HOLLYWOOD’S 21ST CENTURY “OOMPH GIRL”
BY ZOE STAGG
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAEL MULLER
Alexandra Shipp has perfect timing. In the height of a world primed for more movie musicals due in no small part to the Hamilton hype, a chameleon with crushing pipes is everything. The actress is known for her flawless portrayals of Aaliyah and Ice Cube’s wife, Kimberly Woodruff, in Straight Outta Compton, and is set to bring another real-life character to screens in Tick, Tick…Boom. She’s in the right place, at the right time—and that’s how she’s always lived her life. “I wouldn’t change any of the things I’ve done because I think that it put me in the position I am today. I think of the successes that I’ve had and the mistakes that I’ve made and the people that I’ve come into contact with, and I think that my higher power put all of those people, places, things in my path to make me who I am right now.” She’s been making music since she was 12, writing songs, playing guitar and the piano, and built her craft in Arizona before leaving for LA at 17. Now in the stride of her career, racking up giant roles like “Storm” in X-Men, she’s surprisingly centered. “When I think about regret, I don’t necessarily think about the things that I would change. I think about the things that I wish I would have embraced more, whether that was success, happiness, or pain, leaning into those emotions and really allowing yourself to feel them only builds that much more character for me.”
In real life, her hair is a halo of dark honey curls, pulling off the elusive curly bang, effortlessly. Her Instagram is full of bold fashion choices, snippets of singing, and revelations about who she really is. In June, she came out publicly with a string of rainbow hearts and a heartfelt message. “Today I’m happy in ways I don’t think my kid self could imagine. I get to be exactly who I want to be EVERY FUCKING DAY and it feels incredible!! It’s never too late to be you.” Reflecting on it a few months later she says, “For me, it always felt like it was nobody’s business. And then I was seeing someone and they were like, ‘Well, you know, I think it would mean a lot to young kids and your audience to know this fact about you and to be able to see someone representing the LGBTQ community working their butts off and having success in this industry.’” Though she’d been out to her close circle, the thought nudged her to put away the fear and show who she really is. “When I finally found those words in a public standpoint and a public moment, it really felt like it was just a great time to do it. I wasn’t trying to make some sort of political stance. I wasn’t trying to affect some crazy amount of social change by doing it. It just felt like it was the piece of myself that I was ready and willing to share with people.” The experience, she says, has been lovely and humbling. “I don’t think that I would have had that opportunity five years ago. I don’t think I would have had the same experience. So, I feel really blessed to have had that this time.”
“…I knew it was Lin so I put some sauce on it… I went for it …if anything, I was going to leave him with a taste of something…”
Timing was also on her side, as an actress and singer, and also a huge fan—of RENT, of Lin-Manuel Miranda—to star in his directorial debut of the film adaptation of Tick, Tick…Boom. She got to see him play his famous role in Hamilton on Broadway, breaking into a giant grin at the memory. When she got the chance to audition for him, it was a dream come true. “I was just so excited that it was Lin! Personally, I am not your typical musical theatre singer. I have, as you would say, a Dream Girls vibe to the way that I sing, so I was really nervous. But at the same time, just, like, enthralled with the idea that I could take one of these songs and make them mine.” Auditioning for the guy who turned mid-1700s history into a rap opera, opens up some possibilities. “I knew it was Lin. So, I was like, let me put some sauce on it.” Even now, the memory of that performance lives in her body and comes out in her telling of it—and that’s all anyone will ever see of it. “I watched it back, and I was like, no one will ever see this. It is just a little embarrassing. I’m not gonna lie. But I went for it. And I was like, if anything, I’m going to leave him with a taste of something.”
The taste, was just enough. Paired with co-star Andrew Garfield to test over Skype, despite the platform, the chemistry was instantly electric. “I was just so blown away by him as an actor that when we finished, I could tell that Lin was, like, a little choked up, and I was like, ‘Okay, that’s awesome.’ The fact that I was able to do that in this moment through a computer makes me feel really good. And if I don’t get the job, I’m really proud of that audition.” She landed the role of Susan, a modern dancer working through an injury and the girlfriend of Jonathan Larson’s character. Despite her Renaissance collection of talents, Alexandra didn’t consider herself a dancer. Getting there, was step one. “Whenever I tackle a character, I think about their body. I think about how they walk and talk and how they stand and how they speak to people. And there are so many different mannerisms that people hold in their body that make them individual. Everyone not only has a thumbprint, but also just a special way of being themselves. And I really love finding that within my characters.”
