Getting Into Risky Business:
The Raphael Sbarge Interview
by Lee Sobel (9/3/20)
Back in 1983 when the movie Risky Business was released, critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the smartest, funniest, most perceptive satires in a long time." The movie catapulted Tom Cruise to...well "Tom Cruise." And while Porky's had come out two years earlier, establishing that white boys trying to lose their virginity was box office gold, there is no denying that Risky Business was at least a cut above that stupidity. Nevertheless, Risky Business established itself nearly 40 years ago as part of the 80's pop culture zeitgeist and anyone who had anything to do with the film suddenly found themselves "hot." New York actor Raphael Sbarge was one of the lucky ones whipped up into the RB frenzy and it led to a number of other teen movies including Vision Quest (1985) and My Science Project (1985). He has been working non-stop ever since and is now a hyphenate: actor/producer/director.
Lee Sobel: You grew up in New York City and went to school in the Village. What are your memories of childhood and how you became an actor? I understand your family was in show business and you were in early episodes of Sesame Street.
In Risky Business with Tom Cruise
Raphael Sbarge: I had crazy artist parents -- my father (Stephen Sbarge) was a playwright, painter and photographer and my mother (Jeanne Button) was a costume designer and a professor. We lived in a commune in the lower east side of Manhattan. My mother wrote a scholarly book called A History of Costume that my dad took over a thousand photographs for. He went on to write a book about the history of architecture that was nine volumes and he directed a documentary film as well. It was an interesting time to grow up in New York but in my experience it was very "hands off" parenting. My parents were doing their own thing.
The first year they made Sesame Street (1969) they were
looking for kids to be on the show. My mom took me to the show and I was smitten with Big Bird and I met Oscar the Grouch, and Bob sang to me on the stoop. Mr. Hooper put me on a donkey. It was thrilling. I was in four or five episodes. They offered me a contract to be on the show but my mom said no -- she was really busy with her own career and also didn't want me to feel that I had to do it and I think that was a wise decision since I was so young.
Because my mom was a costume designer I started getting work doing plays. We then moved to New Haven when my mom started teaching at
With Bronson Pinchot in Risky Business
Yale at the time that Meryl Streep was there. I was exposed to a lot of theater as a kid and at about age twelve or thirteen when we moved back to New York, I decided I wanted to be an actor. My dad being a photographer took my head shots. Through a friend I met an agent and went in by myself and the agent asked me if I could sing and I said yes I can sing. I had been in the boys' choir when I went to school in New Haven so I broke into Handel's Messiah and I guess they were charmed by this precocious little kid. They took me on as a client and the first thing they sent me out on was a 7-Up commercial and I got it. I got into SAG and started training in New York. I used my bus pass to go to auditions - my mom was
doing her own thing so I did it all by myself. I got cast in my first Broadway play at 16 with Faye Dunaway. Then I was in Hamlet and I just kept working.
Lee Sobel: What do you remember about the early days of your movie career? Were you friends with a lot of other young New York actors?
Raphael Sbarge: I went to high school at Walden on the upper west side with Matthew Broderick, Kyra Sedgwick, Kenneth Lonergan and the Beastie Boys. Before Risky Business I was up for all these movies that I came close to getting like Porky's. We were all out there auditioning for everything. I was roommates for a while with Fisher Stevens and we were friends with Craig Sheffer, Brian Backer, Sarah Jessica Parker -- we even coined a name for ourselves. L.A. had "The Brat Pack" and we called
The original casting for Risky Business had Brian Backer (third from right) in the lead role that Tom Cruise ended up playing
ourselves "The Back Pack" because we all wore back packs in New York.
Lee Sobel: Risky Business came out in '83 and seemed to reflect the young upwardly mobile generation with its emphasis on making money. As someone that I know is an environmentalist, do you look back at this movie and the "Greed is Good" philosophy that was being portrayed at the time and cringe at all?
Raphael Sbarge: The movie reflected the times and is still considered one of the emblematic movies of the 80's. It was a time where we shifted from movies like Easy Rider or Midnight Cowboy. It was the Reagan era and the focus had shifted to making money. I went to the 35th anniversary presentation
of the film a couple of years ago and the producer Jon Avnet was saying that their intent was to make a movie like The Graduate for that time. In The Graduate it had that great line: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word: Plastics." And in Risky Business it had that line, "Sometimes you just gotta say 'What the fuck'." The movie caught lightning in a bottle and it was part of the ascendance of Tom Cruise who has been one of the biggest stars now for the longest time. Regardless of what you or I think of the movie's message, it does capture a moment. It does seem to in a way reflect where we are now in Trump's America where Trump is all about making money. Toni Morrison had this amazing quote where she said after World War II, Americans were citizens and had a civic duty to maintain and shape democracy. Then in the 60's and 70's we became consumers where we went out and bought things and that ultimately now we're just tax
In Vision Quest with Matthew Modine & Michael Schoeffling
With Danielle Von Zerneck in My Science Project
payers. She's saying how we have changed and evolved and how things have given us a different sense of purpose. I am an environmentalist and I do care about social issues. I'm a humanist and I do care deeply about core values. I think it's obvious where my heart is but a movie like Risky Business is undeniable as a kind of signpost of where the zeitgeist was.
