When Empire Records came out in 1995, starring a young Liv Tyler, Debi Mazar, Rory Cochran, Johnny Whitworth, Robin Tunney, Ethan Embry, and an unknown Renee Zellweger about a group of angsty, misfit, record, store clerks—it was considered a box office bomb. Over time it found an avid cult following— especially with nostalgic Gen Xers who are once again dousing themselves in mohair, stiff jeans, oversized sweaters, and Dr. Martens—and has long been enthroned in the ‘90s Style Hall of Fame.
25 years later, we called on our old pal Johnny Whitworth to discuss his character AJ’s now-iconic wardrobe and shopping in old ladies’ attics.
LEO: Your character AJ’s look from the movie is forever ingrained in people’s memories. How did it come together?
Johnny: The cardigan was mine. The checkerboard shirt Liv and I found in an attic of an old woman who was having a garage sale in North Carolina. I sewed the patch onto the jeans…which wasn’t a patch. It was just a piece of cloth. I bought the boots from one of the crew building the set. The pocket watch was my idea, instead of a wristwatch which was in the script, and I got them to make the extra-long chain inspired by zoot suit style.
So you sort of piece-mealed the outfit together yourself. Was that because budget was limited?
Oh no, it wasn’t an indie. Studio picture. it was just a choice I made. I like putting thought into every aspect of a character.
Did the other actors working on the movie create their own looks?
I can’t speak for everyone else but I would assume that everyone had a say in how they would display their characters. I vaguely remember having to get approval on various things. Director Allan Moyle said that I took the cardigan off and spun it around my head during the wardrobe test and threw it on the floor, and that’s what got me approved for the cardigan. Because he said it just felt like I owned it… which I did. So the studio had to track down doubles for that and for the checkerboard shirt that I had found at the garage sale. So they actually had to re-create some doubles. And beautifully I might add. That would never be the case on an indie. Definitely not.
Where did the costume designer figure in all this?
Allan was encouraging us to bring ideas on all aspects of the character, so [Costume Designer] Susan Lyall oversaw that. I remember that movie being a collaboration in many ways, so our individual look was crucial. But I remember putting up a fight for everything I wanted. AJ came together gradually.
Did you model AJ’s look after your own style back then?
Yes and no. I don’t think I chose things that I wouldn’t wear. But everything came together piece by piece. I wanted to be comfortable and wear something I felt was cool. I definitely felt at home in a cardigan, and the one AJ wore was my favorite. But after three months of wearing it every day, I was over it. I regret not keeping it but there was no way I would be able to wear it again.
How has your style evolved since then?
I don’t know; you tell me. My clothes definitely fit me better now. But I still wear the fuck out of something I like. I mean like every day. I still put on what I took off the night before.
Do you still have AJ’s outfit?
No, but I wish I did. I feel like it’s in a Planet Hollywood or a Hard Rock somewhere. I remember giving permission, but have never personally verified it.
Do you ever see people dress as AJ for Halloween?
Yes, I have and it’s interesting. I’ve had some pretty surreal moments revolving around that film and its appeal culturally.
The whole grunge look has long made a comeback with women but is now having a moment again with men as well.
I guess I haven’t noticed. But the 90s rocked, and I’ve noticed its influence on today. I guess I just don’t call it grunge; sounds judgmental. It just was. Like I said, I would be lying if I alluded to anything other than my daily outfit doesn’t change unless it has to. Cause I just pick it up off the floor where I left it from the night before.
CHECK OUT JOHNNY
As Christian Baker in Still Here
As A.J. in Allan Moyle’s Empire Records
As Donny Ray Black in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rainmaker
As Vernon in Neil Burger’s Limitless