Hitting New York in January of 2020, she started with a dance coach six hours a day, and just when she was finding her rhythm… life and art collided. Tick, Tick…Boom, a musical with the frailty of creation set against the HIV/AIDS pandemic, hit COVID. Production paused, and resumed and wrapped in the fall. With a world premiere at the American Film Institute Fest, it’s available for streaming in wide release on Netflix.
Despite the parallel drawing the story of a 1990 health crisis to one in 2020, while a lot has changed in 40 years, there’s still more to do. “There is still a wage gap. There is still sexism. There is still incredible racism, especially in my country right now. And I know that it is affecting the entire world. But what I can speak on is of my own experiences. And as a black woman in America, there is a lot that needs to be done not only for women, but also for people of color. But right now we’re talking about it. And we’re having these conversations. And I think that that’s the most important and beautiful part.” A lot of that has to do with speaking up—whether in art, or Instagram posts, the conversation is what’s important. “If we come together and we have these conversations and we work out our own problems and indifferences, we can then take that to the outside world and say, ‘This is how you speak to me. This is how you treat me. This is what I want. This is what I deserve. And this is how you’re going to give it to me.’ And with those five things, we have managed to curate an insane amount of social change in the last couple of years.”
One of the outlets we have to draw us closer together and allow those conversations, is a double-edged…web? While the internet and social media allow discourse, there’s no guarantee it’s civil, or even true. “We have so much information out there. It is very scary how much misinformation we have out there. It is very scary how easy it is for everyone to fall under that. A lot of the time, the information that’s out there online is not the real actual information. Those numbers are not real. And we’re seeing how hurtful that can be. We see that with our elections. We see that when it comes to the information being spread about this virus and this pandemic, we see it all the time, and it’s really scary because we don’t know what to read and what to believe.” It makes it even more important that we can go to primary sources, and they are telling the truth. “We have to be able to elect politicians that we trust, and that’s why voting is so huge right now.”
“…As we’re creating that empathy, we’re creating that understanding. We’re building on that love… which I think is something that has been really hard for human beings…”
It’s more than just the filtered and curated, ‘I woke up this way’ theater of the ‘Gram, fake reality can be harmful. “Social media, it is not real, in my opinion. Online is not real. Standing in front with a sign? That’s real. Marching on Congress? That’s real. These are actual, real things that we could do, spending money, making sure that these grassroots nonprofit organizations can actually truly make a difference, in order to help and create compassion and build understanding. And that’s a huge passion for me.” She has causes she supports, and truth and education for social change are at the heart it. “There are so many really great organizations out there that really just strike a chord with me because I can relate to them. That could be me. Had I been born in a different country, my life would have been different in that way. I really am proud to be an American because I understand the freedom, and the hope that this Constitution was written,” She pauses wryly, “Don’t get me wrong. It was not written for me, but I’m going to take advantage of it.”
But it’s not all bad, a place for free expression and a platform to connect with people all over the world can be valuable. “I do believe in community, and I have found so much community in my social media. Don’t get me wrong. I love being able to share information and talk about these things with people. But human touch, human vibration, sharing that within a room that is real. And with social media, you’ve got a faceless, nameless troll on your timeline all the time. And they’re not real, because I promise you, if they met you in real life, they wouldn’t act like that.” The trick is sussing out true from troll, and spending more time IRL than not. “What is real and what is true is what is right in front of us. And it’s the people that we talk to. It’s the people that we choose to listen to to educate us. It’s these people. It’s outside, breeze, trees to me. That’s what’s real. But information, social media, it is all a curve. I’m still trying to navigate it. And I’m a millennial, right? So, we’ll see how the world turns. I hope it’s easier for our babies.” It’s a matter of time, and making the most of it while we’re here. “Our kids, our descendants, the people we choose to raise, they are going to grow up in a world that actually communicates with itself.
And I think that that is so imperative for our human race to evolve as we’re creating that empathy, we’re creating that understanding. We’re building on that love. We’re able to share it and spread it respectfully, and we’re able to accept it as well, which I think is something that has been really hard for human beings.”