HOLLYWOOD -- Actress Lea Thompson, who co-stars with Tom Cruise in the hit movie 'All The Right Moves,' enrolled as an undercover student in a Johnstown, Pa., high school and broke through the generation gap.
Before production began, Lea moved from her New York apartment, which she shares with actor Dennis ('The Right Stuff') Quaid, into a Johnstown hotel.
She enlisted one of the film's teamsters to pose as her father and to drive her to and from school where she enrolled with only the principal's knowledge. Faculty and students accepted her in the senior class as a late enrollee.
Lea, 22, could pass for a high schooler anywhere. She is petite, wears little makeup and has the wide-eyed, innocent look of the stereotypical farmer's daughter.
In truth, Lea is a sophisticate, an accomplished ballet dancer, from Minneapolis. She graduated from high school three days after her 16th birthday and joined the Minneapolis Dance Theater and the Pennsylvania Ballet.
To play Lisa Lietzki, the forlorn teenager in 'All the Right Moves,' Lea hoped to get a handle on the lives of youngsters mired in the recession-stricken coal mining and steel mill town.
'I'm not that distant in age from those kids,' Lea said, 'but I didn't even know girls like Lisa existed. They have a different frame of reference. I grew up in a poor home, so the difference between us wasn't just economic.'
Lea spent one week attending classes in geometry, art, English, biology and phys ed; writing term papers, taking quizzes and blending in with the other students.
She made an early mistake by shopping for used clothes at the local Salvation Army store.
'The girls bought all their clothes at a nearby mall,' Lea said, 'and they all dressed the same -- super tight jeans and sweater and blouses. But what really blew my mind was the hairdos.
'Every single one of the girls wore identical winged-back hair, cut rather short and then sort of shaped back at the temples. Not one of them wore their hair down naturally.
'After the first day I went straight to the mall and bought their kind of clothes and tried to fix my hair like theirs.
'I called myself Lisa Lietzki and I fit right in with the others, talking about how our parents bugged us, boys and music.'
Lea mixed so well she was busted with three other girls for smoking in the women's restroom. She was hauled into the principal's office a second time for cutting a class.
Lea got an education about hard times in small towns from her classmates, few of whom dared dream of college. Many girls held part-time jobs. Finding work after graduation was topic A.
Curiously, Lea discovered few kids wanted to move from Johnstown after graduation. She found them devoted to their community.
'Most were worried about their futures,' she said. 'Their parents are unemployed because so many mines and mills are closed, but they want to stay in Johnstown.
'It was depressing. The town is losing population. Some schools are closing down. We shot our movie in an abandoned high school.
'I spent a week as a student, but in that time I played saxophone with the band. I correspond with some of the girls I made friends with. When the boys asked me for dates, I said I had a boyfriend out of town.'
Her classmates forgave Lea her deception when she confessed she was an actress and would be working in town in the film. But it spoiled the easy relationships she had established.
'They thought of me in terms of being a movie star,' Lea said. 'It made me sad even though they were very sweet. Eventually the whole town took the movie company to its heart. A lot of townspeople worked as extras.
'Pretending to be a high school student and mixing with the kids helped me play Lisa convincingly. Tom (Cruise) and I tried to portray the kids as compassionately and as truthfully as possible.'
Lea's next movie is 'Red Dawn,' a non-nuclear World War III story, in which she plays a guerrilla fighter battling a Russian army invasion of the United States. For this film she could have done her research in Afghanistan.