THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS MOVIE, Anthony Newley (l.), Mackenzie Astin (back), 1987, ©Atlantic Releasing Corp.

A famous poet once said:

You take the good…

You take the bad…

You take them both and there you have…the facts of life. 

And in 1986, these were the facts of life for an ambitious child actor by the name of Mackenzie Astin: He was 14 years old, he was dating a beautiful teenage actress and he had recently been promoted to series regular of a popular sitcom called—you guessed it—The Facts of Life.

Everything was going great for Mackenzie, but there was just one problem: things were going even better for his older brother, Sean, who had just finished working with Steven Spielberg and Richard Donner on a little film called The Goonies.

And so, almost as if inspired by his brother’s speech in The Goonies, Mackenzie Astin asked himself: when’s it gonna be my time? When am I gonna get to star in a blockbuster movie of my own? And, just as these feelings of sibling rivalry reached a crescendo, such an opportunity seemed to come around: The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. Wow, Mackenzie thought. A whole movie based on those cool, subversive trading cards! How could this possibly go wrong?

Well it did. In almost every single conceivable way. So I sat down with Mackenzie Astin to recount that traumatic cinematic experience and the ripples that would follow…

But first, a quick heads up: the audio version of this conversation — as well as interviews with other great folks responsible for some of the worst movies — is available in podcast form over here at Stitcher Premium. There are 10 episodes currently available and more to come in the coming weeks!

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie

Synopsis: A struggling kid (Mackenzie Astin) finds help, hilarity and occasional harm from a gross, precocious group of garbage-born dolls.    

Tagline: Out of the Garbage Pail and into Your Heart

***

Blake J. Harris: Is now still a good time to chat?

Mackenzie Astin: It’s perfect.

Blake J. Harris: Awesome. What was your day like?

Mackenzie Astin: Today’s been long, but not arduous. I took my stepmom to the airport, so I was up at 5:45 AM. Then my Dad wanted to get breakfast and then the Dodger game was starting so I never went back to sleep; so you’re getting [laughing] what my wife calls “her favorite Mack,” which is the Not-So-Much-Sleep Mack.

Blake J. Harris: I’m gonna get a loopy Mack? That’s awesome.

Mackenzie Astin: Yup. It’s loose, it’s fun and if you play Belle and Sebastian I will weep!

Blake J. Harris: Ha. Excellent. I have so many questions for you, but since you actually listened to the episode, and had an experience listening to it, tell me what it was like?

Mackenzie Astin: So my experience of listening to it? Oh man, it was just incredible. First of all, it’s funny of hell that the podcast exists; I mean, the hosts of the show are fantastic. And I don’t know [sighs] there’s something…okay, here we go! You know: film, the experience of watching film together, there’s some crazy article from 30 years ago (that I think Roger Ebert is responsible for) and he makes the point that watching film is akin to sitting around a campfire together. So it’s a communal experience and its big. So the fact that there exists now, in this day and age, an opportunity for people to have that communal experience looking at, like, the worst possible fires ever [cracking up] with smart and funny commentary…that’s a good experience, you know?

Blake J. Harris: I love that. The worst fires ever, that’s a good line. Alright, so when you first heard about what this was, a podcast that generally makes fun of bad movies, did you cringe? Were you excited to listen to it? Did you feel like you had to listen to it?

the garbage pail kids movie 1

Mackenzie Astin: Okay, so first of all: The Garbage Pail Kids Movie—in my life, for me personally—is, I think it’s fair to say, a sensitive subject. [laughs] In that it is such a stinker and such a clunker and so… how did the New York Times put it? “Stunningly inept and utterly reprehensible.” So having that be part of your childhood…it’s a little bit icky. Especially—and this is egotistically, egoistically and narcissistically—but especially as it relates to me coming from an acting family. I mean, my old man’s put out some good work, my mother’s put out some good work, my brother’s been in some pretty good films…and I come out of the box with, you know, a terrific stool sample!

Blake J. Harris: [cracks up]

Mackenzie Astin: So, you know, it has played a part in my psyche for a number of years. And so finally I got old enough to stop giving a shit; or learned to give a better shit, and appreciate it for being shit. So I was actually kind of excited to hear the episode. And honestly? For an hour and forty-five minutes, I fucking giggled and giggled and giggled. And, like, felt good about this experience that I felt bad about for a number of years. And so you guys gave me a gift…[only slightly sarcastic] y’all did some healing on this kid!

