Back in the spotlight
With four decades’ experience in film and TV as both an actor and a director, Lea Thompson tells DQ about taking a leading role in Canadian mystery series The Spencer Sisters, her work behind the camera and the legacy of her star-making part in Back to the Future.
While Lea Thompson is best known as an actor – and one of the stars of the iconic Back to the Future film trilogy – she has spent the last decade racking up directing credits on shows such as Star Trek: Picard, The Goldbergs and Stargirl.
In fact, when she speaks to DQ from Vancouver, Thompson has just wrapped a very wet, late-night shoot for an upcoming episode from the third season of Resident Alien, a sci-fi dramedy airing on Syfy in the US. She also shot two episodes of the show’s second season last year.
“It’s a really great show, funny and beautiful,” she says. “It just so happened I’m in Vancouver and it rains all the time and we were outside doing a whole stunt sequence. It was raining and I was screaming over machines while we were doing wire work. It was a really fun night, but a long one.”
She has also recently directed an episode of Will Trent, a crime drama based on Karin Slaughter’s series of novels about a special agent in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who grew up in the state’s foster care system. But right now, Thompson is revelling in the fact she’s back in front of the camera once again, taking the lead in Canadian mystery series The Spencer Sisters.
“It was so much fun to go back to acting and play such a funny character in such a delightful show. I had a great time,” she says. “I’m a big fan of British TV – my sister and I are freaks for all the shows, so we watch them together, and this show felt like that to me. It has wit and humour and mystery – and an older lady! I really enjoyed acting again and doing a series again. It’s fun to go back and forth.”
Launching last month on CTV in Canada, the light-hearted procedural centres on hot-headed former police officer Darby Spencer (played by Stacey Farber) and her estranged, bestselling mystery novelist mother, Victoria Spencer (Thompson). After impetuously quitting her police job and discovering her boyfriend is cheating on her, Darby is forced to return home, where the chance to help a friend with a problem leads her to team up with her charismatic mother and solve the case.
From the outset, The Spencer Sisters has a brightness and pace to it that makes it an irresistible watch – one that is heightened by the sparks that fly once Victoria and Darby are brought back together, having grown apart when Victoria disapproved of Darby’s decision to join the police force following the death of her husband, Darby’s idolised father, in the line of duty.
“They’re estranged and the mother doesn’t think it’s her fault,” Thompson says of the mother-daughter dynamics at play during the series. “What’s fun about this show too is it’s about the person who you love the most but is also the one who installed your buttons and knows how to push them. I know this about my own relationship with my mother and with my daughters.
“In order to support her family, Victoria started writing these soapy crime novels and they miraculously became very popular. But she changed in front of her daughter and became this fabulous person. Her daughter really resented that and followed in her father’s footsteps and became a much more practical person away from the limelight.”
When Darby returns home, Victoria is delighted and soon concocts a way for them to spend more time together by establishing a detective agency called The Spencer Sisters – which gets its name after Victoria and Darby are told they could pass for siblings. “Darby hates that because of course we’re not sisters and we don’t look like sisters. But I’m so vain I think we look like sisters,” the actor says of her character. “And that’s the joke. We both kept saying, ‘Are they going to change the name?’ Nope, they never did.”
Having previously starred in series such as Switched at Birth, Caroline in the City and a host of TV movies, Thompson says picking her next small-screen role was about finding a character she would be happy to play for a few years “or a hundred episodes.”
“They’re not making that many movies anymore so it’s nice to do TV because it’s a longer job, a higher-paying job, and it’s a chance to be part of a family for a longer period of time,” she says. “When you make a small movie, it’s one and done. It’s nice to be with a group for a while and really settle in and become a family. I like that a lot.”
Working on The Spencer Sisters is truly a family affair, and Thompson says she and Farber found an instant connection that runs through the 10-part series.
