Rebecca De Mornay Reflects on 40 Years of ‘Risky Business’ and Being a Hollywood Sex Symbol

The actress tells TheWrap about her big break and why she was never afraid of being labeled “difficult”

Rebecca De Mornay
Rebecca De Mornay (CREDIT: Everett Collection)

In 1983, audiences watched Tom Cruise dance in his parents’ living room in Paul Brickman’s adolescent drama “Risky Business.” The film became a cultural touchstone — with Cruise’s dance often imitated but never duplicated — that has endured for 40 years. Cruise took that success and has now become the biggest, if not the last, global movie star. But when this author watches “Risky Business,” it’s the story of Lana, the teenage sex worker who propels Cruise’s Joel on his quest towards running a brothel, that sticks out.

Actress Rebecca De Mornay was in her early twenties when she made “Risky Business” and has never truly gotten her flowers for it. It’s even more frustrating to consider that the actress went on to star in hits in her own right, including the 1992 thriller “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and Disney’s 1993 adaptation of “The Three Musketeers.” De Mornay wasn’t just beautiful; her performances were often intense, calculating, yet always relatable. When she starred in a film, she committed.

But that commitment, initially, took time. “I had never thought about being an actress,” De Mornay told TheWrap during a recent interview pegged to the “Risky Business” anniversary. “I wanted to be a horseback rider as a child, then a pop star.” She certainly watched a lot of movies, appreciating the work of Audrey Hepburn and ’70s films like “Harold and Maude” and “Don’t Look Now.”

She started writing songs around 13, eventually recording and performing in clubs in Munich and London. She then decided she wanted to be a psychiatrist, though left medical school after a day when a real corpse was presented to the students for an autopsy. Upon returning to the States, De Mornay was trying to figure out what to do with her life when a chance walk down Santa Monica Boulevard brought her to the Lee Strasberg Institute.

“[I] walked in and saw Marlon Brando’s picture on the wall, and Jane Fonda, and Al Pacino and Marilyn Monroe,” she said. During her audition to be admitted into the Institute, De Mornay was asked, “Why do you want to be an actress?” “I still, to this day, don’t know why — I guess just pure intuition — I said, ‘I don’t want to be an actress, I need to be an actress.’ And that turned out to be true,” De Mornay said.

From that moment, De Mornay’s career seems bound by intuition, fate or good timing. Case in point, getting the role in “Risky Business.” Despite never having acted before, prior to reading the script De Mornay had gotten the lead in a film set to be directed by Tony Scott only to see it fall apart. Then she was offered a supporting part in another film which she lost to another actress.

“As fate would have it, if I’d gotten that movie I would have been unavailable for ‘Risky Business,’” she said. It wasn’t until friend Harry Dean Stanton was reading the script (he was initially considering the part of Guido, “the killer pimp,” who would be played in the movie by Joe Pantoliano) that De Mornay gave it a look.

“I understood the part of Lana so well,” she said. “I’ve lived by myself as a young, young, 19-year-old in London, fending for myself. [I’ve] gone through a lot in my life in terms of upheaval and family stuff, and suddenly there was a part that just fit me like a glove, that I knew.” Lana was the “soul of the movie,” according to De Mornay and that’s true. In a film all about capitalism, and one privileged man’s attempt to make his own way — De Mornay’s Lana is the one actually struggling through the Reagan-era ’80s.

“I wanted to maintain her dignity, regardless if she’s having sex for money. She maintained some source of integrity and soul,” she said. “I wanted to present the underdog who was reduced to having to be a prostitute, exploited in our capitalist system, trying to get by as best she could without the cushion of having a family of money and connections.” Director Paul Brickman auditioned 400 women throughout America and Europe, and despite being pressured to cast a name, De Mornay said, he lobbied for her and got her cast.

De Mornay said she wasn’t surprised at all that the movie became successful. “I thought it was going to be a big hit,” she said. But she didn’t realize how rare the film’s cultural cache and success would become, considering it was her first film. At just 24, De Mornay wasn’t only the leading lady in a movie that would define the era. She also was one-half of a power couple alongside Cruise, who she would date for two years. “It was personally jarring, and thrilling and discombobulating to have become famous so quickly,” she said. “Tom and I were together when the movie came out and we had photographers jumping out of bushes, the pre-paparazzi days.”