Blake J. Harris: Well despite how the movie turned out, I imagine that when you first heard about it you probably had somewhat high expectations? I mean, every kid I know was excited to see it…

Mackenzie Astin: Right. The trading cards were huge. Where they exist culturally is an interesting thing because they were a response to the Cabbage Patch Kids, which people went crazy for; I mean, parents were beating other parents up to get the last one in the store. And they were expensive too. And then Art Spiegelman and a few other guys come up with this incredible answer to that—this incredible commentary on that—and the cards were crazy, crazy popular in a counter-culture kind of way.

Blake J. Harris: Yup.

factsoflife

Mackenzie Astin: And so in 1986, this would have been between seasons 7 and 8 of The Facts of Life, on which I was working as a regular, an opportunity came up to be the star of a motion picture. And it had, as its foundation, this nifty counterculture craze. [laughs] I mean, I don’t know what was in my head!

Blake J. Harris: Well was it true—as I think Paul said during the episode—that you went to the audition without your father knowing? Was that accurate?

Mackenzie Astin: Right. So my folks were divorced. Dad was stricter so we spent more time at Mom’s. She was the president of the Screen Actor’s Guild at the time, so she was pretty busy. And I, you know, I had an agent and manager and they said hey, here’s an audition for a movie that you could film during the summer—when you’re not filming The Facts of Life—go get it! And I was like, “Alright! Let’s go get it!”

Blake J. Harris: Sure.

Mackenzie Astin: [giggling a lot] I hope you put in parenthesis how much I’m giggling before I say this but…so, the book is always better than the movie. In life. And the reason I believe that happens is because individual imaginations are more powerful, in a lot of ways, than what gets put on screen. Like when you read The Catcher in the Rye, you’re Holden Caulfield and he’s the most meaningful Holden Caulfield to you. When I read, I don’t know, Slaughterhouse-Five, my Billy Pilgrim is the most Billy Pilgrim he could ever be to me. So when I read The Garbage Pail Kids [giggles] that screenplay was a lot in my mind than what ended up being discussed on your podcast.

Blake J. Harris: [giggling]

the garbage pail kids movie 2

Mackenzie Astin: So I read it and I was like: hell yeah! I’d love to be the star of a picture during the summer. Let’s go get this thing! I had a good audition, the folks in the room found me fitting for the part. The character’s name was Dodger and I’m from Los Angeles, I’m a huge baseball fan…the stars were aligning! This was gonna be fantastic! Little did I fucking know…

Blake J. Harris: Ha!

Mackenzie Astin: And that’s the truth. My knowledge at the time was…less.

Blake J. Harris: Sure. And, I mean, if I had been your agent, I probably would have said, “Hey man, you should do this.” Maybe I should have looked a little more into the production company and what was actually being made, but on paper…

Mackenzie Astin: Yeah. So all our chips were pushed right in. Mom was tickled because her son was going to star in a movie during the summer. And Dad didn’t know dick! So the contracts were signed, it [filming] was probably a few weeks away, and Dad asked me what I was going to do. I said, “Hey Dad, I got a movie!” “What do you mean you got a movie?” “I’m starring in a movie!” So he asked to see the script. You know, this is a father looking out for his son. And I showed him the script and he was like: NOPE. You are not doing this. What do you mean? It’s great. Nope!

Blake J. Harris: [laughs]

Mackenzie Astin: Unfortunately, the contracts had already been signed. And I’m sure I fought for it, as a kid does when he doesn’t think his father knows as much as he does.

Blake J. Harris: Right.

Mackenzie Astin: Thankfully, he’s had a pretty good sense of humor about it ever since. And, you know, it only took me about 30 years to get a sense of humor about it too!

Blake J. Harris: Well, you mentioned Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, so let’s get unstuck in time for a moment and go back to the beginning for you. You come from a family of actors, so it’s not shocking for you to want to go into acting, but I’m sure to some degree it was a decision that you made and they encouraged. How did you decide that this was something that you wanted to pursue?

the facts of life

Mackenzie Astin: Sibling rivalry. [laughs] So Sean started first. He was asked to act in an ABC Afterschool Special called Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. My Mom was starring in it and Sean was to play her battered son. And a couple weeks into that production I went down to the set and I thought: this motherfucker was getting so much attention. And I was like: I want that attention!! I want that attention!!

