9 Famous Actors Open Up About Their Controversial ’90s Movies

Woody Harrelson Filmed The 'Natural Born Killers' Prison Riot Scene Alongside Hundreds Of Actual Inmates

Movies in the 1990s liked to push cinema in new directions – by pushing the envelope. Though some of these films stirred up controversy, theywere also important projects for the actors who helped bring them to life.

Many of these actors have their own perspective on the controversies, some of which may seem tame decades later. At the time of their release, each of these movies was surprising or taboo in some way – a few of these films continue to generate controversy, thanks to their depiction of violence or coercive filming practices. Whatever the reason, actors’ reflections on these debate-worthy choices in their ’90s films add a new layer to the stories.

1. Antonio Banderas Remembers Telling An HIV-Positive Extra on ‘Philadelphia,’ ‘I’ll See You At The Premiere,’ And The Man Replying, ‘No, You Won’t’

Antonio Banderas Remembers Telling An HIV-Positive Extra on 'Philadelphia,' 'I'll See You At The Premiere,' And The Man Replying, 'No, You Won't'

When the movie Philadelphia was made in 1993, HIV/AIDS still carried an unjust social stigma. America was just emerging from the AIDS crisis, when gay men were especially ostracized for their community’s association with the disease.  

Philadelphia boldly took on this topic when it told the story of a gay man living with AIDS (Tom Hanks) who wanted to sue his former employer for discrimination. It was a risky move to make a film about the crisis while it was still so close to home for so many people. 

Antonio Banderas, who played the partner of Hanks’s character, remains proud of the film and what it meant for LGBTQ+ representation. He recalled one interaction that has stuck with him:

I remember one little anecdote to see the drama of the situation at the time. [Director] Jonathan Demme brought extras that were actually HIV-positive at the time. I remember we were doing a party scene. So, at the end of the scene, I became friends with one of the guys, and I said to him, ‘Well, I’ll see you at the premiere.’ He said to me, ‘No, you won’t.’ And he didn’t make it. 

When asked in another interview if Philadelphia was the most important film of his career, Banderas responded:

Not as an actor, but from a social point of view […] Nobody was talking about AIDS at the time, and it was very unfair. Nobody was talking about gayness at that time, and they had to be portrayed on the screens – not the simple screens, the screens of Hollywood. That would be the big triumph of the community, when it’s just totally accepted without restrictions of any kind.

2. Kevin Smith Showed Up To Protest His Own Movie, ‘Dogma,’ And Ended Up On The Local News

Kevin Smith Showed Up To Protest His Own Movie, 'Dogma,' And Ended Up On The Local News

Conventional wisdom holds that the two most controversial topics are politics and religion, filmmaker Kevin Smith certainly has never shied away from either. His 1999 comedy Dogma blithely tackles the topic of religion, as it follows two banished angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) who attempt to exploit a loophole in Catholic teachings to return to Heaven. In addition to writing and directing, Smith also appeared on-screen as Silent Bob, a recurring character whom he plays in several of his films.

Many hardline Christians took offense to the film and what they perceived as its profanity. Several Catholic organizations even called the film “blasphemous,” and protests greeted showings of Dogma in theaters.

Having a great deal of fun with the controversy that his film stirred up, Smith even joined a protest against Dogma in New Jersey. When a news correspondent asked him his thoughts on the film, Smith cheekily responded, “I don’t think it stands for anything positive.”

3. Steve Buscemi Has A Fan Theory About His Character’s Fate In ‘Reservoir Dogs’

Steve Buscemi Has A Fan Theory About His Character's Fate In 'Reservoir Dogs'

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s first film was Reservoir Dogs. Though praised by critics, the neo-noir’s heavy use of violence generated controversy at the time of its release in 1992, with the United Kingdom banning home video sales of the film until 1995.

Among the group of gangsters that turn on each other in the wake of a heist gone wrong, Steve Buscemi’s character, Mr. Pink, is left with an ambiguous fate. The ending leaves room for interpretation of whether Mr. Pink is caught by the police or escapes, leading to many fan theories.

Like fans, Buscemi has dreamed up his own version of the character’s end. When on The Late Late Show in 2021, Buscemi told host James Corden that he believes his character survived into another Tarantino film:

I don’t know if anyone else thinks about this, but because my character of Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs was such a cheapskate, and he didn’t like to tip, I thought it was poetic justice that my next film with Quentin [Pulp Fiction], I play a waiter. I even like to think that maybe Mr. Pink got away somehow in Reservoir Dogs and he’s hiding out as the Buddy Holly waiter. And he probably gets tipped terribly. That’s his fate.

