I recently sat down with Hairspray director/choreographer Adam Shankman and the star of the show, Nikki Blonsky, to discuss their film adaptation of the Broadway musical (which was itself a stage adaptation of John Waters' original 1988 movie). You'll hear more of my thoughts on the movie next week, though for the purposes of this interview I'll tell you I think this movie promises to be a major summer hit. Being a fan of John Waters' original, I was wary of this version but it turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable.
In the brief time we spent together, I didn't get to hear nearly enough from Miss Blonsky, the sweet 18-year-old who positively lights up the screen with her excitement and charm. Director Adam Shankman — who was a guest judge this week on "So You Think You Can Dance" — comes off as a passionate guy who likes to chat. A lot. Check it out:
On the topic of this version of Hairspray vs. John Waters' film:
ADAM: I was not concerned about competing with John’s movie because John Waters made me feel like this was my own baby. He was just like a proud grandfather in that he would support me no matter what. He’s just such a generous man. And I did not want to go away from it too much. We had lunch in Baltimore and he drove me to the neighborhood where he shot the movie and where the characters actually lived...and nothing’s changed! None of it, none of it’s changed since that period, since he made the movie... I felt like we were approaching it in a really unique way… I really broke it apart and I really made it my own.
There was a lot more to say, so
On the topic of Shankman's passion for Hairspray:
ADAM: You know what, [I feel so passionate about Hairspray] because I think I feel like Tracy. I feel like an outsider who never understood the word "can't," but that hovered over my head because of certain things, like being gay. I was Jewish in a heavily non-Jewish neighborhood, I was strangely handicapped even though I was like, this white kid born into an upper-middle-class family, so I came to realize that in our own really weird ways, what we are bonded by is that we are all somehow minorities. Which is why I don’t understand how fear in our country, and prejudice, exist.
And besides, what other musical has this kind of music that has so much power, so much energy, so much positivity, and is so goofy but is about something so real, and so relevant, and frankly, totally ripped from the headlines right now — with Don Imus, Michael Richards, Isaiah Washington, I mean we are still living in a climate of prejudice…The idea that I have the opportunity to make a movie that portrays racists as idiots was something that I felt strongly to do.
On searching for someone to play Tracy:
ADAM: I said from the beginning I needed a teenager playing the part of Tracy because I will not have any dishonesty about Tracy. And that is the tradition — that Edna is always a man and Tracy is always a newcomer and I was not going to shy away from that. Whoever was going to play Tracy had to be totally unencumbered by judgments. She had to be the shiny new face of courage and honesty. And I ended up finding this heavenly creature who is literally, exactly what Tracy is: working class, really pretty, plus-size and proud of it. I mean she sees no sexual lines no color lines, whatever, you know, literally no judgment. And the level of confidence that I saw in her audition was mind-blowing. And so you know when everybody else joined the cast they became a little bit intimidated, oddly, by her, because she has no pretense. And no baggage and no nothing.
On the other cast members:
ADAM: Everyone just kind of brought their A-game... Oh, and by the way everybody kind of ended up becoming who they were, you know, their characters, in a truly charming way. John became very maternal with [Nikki]. Michelle [Pfeiffer] really wanted to make sure everything was okay, you know she was white-knuckling it during some of those numbers sometimes. Amanda [Bynes] is a total goofball. And Queen Latifah — a one-woman NAACP. Christopher Walken — a walking joke shop. Oh, Zac Efron, teen idol, imagine! The only two people who are literally nothing like their characters are Brittany [Snow] and Allison [Janney]. Those are miraculous performances because they have absolutely zero in common with their characters… Jimmy [Marsden] is the corniest person on the planet.
On casting Nikki Blonsky in the role of Tracy:
ADAM: I was determined that [Tracy] was going to be young. And she was going to be somebody I wasn’t going to have to pad. And it was going to be somebody very pretty, and who could sing the crap out of the material.
Nikki read about it online, the audition, it was an open call, and she...submitted the tape and... I loved her. I couldn’t believe how sweet and real and innocent and like, her eyes were all over the place with excitement, and she was heavier, a lot heavier than she is now and... she just oozed confidence. Finally I was like, ‘You guys, it’s her.’
On Nikki's experience working on Hairspray:
NIKKI: I had the greatest time.
ADAM: If there had been 28 hours a day for her to shoot, she would have done it.
NIKKI (to Adam): Well, I mean, you took me out of this normal environment. I know what it’s like to work, you know, a part-time job [at Coldstone Creamery], get paid literally nothing and then have taxes taken out. So, I know what it’s like to be scrubbing toilets and scraping dried ice cream off the counter. And when I came into this I was just like, 'Oh my God, this is everything I’ve ever wanted to do, I just have to prove to them that they made the right choice. I’m going to give them everything that they want — and more.' 'Cause I was just determined to give them what they asked for.
On casting John Travolta, and how Hairspray rounds out his trio of musical movies: Grease (set in the 1950s), Saturday Night Fever (set in the 1970s) and now Hairspray (set in the 1960s):
ADAM: Unfortunately, I didn’t cast... he was being talked to before I got involved. What I was excited about, with the idea of him doing it, was all that – and then with including Michelle in there, you know, with Grease 2 and all that, it’s crazy. And I think what makes this all the same is that rock-n-roll musical, you know, they’re all similar in that way with the unabashed zeal, unapologetic breaking into song. We just went for it headlong in a way that was celebrant.
On what's next for Nikki:
NIKKI: I pray to continue in film, I’ve gotten the film bug, I would love it. I have just had the most amazing experience.
ADAM: She has a great relationship with the camera, that’s not something she could learn or buy, that’s the 'It' factor, you know? I think when we started out I had the camera this close to her and she didn't even blink. I am telling you, half that board (points to the giant cast poster for Hairspray) — and I’m not gonna tell you who — you start moving that camera close and they start moving away. [Nikki] was just like, 'What do you want me to do?' I think she should do more movies.
NIKKI: I want to do more movies, I mean that’s what I want to do. Maybe someday if I have the hunger to go to Broadway, maybe originate a role, that would be cool.
ADAM: I’ll say.
NIKKI: But I want to, right now, stick with more films.
A joke is made about remaking Pink Flamingos next:
ADAM: No, no, no. Why would you remake a John Waters just to remake it? It was the music that made us want to do this.