Lee Sobel: What did you think of Tom Cruise?
Raphael Sbarge: You can say what you want about his personal life or choices he's made but he's just an astounding film presence. He's such an icon. It was very interesting to be a part of that ascendance of his career and to have seen that. He was literally the
extra who got discovered. He was an untrained actor who had a religious background prior to getting into movies. At the time I worked with him on Risky Business, he was a very focused guy who seemed very intent on understanding the business and learning what everybody did that worked on the set. He didn't have any training so he was an instinctual actor with a strong sense of himself and he made it work. Those of us who had done theater and were trained in voice and movement and stage combat and had done workshops, kind of marveled at how he became such a huge star.
Lee Sobel: What was it like coming from New York and then working in Hollywood. Most New Yorkers don't drive so did you need to go out and get your driver's license once you moved to L.A.?
Raphael Sbarge: Yeah, I had taken a few driving lessons but I did have to learn to drive. When I moved to L.A. I bought a green '68 Dodge Dart with a V8 engine. It was a challenge to figure out the highways - it was definitely not a skill I already had.
With Page Hannah in My Man Adam
With Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day
Lee Sobel: Do you remember anything happening that was memorable during the making of Risky Business?
Raphael Sbarge: There's one scene that was kind of a fun, quirky scene. Sean Penn had worked with Tom Cruise on the movie Taps and they were really good friends. Both our movie and Sean Penn's movie Bad Boys were shooting in Chicago at the same time. So we all hung out together. Even back then I remember Sean being very intense and when he looked at you it was like he was looking right through you. I remember he had gotten a tattoo for his character and I was thinking, "Wow, that's really intense." His character in Bad Boys was a pyromaniac and while we were sitting in a restaurant once, still in character, he lit a napkin on fire and then the
tablecloth and made a bonfire. The waitress came over and doused it. There was a scene in Risky Business when Tom was backing the Porsche out of the driveway and the car stalls and then it starts again and the music starts with it. It was shot at night and Bronson Pinchot was supposed to be in the car with him. But Bronson wasn't available that night and Sean Penn happened to be visiting the set that night. So in the car with Tom in that scene is actually Sean Penn.
Another thing about Risky Business is that when the movie was originally cast, my friend Brian Backer (Fast Times At Ridgemont High) got the lead. If you think about what the movie was, it was about a guy who couldn't get laid. Brian is much more what you would imagine in the part. He was more
Raphael Sbarge in Independence Day
Raphael in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager
of a nebbishy, sweet guy. So Brian Backer got the part. And then they met Tom Cruise. And they fired Brian. So they cast a guy who was handsome as the kid who couldn't get laid, which was like: "Huh?!" Brian would have made more sense as a kid who turns his home into a whore house because he couldn't get laid, but it all worked out in the end for the movie. It's funny how history is made in a particular direction.
Lee Sobel: You also made the teen movie Vision Quest (1985) which was part of the sports cycle of movies like The Karate Kid. What are your memories of making that movie?
Raphael Sbarge: I was on the set of Vision Quest one night when this petite gal with big hoop earrings walked towards me. She was singing in the club in the scene and I said, "Oh, hi, what's your name?" and said "My name's Madonna." And I said, "Madonna, what?" "Nothing, just Madonna." They had discovered her at CBGB's or one of those lower east side clubs and put her in the movie.
Lee Sobel: You've made some big budget movies like Independence Day (1996) and Pearl Harbor (2001) - what have those experiences been like?
Raphael Sbarge: Yeah, they were big budget. Pearl Harbor is not a great movie and there was just astonishing amounts of money spent. There was one scene we shot in Mexico where the Admiral and I are surveying the wreckage and I think there was 525 extras that day. They built the hulls of these ships that were sinking in this enormous tank in Mexico and we sailed through it. Independence Day is fun and holds up. Bill Pullman is fantastic and it was like Will Smith's first movie. It's funny how some movies just pop because the actors are on their own personal ascendancy like Will Smith in Independence Day and Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Making movies like that are less of a personal experience but very wild to be on sets that have as much fire power.
Lee Sobel: You're also a director now - is that something you wanted to do for a while? How have your directing experiences gone for you?
Raphael Sbarge: I'm not the "always wanted to direct" kind of guy. I kind of fell there by accident. I was producing a series and the director walked off and I ended up stepping in and taking over. We then sold the series and it won a bunch of awards and I felt that I could do this. There was a lot to figure out. I felt like someone who had been in the passenger seat his whole life who thought, "Sure I can drive." So then I got behind the wheel and found out how complicated it is. But I've been doing it now for ten years and I love telling stories and working with multiples disciplines like the designers and composers, the editor, sound mixer. There is a wonderful collaboration that goes into the process. How to tell a story visually is something I find very exciting.
Raphael Sbarge can be found on Twitter and Instagram - @raphaelSbarge for both.