Filming the 1985 feature “The Trip to Bountiful,” cinematographer Fred Murphy told De Mornay, “You created a certain kind of female icon that will stay forever. It affects everybody. Everybody takes that with them.” And it’s true. Playing Lana brought De Mornay into the orbit of being Hollywood’s new sex symbol, akin to Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot (interestingly, De Mornay would play a take on Bardot in a 1988 remake of “And God Created Woman”). While society has reevaluated the treatment and performances of actresses from the 1990s, De Mornay has no problem with the term sex symbol.

“You reach people on many levels,” she said. “You can reach people when they’re sexually attracted to you. It doesn’t have to be that it’s all about sex, but when you touch someone on that level it brings them in to perhaps other things about you.” If anything, she admits, she could have capitalized on her sexuality more if she wanted to, and played the Hollywood typecasting game, but decided against it. After playing Lana, she got grungy as a railway worker for 1985’s “Runaway Train.” “I am an actress and I could be a sex symbol, but I am an actress, first and foremost.”

It’s no secret that Hollywood has trouble with typecasting, though, especially when it comes to women. When De Mornay starred in the 1992 thriller “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” as a widow who infiltrates the life of one of her dead husband’s sexual misconduct accusers, it captured not only general audience interest, but the attention of women specifically. It’s a film that De Mornay still hears praised by female fans (this author in particular). De Mornay thinks her performance connects with women because it gives them an outlet for suppressed rage.

“Peyton is unapologetically in touch with her rage. That’s what I think people responded to, because girls needed to see,” she said. “She enabled women, in a perverse way…to own their power.” And while the movie responded to a time period where a woman being labeled difficult was a career killer, it wasn’t something De Mornay ever shied away from. “I, for some reason, just dug in from the beginning and just really wanted to get things right,” she said. “I was not afraid of being called difficult.”

To hear all this is incredibly refreshing and fascinating, but to look at Cruise’s career — which shows no signs of slowing down as he just turned 61 — it’s frustrating that De Mornay is not often given the same appreciation for her role in “Risky Business” or her career in general. De Mornay isn’t surprised that Cruise is still a superstar. “I was a more complicated, mysterious presence, innately than Tom,” she said. “His presence is more like, I would say, a major chord, [thinking] in music terms, and I’m more of a minor chord…America really, really loves the major chords.”

But it’s also worth pointing out that double standard that still plagues women in Hollywood. When De Mornay was in 2003’s “Identity,” (directed by a pre-blockbuster James Mangold) she was also caring for her first child, Sophia, on-set. And Hollywood keeps moving whether you have children or not. “I didn’t say ‘Okay, I’m now going to take time off,’” she said. “Before I had my first child, and for 15 years starting with ‘Risky Business,’ I was very, very, very ambitious and devoted to acting.” But the advent of motherhood made De Mornay realize she didn’t want to multitask. She turned down roles to make sure her children weren’t uprooted or separated from their father. “I’m not quite sure how some of these very famous actresses with children, how they do it. Maybe they’re good at multitasking? I’m not.”

There’s also Hollywood ageism to consider which, now that De Mornay is dipping her toe back into the acting waters, can rear its ugly head. De Mornay said her friend Carol Kane once told her that “when I turned 40 it was like I sent an invisible telegram to Hollywood that said, ‘Don’t hire me.’” De Mornay agrees with her and experienced it firsthand. It’s why she’s turned down parts that emphasize brutality against women or just don’t give the female characters depth to them. “It’s always been important to me to choose roles where there [is] some model of strength to women, regardless of what they do or how they do it,” she said.

“I learned that early on we can’t design our careers,” she said. “We can take the best of what’s offered and hopefully not make too many mistakes along the way.” It’s a true adage and just watching De Mornay’s film output, especially her films from “Risky Business” through to “Identity,” the actress has designed a career that has endured with audiences, and this author in particular, for a long time.