How Reality Bites (and My Friend Sadie Grossman) Made Me the Actor I Am Today

Actor and filmmaker Ryan Spahn on one of the most formative films of his teenage years, which was released 29 years ago this weekend.

As a budding queer kid growing up in the suburbs of Detroit in the ’90s, social hierarchy was a crippling obstacle. The only option for non-family interactions was during school hours, in what felt like a popularity firing squad. At least, for the unpopular. Which I was. I felt strange. Uncomfortable. Out of place. I’d stalk my bedroom, raging through my drawers … cobbling together the semblance of the person I thought others needed me to be. I dreamed of a restart. A second chance. One day, I read an interview with the late Robin Williams. He spoke of “going to Juilliard.” I thought, “I must do that.” I closed the magazine, dialed New York City, and a soft-spoken employee answered: “If you want to come to Juilliard, you should go to Interlochen Arts Academy.” I hung up, cashed in my savings, and whisked myself to the mecca of Michigan’s northern woods. Studying acting at a boarding school would be my shot at a total revamp. All I needed was a friend.

Enter Sadie Grossman.

A teenage Ryan Spahn with Sadie Grossman. (Photo courtesy Ryan Spahn.)

I spotted Sadie – a teen bombshell with curly, red hair that rivaled any child star of Annie – in my third period theatre arts class. She was a local gal who had grown up in the town adjacent to Interlochen. With seemingly effortless aplomb, Sadie could make an entire room aspire to be her. She was intimidating; her wit, her talent, her strength. I didn’t realize at the time, but I would come to have an affinity for women in a way I would never have with men, even if I was romantically interested in the latter. Sadie and I connected over shared dreams of starring in Romeo and Juliet, being roommates at Juilliard and headlining whatever WB series Kevin Williamson created. We pumped up each other’s egos, made each other laugh and challenged each other’s imaginations. But there was one thing we did together that taught me more than anything else. To be fair, it wasn’t entirely just Sadie. There was a dollop of this little movie involved, too.

Ryan Spahn (right) in an Interlochen production of Much Ado About Nothing. (Photo courtesy Ryan Spahn.)

On winter recess in February 1994, I was home from Interlochen. I was juggling two jobs to balance my tuition costs, but I always had Saturdays off. Bored and lonely, I asked my dad to take me to the movies. Dad said, “Sure. Want me to go with you, son?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Nope.” Not because I was embarrassed to be seen with my dad, although I was the prime age for that, but because I had just become a teenager and I wanted to purchase a PG-13 movie ticket without my parents. Dad got the hint, drove me to Oakland Mall and said, “I’ll pick you up in a few hours, son.” As he drove away, I opened my black JanSport and pulled a Camel Light from its crumpled soft pack. Cowering behind a dumpster, I enjoyed my newly acquired smoking habit on the sly.

“One ticket to Reality Bites, please,” I said to the nameless, pox-faced box-office employee. I didn’t know much about this movie, but I had seen Winona Ryder in a few other ’90s gems – Edward Scissorhands, Mermaids and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael – and I was already smitten. As the lights dimmed, I sat down in the overly air-conditioned movie theater, totally alone.

Steve Zahn, Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and Janeane Garofalo in Reality Bites.

Reality Bites is directed by wunderkind Ben Stiller and has one killer soundtrack. The film chronicles the post-college ups and downs of a group of Houston pals. Press play on Gary Glitter’s “Rock’n’ Roll Part II” as valedictorian Lelaina Pierce (two-time Academy Award nominee and grunge-icon Winona Ryder) gives her class speech. It couldn’t go any worse, signaling Lelaina has hit rock bottom. Unsure of her life’s path, Lelaina hides behind her video camera, documenting her friends’ every move. Hear the vocals of Juliana Hatfield’s “Spin the Bottle” as Gap manager Vickie Miner (comedy legend Janeane Garofalo) perfectly folds and stacks shirts. When not making $400 per week at the mall, Vickie has an endless barrage of one-night stands, causing her to be riddled with fear over her HIV status. Sprinkle in a bit of the Knack’s “My Sharona” as the lone gay character, Sammy Gray (adorable Steve Zahn), struggles with coming out to his parents. Sadly, that’s the extent of Sammy’s character, but at least the gay man wasn’t the one fearing his HIV status, which was its own level of progress. Later, Lelaina gets involved with a yuppie TV producer, Michael Grates (29-year-old Ben Stiller). Conjure the sounds of Social Distortion’s “Story of My Life” as Lelaina and Michael become romantically entwined over Big Gulps. Lelaina is floundering in her career and Michael promises to air her docu-footage on his TV network. But the true romantic heartbeat is between Lelaina and the longstanding love-hate relationship she has with her best friend, Troy Dyer (’90s dreamboat Ethan Hawke). Troy is a mad genius undergoing existential despair. He can smell Lelaina’s romantic inauthenticity from a mile away. The rest of the film unfolds with gas stations and Swoosie Kurtz, Evian bottles and doily dresses. By the end, the Texas misfits find themselves one step closer to adulthood as Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” plays. Roll credits.

