Justine Bateman is holding court on the set of Family Ties. It’s the morning following her first appearance on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson working the desk (the time she was on with Garry Shandling doesn’t seem to count). Michael J. Fox, her TV brother, tells her he got it on tape. Executive producer Gary David Goldberg pouts because, he says, he missed it. And Bateman, bouncing around like nobody’s business – from kitchen set to living-room set to her boxy, little dressing room – looks like she can hardly believe her good fortune. You see, she zapped the host, and rarely can even the most-seasoned performers and sharpest wits make that claim.
The coup occurred when the subject turned to Bateman’s boyfriend, and Carson asked, “Plan to get married?” Bateman shot back, “Sometime…. You?” Carson’s eyeballs did a slow loop the loop.
“It was cool,” the actress says. “During the commercial break, he said, ‘Great comeback.'” She smiles, satisfied. “It’s a game,” she says, readjusting the pencil anchoring the hair above her forehead. “It’s a little nerve-racking, ’cause you gotta keep it rolling. But it was starting to lag.”
There’s no denying that Bateman, at 20, has become a serious player, and not strictly in the category of talk-show rejoinders. “I mean, life is basically a game,” she says. “If you know how to get what you want by playing the rules, then you’ll go far. But if you’re constantly trying to go against that, you’re in for a long journey.”
This logic has served Bateman well. As Mallory Keaton on NBC’s Family Ties, a ratings phenomenon second only to The Cosby Show, she has managed to make the perfectly ordinary delightfully appealing. Mallory is your typical teen queen, a candidate for the cheerleading hall of fame. Desperately dimwitted, she is continually rankled by her brainier brother, Alex (played by Fox). But in her defense, Bateman says, “She’s more innocent and ignorant than dumb.”
Producer Goldberg admits that Bateman’s is no easy task. He hired her at the age of sixteen, not on the basis of an impressive résumé (she had only a couple of high-school plays and a few commercials for products like Wheaties and Dial soap to her credit), but because of what he calls the “X factor.”
“Either it’s there or it’s not,” says Goldberg. “Everybody says what Cary Grant did looked so easy – he just stood around and said the lines. But it’s deceptively difficult to look natural.”
Part Maltese (on her mother’s side), Bateman has glossy skin, a mouth one size larger than the rest of her features and pale grayish-blue eyes. The sum total is somewhere beyond the fresh faced and on its way to ripening into the serious siren. Bateman says she is comfortable with her looks and always has been – oh, except in seventh grade, when she wore braces and was trying to grow out her Farrah Fawcett hairdo, “But I don’t remember a distinct awkward period,” she says with a shrug.
She is wearing a big T-shirt and leggings that fit like panty hose. Black is her favorite color in clothing. “I don’t know,” she says, “I feel comfortable in it.” She owns a copy of a pair of Patsy Cline’s cowboy boots, also black, but today she’s in white moccasins.
Get her going, and Bateman tends to sound more like a philosophy major than the blown fuse you expect (based on Mallory, of course). “Everything you do and everyone you talk with and every event you encounter you learn from,” she says, having settled into serious thought inside her dressing room, which barely accommodates a couch. “And once you know everything, you die. That’s why dogmatic people are suicidal…. I don’t know – I don’t know if that’s true. I mean, if you believe in reincarnation, perhaps we know everything and our duty on earth is to remember it all. It’s like when someone makes a comment, and you say, ‘Yeah, exactly.’ Then you already knew that – you know what I mean?”
Before you digest that thought, she moves on to another. And another. The mouth stops only for a hot dog. In one sitting, she discourses on everything from nuclear disaster (“Let’s say we’re the eighth civilization…”) to designer Donna Karan (“She has the right idea, but I’m not about to but a $300 leotard”) to Betty White (“She once said acting really isn’t hard work – I mean, it’s the greatest job”).
Then it’s Shakespeare and Picasso, who weren’t always as profound as they led people to believe and “screwed up people’s heads.” And director David Lynch, who doesn’t screw up people’s heads. “Everyone goes up to David Lynch and says, ‘What was Eraserhead, and what did it mean?’ And he says, ‘Nothing, I don’t know. I don’t know what it meant.’ You can see things for what they are,” says Bateman, “or read things into them.”
Bateman considers herself what she calls a “mind person,” as opposed to a “physical person.” “You know what I mean, mind versus physical? If you think more than you work out.” (Although she does that, too.) “She takes herself and the world and her work and everything very seriously,” says Fox, marveling. “She has this incredible discipline. She comes in with Les Misérables, and I’m reading It or whatever the Stephen King book of the day is.”