4. Rosario Dawson Got A Call From Her Grandma After She’d Invited Her Entire Church Group To Go See ‘Kids’

Rosario Dawson Got A Call From Her Grandma After She'd Invited Her Entire Church Group To Go See 'Kids'

The movie Kids easily ranks as one of the most controversial films of the 1990s, carrying an NC-17 rating from the MPAA for how it tackled sexuality, drug use, and sexually transmitted infections among teenagers. 

In the interest of realism, the cast was comprised of teenagers, some of whom were cast off the street. The age range of the cast prompted many to question if it was appropriate or ethical to ask child actors to perform in sexually explicit scenes. Moreover, drugs were freely available to the teenagers on the set. Hamilton Harris, one of the actors in the film, later admitted, “I felt exploited.”

The film’s heavy themes meant that it wasn’t exactly a family-friendly feature. Still, many of the actors’ families came out to support their loved ones by seeing it in theaters. Actor Rosario Dawson shared with Vice how her grandmother was enthusiastic about her first film role:

My grandmother was watching it, going, ‘Rosario, you know, I wish you had warned me before I went in,’ and I said, ‘Sorry, if I offended you.’ She responded, ‘You didn’t offend me. I had to have children for a reason. There’s not anything that’s in this that anyone who’s being honest can’t connect to. I just wish you would have told me before I told all my church friends to go [see it].’

5. Woody Harrelson Filmed The ‘Natural Born Killers’ Prison Riot Scene Alongside Hundreds Of Actual Inmates

Woody Harrelson Filmed The 'Natural Born Killers' Prison Riot Scene Alongside Hundreds Of Actual Inmates

As its title would suggest, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers puts violence front and center. A couple, played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, become mass killers, and the media can’t help but breathlessly report on their crimes. 

The 1994 film’s violence did not only alienate some moviegoers, but also prompted worry that the film would actually inspire viewers to go on their own violent rampages. Indeed, the film inspired at least one young couple to embrace violence, and a lawsuit was brought against Stone

The line between reality and fiction was especially blurred during the filming of a prison riot scene. Filmmakers used an actual, working prison for the scene, which made things uncomfortable for much of the cast. As Harrelson later recalled:

The scene with the hostage – I’m glad [Stone] cut some of it out because it went a little more extreme. I don’t know if he restored any of that in the director’s cut. That was pretty intense shooting that, the prison. Coming in every day and having all these voices out there, you know? Disembodied voices shouting, ‘You f*cking skinhead!’ […] I’d say stuff back to them but we were in a prison; somebody could come up and throw a knife at you, and you wouldn’t even – we were always in contact with prisoners. […] It was pretty wild in there. But, kind of in keeping with the spirit of the movie. 

6. Laura Dern Recalls That ‘Wild At Heart’ Director David Lynch Told Her Son That He Could Watch The Film ‘Maybe When You’re 30’

Laura Dern Recalls That 'Wild At Heart' Director David Lynch Told Her Son That He Could Watch The Film 'Maybe When You're 30'

Laura Dern’s career was on the rise when she appeared in the 1990 David Lynch film Wild at Heart. Dern played Lula Pace Fortune, a young woman who goes on the run with her lover (Nicolas Cage) to escape gangsters sent by her domineering mother (played by Dern’s real-life mother Diane Ladd). Upon its debut at Cannes, the film earned actual boos from critics, and the Los Angeles Times surmised that Lynch would have to edit his film ahead of its American release, noting, “The film is as violent as Blue Velvet and vastly more erotic, meaning that it may provoke the industry censors to slap it with an X rating on two counts – for sex and violence.”

Even years later, Dern feels no rush to show her two children Wild at Heart, as she told The New York Times in 2014:

It might be a little too early. My favorite [related story] was David [Lynch], who’s a very close friend, was asked by my son recently, ‘So David, when am I going to get to see the movies you’ve made with my mom? When can I see Wild at Heart?’ He said, ‘Maybe when you’re 30,’ and my son said, ‘Oh why, is my mom crazy in it or something?’ And he goes, ‘No, it’s actually not your mom I’m worried about, it’s the fact that you have to see your grandma [Diane Ladd] in it.’ That’s when it just hit me – just all the things they’re going to get to see one day of both their grandparents is so amazing and crazy.

7. Keanu Reeves Told A Story About River Phoenix’s Sense Of Humor While Filming ‘My Own Private Idaho’

Keanu Reeves Told A Story About River Phoenix's Sense Of Humor While Filming 'My Own Private Idaho'

When Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho debuted in 1991, it was an indie darling. It was also deeply unconventional for Hollywood, since the film followed two young male sex workers and the street culture that was their livelihood. The actors who portrayed the sex workers were two of Hollywood’s biggest young stars: Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. 