I barely moved after the movie ended. I was gobsmacked. I had never seen anything like it. I made a commitment then and there to only smoke Camel straights, because that’s what Troy smoked. I instinctively started copying everything about the characters: their chaotic social habits, their biting humor, their flannel wardrobe. I was addicted. Inspired. I bought tickets to Reality Bites three times that week and also got the soundtrack. On the Greyhound back to Interlochen, I scribbled frantic notes to Sadie: “Find me as soon as you get to campus!” We didn’t have cell phones back then, so your free time was spent leaving messages in your friends’ dorm mailboxes and then hunting campus for them. When Sadie and I finally had our epic reunion outside the cafeteria, I bellowed, “Did you see it?!” Sadie screamed, “Five times!!” With that, we booked it to her janky Ford Taurus (she had a license), drove to our favorite Traverse City dive, cowered in the corner and dumped our cigarettes onto the diner table.

Ryan Spahn and Sadie Grossman, living the high life. (Photo courtesy Ryan Spahn.)

“The way Lelaina takes her cigarette to the ashtray, with the ash still piled atop of the cigarette, like it’s gonna collapse on the floor?” “I know, I know, I know!” Sadie and I immediately lit our cigarettes and pretended like we were Lelaina: unemployed, unloved, watching TV on a shitty couch. We allowed our ashes to amass as the diner waitress interrupted our roleplaying, “Are you kids planning to get anything besides coffee?” Sadie and I looked at each other, snickered, and I replied with Troy’s epic, “This is all we need. Couple smokes, a cup of coffee and a little bit of conversation. You and me and five bucks.” The waitress blinked, confused, and walked away.

This “quote-off” went on for (what seemed like) hours. “My goal is … I’d like a career or something,” I declared. “Hello, you’ve reached the winter of our discontent,” she joked. “I’m picking up some strange vibes. They’re of the I-just-got-laid variety,” I said, lighting another Camel straight. I was so into this quote-off. It made me feel connected to myself in a way I hadn’t in a long time. When I was a child, I played with Barbies. I imagined entire worlds for them. I loved every second. But once middle school hit, I became terrified of being teased, so I buried my Barbies in trash bags and – with them – my overly active imagination. But here with Sadie – and with Helen Childress’ screenplay – my imagination was on overdrive.

I looked at Sadie across the booth and quoted Janeane Garofalo’s Vickie Miner: “Every day, that’s all that I think about. Every time I sneeze, it’s like I’m four sneezes away from the hospice, and it’s like it’s not even happening to me. It’s like I’m watching it on some crappy show like Melrose Place or some shit. And I’m the new character, I’m the HIV-AIDS character, and I teach everybody that it’s OK to be near me, it’s OK to talk to me, and then I die.” My eyes began to well. My entire face flushed. My breath became shallow. Since the day I had packed up and stored my Barbies, I was unable to be vulnerable in front of another person. It was as if that vulnerability was linked to the shame of having played with Barbies to begin with. A sign of weakness, maybe. I suspect it’s why I had been so desperate for a revamp.

Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder in Reality Bites.

But here … with Sadie … I was floored that this very public rush of feeling was even happening. “Floored” maybe isn’t the right word. Relieved. My connection to Reality Bites, to someone else’s words, became a channel for my own personal expression. When I didn’t have the language myself. I suspect this access with text is why I’m an actor … and at that diner … with my dear friend Sadie … was the day I actually became one. And why I’m still one today.

The diner waitress walked towards our booth with a fresh pot of coffee. The lady saw my tears and asked, “Are you doing OK, son?” I looked at Sadie. She smiled; she knew. I glanced up at the waitress and said, “I think I’ll be fine.”

Ryan Spahn is an actor, filmmaker and writer. He has been published by Rotten Tomatoes, Metro Weekly, USA Today, IntoMore, and American Theatre Magazine. As an actor, he can be seen in American Horror Story, Succession, The Bite, Chicago P.D., and Modern Love. Ryan is a graduate of Juilliard and is based in New York City. Go here for more info.