Of all the movies that would be inspired by the success of Die Hard – which would include the Wesley Snipes flick Passenger 57 – without a doubt the most enjoyable was Daniel Petrie Jr.’s high school thriller Toy Soldiers.
Released in 1991 and co-written by David Koepp, who would later be responsible for Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, the movie mixed the adolescent shenanigans of Stand by Me with the tale of an army of terrorists from Colombia who invade an American prep school and take the children hostages in an attempt to free the leader’s father.
But the students, who refer to themselves as ‘rejects,’ have problems taking orders from authority figures and try to find a way to contact the outside world.
Co-starring as Jonathan ‘Snuffy’ Bradberry, Keith Coogan had first made a name for himself alongside Elizabeth Shue in the 1987 comedy Adventures in Babysitting and would later star as Christina Applegate’s stoner brother in the hit Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. In Toy Soldiers he would co-star with Sean Astin (The Goonies), Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Andrew Divoff (Another 48 Hours).
Keith Coogan looks back on an underrated classic twenty years later.
Having been known primarily for the comedy Adventures in Babysitting with Elisabeth Shue, was Toy Soldiers a movie that you hoped would allow you more adult roles?
I saw Toy Soldiers as more of a chance to be in a cool movie. I still planned on getting some laughs, but what I was really excited about were the kidnappings, hostage taking and gunplay that would be involved. I just wanted every other actor my age to be really jealous that I got the part in a kick-ass action film.
The plot is somewhat reminiscent of Die Hard, was this something that you were aware of when you read the script and which character did you initially audition for?
Actually, on set we called it Dead Poets Society meets Die Hard, so we were kind of aware that any hostage movie would be held up to the Die Hard candle. I was always Snuffy, from the beginning. And I have no idea who else was up for my part.
What do you recall of the audition process? Did you meet any of your co-stars at that time and was there a specific scene or routine you had to do?
It finally narrowed down to about fifteen-twenty really strong choices for the guys. Sean Astin was a strong contender for Billy Tepper, and I’m pretty sure that was a choice all of the rest of the supporting cast thought was pretty strong, we supported him totally in the leadership role. One difference on Toy Soldiers for me was that I was one of the first of the cast to be set, along with Louis Gossett, Jr. and I got to be the scene partner for almost every other cast member while they did their final readings.
The whole 976 phone-sex scene in the basement was primarily used to cast the guys, and the confrontation after that with Lou and Sean was the scene they used to cast Billy. I had been friends with Sean for many years, and really wanted to see him be Billy. He really did well at the final call-backs, and I thought he continually brought great work to the set and a great spirit to the whole shoot.
Did you read William P. Kennedy’s novel before you worked on the movie and what were your thoughts on the script when you first read it?
I had not read the novel, as Daniel Petrie, Jr. had told us that some significant changes and character re-arrangements had been made. I focused on our story for preparation, and to this day, have only skimmed the novel for some of the differences. The book and the film both have the same kinetic pacing and build-up to the finale, and I’m quite proud of how well the film holds up today. The only thing that dates the film in my opinion is the development of the cell phone and text messaging capabilities.
I play little games to see how different a plot would be with today’s technologies, and Toy Soldiers wouldn’t really be able to be done today, as it relies on too many characters not knowing something that could have been quickly texted or tweeted. And can you imagine the second act if Billy was simply able to send a .pdf of the terrorists numbers and configuration? We would never have had the hummer chase, or a naked Sean Astin – ‘poof’ goes the story!
Prior to the terrorist takeover of the school the story focuses on the friendship of the school children. In reality, were you good friends with Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton and how much of yourselves were there in your characters?
I knew Sean way better than I knew Wil… but Wil and I became pretty good friends while we were making the movie. I like Wil, he’s just this guy, you know? George and T.E. were new friends, but great guys. I’ve actually seen a bit of George Perez lately, and he’s a really good dude.
What memories do you have of working with Louis Gossett Jr. and Denholm Elliott? Many of the scenes you and Sean Astin shared with Louis involved practical jokes, were there any pranks behind the scenes?
We all loved Lou like a father and it was a great honor to share the screen with the late Denholm Elliot. We even got to do a double-take gag together – awesome! There was one great joke played on Sean; he really wanted to take a ride on one of the helicopters, but it was forbidden by production for obvious insurance reasons. However, when Sean wasn’t needed one day, the pilots all convinced him to hop on for a quick ride…unbeknownst to Sean, the whole crew was in on it, even filming him from the helicopter before announcing how busted he would have been if the whole thing wasn’t a joke.
That footage was part of the gag reel. Good times. Also, for some bizarre reason, Wil and I totally trashed the hotel we were staying at on Halloween. No permanent damage, just roll-away beds placed into elevators, and pool furniture tossed into the deep-end. So, no real damage done. To the staff of the Days Inn in Charlottesville, VA. I apologise.
How much interaction did you have with Andrew Divoff and the other actors who played the terrorists?
Early on in the shooting schedule, Andrew would offer each of the kids a ride home from the set – it was about a forty minute ride from the hotel to the Miller Academy, where most of the picture was shot – but would divert from the normal route home, only to take one of us out back of the campus and basically try to scare the shit out of us. I don’t know how the others reacted, I heard some of them got freaked out and asked them to stop fucking around.
I played along, and got on my knees and begged for my life. Andrew simply said, ‘Stand up, I can see you’re playing ball,’ and then they drove me back to the hotel. The whole way spilling the beans on how the other cast members reacted. I felt like I was a part of their little group after that. A little Helsinki Syndrome thrown in for good measure never hurt anyone.
How far into principal photography was Wil Wheaton’s character, Joey Trotta, killed and was he still present on set for the remainder of filming? How long in total did the shoot last and was it an enjoyable experience?
Wil was knocked off pretty far into the shoot…with only the finale to be shot after that. Wil was not present after that and we missed him just like we missed Joey. The whole shoot lasted about three months total, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had working in the entertainment industry, a true rolling thunder production with great people involved doing their best work. I especially hold dear the friendships I found on that movie.
Have you kept in touch with any of your co-stars and twenty years later how do you feel about the movie?
I see some of those guys from time to time and it’s always great, because we did have a good time making the picture. I really dig Toy Soldiers, I can’t believe geeky old me got to be in such a cool action movie!
The world of 2010 is far different to that of 1991, with terrorism a major aspect of everyday life since 9/11. How relevant do you think the terrorist themes of Toy Soldiers are in the modern climate and what are your thoughts on shows such as 24 that deal with similar subjects?
In 2010 if you released Toy Soldiers you would be accused of stoking fears about border-crossing terrorists. Back in 1991 it was about drug lords and mafioso. Today it would have to be about fundamentalism, sovereignty, and righteousness. I don’t think the movie could be as fun as it was back then. we’ve lost too much of our innocence.