As The Ringer pointed out, the film is also a landmark of LGBTQ+ cinema, since it was “an essential meditation on desire between men, made at a time when Hollywood and its neighboring industries didn’t quite know what to do with that desire.”

The young actors welcomed the opportunity to collaborate after having starred in other movies together. As Phoenix told Interview in 1991:

[Reeves and I] were doing I Love You to Death, and we both got the Idaho script. We were driving in a car on Santa Monica Boulevard, probably on the way to a club, and were talking really fast about the whole idea. We were excited. It could have been like a bad dream – a dream that never follows through because no one commits, but we just forced ourselves into it. We said, ‘OK, I’ll do it if you do it. I won’t do it if you don’t.’ We shook hands. That was it.

River Phoenix passed unexpectedly in 1993, and Reeves has since shared fond memories of him from filming My Own Private Idahorecalling in 2013:

We’re in Italy. And we’re shooting this scene where Mike [played by River Phoenix] and I are out in Italy with a girl. It was on this farm, sheep farm. There was sheep. We’re hanging out in between takes, hanging out with River, we’re just watching the sheep play, jumping around the hay, and everything like that. We’re taking a walk back to the house. We come by and there are these two sheep hanging with blood coming out. The gentleman slit the sheep and then pulled its skin off. But when it got to the head, he had to give it this tug, and he pulled it off. And then River just kind of stood there. He turned to me and said, ‘Sweater’s tight.’

8. Uma Thurman Was ‘More Afraid Of The Dancing Than Almost Anything’ Else in ‘Pulp Fiction’

Uma Thurman Was 'More Afraid Of The Dancing Than Almost Anything' Else in 'Pulp Fiction'

Like most of Quentin Tarantino’s work, Pulp Fiction revels in violence, enough to alienate some viewers. Despite some moral objections, the 1994 film retains plenty of fans who have elevated it to the level of cult classic, along with accolades like the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

The violence in the film didn’t dissuade Uma Thurman from appearing as Mia Wallace, though a dance scene nearly did. A famous scene features Thurman dancing the twist with co-star John Travolta, and the actress shared in 2019:

I was more afraid of the dancing than almost anything because it was exactly to my total insecurity. Being big and awkward and still quite young then. But once I started dancing I didn’t wanna stop, so it was a dream come true.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Travolta added more context, seeming far more comfortable with the dance than his co-star:

Quentin recommended the Twist [as the dance]. And I said, ‘Well, Little Johnny Travolta won the Twist content when I was eight years old, so I know every version. But you may add other novelty dances that were very special in the day.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘There was the Batman, the Hitchhiker, the Swim, as well as the Twist.’ And I showed them to him, and he loved them. I said, ‘I’ll teach Uma the steps, and when you want to see a different step, call it out.’

9. Sharon Stone Says She Was Told Her Underwear Was ‘Reflecting The Light’ During The Infamous Crossed-Legs Shot In ‘Basic Instinct’

Sharon Stone Says She Was Told Her Underwear Was 'Reflecting The Light' During The Infamous Crossed-Legs Shot In 'Basic Instinct'

On its surface, 1992’s Basic Instinct sounds like a basic police thriller: a crime novelist is suspected of murder. But as detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) investigates the alluring writer (Sharon Stone), the blend of sexuality and violence grows risqué. Upon release, the story was deemed offensive by multiple advocacy groups – reportedly, “Gay-rights groups slammed it because its main murder suspects were all mentally unstable lesbians or bisexuals. The National Organization for Women denounced it as ‘blatantly misogynistic.’”

One scene in particular crystallized the controversy surrounding the film. When actor Sharon Stone’s character is seated during an interrogation and uncrosses her legs, the quick motion reveals a glimpse of her genitalia. 

The scene became even more controversial decades later when Stone claimed that  she was not aware that it would be quite so revealing. In an excerpt from her memoir featured in Vanity Fairshe contextualized the scene:

After we shot Basic Instinct, I got called in to see it. Not on my own with the director, as one would anticipate, given the situation that has given us all pause, so to speak, but with a room full of agents and lawyers, most of whom had nothing to do with the project. That was how I saw my vagina-shot for the first time, long after I’d been told, ‘We can’t see anything – I just need you to remove your panties, as the white is reflecting the light, so we know you have panties on.’ Yes, there have been many points of view on this topic, but since I’m the one with the vagina in question, let me say: The other points of view are bullsh*t.

After slapping director Paul Verhoeven in outrage and consulting her lawyer, Stone considered not allowing the film to go forward with its release. She ultimately relented, however, since she felt “it was correct for the film and for the character; and because, after all, I did it.”