WRITING: RANDI BERGMAN
Elizabeth Berkley on Saved by the Bell, caffeine pills and the legacy of Nomi Malone.
If you’ve been on this site before, you’ll know that I’ve already doled out more than one ode to Elizabeth Berkley Lauren, the actress whose much maligned transformation from Jessie Spano, Saved by the Bell’s feminist keener, to Nomi Malone, the spastic stripper goddess at the centre of the cult film, Showgirls, has become a blueprint for icon status in the decades since. But hey, here’s one more.
Earlier this week, I was #blessed enough to speak to Berkley, who is back roaming the halls of Bayside High for the reboot of Saved by the Bell alongside castmates Mark Paul Gosselaar, Tiffani Amber Thiessen and Mario Lopez. Berkley reprises her role as a now bestselling author turned Bayside High guidance counsellor. Her son, Jamie Spano (Belmont Cameli) attends the school as a latter-day nod to her former beau, A.C. Slater (Lopez), who is also at Bayside working his muscles as the school’s coach.
It’s been over 30 years since the original sitcom premiered in 1989, and the reboot has been cleverly adapted for 2020, with a cast of diverse teens who frankly (and hilariously) address privilege and gender roles and other issues right out of the political parody account, Saved by the Bell Hooks. The show is a refreshing counter to the slew of oft unsuccessful reboots. It’s self-aware, and straddles the line between mocking and heartfelt, with nods to the original and jokes that feel so right, right now.
Berkley, too, has an open, gentle attitude to revisiting her past, which she does candidly in the interview below. Here, she discusses everything from Jessie’s caffeine pills moment to her vindication in the cult status of Showgirls.
I know you guys have been teasing a reunion for years, whether on Jimmy Fallon or otherwise. What made you all finally sign up?
When we did Fallon, it was the first time we’d all dropped back into our characters for a minute and it just so happens that the timing was when all the reboots were coming back and so it’s fair to say that that was a catalyst for us to start thinking about it. And we just thought, “If we could do it right with the right take on it,” – that was the key, it was finding the how. When Universal called us and told us that Tracey Wigfield had a take on it, we just fell in love with it right away. It felt so honouring of the original and also having fun with the original. It felt like a fresh and fun take that was right for right now and the youth culture. That was really our hesitation – we felt protective of this show and its legacy. The show means so much to say many people through so many generations at this point, we just thought, if we’re going to do it, it’s gotta be right. And this felt like the one.
Reunions run the risk of being done badly and I think you guys avoid the pitfalls with the winks and nods delivered through the show.
We definitely have a wink and a nod to those things that the OG fans are going to love. If people are really fans, they’re going to love seeing things embedded in the entire 10 episodes that only someone who has loved it that long will know. But if it’s a new viewer, they’ll love other things about the new, fresh kids. And a lot of the things that they do are the same but with a fresh and modern twist. We have a group of actors who are so talented, which I’ll say as a producer is really exciting. I loved being a part of that process, helping to choose the actors and really put the group together where you can see a magic and chemistry. At the core, that’s what set our show apart. People felt like they were our friends and they could feel a connection with us. Some of it is a certain magic that is there, and you can’t force, but I think this group is so talented and together created a great dynamic.
I love that the reboot addresses the shifts in society since the show came out, for one thing, Jessie’s feminism was always alluded to with an eyeroll…
Yes, she was ahead of her time then. There’s a great scene where Slater comes to Jessie and apologizes, [saying] that she was out there alone fighting hard for things she believed in. And what he said to her was really profound – I almost cried reading the scene – he says, “Now there’s a whole new generation of Jessies.”
What can you tell us about Jessie Spano in 2020?
When we left her, she was a teenager, so a lot has happened in the interim, as it happens in life. For me personally, this is the first time I’m playing a mother since becoming a mother. Belmont Cameli plays Jessie’s son, Jamie Spano (don’t you love that he has her last name). She has her PhD, she’s a New York Times bestselling author, she has accomplished a lot of the things that she set out to do, but in true Jessie style, some things change and some things stay the same – she’s taken on so much in her life and she’s back at school as the guidance counsellor, which is perfect for her. She’s a bit of a helicopter parent so she gets to keep her eye on her son, but she’s at a point where her personal life is a bit of a mess with her husband and she’s trying to make her way through that while still being a mentor to the kids.
