You may not know his name. But you definitely know his face and his body of work. For more than 30 years, John Kapelos has been working steadily in movies and TV, in a variety of character roles in both comedies and dramas. He’s recently had a recurring role as Picker in the acclaimed FX series “Justified,” as well as turns in “Psych,” “Modern Family,” and “Graceland.” But his most enduring character is more than likely Carl the Janitor from 1985’s “The Breakfast Club.”
As the John Hughes classic celebrates its thirtieth anniversary (yes, it’s been 30 years) with a re-release to the big screen on March 26, there’s been a flurry of activity, as the media tries to capture what “The Breakfast Club” meant to a generation that came of age during that era—and the generations afterwards, for that matter.
It may be cliché to say that movies like that don’t get made anymore, but it’s becoming glaringly obvious that statement is true. Part of it is because Hollywood won’t allow it; but just as big a part of it is because these kinds of movies, made by Hughes, John Landis, or Amy Heckerling became the standard. Instead of being viewed as signposts on the highway, they were taken to be a template. And the copies being made as the years rolled by have us playing the originals more and more.
As Kapelos and other members of the cast give interviews and do featurettes about “The Breakfast Club,” the man who wrote and directed the cinematic classic about a group of disparate students forced to spend detention together is sadly missed. Hughes passed away in 2009 of a heart attack.
Kapelos is easygoing and affable as he recalls his time on set, as well as the myriad other projects he has worked on over the years. Some of his more memorable roles include a turn on “Seinfeld” as a sniffling accountant which leads the gang to think he’s on drugs; also sandwiched around “The Breakfast Club” were two other 1980s classics written and directed by Hughes: Kapelos was in “Sixteen Candles” as the decidedly unsophisticated Rudy and he played Dino in “Weird Science.”
The London, Ontario native laughed when he was asked if he has ever come across something he’s done on TV or in a movie and totally forgot about it. But being the consummate actor, he focuses in more on the performance than a particular project.
“I’m so into doing what I do and love acting—filmmaking and the craft of it—I remember a lot of these circumstances,” Kapelos said. “When I do see something, when I do see a movie or a TV show that I’m involved with, the things that I remember are what they didn’t use, or that take—I remember all the stuff around it.”
Even now, after establishing himself as a performer who can play a wide variety of characters in both comedy and drama, he understands it’s still ultimately about whether as an actor he can deliver the goods. And a big part of that is in the audition, to be able to show what he has to offer.
“Producers just have the widest possible sets of choices,” he said about the casting process. “And you’ve always got to go in there and kick ass. This isn’t the post office. For actors like me it’s not a meritocracy. There are the odd times when I get offers or people think of me. A lot of the times they’re just like a pickup game of baseball. I can play shortstop; let me play shortstop.”
The talk soon turns to “The Breakfast Club” and what it meant to him personally as well as his career. Kapelos has fond memories of making the movie, and has a great affection for Hughes. And while some actors may resent being reminded often of something that they did 30 years ago, Kapelos doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m proud of it. I embrace it. I’ve always embraced it. I loved working with John Hughes. I loved the experience. I dug what the film gave me. It’s part of my road, you know? So that’s cool. I’m with it.”
One question that is always asked—that has to be asked, of course—is the why. Why does this movie resonate? Why does it seem that certain movies like “The Breakfast Club” stick around and become part of the vernacular?
“I’ve naturally thought about this a fair bit,” Kapelos said. “I think what happens is that people are predisposed to liking the films that they saw when they are adolescents. I have a certain soft spot for movies that were great when I was a teenager. And then you go back and revisit them and for the most part they’re shit. For the most part they didn’t age well, but there are these films that for various generations, that seem to touch a major chord, or the third rail of emotion, or whatever you want to call it. And John’s movies, first of all, were very well written, they were passionate, and they also did not condescend to the kids. When I grew up in the 1960s, there were really no movies that talked to me as an adolescent.”
Kapelos also touched on the originality factor. There was a certain freedom to Hughes’ movies, and other films of the era. Movies were a separate part of the entertainment landscape, which can be hard to understand for today’s younger audiences who are used to dialing everything up much in the same way.
“I don’t like using the term ‘politically correct’ because I think it’s been abused or disabused by all sorts of people and the politics of right or left or whatever, [but] there was kind of a freedom and an unabashed nature to his films that at times would make you wince,” he said. “Like perhaps the Long Duk Dong character in ‘16 Candles,’ and that may not be considered absolutely cool today, but I also think there was an edginess to the movies, and there’s so much safety, and people are so careful about what they say today, in the hopes that they don’t offend, that just wasn’t there.”