Blake J. Harris: Ha!

Mackenzie Astin: Although I probably didn’t say it exactly like that, I asked my Mom if I could do this too. Again, my dad was historically cautious about letting us enter into this business. With good reason, obviously.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah.

Mackenzie Astin: Regardless, a little while later I got to start auditioning for stuff. I got lucky fairly quickly and ended up working on a TV show. And then [giggling] that segued into the start of a wonderful film career!

Blake J. Harris: Well how did you end up getting the Facts of Life gig?

Mackenzie Astin: Let’s see? I think I did a couple episodes of Hotel. I did a TV movie called Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal, which if you’re not from the east coast sounds a little bluer than it actually is (in fact, the “love canal” was dirtier than any movie you can get on the internet now…)

Blake J. Harris: [laughs]

Mackenzie Astin: You know, I was lucky enough to get an agent fairly easily because both my folks and my brother were in the business. The talent pool was also a lot smaller then. There were only a certain number of dudes that were the right age to go play “Andy Moffit” on the Facts of Life. So I auditioned and for whatever reason, they hired me.

Blake J. Harris: So since what inspired you was that “sibling rivalry,” what was it like during those years—during the 80s—with your brother being in bigger movies than you? Was that hard for you?

Mackenzie Astin: [cracking up] This is why I’m so glad that I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night! Because you’re gonna get the answer that’s not the showbiz answer, which is: of course it was! Back then there was a bigger chasm between television and film. And, you know, Sean had come out of the box pretty well with a film produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Richard Donner [The Goonies]. That’s a pretty good start.

the goonies

Blake J. Harris: Right.

Mackenzie Astin: So, you know…that’s a pretty good start. And then I got the TV show and was like: well, I’m the cock of the walk now! Working as a regular on a comedy! But there was an expression that went around the house (not related to The Facts of Life in particular), but it was not uncommon to hear the phrase “piece of shit sitcom.” And the older brother being the older brother was like not afraid to remind me of this; meanwhile, he’s off to go do another big movie. So come summertime, between Season 7 and 8, the opportunity to do a movie was what the little brother wanted to do. To, you know, sort of show the big brother that he could do it too.

Blake J. Harris: Yup.

Mackenzie Astin: Although the distance between The Goonies and The Garbage Pail Kids is as vast as the Andromeda Galaxy.

Blake J. Harris: Sure. But like we said: the pop-cultural (even though it was counter-cultural) thing was huge. Like I wouldn’t have been shocked if Garbage Pail Kids turned out to be an awesome movie. It could have maybe been a blockbuster under different circumstances. So when did you realize that maybe this was not gonna be the Goonies-type success? Or that it wasn’t going to be the movie that you saw in your head when you were reading that script?

Mackenzie Astin: Tough to say, tough to say. Because I think one of an actor’s most valuable assets is an ability to suspend his own disbelief. And throw himself wholly into whatever the work is. Also, as it happened, they hadn’t cast “Tangerine” [the film’s love interest] yet. So when I got the part, they asked if I knew any actresses around 15 or 16 and I was like: well, as a matter of fact…my girlfriend Katie Barberi is an actress.

Blake J. Harris: [laughing]

Mackenzie Astin: Katie and I had been dating, I don’t know, two or three months at the time. So the opportunity to work with my girlfriend? Holy cow! So Katie went in to read, they loved her and all of the sudden my girlfriend and I were going to make a motion picture!

Blake J. Harris: That’s awesome. Where’d you guys film it? Did you film in LA?

Mackenzie Astin: Yes. [sarcastically eloquent] A famous part of town called the San Fernando Valley. I think Laurel Canyon? In a bunch of warehouses (that they’d converted into stages) and that didn’t have central air. So the true heroes of the filmmaking experience were the Little People stuffed inside those costumes.

Blake J. Harris: Yeah! Talking to Kevin [Thompson], who played “Ali Gator,” I think he said that he was only 90 pounds and had to wear an 80-pound suit.

Mackenzie Astin: It was crazy. So they had all kinds of hoses hooked up to generators (with air conditioners on the outside) running hundreds of feet into this space so that as soon as the director yelled “Cut” everyone would run and get themselves as close to a hose as possible.

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