In 2002, New Line debuted Hairspray: The Musical, the Broadway adaptation of John Waters’s 1988 cult classic film. It was a smash hit and went on to win the Tony for best musical. The story tells of Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with a big heart and big hair, who has only one passion-dancing. Her dream is to appear on The Corny Collins Show, Baltimore’s hippest dance party on TV. Tracy (Nikki Blonsky in her first starring role) seems a natural for the show, except for one not-so-little problem-she doesn’t fit in. Her plus-sized figure has always set her apart from the cool crowd, which she is reminded of by her loving but overly protective plus-sized mother, Edna (John Travolta-yes, John Travolta plays her mother!). That doesn’t stop Tracy, however, because if there is one thing this girl knows, it’s that she was born to dance. As her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) tells her, “Go for it! You’ve got to think big to be big.”
The movie is directed by Adam Shankman who previously directed the hit comedies Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier, and Cheaper By the Dozen 2, but he wasn’t the studio’s first choice. Like the character of Tracy, he was so determined to direct this movie that nobody was going to deter him from achieving his big dream. I sat with the director and his leading lady to discuss their movie.
Adam, were you at all scared about filming Hairspray after its two previous successful incarnations?
Adam Shankman: I felt more privileged to do it than anything else in my life; this is something so ingrained in me. I grew up feeling completely like an outsider and so I related very deeply to the Tracy Turnblad character. And it was interesting because the incarnations have all been told from a very different perspective. John Waters told me graciously, “Just do it your way,” because the story he told was a remembrance for him. That was John’s remembrance of high school. And then the musical was done in a very upbeat kind of way, almost a kid’s play, all very sweet. And so I decided to do it my way. I decided to tell it from Tracy’s perspective. : This is not a remake. It is an adaptation : a reinvention.
Nikki, yours is one of the most amazing debuts in film. How did you get cast?
Nikki Blonsky: Well, I saw the Broadway show for the first time when I was 15 and I fell in love with it. It was the first time I ever truly identified with someone else. : I said, “Oh my gosh. [Tracy’s] just like me. She believes in the same things I do.” And we just fit. I really wanted to play her. I sent an audition tape to New Line, and I did a screen test where I sang and read for them and Adam. They’d seen thousands of young women. I got a callback, and they said they wanted to [come by] Cold Stone Creamery where I worked. So, I said, “Okay.” And they came in with a full crew and set up and videotaped me making ice cream. Then, with cameras rolling, they showed me a tape of Adam Shankman speaking to me: “Hi Nikki, it’s Adam Shankman, director of Hairspray. I think you should go make yourself a big ice cream cone because you are going to be playing Tracy Turnblad!”
And you go to the set for the first time and you’re now playing opposite John Travolta and Christopher Walken :
NB: And the first thing John says to me, “Come to Mamma.” And I ran into his arms.
How did it come about getting John Travolta in drag?
AS: He was really resistant to do another musical because of the shadow of Grease. If he was going to return to musicals, the expectations were going to be so high. : I think what made him kind of intrigued was : no one has ever played Edna as a shut-in. I told him, “She’s been in this house for 11 years. What is that person like?” You know? And what I think really got him was telling him that, to my knowledge, in any film, no one’s ever played someone of the opposite sex seriously : except for Linda Hunt in The Year Of Living Dangerously, and she got an Oscar. That appealed to him. I think, as an acting challenge, he realized this is really just not done. And I kept saying, “You’re not playing a drag role. You’re playing a woman.” Drag implies there is something else.
There’s a fine line between camp, nostalgia, and reality in this material. How did you approach it?
AS: By saying I wanted to play it real. I thought the comedy would play best if we didn’t add camp. You have John Travolta playing a woman in the lead, and the rest of the characters have big hair. So, I don’t think you have to go much further than that. And so I just said let’s try to keep our feet on the ground as much as possible and just sort of slowly charge forward with this world. Because this is the world as Tracy sees it. That’s why I chose “Good Morning, Baltimore” -the opening number-to be done with Tracy alone. The people in Baltimore are not singing with her the way they do it in the Broadway show. This is her vision.
Nikki, did you feel confident that you could play Tracy?
NB: Adam and I actually had, I don’t know if you’d call it a revelation, but a really big thing happen to us today when we were doing the DVD commentary and we started talking about how it related to Tracy. He said a lot of actors in Hollywood wanted to play Tracy who were thin and suggested they could wear a fat suit. And he said no because there are certain emotions that come up when you are a plus-sized girl, and I know them because I grew up as one. So, I went through a lot of things that Tracy went through. There were a lot of mean girls in my life, but my grandmother taught me at a very young age that when people make fun of you, it’s because they are really insecure with themselves. So, when at school, other girls made fun of me [and] I was fine with it. I was happy with who I was. But if it makes them feel better to make fun of me, then that is my gift to them. That was my motto. And at the end of the day, that’s what helps me be able to stand up and play Tracy. Because I went through all the same things she went through