When the Runaways formed in 1975, they were the only all-girl teenage hard rock band on the planet, and the world wasn’t quite ready for them. Decades later, the Runaways are finally getting some of the attention they deserve with the band biopic The Runaways, which stars Dakota Fanning as the 15-year-old lead singer Cherie Currie and Kristen Stewart as a very young Joan Jett. The film—which goes into wide release April 9—is based on the recently released book Neon Angel: A Memoir of A Runaway by lead singer Currie and details the band’s short, messy history and the struggle with addiction that nearly claimed her life. Currie sat down with us to talk about growing up in a rock band, conquering addiction, and the talk generated by the scene in the film where she and Joan Jett kiss.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How much of the movie is taken from your book Neon Angel? Is it mostly your story?
CHERIE CURRIE: Well, it’s Joan and my story, of course. They took a lot of poetic license with the movie. If you read the book, you’ll see things were a little bit different from the movie, but I don’t want to give anything anyway.
And Joan Jett is attached as an executive producer. Are there any Runaways memories you disagree on?
No. She was very supportive of the original book. The new book is a lot more intense, there were a lot of stories I couldn’t tell in a young adults book.
So this book originally came out in 1989 in much different form, as a young-adult book. Why did you decide to go back to it?
That happened in 2000. A friend of mine read it and turned around and said, “Have you ever thought what people are going to think of you when they read this book?” And it shocked me that he would say that…he’s no longer a friend. But I re-read the book and I cried for three days. And then all of a sudden, instead of shutting away from it I decided to add to it. So I started writing. It took me three or four months, and then Kenny Laguna [Joan Jett’s manager] read the book and he thought it was worthy of republication, because you couldn’t find it anywhere. And he started shopping it to publishers and some people became interested in making it into a film, so that’s what happened.
What about it made you cry?
Probably because…it took a lot of courage to go through that in the mid-’80s, writing that with Neal Shusterman. Neal Shusterman is a phenomenal writer, he’s known for his young-adult books. But then I didn’t read it again for another ten years, and when I read it, it brought everything back and made me see there’s so much left to tell. I wasn’t done. That’s why it’s such a miracle to be able to write the same story twice and get it right the second time. Now it’s an adult book: It comes from a 50-year-old woman with a child. My perspective on it is entirely different from this girl in her mid-20s who was still coming to grips with and coping with the bad things I’d done. There was a lot of self-loathing at the time—I wanted everyone to forgive me instead of looking at it from what it was and that I wasn’t the only person who was responsible. That came with 20 more years and realizing that I’m not going to take the blame for this anymore. I’ve made my amends and it’s time to tell the absolute truth. And it really took it out of me… it was a rough ride.
And you feel better about it now?
Absolutely. It was very healing. It wasn’t like it was devastating to go through it. I was like a person on the outside looking in at times when it got really heavy. But I had to do that in order to give myself the courage to go back in there. The more I did the more I came to grips with it and I’m very proud I lived through those things. I’m alive. That’s the point—whoever reads this can see that I’ve been through so much, and they can relate that to things they’ve been through and realize that no matter what, you can survive and thrive. You can come out the other end smelling like a rose and live a happy, healthy life. And that’s what I want for people—it might seem horrible and unlivable at the time, but hang in there: there is a beautiful life out there.
Does the movie do a good job relaying that or is it more glamorized?
I don’t think it gets quite in depth or even close to what the book is, but you can only tell so much in an hour and a half when you’re dealing with years and a multitude of stories. There’s no way unless it was an epic 10-part miniseries. You can’t touch on everything from everyone’s perspective. I keep hearing from some people, “Oh, its just Cherie and Joan’s story, what about Lita Ford?” [Ford was also a guitarist for the Runaways.] It’s about me and Joan because it came from my book, and they were not in my life very much. Jackie Fox [the bassist, not depicted in the film] was a bookworm and Lita was just angry at me all the time, so she wasn’t close to me. Sandy [West, the drummer] and Joan, they were the two closest to me. You can’t have everyone’s perspective.