“It was really easy to rehearse with her, to make mistakes with her,” she says. “You’re pretty vulnerable when you’re working this hard because sometimes your brain doesn’t work or you mess up. Sometimes you’re tired or sad because of your life, so it’s really nice to have a partner in crime where you both trust each other and catch each other. I just love her – my daughters are a bit younger than her so because I missed them, I got to have a daughter on set, which was really nice.”
When it came to playing Victoria, “I love being a sassy old woman,” jokes Thompson. “Feisty, sassy, overly honest – all those things are funny to me. It’s not exactly how I am, but it’s a little how I am.”
As well as being drawn to the character, Thompson was also attracted by the chance to star in a mystery series in which the Spencers investigate a college student’s expulsion, a case of drowning and corporate espionage in the first few episodes.
Having starred in a number of detective procedural movies, most notably Hallmark Channel’s Jane Doe mysteries, Thompson understands the popularity of the format, which allows viewers at home to play along with the on-screen sleuths in an attempt to solve the case. Filming The Spencer Sisters was just as fun, although the actor’s role came with added “nails, hair, spanx, lashes and tight clothes.”
“Sometimes when you get a script as an actor or a director on a series, it’s like a Christmas present – you get it, open it up and it’s, ‘What’s inside? What fun things do we get to do or say this week?’ That’s delightful and I definitely felt like that about our show,” she says. “The arc of our characters is always going to be that we love each other but we drive each other crazy. That’s the unanswerable question: is it possible to be friends with your parents? Is it possible to work with your mother? Is it possible to live with your parents and have it be peaceful? Those are the fun questions we pose every week along with a mystery, which is always fun for people to try to outsmart us and figure it out before we get there.”
Thompson also believes mystery series such as The Spencer Sisters – which is produced by Buffalo Gal Pictures and Entertainment One, which also distributes – can offer respite to those watching at home against a backdrop of calamitous world events, not least the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
“There’s so much for all of us to deal with right now and it’s nice for us to put something into the world that you can watch, enjoy and laugh with, get a little involved in and forget about your troubles,” she says. “I really didn’t think about how important that was until I was locked in my house during Covid. It sounds stupid, because I’ve spent my entire life in the entertainment business, but I finally realised why it’s so important to give people a place to turn off their brain, because the world’s wacky and we know so much about it all the time. We’re swiping through our phones and Instagram Stories and TikToks – there’s just so much information. It’s lovely just to spend some time with nice people on TV.”
Thompson is now hoping The Spencer Sisters will return to solve more mysteries, while she also has several features in the works. “I’d like to direct a feature again,” she adds. “The episodic work comes to me now because I’ve done so much of it, but right now I’m really excited about going on holiday.”
Those holiday plans with her director husband Howard Deutsch include a trip to Scotland and a journey south to London, where she hopes to take in the Back to the Future musical for the first time. In fact, Thompson recently reunited with her Back to the Future co-stars Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Tom Wilson at Fan Expo Portland, and she describes the still-beloved film trilogy as “the gift that keeps on giving.”
“It’s lovely to have been part of an important part of someone’s life, especially when someone is like, ‘I had surgery when I was kid and watched that movie and it made me happy,’ or ‘I lost my parents and when I did I watched the movie.’ To be part of someone’s past like that and to have been part of cheering them up is an indescribable honour and I feel really happy to be known for a part that was not only a great part but it was a great movie,” Thompson says.
“Some people are known for Friday the 13th or whatever, but Back to the Future was really a movie that showcased my acting and my comedic skills and my range as an actress. It’s just so lovely.”
Not everyone recognises Thompson from her role as Marty McFly’s mother Lorraine, however. “The other day I was sitting on a diner set where we were shooting, and this lovely SFX guy was just quoting Back to the Future,” she recalls. “It was so funny – he remembered all the lines and I was like, ‘That’s so funny. Do you have any idea I was in Back to the Future?’ Then he went, ‘Oh my God, Lorraine McFly!’”