Jessie’s Song is obviously her most famous episode, and her caffeine pill meltdown feels so tame in 2020 with shows like Euphoria around, but did you have a sense of its impact at the time?
You know what, it was an intense episode. I think a lot of kids had a lot of big feelings around it when it came out, and even though we laugh about it now and there are the memes, it was pretty raw. For its time, it was extremely deep and showed heightened emotion in a way that you hadn’t seen with these characters. The biggest thing was who was going to ask who to the dance, and suddenly you have one of the lead characters unable to hold it together and unable to balance everything and really feeling overwhelmed in a way that a lot of teens can connect to. I don’t think we knew that thirty years later people would be singing it to us. The Pointer Sisters didn’t know either!
For the record, “Go for It” is such a banger. It still holds up.
[Laughs, and then sings] “Put your mind to it, go for it!” I’ll sing it to you baby. We should do a remix, no? By the way, we were totally ahead of our time on those mini trampolines – that’s now a great cardio workout! Flying off that thing and singing? C’mon – I’m a triple threat!
"I gave so much of myself to Showgirls and trusted the people involved with it to do right by that, and when it came out... I’m not a victim, but it was a lonely moment to have to take care of myself."
You’ve become such a feminist icon in an unexpected way, and I know the trauma from your experience with Showgirls took a while to heal. Do you feel vindicated at this point?
You got it right there. I wasn’t looking for vindication, but I’m grateful. The film was so controversial when it came out – it was such a different time in our culture – and it is amazing to me how it has been embraced, and how much fun people have with it. For some, it’s so over the top and fun, and for other people it’s an emotional anthem. I could never have foreseen the impact that it has continued to have and how’s it’s been embraced. Of course, that makes me happy.
It was a film that at such a young age I worked so hard on, I gave so much of myself to it and trusted the people involved with it to do right by that, and when it came out – I’m not a victim but it was a lonely moment to have to take care of myself. I learned so much and the fact that both of these roles, Nomi and Jessie, continued and continued – I could never have foreseen that all these years later I’d be sitting here talking to you about it.
I feel what’s changed the most with audiences in the last 25 years is a sense of irony and that’s what makes it so great. I re-watched it about eight years ago and I’m not exaggerating when I say it changed my life.
Wait, this is incredible, what touched you or moved you – I love knowing. It’s interesting because it’s not just some campy over the top thing that’s ridiculous. People feel emotional about it. So, I’m just curious.
I think I’d just been trying to push down a love for camp and when I watched it, I was like I can’t believe that this is the answer to everything, it’s pink, it’s neon, it’s just so unabashedly insane. I really committed to the fandom. I went to The Cheetah for New Year’s Eve; I had a Showgirls birthday party once where I brought fake nails for everyone, the list goes on…
Are you aware of the books, the documentaries, the exhibits and so on? The obsession is DEEP.
I am aware of all this stuff and that’s why I’m blown away and grateful that something positive came from that whole experience, for sure.
Do you have a favourite outfit? The baby blue leather Versayce from the Goddess party is my life’s inspiration.
That might be my favourite – and it was a Versayce of course. That or the pink dress with the spaghetti straps from the scene where I go visit [Cristal] backstage.
Where do you think Nomi would be today? I’d like to think she teamed up with Cristal for a burlesque version of Chicago.
That’s hysterical. I hadn’t really thought of where she’d be right now but definitely performing – how could she not. She can’t help herself right. But she’d be calling all the shots for sure.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today!
Back-to-back episodes of Saved by the Bell show at at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Thursdays on W Network in Canada. The full season is available to stream on STACKTV now.
Elizabeth Berkley on Saved by the Bell, caffeine pills and the legacy of Nomi Malone