When you look back on it, is there any part of it you remember fondly?
Oh yeah, we had a lot of fun. We had a blast. We grew up together on the road without any supervision. Can you imagine the fun we had? It was grueling, we worked really hard, but we had our fun. We made it.
What did you think when you heard Dakota Fanning would be playing you?
I couldn’t have been happier. She’s my favorite actress. I have been watching her evolve, well, she was evolved from day one, but I have been a fan of her for years. Isn’t that weird, to say that about a 16-year-old, that I’ve been a fan of her for years? But it was a complete dream come true. And she’s gorgeous too, with that beautiful face. I never in my wildest dreams thought someone of her caliber would have been interested in doing this, but when I talked to her about it she said when she read the script she had no doubt she was the only one to do the role. And I said, “Why do you say that?” And she said “What are they gonna do, get a 26-year-old to play a 15-year-old?” And I thought, “You are so smart.” And she could really see that we might have been 15, 16 but we were wise beyond our years. We had to be.
A lot of the Runaways’ lyrics dealt with sexual empowerment, drugs, and being on the wrong side of law. Was that a part of your life before you joined the band?
Well, Kim Fowley [the band’s manager] did a lot of the writing and he thought that’s what we needed to convey. Because we were going into the trenches in a male-dominated business where girls were not allowed. And he knew we couldn’t be singing pansy ass songs or they’d just kick our asses right off the stage. They attempted to do that anyway. So we got out there and hit them right between the eyes.
Kim Fowley didn’t always seem to have your best interests at heart. What do you think of him looking back?
Now I understand. I didn’t until close to a decade ago. Being a mom helps. I would think, “Why did he have to be so cruel? Why did he have to be so abusive?” But it’s not easy to be a parent, and that’s really what I was expecting of a thirtysomething year old man who had never been a parent to be one to us kids. And he apologized to me a year ago, saying if he could have done things differently, he would have, but he just didn’t know how. And that to me is truth. And also, I forgave myself for all the stuff. Over these last 30 years I came to realize why these things happened, and in forgiving myself it was very easy to forgive him.
What did you blame yourself for?
I mean, the drug use and what I put my family through. I took it to death’s door and you don’t ever take that journey alone when you have a family. And they were devastated and constantly living on the edge thinking, “When am I gonna get that phone call?” And that’s a horrific abuse that I put my family through, through my addiction. But I had to realize it wasn’t all me. Everyone was doing it. Back then it was really commonplace, if you didn’t do drugs you were weird.
I hear you’re into wood carving now and you wield a chainsaw to do it. How does one get into that hobby?
It happened overnight. I had been doing two-dimensional relief carving and I was going to Malibu Beach one day and I happened to pass these guys chainsaw carving on the side of the road and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Every day I was thinking, “You gotta go back.” So the next weekend I did. I brought some of my artwork with me and went to this gallery and saw this beautiful mermaid. It’s not just all bears, it can be mermaids, sea creatures…anything you can sculpt.
When did you realize the influence of the Runaways on other bands?
I would hear bits and pieces from bands. The Go-Gos, decades ago, would say, “The Runaways really inspired us.” But we really weren’t talked about that much except by the fans that got it. And I couldn’t listen to the music for a good solid twenty years because I was still hurt by the whole thing. I had thought the girls wanted me out of the band. I had no idea Joan was devastated and hurt that I left, but we never communicated afterward. But one day I started looking at the youtube videos and I was stunned. It had been 25, 27 years later but my jaw hit the floor with how good that band was visually, musically and ability-wise.
What do you think about all the talk that kiss between Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as you and Joan Jett is causing? Was that a big part of the Runaways story?
Well, Joan and I were never in love. We loved each other as friends but Joan was never touchy-feely like that. First thing, the movie seems like it happens in a couple of weeks and it’s actually like two years. But Joan and I had a great time a few times, back then in the mid-’70s, it was cool. Everybody was sowing wild oats…we just had fun. It was no big deal.