When it comes to remembering how he prepared for his role as Carl, Kapelos recalled several factors in the way the character came together. The group—Claire (Molly Ringwald), Andrew (Emilio Estevez), Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), Bender (Judd Nelson), and Allison (Ally Sheedy), were supposed to view the janitor as this figure they could mock, which helped to draw the lines. But there may have been more than just dramatic motivation. There was the realization that this was an important chance for his career.
“By the virtue of the fact that I was older, and my part was this and that, the janitor and sort of the loner, I utilized all of that,” Kapelos said. “I found the janitor’s room in the school, I hung out there. When I’m working, as much as I like to interact and be social with people, which I do, there’s a lot of it where there’s down time and I need to relax, sleep, and just stay focused so when I’m on camera I am totally sharp. It’s game day. I’m not there to fuck around. Also the thing is that I was really, really nervous. I really wanted to do a good job. It was a big opportunity and I didn’t want to blow it.”
In keeping with the way Kapelos remembers his roles for as much as what was taken out as was left in, he recounts how his famous “I’m the eyes and ears of this institution” monologue as being just part of what he prepared. Hughes, who was famous for shooting much more than he’d ever use on screen (quite rare in the days of actual film, due to the expense), let Kapelos improvise this long speech about where the Breakfast Club would be when they reached adulthood.
“I did about a 10 minute monologue where I told them all where they’re going to be today, 2015. Molly Ringwald (Claire), you’re going to have a Suburban, five kids, stretch marks from here to Toledo, your husband’s going to be cheating on you and you’re going to be drinking every day…(he then recounts what he more or less said to every character—ed.) We improvised all of this stuff. Basically I projected their worst fears into the future.”
And even though the speech is probably what he’s most well-known for from the movie, it was a considerably trimmed down version. Kapelos picks up the story:
“And in doing so, I told them I might be an idiot, but I know who you are. It was a fun segment to shoot, and I was really hoping that it was going to make the movie, but [the film’s editor] Dede Allen, when I showed up at the Alfred Hitchcock soundstage, to do my ADR, my looping for the movie, she put her arm around me and said, ‘When I cut Gene Hackman out of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’…and I said, ‘What do you mean when you cut Gene Hackman out of ‘Bonnie and Clyde?’ and she said, ‘You know that thing where you tell them where they’re going to be 20 years from from now? Out. That other thing…? Out. That other thing? Out.’”
Something that did make it in the final cut of the film was Carl’s line where he says that he always wanted to be John Lennon, which came from Kapelos himself. A lifelong fan of the Beatles and Lennon, it came from Kapelos’ own admiration for the slain musician and the sense of loss he felt when Lennon was murdered in 1980.
“That was my line. That was improvised,” Kapelos said. “And he [Hughes] said, ‘Well who did I want to be when I was a kid?’ And I said, ‘When I was a kid I wanted to be John Lennon.’ He said, ‘Perfect. Do it. Say it.’ That’s there. Forever. If I don’t do anything else in the movies, I’m so happy that I got to say that out loud. I don’t mean to sound like a Pollyanna here but I’m just happy for that.”
Kapelos noted that he and Hughes were of the same generation, and they bonded over things like the Beatles and Lennon, and that Hughes came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and there was that generational shift. So when those filmmakers started making movies, they used their own language and brought an entirely different feel to what ended up on the big screen.
“And I’ve gotta say, that sensibility is embedded in John Hughes’ movies,” he said. “It may not be blatant but it’s there. His movies speak to people. At their best moments, they speak to people in cultural code terms. Maybe I’m being too film history about this, because I did study film in university, but I think that shit resonates.”
There are many things that make “The Breakfast Club” worthy of a thirtieth anniversary retrospective. It remains one of John Hughes’ masterworks and captures an era without the cloying self-reverential treatment that we’ve come to expect from movies made nowadays. The casting was spot on and its simple premise and self-contained world is something everyone can relate to. When asked to sum up his feelings about the movie, there was melancholy in Kapelos’ voice that Hughes wasn’t alive to enjoy it, but you could also sense the pride in making something that has had such a lasting impact on the culture.
“I just hope that this film lasts another 30 years plus,” he said. “I’m just hoping that people who haven’t seen the movie get to see it now; and I also think it’s really important to see films on the big screen. Going to the movie theaters is a totally different experience. And I think the people that haven’t seen it on the big screen are going to be blown away by its impact. That’s the impact of the movie—when you watch it once all the way through without stopping and changing channels. And I’m filled with great sadness. I wish John was here to see this. I feel badly that he’s not. I covered the song ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ on my next album that I’m releasing, so that’s an homage to John.”