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Hairspray - Adam Shankman interview

John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ADAM Shankman reveals why Hairspray is such a personal project for him and what it was like to work with John Travolta in a female fat suit.

He also discusses the pleasure of working with Christopher Walken, the revival of the musical and whether stars John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer were ever caught discussing Grease 2!

Q. I have to confess, I’m not a fan of musicals but Hairspray won me over. It has such a broad appeal, doesn’t it?
Adam Shankman: You know, if I had a nickel for every person that told me they don’t like musicals I’d be a very rich man. I’m also stunned at how many of those people are interviewing me [laughs]! But they’re all saying how much they enjoyed it. I’m also floored at how many adult straight men are digging his movie. I did not expect that. But I’m thrilled. I don’t know why it’s happening but I’ll take it.

Q. This is a dream come true project for you because the character of Tracy Turnblad really resonates with you…
Adam Shankman: Hugely, so to speak! I sort of don’t want to hear the words: “I can’t.” And it’s also a very stressed out world and I feel the stress. But I’m a big believer in doing the right thing and living your personal truth, which by the way is always a discovery. You’re not born with that knowledge and I think that Tracy’s path changes mid-stream, what her goals are and what she believes in, what she sees as the right thing to do… She makes sacrifices and I hope that I can live my life that way. She’s also made a minority by her size and I’ve been a minority by being gay and a Jew. But I’m just not interested in hearing the word “can’t”. Or “don’t”.

Q. And this is an all singing, all dancing tribute to that outlook?
Adam Shankman: Absolutely, but that’s the point really. It’s not just living by your convictions, it’s doing it while you’re singing and dancing that makes it special. And I was a dancer and a singer, so there’s just so much of me in this. That’s also the scary part. When I release this film, I’m letting people have a one-way ticket inside my brain and that is pretty nerve-wracking. It’s easy because to a certain extent I get to hide behind the two previous incarnations but this movie wasn’t as “I want”, this was an “I have to”.

Q. Nikki Blonsky delivers a breakthrough role to rival Jennifer Hudson [in Dreamgirls]. How did you find her?
Adam Shankman: We cast a very wide net, literally all over the world. We saw 11,000 girls but I was very, very firm about the fact I wanted her to be under 20 and to be believable as a 17-year-old. I wanted to find someone who really was Tracy. But one of the things that’s hard about that is that a lot of girls who are heavy have somewhere deep inside them a self-consciousness or a shame about being heavy. So, even if they act overly sexy it’s almost a show.

Nikki genuinely loves her body and is so pretty, and 17, and can sing like that. It’s so exuberant. So, when we were looking all over the place the casting directors posted this online audition and it was like a lightning bolt hit me. I ended up going back to her auditions over and over and over again over the course of the next week. I called people and said: “I know that we have a tonne of other girls to see but I’m pretty sure she’s going to be the one.”

I think everyone was a little terrified because not only was she new but she literally never had any professional experience, just High School plays, and was working in an ice-cream. Her back-up cast was John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and she literally had to carry this very expensive movie. She wasn’t a star, so everyone was nervous but it’s in the John Waters tradition that Edna is played by a man and Tracy is a newcomer. I wasn’t going to break with tradition.

Q. How much of a pleasure was it working with John Travolta?
Adam Shankman: It was fantastic. I was intimidated at first. He’s arguably the greatest male musical star of our generation because of Grease and he’s been around the block. He also hadn’t got on the boards in a long time but if he was willing to, it meant he was game. Nobody is in this movie that isn’t desperate to be in it. But once he knew that I was approaching this from a real place and an emotional place, of joy and it wasn’t winky, I think he was on board. And then it became a dream.

Q. Did you steal a dance with him off-camera?
Adam Shankman: Of course, I had to choreograph for him! Even during rehearsals we hopped around a bit. What happens in a musical when you’re rehearsing is that you get very, very giddy. It’s a very exhausting process and doing it all day is something. He’s not 25-years-old anymore, so we just blew off steam. There were various times when I’d look over and the dancing kids would be doing a limbo line with Chris Walken… limbo! I was scared he was going to break.

Q. Did you ever catch John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer discussing Grease 2?
Adam Shankman: It’s so funny, Michelle and John are both parents now and they talk about parenty things – about the kids and stuff. But I was privately giddy that I got the stars of Grease 1 and Grease 2 in the same movie. Then, of course, there was Christopher Walken, the man who killed Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in Batman Returns. She now gets him back. It was a very beautifully interwoven cast. I had reservations about bringing up Grease 2 with Michelle, although she often told me what a great guy Adrian Zmed was!

Q. How did you persuade Christopher Walken to take the role?
Adam Shankman: He was actually always John’s first choice to play Wilbur. I loved the idea of him doing it because he’s a bit of a walking gag shop; he’s so unpredictable and that was really the fun part about having him. Plus, he is really one of the great old time song and dance men that we have working in America today.

Q. You’ve worked with Christopher Walken before…
Adam Shankman: No….

Q. I thought you’d choreographed him for Catch Me If You Can?
Adam Shankman: Oh, I choreographed the piece but I didn’t get to choreograph him because I was directing another movie at the time. But that’s crazy, that’s the first time somebody caught that! But yes, I made up that little dance for him and his wife in the living room but I didn’t get to execute it.

Q. So how was it to finally get to work with him?
Adam Shankman: Fantastic. Are you kidding? He’s a song and dance guy. And talk about somebody who just absolutely wanted to do my choreography how I wanted it done. It’s not like he said: “No, let’s do it this way!” He’s a dancer and he took the choreography and the direction. Then, of course, I’m sitting there and had a pinch me moment where I was like: “Is this actually happening, watching Christopher Walken and John Travolta waltzing because I told them to?” It’s very, very surreal. It’s a pretty funny scene. I think people wonder what they’re watching when they step outside it for a second.

Q. Musicals have enjoyed something of a comeback of late following the success of Chicago. Why do you think audiences have suddenly started to embrace them again?
Adam Shankman: I think audiences will always embrace a good one. I think we went through a period where it was about anger and grit and independence and the underdog movie.

Musicals are glossy and live above reality. So, I think people are living now with too much grit in real life and I think that living a little bit above reality is something that people want. I think that musicals do for the audience what they need to feel in entertainment right now. So, that’s good for us and sad for everybody else.

Read our interview with John Travolta