, like I’d done as a freshman, but in order to fulfill the one course that would have kept me at Tempe High all year: senior English. My teacher was especially proud of the review I’d written of an all-ages show put on by local punk heroes, the Meat Puppets. That fall, I’d applied to four colleges: three state schools in Arizona and a small liberal arts college in Greenwich Village. I was accepted to all of them. I chose the latter. To save money to pay for a semester in the dorm and a one-way ticket, I worked full time at Subway, the sandwich shop, and in between slicing pepperoni, salami, and bologna for the BMT sub and mixing institutional-size tins of tuna and mayonnaise, I studied the shop’s wallpaper, a stylized map of the New York City transit system. Six months after Bill & Ted’s came out I moved from Phoenix to New York City. I haven’t left.
I don’t recall seeing Bill & Ted’s in a theater, though I must have. I think I might have felt a little too cool at that point in my life to care, although maybe it was just the opposite, that I didn’t feel cool enough, and being in a teen movie with my mulleted mom and kid sister kind of went against the image I was cultivating. Here it should be noted that Jasper was in the eighth grade when Bill & Ted’s came out, and she told everyone she was in it. Some kids flat-out didn’t believe her. Others thought it was super cool. Now a quarter century after the film’s release, I feel a little more like Jasper did then. The movie’s a pop culture phenomenon. It spawned a sequel, a breakfast cereal, and an animated TV series.
It is also ironic, if not hopelessly corny, that Bill & Ted’s is a movie about time travel that sends me on a journey into personal history, landing me smack in that particular place — a city I so desperately wanted to leave — and in that particular time, at that particular age. I am nostalgic when I watch it. Napoleon’s Waterloo? It’s the water park near the Hilton Hotel, in Mesa, where I went to my junior prom dressed in black with Jenny and James, our Tommy’s chauffeur. That 20-second scene about an hour into the movie, where Bill and Ted lead the historical figures up the escalator? I can easily spot myself and Jasper in it as we round the corner past Dolci’s shoe store, with our bad haircuts and my poor posture. The Circle K that figures so prominently in the picture, as the embarkation point for Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure? It’s on Southern and Hardy, about three miles from the house I grew up in and where my mother still lives.
There’s been speculation about a third Bill & Ted’s movie. This past December, while promoting 47 Ronin on the Today show, Keanu said, “I’m open to the idea. I think it’s pretty surreal, playing Bill and Ted at 50. But we have a good story in that. You can see the life and joy in those characters, and I think the world can always use some life and joy.”
In the weeks before that interview, I went on Twitter to see if Keanu might be shooting anything in the city. He was — an action film with Willem Dafoe called John Wick in which he plays a former hit man pursued by a contract killer. A posting on Backstage.com said that extras were needed for exterior shots at a Manhattan nightclub. The pay: $148 for an eight-hour shift, plus overtime. Background actors were instructed to wear “fabulous” coats and advised that slim fitting black leather was most appropriate.
I was intrigued. I have a fabulous coat and black leather in my wardrobe, and so I considered emailing a photo to the casting agency. I envisioned introducing myself to Keanu and falling into an easy conversation where we reminisced about that time in our lives, 27 years ago. Did he recognize me? Did he remember taking photos with my friend Bill after shooting the Domed City of the Future sequence? Did he recall hanging out on the steps of his Winnebago, picking at his guitar, wearing combat boots and a knee-length skirt? (Evidently, the transportation coordinator had initiated the skirt trend and soon several male members of the cast and crew, including Keanu, started wearing them too.) My reverie didn’t last long: I reread the posting and saw that the specified age range was 18 to 33.