She likes Ayn Rand. She loves Hemingway, although she notes that F. Scott Fitzgerald “expands a little more on what he’s saying, rather than “We walked down the street and there were cracks on the sidewalk and I wondered why.’ ” She thinks Orwell’s pretty good. Believing fervently that “we’re here, I think, to learn,” Bateman applied to and was accepted at Dartmouth College and Boston, New York and North-western universities. The matter of college, however, remains a source of frustration, because it’s doubtful she will ever see the ivy walls. By the time her contract expires, after the seventh season of the series (it’s now in its fifth), Bateman thinks that at 22, she’ll be too old for academia. She knows she won’t want to be in a dorm with a bunch of kids who have never been away from their parents before.
“I did and do want to go,” she says, comforting herself. “But, you know, it’s like you plan out a certain course your life is going to take, and when it’s interrupted, it kind of jolts you. It’s just like going to the right fork or the left fork in the road. Neither one is bad; it’s just going to be different from what you thought it would be.”
Still, skipping college has had its compensations. After work, Bateman slips on dark aviator glasses and steps into her black BMW 325e, which is equipped with a phone. In seconds, the Paramount Studios front gate is a blur. Hair flapping out the window, Bateman makes the drive home through the Hollywood Hills a white-knuckle trip. Six minutes later, she eases into her driveway, where her second car, an Alfa Spider Veloce, is already parked.
The house is an ultramodern affair, complete with pink neon strips in the ceiling, magenta tiles on the kitchen floor and a life-size Springsteen billboard in the living room. There is an odd combination of pinball machine and Monet posters, plus other assorted artwork, including collages Bateman makes herself out of such contemporary icons as Barbie dolls. She bought the place last year and has been living there with her boyfriend, Bobby Anderson, a 28-year-old sound mixer.
Bateman’s father says she was one of those “precocious children.” He made sure of that. She and her 18-year-old brother, Jason, who has had regular roles in four TV series, including Valerie, were “provoked into independence at a very early age,” says Kent Bateman, a producer-director and the manager of his children’s careers. “I have a low tolerance level for crying and taught them they’ve got to do everything themselves. Everything.”
“It was always instilled in us that school was number one,” recalls Justine. “That was one of the contingencies upon which we got in this business – my brother and I. My father said, ‘If your grades slip from where they are now, you’re out.’ I mean, I had reality parents more than stage parents.”
The family lived in New York City (where Kent says he directed “skinny flicks and grade-Z horror pictures”), moved to Boston, where he switched to educational films, Salt Lake City, where he made Grizzly Adams, and then settled into the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. The whole time, Bateman’s mother, Victoria, kept working as a stewardess for Pan Am, sharing her travel benefits with her children by shepherding them to the Orient, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico and Europe.
“She was able to put us in situations where we were not the inhabitants, we were the observers,” says Bateman. “You realize you aren’t any better than anyone else, and you aren’t worse than anyone else – you’re different. Eating things like seaweed when you’re little is very strange, but my brother and I were brought up to try everything. Ever see a Japanese toilet? It’s cut out on the floor, and you just kind of … you gotta … you do a plié over the commode.” Such experiences “open your mind and teach you to be more accepting, so when some kid comes to school who’s different from you, you don’t immediately gang up and be mean to him. You just accept it.”
Not one to sit idle for long, Bateman has starred in made-for-television movies, recently tackling the part of a gutsy blind girl in Can You Feel Me Dancing? She founded and runs with her father and brother two small theaters in Hollywood, producing plays “that are not recognizably commercial.” And her TV commercial for Maxwell House instant coffee, which finds her sitting on a loading dock laughing off her reputation in the scandal sheets, is the essence of hip indifference. To purge her soul, Bateman writes poetry, which she once considered publishing, but she decided that would be “too much of a prostitution.”
Lest one forget, this is a girl still too young (until she turns 21 next month) to buy a drink legally in the clubs where she nevertheless hangs out several evenings a week.
Yet Bateman has also concluded that there’s more to life than “clinging to being a professional schizophrenic in La-la Land.” She talks wistfully of someday getting into advertising or journalism.
“Say there are ladders of options that we have,” she says. “I admire people who aren’t afraid to climb to the top of one ladder and realize they have all these other interests and options. To climb down that ladder and start on the next one is so admirable.”
Justine Bateman is still climbing.