How newcomer Nikki Blonsky went from wannabe to gotta-see in ‘Hairspray’
The message in Hairspray is loud and clear: Embrace being different. That may be yesterday’s news to a gaggle of gays and lesbians, but in a day and age when even something as retro as prejudice wants to make a comeback, the message can’t be heard often enough. Hopefully with “Hairspray” hitting theaters this month, something will stick. The new John Waters-inspired film musical, based on the Broadway hit, which was inspired by Waters’ ’70s cult classic—Oy!—could very well become summer’s brightest offerings. Handsomely directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman, the movie offers the same sort of zing once found in Grease or Little Shop of Horrors. A delight from beginning to end, the story chronicles the misadventures of Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), “a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart.” Tracy’s got one passion—dancing—and a bold dream of appearing on “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s wildest television dance party.
Like the original film, which starred Rikki Lake and drag’s Divine, the 21st-century version explores all sides of fitting in—and not—while it manages to poke fun at certain elements of the ’60s era. Unlike the original, which accentuated Divine’s distinctly Divine nuances, it finds big-screen titan John Travolta in drag playing Tracy’s mother and, quite surprisingly, doing it well. (Once the film really gets rolling, you realize Travolta has created a well-rounded character in a roll he completely owns.) Along for the ride: Christopher Walkin, James Marsden, Brittany Snow, Zac Efron, Queen Latifah and a downright unforgettable Michelle Pfieffer. In the big spotlight though is Nikki Blonsky, who delivers a soulful, heartwarming performance as doe-eyed Tracy in this unforgettable musical. We caught up with the 18-year-old newbie from Great Neck, New York, to learn more about her, the role that could launch her celebrity and why Hairspray could become the hit of the summer.
Q: Director Adam Shankman said that one of the reasons the role works, and why you work in it, is that neither the character, Tracy or you think of yourself as overweight.
A: Yes. We are who we are.
Q: This was your first movie role. How was that for you?
A: Oh my God—I loved it. Being from New York, I saw the Broadway show and in high school I always watched shows and I wanted to dance so badly. That was the one thing I wanted to do. So I got into this knowing my way around a little bit, but during the shooting I was on pure adrenaline.
Q: So how hard, or how easy was it to morph into this raging dancing queen here?
A: I was dancing five to six hours a day; maybe seven— for months. I mean, these people gave me this amazing opportunity; gave me something I always wanted to try and I wasn’t going to falter here. I was going to give it my all and prove to them that they made the right decision.
Q: You get to dance with a lot of good-looking guys. Were you nervous?
A: Well, I mean, you are this normal girl who’s never danced before and all of a sudden you’re thrust into scenes with all these male dancers … and to dance solo with all of them … and they are the hottest guys… and I have to dance with them? It was really my first time dancing in front of other dancers and when you are not a dancer, there is going to be nothing but critiques, but they were really nice to me.
Q: You dance so well. Tell me what you love most about dancing?
A: It’s pretty much the same as what I love about singing. I think there comes a point in life where words just can’t express the passion or the emotional level you are at, where you want to convey something or you want to do something so huge that, literally, words cannot get out. So the only way to do is that you say, ‘I am just going to sing it out or dance it out.’
Q: The movie is all about accepting yourself and accepting what is different.
A: You know, that dancing in ‘Lady’s Choice,’ where I am shaking my business, it’s like you comes to a point where if I would have went up to [Zac Efron] and said, ‘Hey everyone likes you, I am your biggest fan, let’s go out.’ That wouldn’t work. Tracy had to prove herself to him and the only way to do that was to show him … ‘Yeah, I got bigger hips than all these girls in this room, but look at what your singing does to my body.’ The film said a lot about being different and how that’s OK—not matter what color or race you are; how big or small.
Q: That’s what was so great, especially during those moments when race relations were actually being addressed.
A: Today, If I had written that speech [in the film], it would be whatever race you are, sexual orientation, transsexual, bisexual, gay straight, black, white, purple—it doesn’t matter. Be who you are. That’s the bottom line. And accept it. Enjoy it.
Q: The film shows what happens when fearing the difference in others gets out of control. But overall, what do you fear?
A: I have always had a fear that people in this business would just not accept me. I felt so depressed. I felt as if I would be turned away from auditions or work because of it. I never understood it, but I was told that a lot. ‘You’re different; you are not going to get the lead role. You mine as well find another part.’ I didn’t understand so I always had a fear of people in this business because a lot people made it sound like the scariest, craziest business to be in. But I found out that there aren’t just people like that in the world.
Q: Tell us about working with such fabulous costars.
A: I was a huge, huge fan of all their works, growing up. First of all, getting the job was a dream come true, but then, to get to be playing with these people, I mean, they are A-list heavy hitters. They are the most incredible people. To get to work with them, and to get to know them as John, and Michelle and Queen … Everybody had the same passion for being there. They all wanted to play their characters so much, it was amazing.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
A: Listen to Adam. During the first few months with John I asked him for some advice, we were hanging out and he said, yes, listen to Adam. And I said, OK. And that’s what I did. And it was the best advice I ever took. But really, my sister taught me, live life, get out there … enjoy it.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve been learning about yourself lately?
A: I’ve learned that I love traveling. I’ve learned a lot about myself and from playing Tracy … that I am a lot more self-secure. You know, growing up and turning 18 … You turn 18 and put on a dress and boys look up. So, I’ve learned a lot about the world.