Bill & Ted in middle age: ‘We felt if we did it with heart, it would work’

Alex Winter on friendship with Keanu Reeves, the risky new film and the fun side of fame

In these uncertain times, what could be more comforting than jumping into a phone booth to time-travel back to the happy, heartfelt world of Bill & Ted? It’s the franchise that got humanity through two Gulf Wars and counting.

"Us too!" says Bill & Ted star Alex Winter. "I would literally be on my way home from set when we were making the second film listening to bombs on the news. it was a very crazy time in America's cultural and political life. And it's true. All three of the movies have come out during turbulent times."

He laughs. “We didn’t mean to make a timely film. We have been working on this film for a decade. So it wasn’t as if it was built for right this moment. We started out making it in a very different time when the world was a very different place.”

Landing almost 30 years after Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the 1991 sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Bill & Ted Face the Music is a blissful antidote to, well, everything else about 2020. With an 81 per cent approval rating on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, it’s also the best reviewed film in the sequence.


They didn't want us to play Bill and Ted like stunted kids ... It gave us a place to go, comedically and emotionally

Winter has been pleasantly surprised by the warm reception afforded a film that has required decades of campaigning from hardcore fans, the post-John Wick renaissance of Keanu Reeves' career, and support from such seasoned industry titans as Stephen Soderbergh. A screenplay by character originators Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon was completed as long ago as 2011.

“We just loved the whole concept that the writers [Matheson and Solomon] had for the third one,” says Winter. “They didn’t want us to play Bill and Ted like stunted kids. They wanted to give them lives and legitimate relationships with their wives and children and the world around them. Placing it in a world that was an accurate representation of our world and seeing how they responded to life; that was a lot of fun. It gave us a place to go, comedically and emotionally.”

Bill & Ted Face the Music catches up with the duo as middle-aged dads who play experimental theremin and bagpipe music at weddings. They are yet to write the song that will unite the world. And now they are almost out of time. An exasperated ally (Kristen Schaal) from a future ruled by Taylor Holland tells Bill and Ted that they have 77 minutes to save space and time – and their marriages.

The pair dutifully jump back into the phone box once piloted by the late George Carlin and visit alternate versions of themselves. Elsewhere, their music-obsessed daughters (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine) ping through history to put together a supergroup featuring Mozart, Hendrix, Kid Cudi and Louis Armstrong.

Familiar faces  include Ted's dad (Hal Landon jnr); his ex-wife, Missy (Amy Stoch); the Grim Reaper (William Sadler); Princess Elizabeth Logan (Erinn Hayes); and Princess Joanna Preston (Jayma Mays).

“The upside of it taking us so long to get it developed and made was that it gave us a lot of time to work on the story and to give it a lot of heart,” says Winter. “A lot of hand-wringing went into the idea of dismantling people’s happy memories. At the end of the day I think we felt it was worth – not alienating people, but a little bit of a gamble. We felt if we did it with heart, it would work.

“And we just opened in the States and people really seem to have connected to it and to these characters. We had a much bigger response than we expected. So hopefully it’ll be the same on your side of the pond.”

That most resplendent duo Bill S Preston Esq (Winter) and Ted "Theodore" Logan (Reeves) first stationed their way into popular culture with the cult hit Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. The 1980s was a fine decade for teen movies, but few are as beloved as Excellent Adventure. It was too raucous for the suburbanite teens who inhabited John Hughes' milieu, too nice for Heathers, and too metal for the incoming wave of Valley Girl classic literature makeovers (Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You).

In the sequel, the duo took on the Grim Reaper at Battleship, Cluedo and Twister. That was followed by an animated TV series, a live-action television spin-off, a comic book, a video game and a Universal Studios theme park attraction.

Excellent Adventure, in which the two irrepressible metalheads bounce around history to kidnap Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Sigmund Freud, Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan and Ludwig van Beethoven for a school presentation, began life as a series of improv sketches in the style of The Kentucky Fried Movie. Chris Matheson – encouraged by his father, Richard Matheson, the author of I Am Legend – brought a time-travelling element to a script that was written over four days by hand.

During the shoot, Winter guessed that the film would never see the light of day. But it grossed $40 million at the US box office and enjoyed a bodacious VHS afterlife.

“I have no memory of most of that decade,” says Winter. “But I remember that script. Teen movies at that time – in the US, anyway – were written in a very suburban, mundane way. This one had really ornate language and was really interesting to play with, verbally and physically.”

There was a moment in 1989 when the first movie came out when my life completely changed. Overnight there was a whole different level of public life

The actor recalls walking into a restaurant on the day the film was released in the US. Everybody freaked out. They’ve been freaking out ever since.

