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In her new book, Out of the Corner, Jennifer Grey tells a life story as wildly entertaining as the 1987 movie that catapulted her to fame, Dirty Dancing. The daughter of Oscar-winning, closeted-bisexual Joel Grey, she was a fast-lane teen, frugging and drugging at Studio 54 and singing show tunes with Stephen Sondheim at parties.
After Francis Ford Coppola cast her, at age 24, in The Cotton Club, her life got even starrier: She won overnight fame as Baby Houseman, the dirty dancer hoisted to glory by Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). She then got engaged to Matthew Broderick, whose bad-boyfriend behavior inspired her close friend Madonna to write the hit “Express Yourself” about their relationship. Weeks later, Grey got engaged again, to Johnny Depp — and had another traumatic breakup. Soon after came what she calls “schnozzageddon”: the calamitous nose job that made her unrecognizable, and abruptly less employable — right when tabloids erupted with photos of Depp smooching his new love, Winona Ryder, the sweet teenage friend who used to live next door to Grey.
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As she turned 30, Grey writes, she felt “ablaze like an emotional dumpster fire.” But now, at 62, she feels just fine, looking back on tumultuous times with grownup aplomb, and looking forward to the Dirty Dancing sequel she’s producing. She told AARP about her memories — and how not to let fate put you in a corner.
Everybody remembers Dirty Dancing, but a year before that, you played Broderick’s surly sister in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). What was it like to be part of that other iconic, generation-defining film?
By far the most fun I’ve ever, ever had in my life, creatively on a movie set, or anywhere, period. Director John Hughes and I just fused our energy, brought out the best in each other. I heard his dog whistle, and he heard mine. I took risks improvising, kind of free-falling — it was so exhilarating! It’s a great feeling when you feel like somebody really sees like you. It’s not dissimilar from the Dirty Dancing characters of Baby and Johnny, where we’re more than each appears when we’re together.
And yet, at first you weren’t thrilled that Swayze was to costar with you in Dirty Dancing. In 1984, when you costarred in Red Dawn, John Milius’ movie about young, mostly macho-male Americans fighting a Russian invasion, he lit firecrackers outside your room.
He didn’t do anything wrong! It was pranks, boys being boys. Milius told him, “You be the leader of the group,” and he took the role seriously. I was a fish out of water, a girl, not a fan of that genre, shooting AK-47s, trying to hang with the boys. I was nervous. So when I heard he was cast in Dirty Dancing, I was, like, “Oh, no. He’s not right.... I was dead wrong.”