In Back to the Future at the Winter Garden Theatre, actors Casey Likes and Liana Hunt have the task of stepping into two of cinemas’s iconic roles: Marty McFly (originally played by Michael J. Fox) and his mom, Lorraine (played on screen by Lea Thompson). As fans of the movie themselves, both Hunt and Likes understood their responsibilities to the show and the fandom, and don’t take it lightly. Here, they tell us why.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve got a few months under your belt now. How’s the car treating you? Looks terrifying and exhilarating.
Casey Likes: You’re so right about that car. It’s an unnatural thing to go upside down every single night, and over people’s heads. But it’s very fun. It’s a fun atmosphere for everyone involved — the people on stage and the people in the audience. I think you can feel that when you’re in the audience. At least, I hope you can.
Liana, have you gotten to take a ride in the car yet?
Liana Hunt: No! Where’s my ride? That’s on the dream list before I’m done with the show. Like, let me in the car!
Casey: I’m sure you can find a time if you ask stage management.
Liana: I’m sure. They do test flights sometimes. I want to be on that short list.
It looks so cool.
Casey: It’s like the first time you see Wicked and you see Elphaba fly and wonder how they do that. It’s probably magic.
Liana: It’s probably magic. I equate it to the first time I saw Beauty and the Beast as a kid. You see the Beast do the transformation and it’s real, live Broadway magic. Our show is that, of 2023.
Were you Back to the Future people growing up? Did you watch it over and over?
Liana: It was definitely a part of my childhood. Me and my brother loved it. We watched it on VHS in our living room.
Casey: Growing up, my mom always compared me to Michael J. Fox, so she showed it to me a million times when I was younger. I always looked up to Michael.
So what was it like to meet him on opening night?
Casey: It was incredible, man. I was shaking in my boots, not because he’s Marty McFly…I don’t know if deity is the right word, but he’s this huge figure, especially in the health world, which I really admire. I admire people who advocate for health, especially for actors, who I think are often confused with robots. It was really special for me to tell him that he inspired me more than just as an actor, and he took it all very humbly and kindly.
And Liana, same question for you, but about Lea Thompson.
Liana: It was nerve-wracking to realize I was going to do this version of this character for her. I was really nervous, but I had to trust the work we had done and hope they liked it and liked our performances. Lea was cool, lovely, grounded, sweet…She had some nice words to pass along to me and we got to hug and it was like an out of body moment for me.
Back to the Future is obviously more than a movie, it’s a cultural touchstone for so many people. How do you then come in and create your own versions of the characters, being true to yourself and to what’s on screen?
Casey: I think there’s a contract you sign with the audience when you get them to realize that you love what they love. Once they see that from you, I think they’re willing to trust you a lot more than they would have. I almost treat it like a math equation. At the very beginning, I hook them with the things they know and love about Michael, and then I try to take them along the journey for the rest of the show.
Liana: Like you said, part of our job is to honor what they created because it’s part of our responsibility. John Rando said on day one that we had to take really good care of these characters. It’s a fun challenge and a delicate balance of figuring out, specifically, what it is that audiences love about these characters so much. What are the traits that people need to see represented on stage, and then how can I infuse it with myself, too? I’m not Lea Thompson, and it’s going to be my version of Lorraine Baines no matter what, but what is the essence of her that I really need to deliver to make audiences feel at home and, like Casey said, go along for the ride.
Casey, take me through what it’s like for you to sit in the DeLorean when it’s on the turntable, with all the music and projections and all of that?
Casey: I saw the show in London before I was involved and I was blown away by it. It hearkens back to a time when musical-theater was big and brassy and amazed me in the way that Wicked and The Lion King did. Being in it is like being in the movie. There’s a part of the show where I turn upstage towards the screen, and the screen is showing what I’m doing in the car. If I turn left, the screen is turning left with me. It feels like I’m in the ride. It’s kind of a shame, because I’m sure the view is really great from the house, but I have the best seat and no one else gets it.