His career got kickstarted by a smash appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson when he was all of five years old, and even though 40 years have now passed since that iconic moment, Joey Lawrence has basically never stopped working. That’s a pretty impressive track record by anyone’s standards, but it’s also a testimony to Lawrence’s work ethic: whether it’s singing, dancing, or acting, he’s ready at the drop of a hat to do whatever’s asked of him, and it’s served him well over the course of the past four decades.
This week, Lawrence finds himself in shark-infested waters with Swim, a Tubi original movie making its debut as part of the streaming service’s “Bitefest” programming package. Decider was fortunate enough to hop on the phone with Lawrence to discuss the film, and it should come as no surprise that we also took the opportunity to pepper him with questions about various other projects from his back catalog, including Melissa and Joey, Blossom, Gimme a Break! and much more.
DECIDER: I watched an advance screener of Swim last night, and I think it’s got “future cult classic” written all over it.
Joey Lawrence: [Shrugs and laughs.] Look, you do these movies and… You know, I’ve never done one like this, but it was cool. I mean, it was cool! Tubi, which I wasn’t really aware of before this, more people are getting aware of it daily. It’s a really cool service, it’s free, and it’s got a billion different titles to tune into, especially now that Fox owns them and they have the Fox catalog. And I think it’s really neat right now because they have all the Jaws movies and 65 other shark-related titles, so they’re doing this whole monthlong “Bitefest” thing…and, of courses they’re getting into the original-content world and decided to do this shark movie called Swim, which they asked me to be a part of!
It’s a lot of fun, and I hope coming out of this last year and a half, which we’ve somehow all endured, hopefully, it’ll be some escapism. We’ll have some surreal drama to hopefully take our eyes and our hearts away from the real drama that we deal with every single minute of the day, and…I’m looking forward to it! Hopefully, people will just have some fun and escape for a few hours and throw back some popcorn. There’ll be some scares, but it’ll be kind of fun!
If ever a movie would make you want leave your house, I think it’d be this one, just by virtue of the events going in this house…although it must be said that you don’t have to endure nearly as much as the rest of the characters in the film. You spend a lot of the film in the car!
I know, I do. They rent the house in the movie, but the dad – that’s my character – was stuck in traffic and couldn’t get there. And when he does get there, all hell’s breaking loose, so of course he’s just gonna jump in and try to save the day there. It’s crazy. [Laughs.] And I know you’ve seen the screener, but they’re still continuing to tweak the CGI even now, I think, so by the time that it’s ready for primetime – so to speak! – the CGI will be very cool.
But the filming was weird: we were submerged in water, with the rain towers and the wind, and we were filming in crazy hours of the night. I was basically submerged in water for two thirds of my scenes, and…it was crazy! And because of all the CGI, they made a rubber shark, and they had scuba divers with things on their backs swimming around and representing a shark for you. [Laughs.] So that was fun!
Well, as I said, I certainly enjoyed watching it. In fact, I actually called my wife into the room for a few minutes to show her the scene where your wife in the film has a close encounter with the shark after her father has an even closer encounter with one.
[Laughs.] Yes! And like I said, they’re still tweaking it even now. The CGI gets better daily. So when it premieres, it’ll be pretty tight.
This is probably a rhetorical question, but do you have a favorite shark movie? With the understanding that almost everybody has the same favorite shark movie.
Yeah, for me, honestly, it’s probably Jaws, only because I just love that it was the first of its kind. And it’s a story that Steven Spielberg has told several times, but I also love the fact that they didn’t have the CGI, they only had the practical technology, and the shark… You know, it did not look good in a lot of shots. So they had to work around that shark and I think editing around it because of their limitations enhanced the other amazing scenes they had. My favorite scenes are the acting scenes in the boat, when they’re singing, and when they go out in the middle of the night when they’re first looking for that shark and they pull up the wrong one, and they fight to empty its guts out. These acting moments were so great because they had no choice but to edit around the mechanical shark, so you wouldn’t see that shark until the very end of the movie. But by not wanting to expose the weaknesses in the technology, they ended up creating more of the suspense, and it’s so much greater compared to what it would have been if you’d seen that shark.
Anyway, I just love the fact that it’s those limitations that led to one of the most suspenseful movies ever, and certainly a summer blockbuster, one that changed the whole dynamic of movies. That was, like, the first summer blockbuster. It made the studios go, “Wait a minute, there’s a summer audience!” Because most of the time they’d just burn movies off in the summer, thinking that people were on vacation. But when that movie was a massive hit, it sort of started to change the whole dynamic of releasing big tentpole films in the summer.
I generally like to ask people about stuff way back in their catalog, but given your history as a child actor, your career obviously yours goes way, way back. Still, I’m curious if you remember anything at all about the experience of making Scamps.
Yes, I do! It was really cool. That was with Bob Denver, and it was by Sherwood Schwartz, who created The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island. I remember that was NBC’s first project that they put me in after they signed me to my deal after being on The Tonight Show. And the one scene I remember is, I had to walk into a laundry room full of suds – the laundry machine overflowed – and I got lost. [Laughs.] And I remember being so scared, because I actually was in the suds, and I could not see. And what felt like 10 minutes… I mean, it was probably more like a minute or two, but it felt so much longer to me because I couldn’t get out!
So it’s the emotional scarring that you remember.
I presume the experience of doing Gimme A Break! was less scarring in the long run.
It was a great time. I remember just being on the set and going to work every day, and the live audiences… It was such a tremendous time. What a decade the ’80s were. Really, you don’t realize how good we had it as a whole. I mean, especially later. But it was a great time. I remember we filmed next to the Cinerama dome in Hollywood, and there was one day after work where my mom and the stage manager on the show, Jeff Meyers, took me to see Back To The Future, and they had the DeLorean in the lobby. Like, the actual car. And I just remember sitting there in the Cinerama dome, watching the movie, and…it blew my mind. [Laughs.]
But the show, I had a great time. I mean, I love to work, and I was always driven by work, and to be able to go there every day for those six years and work and get the reaction from the audience and feel that pride in what you do… That’s a source of a great sense of accomplishment. So, yeah, great memories. All great.
I remember having my mind blown back then when I discovered that John Hoyt [Grandpa Kamisky] was in the original pilot for Star Trek.
Isn’t that wild? And Nell Carter… I never saw the bad moments, because I was a little kid, so she was always so great to me. The whole cast was great to me, and I had a great time. I mean, I had to be on my A-game. I mean, it was real. But it was a great training ground for me to really get my ass in gear and learn how to be a pro. It was tough, but it was good.
I promised myself that I would ask about your vest from the cover of your self-titled album. Is it in the Smithsonian now?
JL: It’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for sure. [Laughs]. No, you know, I had no idea what that thing was!
I rewatched the video [for “Nothin’ My Love Can’t Fix”], and I have to say, I didn’t remember quite how much paint-throwing there was in ‘90’s videos.
A lot of paint, a lot of running, a lot of football, a lot of slow-mo. [Laughs.] It’s good stuff. It was a fun time.
So you enjoyed the experience of making those albums in the ’90s, then?
Yeah, it was a lot of fun. And I still release music, you know, I released a song called “Turtle” not too long ago which is doing unbelievable. One of the best singles that I’ve ever had, actually.
Those first two records… Well, you know, the first album sold millions of records. But this is a very different world now. It’s about downloads and all this stuff. But this new single is doing great. And I’m putting together a deal right now, in a much more formal way, with a label to actually release music in an official manner again. So it’s kind of exciting that it came out of all these little independent releases doing so well, and that there’s a real market for it. It’s kind of cool.
I wanted to ask about the experience of doing Brotherly Love, where you got to work with two of your brothers (Andrew and Matthew).
It was great. I love working with those guys. I’m still working with those guys to this day. You know, Andy, he’s writing and directing, and I’ve been in a couple of movies that he’s written and directed. And, you know, we’re actually working on something really exciting, the three of us, with some really amazing producers. I can’t wait to talk about it. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.
I will say that Money Plane was a hoot.
[Chuckling.] I know, yeah. It’s crazy: Andy will be the first one to tell you that that movie… When he wrote it, it was supposed to be sort of a very campy film, sort of like Zombieland. But obviously, you know, being a first time director, you don’t have the clout, and when they buy it, the studio wants what they want, so they edited that movie in tone and made it much more serious, whereas it was supposed to be very comical and funny.
But, look, that movie is done unbelievably well, it’s been very successful for what it was made for, and it’s opened the doors for Andy. He’s directed four films since then, and it’s because he did a really competent job on that film. I mean, if you knew the budget on that thing, it would blow your mind. But he was able to pull it off and it was fun. And he was able to work with Kelsey Grammer and Thomas Jane!
Is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
Well, I know American Dreams was set up to really have a great run. You know, we got a Golden Globe nomination on that show, and I think the third season creatively… [Hesitates.] I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but I think they made a decision to go one way or the network made a decision, but they took it away from the music element, which I loved. I was part of the American Bandstand side of the plate, basically Dick Clark’s right hand man. It was so great. I got to work with Dick, walking through the sets – all that equipment we used was from his library – and it was really a great experience.
We had amazing guests on that show, like Usher and Kelly Clarkson, and they came in and played all these amazing artists on Bandstand. I think Usher played Marvin Gaye, Kelly played Brenda Lee… It was great. So I really felt like they had it planned in season four for Bandstand to go to Hollywood, which is what it did – it moved from the east coast to Los Angeles – and it was going to be basically a music-based show with my character running it and the kids, Brittany Snow and everybody in Hollywood. The plans for it were tremendous.
But it didn’t make it beyond the third season, because they went for a very dramatic twist, which the show didn’t need. We were really excited about where that show was going to go, and we just didn’t have an opportunity to do it, even though the first couple years were very highly acclaimed and a lot of people really liked what it was doing. But at any rate…. You know, it is what it is. But that’s one that I think would’ve had some real legs if they done that, but it didn’t get a chance to see the light of day.
I enjoyed Melissa and Joey. I think a lot of people might’ve just dismissed it immediately – “Oh, wow, it’s Sabrina meets Joey from Blossom!” – but it was more than that from the get-go, and as it progressed, I think it became even better.
Thank you very much! Yeah, we were very proud of that, actually, because… Well, what you said: we put that together from the ground up, and we set out to make a real quality romantic comedy. It wasn’t supposed to be a retread on anything. It was just two people that knew the artform and could execute it, and I think we did that well, I hear all the time from people about just how really good that show was, and that people really, really liked it. And we were able to get it to 125 episodes, and it was a really big hit for ABC Family. You still see all over the place today, too. It’s done great on Hulu and everywhere.
I think Tubi is actually working on acquiring some of my early work as well, which is going to be really, really cool. I’m looking forward to that. Actually, my fiancée and I wrote a script, a romantic comedy, because we met on a movie, and we’re going to be shooting that later this year with Tubi, this throwback When Harry Met Sally kind of romantic comedy that we wrote. So, yeah, I’m continuing my relationship with Tubi. [Laughs.] Which is gonna be great. I’m really excited about that, too.
What I particularly like about Tubi is the fact that they’re finding short-lived series from the vaults and bringing them back to people. I mean, as a TV critic, that’s my bread and butter: the stuff people have forgotten.
Oh, yeah, it’s really smart. Finding niche or forgotten projects, it’s, like, “Remember this?” I know I always love it when Sirius XM does that with music. Nostalgic stuff like that, it’s really neat. It’s really going to be fun to see where this streaming platform goes as it grows, and to be a part of that from the ground level and to be able to make another movie for them immediately – especially one that I co-wrote with my writing partner – is really cool.
A friend of mine who’s an obsessive Hawaii Five-O fan wanted me to tell you that you played a great bad guy.
[Laughs.] Oh, thanks, man! It was fun playing Nick Jonas’s brother. We were brothers on there, but he got killed, so I had to, like, come in and avenge his death. Yeah, we were just getting going with that, too. There were a lot of plans for my character on that, but… Well, you have to take that up with the other guys, not me. I guess that show just got to a point where it was not cost-effective. But it was fun to do it while it lasted!
You’ve done some other procedural stuff as well. I know you did an arc on CSI: New York.
I did. I was a serial killer. It was fun, working with Gary [Sinese]. It’s always good to jump into that kind of role. Believe it or not, the film where I met my fiancée was one where I played a killer as well! [Laughs.] It’s coming out on Lifetime. It’s a movie that my brother Randy wrote and directed, believe it or not called A Deadly Deed, and I think it’ll be out on September 17. It’s a really cool thriller that my brother wrote as well.
It’s great that you guys still maintain the working relationship beyond the family relationship.
Yeah, we do. We do whenever it makes sense. I like to help those guys out whenever I can. But, you know, it’s family, man.
Just because I enjoy a good obscurity, I should mention that I’ve seen the pilot for the attempted TV series version of Adventures in Babysitting.
What?! [Laughs.] That’s crazy, dude. Yeah, that was supposed to be a really high-profile pilot. We had Elizabeth Shue on set with us, she was an EP on that. Brian Austin Green was in it. It was crazy. But even though it was high-profile, I just don’t think the pilot turned out very well. I think there was a lot of promise there, but they didn’t really know how to recapture that element from the movie. And I think, honestly, Elizabeth was a big part of that movie and…it wasn’t her. It’s tough to recapture something like that.
I know we’re coming up on time here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the experience of doing Blossom and working with Mayim Bialik.
She was great. You know, Mayim and I still talk every now and then. You know, they’ve talked about trying to figure out a way back into that show. In fact, we’ve had some serious talks about that. So that may happen at some point. You know, we’ll see.
Did you ever scar your throat from having to say “whoa” so many times?
No, there were some times I couldn’t say it, but it was because I had laryngitis or something like that. [Laughs.] No, thankfully, it wasn’t challenging on the vocal cords. It was. It was more in the upper register area.
Do you have a favorite episode of the series? It doesn’t have to be one of the “very special” episodes.
Yeah, it’s definitely not one of the very special ones. [Laughs.] Those are not my favorite! But we did a documentary – a take on Truth or Dare, the Madonna documentary – and it was just so much fun to film. It was a very cool thing. I don’t think I’d ever seen something like that on TV before. It was very, very highly regarded – we all got to play exaggerated versions of ourselves – and it was just a lot of fun to shoot.
Lastly, how’d you enjoy the experience of doing Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber?
Well, you know, it was one of these things where a friend asked me to do it, so, you know, you do it. It was fine, it was alright. I’ve done a lot of these little things along the way. You know, I’ve been doing this for… Well, this is my 40th year of doing this! I’ve been lucky enough to still be doing it, and as you do it, you go through a whole bunch of stuff. But I’m excited about what’s coming up. I feel like this is an exciting time for me, and I’m really kind of reinvigorated and looking forward to what’s to come in the next several years or so.
Well, as someone who’s watched various kid actors grow up to be teen actors and then grow up to be adult actors, I just wanted to say that it seems like you’ve managed to avoid just about every traditional pitfall, whether that’s a testament to your parents, to you having a good head on your shoulders yourself, or both.
A combination of great parents and grandparents, holding myself accountable, and people holding me accountable that care about me. Accountability is a big key. We all have to be accountable. But look, man, you know, nobody’s perfect. I’ve weathered some storms, and I’m getting better every day. I try not to make the same mistakes more than twice because, you know, I’m still making mistakes, just not the same ones. Yeah, it’s been a long journey, but it’s been a good journey…and it’s been a tough journey! But I’m thankful to be able to still be on the journey, and I’m looking forward to what’s next. Hopefully some good things!
Will Harris (@NonStopPop) has a longstanding history of doing long-form interviews with random pop culture figures for the A.V. Club, Vulture, and a variety of other outlets, including Variety. He’s currently working on a book with David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. (And don’t call him Shirley.)
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