On July 5, 1989, a film was released that would change the face of American cinema forever. A masterpiece of vibrant visuals and magnificently understated performances by actors at the peak of their profession, the film is a relentless takedown of the superficiality and greed of the 1980s, all told through the eyes of a pair of outsiders who are drawn into a harrowing life-and-death affair beyond their control.
That film is Weekend at Bernie’s, and this weekend, the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of this cinematic gem.
The female lead in the film is Catherine Mary Stewart, who brought her signature sweetness and charm to the role of Gwen Saunders, the love interest of Jonathan Silverman. A veteran of stage and screen, Stewart was raised in Edmonton and moved to London to study dance at the age of 18. In 1979, she landed a role in The Apple, a futuristic rock musical that, in the years since its release, has acquired a substantial cult following.
After a stint on Days of our Lives, Stewart was catapulted into the spotlight in 1984 with roles in The Last Starfighter and Night of the Comet. In all, Stewart has appeared in over 50 feature films and has made scores of television appearances, from TV movies, mini-series to episodic. She currently resides in Manhattan.
I grew up in an academic household. My father was a PhD. in Biology and lead the U of A department of Zoology in Edmonton, Alberta where I grew up. My mother held a Masters in Physiology and taught on and off over the years at the university along with holding our household together and other activities she was involved in. I have two older brothers, both of whom excelled in school. I was more of a dreamer and didn’t necessarily fit into the traditional role as a high achieving academic. I loved to sing and pretend. I attempted to “entertain” close friends and family. It was my mother who encouraged me to take drama in junior high school. I thought she was crazy because I’m basically very shy and could not imagine performing in front of a class let alone a full audience. I’m not sure how she convinced me to try it out, but she did and I LOVED it!
My mother then talked me into taking a jazz dance class. I think there was some blackmail involved, but I ended up going to a class and found that I took to it quickly and quite naturally. In terms of performing, dance is my first love. In fact, dance is the path that lead me to professional acting. I was in London, England studying dance and general performing arts. An audition came up for dancers for a movie musical. My dance teacher and mentor from Edmonton, Jill MacDonald, had encouraged me to audition as much as possible while in London, so when this came up out of the blue, I skipped class and went for it. That movie was The Apple. I ended up being asked to audition for the lead female role and booked it. My professional acting career began.
How did your role in Weekend at Bernie’s come about? And what were your thoughts upon first reading the script?
I auditioned with Jonathan Silverman — who was already cast — for Ted Kotcheff, the director. I remember reading with Jonathan in an office in front of Ted. They were both wonderful. I was cast immediately after that meeting.
When I initially read the script, I was aghast at the scene where poor dead Bernie was being dragged behind a speed boat and bouncing off buoys creating a loud CLANG! I thought to myself, “Who on earth would find that funny??” Boy, did I miss the boat on that one, no pun intended… Well, OK, a bit of a pun intended…
What are your fondest memories about your time on the Weekend at Bernie’s set?
In general, it was a pretty fun set. Given the theme, we were encouraged to be spontaneous and have a good time. In the scene where Larry and Richard first discover dead Bernie at his beach house, they did the scene with the alive Terry Kiser playing dead and holding his breath. (For certain scenes a dummy was used.) When the dialogue was finished and the scene complete, Ted the director kept the camera rolling and didn’t say “cut.” Poor Terry stayed in character as a dead guy, holding his breath until he couldn’t bear it anymore. Everyone thought that was pretty funny.
The cast spent time together on and off the set. One time, Don Calfa, (Paulie) organized a barbeque where he roasted a suckling pig. He is quite the chef. It was unbelievable! The locations of New York and North Carolina (for the Hamptons), were pretty great. It was a great experience and it’s pretty cool to be involved with a movie that’s referenced on different shows. It’s become an iconic ’80s comedy.
As an actor, how do you prepare for a role?
Every actor has their own technique. I try to embrace and embody the character in my own personal way. It’s important to know your character inside and out and how it relates to the other characters and the story itself. Once you are in front of the camera, trust your instincts.
In your opinion, what is it about Weekend at Bernie’s that resonates with fans to this day?
I think every new generation of young adults that are going through that desperate transition from school to real life can relate to it. I also think this demographic shares a specific sense of humor. Another element that keeps the movie alive is that those who saw it originally share it with the next generation.
What’s the last great movie you saw?
I’m a big fan of foreign movies. The Indian movie The Lunchbox with Irrfan Khan from Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire is one of the most wonderful movies I’ve seen recently.
If you could star on any current television show, which one would you choose?
I have a secret desire to be on Dancing with the Stars, because of my background in dance. I know, collective groan… I just wonder if I could survive it. But right now there is so much incredible television. I love Orange is the New Black, Fargo and Modern Family. The online streaming series are a whole new frontier of quality programming.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
When I was pregnant with my daughter, EVERYTHING was the best meal ever. I was in an airport with my husband and I hadn’t eaten for awhile. I was STARVING!!!!… in a pregnancy way. We ordered a hamburger. My husband said it was a pretty nasty airport burger, but it was the best thing I had EVER eaten.
For you, what was the most rewarding aspect of having children?
My son enters his freshman year of college this year and my daughter enters her senior year of college. They are engaging, thoughtful, sensitive, independent, responsible, opinionated young adults. I burst with pride every day.
If you could offer one piece of advice to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?
Believe in yourself completely and be proud of what a unique human being you are with unique perspectives to offer. Set goals and move towards them in a comprehensive way. Whatever challenges you take on, take them seriously and see them through 110%. Don’t spend time with those who don’t believe in you. Don’t believe those who tell you you can’t…
What are you working on next?
I have a couple of independent movies in the pipeline. The last movie I did is called Hero of the Underworld. It’s in post-production. I plan to direct a film in the fall. I also have a couple of projects in the development stage that I plan to direct and produce. I’m very interested in directing and producing along with acting.