In the summer of 1989, Dead Poets Society was in theaters making moviegoers laugh, cry, and learn Latin. The Best Picture nominee earned an Oscar for screenwriter Tom Schulman, as well as nods for director Peter Weir and Robin Williams, who stars as English teacher John Keating—the man who taught more than just his prep-school students the meaning of the phrase carpe diem (“seize the day”). It was also the breakout film for Robert Sean Leonard (tortured Neil Perry), Ethan Hawke (shy Todd Anderson), and Josh Charles (romantic Knox Overstreet). Charles discussed some of his fond memories in an interview with EW.
On filming the final scene, in which the boys stand on their chairs to honor fired Mr. Keating (following that event we can’t bear to watch again):
One of the things I remember specifically about that movie is Peter Weir used to play music a lot on the set. He liked it to create the environment. I think he was playing it on a little boombox or something, and my dad—I grew up in Baltimore, which was not too far from where we were filming [in Delaware]—lent Peter his new Bose speaker system so the sound was a little bit better. I don’t remember the details of how it got there, or if it was just for that day, but I do remember that when we shot that scene it was blaring Ennio Morricone’s music from The Mission. It was beautiful, haunting music. The power of music is something that I took with me, realizing how it can trigger your emotions. That’s something that I use a lot.
On Knox’s joyous bike ride:
They found this field where all these geese were. They had me riding down this one part in the front and all these grips and people hidden behind bushes with air horns trying to scare these geese, who could not be bothered. They didn’t care. They weren’t moving at all. They would not fly. [Laughs]
It was a pretty big hill, and it had been raining the day before, so the earth was really damp. I’m really gung-ho. I’m a 17-year-old kid, like, I don’t care. I’m on a bicycle. Let’s go. I said to Peter, “Why don’t I just try to ride down right in between them? Drop me up at the top of the hill. I’ll get on the bike, and I’ll just come down.” He’s like, “Hmmm. Are you all right to do that?” The teamsters drove me up. They had their walkies, and they had to tell me, “Okay, this is where you’re gonna go,” because we didn’t know if we’d get another take once I did it. We didn’t know what would happen, if the birds wouldn’t do anything.
I came down that hill on that bike, and those birds took off and flew, and it’s one of my favorite shots in the movie because it’s just so beautiful. It’s so well done, and it speaks volumes about all those characters being free of all that they had been taught before—being free of living this sort of conforming life.
On whether Knox and Chris (Alexandra Powers) would still be together today:
[Laughs] I’m gonna take a safe guess there and say no, that relationship does not have legs.
On why the film still holds a special place in his heart:
I got some great friends out of it, and it really helped my career. The movie almost got made the year before with a different director [Revenge of the Nerds’ Jeff Kanew], so Ethan and I met at the audition for that. We screentested together with other actors, and then the movie fell through, and there was a whole other year to wait, not knowing if it was even gonna happen again or if we were gonna [get recast]. I got to work with Peter Weir and Robin Williams and make a film that has an iconic quality to it that people respond to again, and again, and again. I got to go to Europe for the first time [laughs], and room with Ethan while we were debuting at the Venice Film Festival, and walk down the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival, and have a standing ovation and be 18. It did a lot of things for me that go beyond the actual making of the film. It was a lot of my college—seeing the world, seeing that there’s so much out there.
On its lasting message:
What resonates with people is what [Keating] stood for: When it comes to the end, not thinking that you hadn’t really lived. It speaks to people trying to inspire themselves, inspire students. One of my best friends, David Quinn, who was an actor and got out of the business and is a teacher in Seattle, embodies that spirit. I’ve sat in his classes when he’s talked about movies and helped him teach the students, and he’s a really inspiring teacher because he challenges the kids to not only be their best but to be their true selves and to work toward doing what’s right for them. I’ve had teachers—maybe they’re not always literally teachers, but influential people in my life—who have at different times taught me a lot about how to live.
Watch other actors, including Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, reminisce in the DVD extra below.