“The thing is, I started acting professionally when I was nine,” says Winter. “I was on Broadway all the way through my childhood, signing autographs and doing interviews and all that stuff. I was not new to the idea of having a public life. But there was a moment in 1989 when the first movie came out when my life completely changed. Overnight there was a whole different level of public life. I’m so used to it at this point that I just get on with things. I’ve assimilated it. It was more surreal when it was new, when you walk into a supermarket at 2am and there I’d be on the cereal box.”

Winter and Reeves – as he calls his co-star – have been firm friends since their very first audition for Excellent Adventure. A recently resurfaced 1986 read featuring the pair demonstrates an easy and immediate screen chemistry.

“I think it was a combination of things,” says Winter. “We’ve been friends for a very long time. So I don’t really remember the early days too well. We do come from similar backgrounds. We were both east coast theatre kids from arts families who were very into theatre and drama and cinema. So there was some simpatico there.

“Somebody did show me a clip of us from the original audition. I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself auditioning – for anything, ever. Thank God! And I never wanna see it again. But just for the record for whoever is out there hacking things – it was actually lovely to see because we were very physical with the roles right out of the gate.

“We’ve hung out together for 30 years. But there is a big difference between who we are as friends and who we are on camera. In terms of performance, it’s more like how a band works, how we work off each other physically. We hadn’t acted together since 1992. I think we both felt somewhat relieved it was so enjoyable when we finally got in front of the cameras again. It all came back very easily. And we were finishing each other’s sentences again.”

My parents were modern dancers, so I was around performance. We didn't have a lot of money, as modern dance is not the high-profit industry you might think

Winter, the son of Martha Graham dancers Ross Albert and Gregg (Mayer), was born in London in 1965. Aged five, he was already training in dance when his family relocated to the US. But he had his heart set on a different medium.

“My parents were modern dancers, so I was around performance,” says Winter, who has dual UK-US citizenship. “But it’s a very different industry than the one I went into. I was terrible at modern dance. So that might have had something to do with it! I started dancing when I was three. I was quite good at tap, actually. I think I just like doing things that are loud. Much to my parents’ dismay.

"I grew up around a lot of art. But from a very young age I did love watching movies. I became obsessed with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Hitchcock from when I was six or seven. And like a lot of people, I started making films when I was little. I had a theatre troupe in my neighbourhood, and we made Super 8 films. I saved up my money from acting. We didn't have a lot of money, as modern dance is not the high-profit industry you might think. So I saved up my money from working on Broadway to go to film school. I knew that that was what I wanted to do."

Winter officially retired from acting in 1993 to focus on writing and directing. As a film-maker – and a veteran of the internet – his keen interest in technology has led him down various fascinating rabbit holes. To date, he has presided over documentaries on the deep web, bitcoin and Napster. (And no, he has never wanted to trade places with Keanu.)

“I’m very interested in technology; just as a regular person, not as a hacker or expert a coder or anything,” he says. “I became quite engaged with online communities from the early very early days of the pre-web internet. I became very active in those communities, and I met a lot of people who ended up having a lot to do with what became the web. When Napster happened in the ’90s, it was evident to me that it was a huge watershed moment in global culture that was being misunderstood. It was being perceived as a musical piracy service when it was really the first online community of that magnitude that ever existed. I knew that was important and I knew it was going to change the world.”

Reeves and I talk about this all the time. Bill & Ted is our happy place. It's a sweet part of our lives. We're an important part of other people's lives"

Two years ago in an interview with the BBC, Winter revealed that, aged 12, he was molested by an older man while working on a Broadway production of The King and I. Earlier this year, Winter's Showbiz Kids – featuring often traumatised testimonies from former child stars Evan Rachel Wood, Henry Thomas, Mara Wilson, Milla Jovovich, Wil Wheaton and Jada Pinkett-Smith – premiered on HBO. The business of being a working child actor is something he has given a lot of thought to.

“I’ve spent a lot of time exploring nature and nurture with young actors,” he says. “Are you born to do it? Or do your parents make you do it? I was a professional by nine. And by five or six, that was all I wanted to do: make movies. And that’s all I’ve ever done. There was never anything else I was passionate about. And my parents had to wrestle with letting me do that. It was a blessing and a curse.

“I’m grateful that none of my kids have pestered me the way I pestered my parents, demanding to enter this adultified, high-stress, high-competition environment. It doesn’t always go well, but I love what I do so I’m grateful that I’m able to do it.”

Returning to the other side of the camera for Bill & Ted Face the Music was much less daunting than Winter imagined. Three decades after seeing himself on a box of Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Cereal, it never gets old.

“Reeves and I talk about this all the time,” says Winter. “Bill & Ted is our happy place. It’s a sweet part of our lives. We’re an important part of other people’s lives. They’ve watched those movies and shared them with their kids. I have five-year-olds come up to me on the street, all wide-eyed, all the time. You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to think that’s cool.”

Bill & Ted Face the Music is on general release  

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic