PLAYBOY: You grew up in a show-business family. How did it affect you to know from a young age that the magic of showbiz was fake?
ABRAMS: It wasn’t fake to me. It was real seeing Hollywood people do what they do. My father worked as a producer at Paramount. I’d go to his office and look at the call sheets of everything that was shooting on the lot. This was back in the day when shooting in Los Angeles was a given, so there would be a dozen things filming. It was the time of Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy. I’ll never forget seeing Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Tom Bosley and the whole cast of Happy Days with their scripts and Garry Marshall on the floor, rehearsing an episode. I felt a desperate, deep hunger to be on the floor with them. I was so jealous that their job was to put on a little play and figure it out.
PLAYBOY: What were some moments that left you saying, “Never meet your heroes”?
ABRAMS: Seeing Robin Williams being completely off-color freaked me out. It’s funny when you’re an adult, but it’s creepy and weird when you’re 12 and he’s dressed like Mork. Even weirder was going to the set of Eight Is Enough. I really liked that show, but I remember walking onto the set—again, I was probably 11 or 12—and seeing the mom, Betty Buckley, aggressively negotiating some deal for a commercial with her agent. That was strange. Then I went onto the bedroom set and there was Willie Aames lying in his Eight Is Enough bed, passed out facedown from, I’m sure, a night of insane partying. Then Adam Rich came skateboarding by and I heard people in the crew swearing at him under their breath after he passed. That was ugly.
My point is, there was a sense of creepy dysfunction that was the opposite of what you’d see on TV. So I knew it wasn’t all roses, but I also saw how fucking cool it was. If I were better at math, I might have gone to medical school. If I were a better artist or architect, I could have gone in those directions. But I knew from a young age I couldn’t do anything else than be involved in this crazy world I’m in.
PLAYBOY: What happens when you’re working on a production and someone is crazier than you thought they were in the casting session?
ABRAMS: That has happened on a couple of occasions. If it’s someone who’s in three scenes in a movie and they’re doing a good job but they’re nuts, you kind of think, Let’s just ride it out and we’ll deal with it. If they’re signed on for six episodes of a show and they’re making people on the crew cry, you have to address it and deal with it, but it has happened only a couple of times. For the most part you do your due diligence and get to know who you’re working with before the crazy happens.
PLAYBOY: What about Tom Cruise? What was your experience with him on Mission: Impossible III?
ABRAMS: Here’s what happened on Mission. Before I started, I called Cameron Crowe, whom I know, and asked him his advice, since he’d made two movies with Tom. He just said, “Brother, you are going to be spoiled.” I was like, “All right,” not quite knowing what he meant. I now know he was right. Tom is the hardest-working, most focused, generous, passionate-about-the-form collaborator I could imagine. He’s someone who gave me my first shot directing a movie. No one would have done that but him. It was a huge first movie to do, but I was never scared. I was always excited about it because I felt everything I had been working on was sort of preparing me for that. And Tom made it an amazing experience. I was a first-time feature director, and before we started shooting Tom said, “I’m your actor; you’re the director.”
I remember being warned by a number of very experienced people in the business that a producer-star with a first-time director gets really ugly, so get ready. I’ll tell you that there was not a day on that movie when Tom was not supportive, encouraging, collaborative, excited. He never mandated anything. He never insisted on things going a certain way. There was nothing I ever asked him to do that he wouldn’t do. There were things I asked him not to do because he was so willing to put himself physically in danger. I would be like, “There’s not a fucking chance you’re going through that window. If you get cut.…” But he was always about the better idea.
PLAYBOY: Then what are we to make of the Scientology Tom or the jumping-on-Oprah’s-couch Tom or the psychiatrists-are-evil Tom?
ABRAMS: He has never in any way mandated or tried to push any of that. You heard stories that there were Scientology tents and things on War of the Worlds. That never existed in my experience with him, ever. All I will say is that he’s got a huge heart, and he’s a generous and good guy.
PLAYBOY: What about Michael Bay? You co-wrote the screenplay for Armageddon. What are your memories of that experience?
ABRAMS: I know Michael’s a guy who can be abusive and crazy and all kinds of stuff. I remember hearing things like “Oh my God, he’s so intimidating.” But when I was driving over to meet him for the first time, someone called and said, “He went to Crossroads,” which is a private school down the street from here in Santa Monica. I thought, He’s a Crossroads kid? Growing up in Brentwood, I knew kids like him. I had never met Michael, but this idea that he was a Crossroads kid suddenly demystified him for me. I met him and immediately started giving him shit, and he was giving me shit. He liked me because I wasn’t afraid of him and I understood who he was, which was someone who was a little freaked out by how big he’d become so fast.
PLAYBOY: Who’s an up-and-coming director to keep an eye on?
ABRAMS: Rian Johnson. I love what he did with Looper, the scope of the movie and the emotion—and that moment when we discover who the Rainmaker is is one of the most chilling, awesome moments I’ve seen in movies in a long time. He has a big career ahead of him.
PLAYBOY: Your career is about as big as anybody’s in Hollywood right now. You’re as famous as many actors in your films and shows.
ABRAMS: First of all, I don’t feel I’m remotely famous. But secondly, with what I’m doing and what I’m involved in, I feel I’m obviously riding coattails and working on projects that are bigger than all of us. A by-product of that is sometimes some notoriety, but it’s all worthless if what’s being made isn’t of some quality. I certainly never wanted to become a director because I was looking to be famous. I look at people I know, certainly actors like Tom, who literally cannot go anywhere. That’s a miserable thing. I go out all the time, and people don’t recognize me at all.
PLAYBOY: So women aren’t throwing themselves at you? Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen when you get big in show business?
ABRAMS: It’s not happening. What’s that about? [laughs] What I usually get isn’t a sexual thing. It’s usually some dude with hair too long in the back giving me a Vulcan salute or, more recently, saying, “May the Force be with you.” I haven’t gotten a lot of the more appealing versions you’re referring to.
PLAYBOY: You went to Sarah Lawrence, which was traditionally an all-women’s college and still skews heavily female. As a straight guy at Sarah Lawrence, you must have been quite busy.
ABRAMS: The ratio was spectacular, I won’t lie. But I also got to be in rooms with a lot of women and, no joke, a lot of interesting conversations. It was almost like being a fly on the wall, where you’d actually get to hear and see what it’s like to be a woman. As a writer it was a cool opportunity. The rhythm of conversation. The way women are with one another in private.
PLAYBOY: Is that where Felicity came to you?
ABRAMS: Felicity really had nothing to do with my college experience; it was much more about my time in high school. A young woman who was in my class was an amazing artist. I had never really talked to her, but she did the posters for all the plays and stuff. At graduation I finally said, “Listen, we’ve been at this school for years together. I just wanted to say hi and say your work is unbelievable.” The look on her face was so incredible. Her face literally changed. She was so stunned and kind of awkward and then very sweet about it. For some reason her reaction stayed with me. I always thought that was a cool story, about someone who approaches someone at the very end of high school. There was another girl at the school, whose name was Felicity, and I always thought that was a great name for a character. That’s how ideas happen sometimes.
PLAYBOY: How did you go from Mr. Sensitive to action-movie guy?
ABRAMS: Look, all of it’s me. Felicity was an idea I was excited about. But when we were doing the show, what struck me was there were no bad guys. It was frustrating to do a show where the biggest threat was whether Felicity was going to get a D or be late to class or kiss the wrong boy. Lovely and romantic and fun, yes, but incredibly low stakes. What you’re always looking for on a TV show is the act-out, what makes you go “Ooh!” It was a hard thing to do because there were no murderers or vampires or villains.
So as a joke I pitched to the writers’ room: What if Felicity were a spy? It would be awesome because she’d be going off on these crazy action adventures and could come back and tell Julie what she’d really done. Or she has these bruises and she’d be lying to Ben or Noel about what they were. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy. Then ABC said it was looking for a show with a young female lead, and that was why I wrote Alias.
PLAYBOY: Jennifer Garner from Alias, Evangeline Lilly from Lost, Anna Torv from Fringe. You certainly know how to find gorgeous unknown newcomers and turn them into gun-toting badasses in supertight clothing.
ABRAMS: Well, I was in love with Batgirl as a kid. I thought she was the sexiest thing in the history of time. In the beginning of Batman, whenever the cartoon version of Batgirl would swoop through and you’d know she was in the episode, I’d be hugely excited, because she was so unbearably hot. And then, obviously, on The Avengers, Diana Rigg was just so completely…yeah. It’s a funny thing, because when I was growing up, usually men were the main characters and women were trophies. You know, the Bond girls were just kind of eye candy and fun. But I was always drawn to a different kind of woman, like Jenny Agutter in Logan’s Run. There were certain women who made you go, “Oh, she was beautiful but also just as fierce as Logan.” Think about when Alien came out. There’s Ripley at the end in her underwear, getting into the space suit—rewind, please. Those are the women who grabbed me as a kid.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever have a wild-oats period?
ABRAMS: I’ve never done anything remotely serious in that regard.
PLAYBOY: Ever been arrested?
ABRAMS: Never been arrested.
PLAYBOY: Wrecked a hotel room?