BWW Interview: How Elle McLemore's 'New' Movie AT THE TOP OF THE PYRAMID Prepared Her for BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL
Hawaii-born Elle McLemore burst onto the theatre scene in 2011 when she was cast as the evil Eva in the Pre-Broadway National Tour of BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL. Like most of that cast, McLemore went on to make her Broadway debut when the tour made its way to New York the following year. Since then the 23-year-old has been a regular on the final season of ARMY WIVES and one of the stars of Off-Broadway's cult favorite HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL, as "Cheerleader Heather," Heather McNamara.
Currently working on a reading of a very different musical project (in which she doesn't play a cheerleader), McLemore's first movie, AT THE TOP OF THE PYRAMID, has her back in a cheerleading uniform. The film, shot in 2010, will be released in New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati beginning this week.
I recently spoke with McLemore, and she told me that this film prepared her for the audition that changed her life. In our conversation, it quickly became very clear why Elle has become one of the theatre's most well-liked young leading ladies. Her sincerity and infectious sweetness was evident even while squeezing in our interview on a lunch break.
BWW: This movie is something that you've been a part of for a few years now, right?
McLemore: Yea, five (laughs). We actually shot it in 2010, so it's crazy that it's actually finally happening.
You shot it in 2010, so that predates all of the theatre stuff that people know you for now, how did you get involved with the project?
Exactly. I grew up in Las Vegas, and I moved out to L.A. after I graduated. So, I really started acting on the West Coast. I did a guest spot on THE SUITE LIFE ON DECK and then I auditioned for this that summer. I had agents that sent me out on it, and that's actually how I learned to cheer. I think I got BRING IT ON because of this role. I had to learn some stunts for the movie that I ended up doing in my BRING IT ON audition (laughs).
So, growing up you didn't have any cheering experience, you hadn't been training your whole life to play a cheerleader? I read that your mom is a dancer, so there is obviously some athletic ability in your genes.
Yea, she's a dancer. She's actually a magician's assistant and a dancer; not a stripper. A lot of people get that confused when you say that your mom is a dancer in Las Vegas (laughs).
No, no. I would never infer that your mother was that kind of dancer, not that there's anything wrong with that. So, you knew dancing, but you weren't a cheerleader?
It's the on-going joke now, because every job I've ever had, I've been a cheerleader, and (as a kid) I auditioned for the cheer team, but I never made it. Every year I was devastated.
Every summer we would go on a houseboat, and I would be on top practicing this routine that they taught us, and I just never got it. But, I actually did that routine in the movie, and I did it all the time during BRING IT ON; people thought I was ridiculous (laughs).
(On the movie set) the University of Maryland cheerleaders helped us out; so they were my teachers.
That's a great story. Well, they made you believable as a cheerleader. In the film, you play Jamie, who is, obviously, a cheerleader, but she's gone through some difficult times and is trying to figure out how they are going to shape her life moving forward. Tell us a little bit about who Jamie is.
She is the best flyer in her school, but as a freshman, she gets dropped during a stunt, and then her dad passes away later that year. So, she goes through two traumatic incidents, and she is afraid to go back to school the next year. (There) is a controversy as to whether or not the mean girl dropped her on purpose, or if it was an accident. She goes away for a year, but when she comes back, she meets a bunch of new friends, and climbs her way back up to the top of the pyramid.
It's very internal; you see her having all of these dream sequences of her falling from the pyramid, and her mom is retreating to alcohol to deal with losing her husband. So, she has a lot to go through in order to get the confidence so that she can make it back to the team again.
One of the things that she deals with is being able to trust her teammates again; and for you, not having the cheer background, I'm sure you experienced something similar while filming and in BRING IT ON. It has to be pretty daunting to get up to the top of a pyramid, especially after a fall. How significant is that ability to trust the people you are working with in cheerleading?
Oh my gosh, it's everything. All of the cheerleaders that I've worked with have said it is life or death. So, you really have to know that they are going to be there for you.
There is a lot in this film that people will recognize as a traditional high school movie, but you talked about it being really internal, and there are a lot of things that subvert what you would expect from a cheerleading movie; especially if you are just expecting it to be a new BRING IT ON movie.
Yea, they are trying to get inside the psyche of a cheerleader, and show how high the stakes are; that it's not all pom-poms and happiness. It's actually life or death for a cheerleader.
You said that you used stunts from the film for your BRING IT ON audition. How long after you wrapped the movie were you cast in BRING IT ON?
We wrapped the movie the end of summer 2010, and I auditioned for the tour of BRING IT ON in May 2011. I was in Los Angeles when I auditioned. I had nothing to do with New York; Broadway has always been my dream, but I had no idea it was going to come out of being in L.A.
I remember in my audition doing hang-drills; I'm literally hanging on Andy Blankenbuehler (Director/Choreographer) and Alex Lacamoire (Music Director)'s shoulders to see if I can carry my own body-weight.
They had cheerleaders there too, so I had to do an arabesque and basic stunts. If I hadn't done the movie, I don't know that I would have gotten the part (in BRING IT ON), because there is so much stunting in that show.
You did the national tour and then went on and made your Broadway debut with over 30 other people in that cast; since so many came from the cheerleading world instead of musical theatre. So what was that experience like? I mean, that show really challenged what a Broadway musical could be.
Right. You know, I was brand new, so for ime, it was like, "This isn't normal? There's not 30 people that make their Broadway debut in a show (laughs)?"
I had no idea, but it was amazing. I grew up around musical theatre performers who were incredible, but cheerleaders are competitive in their own ways, but they're also normal people. They were like, "What's harmonizing?"
They didn't know anything about singing. I felt that it grounded us, because we had such a diverse group of people. It just felt so special, being around people that had never even been involved in show-business or musical theatre. I miss them so much.
Well you moved on to another show where you played a cheerleader, HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL. You played one of the Heathers, and between that and Eva in BRING IT ON, for a while there you were getting cast as a lot of nasty characters, but all anyone ever says about you is how sweet you are in real life. So, how does that jive?
(Laughing) Oh my god that's so nice. My friend was auditioning for something, and it was a mean girl, and she came to me and said, "How do I do this?" but it's been so long since I played a mean girl, I forget how to be mean.
I think I am just a really intense person, so I direct that in either a crazy way, or a really sweet way. I just have a lot of energy, so I try to use it for good in my real life (laughs).
There has been a lot of talk about moving HEATHERS to Broadway, or maybe the big screen, have you heard any rumors about movement on those fronts?
You know, they've always had that in mind. (HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL) started out with a movie production company, so, it had that film background originally. So the goal has always been to turn it back around and make it into a movie musical. I think they have a screenplay in the works, but those obviously take forever.
They would love to take it to Broadway. I know BAT BOY, by Larry O'Keefe who did HEATHERS, is just now thinking about going to Broadway. They want to do everything, they're just trying to see what their best options are, and timing is everything.
I know you are rehearsing something right now that is another movie musical adaptation, but I don't imagine you are playing a cheerleader. You're doing a reading for a parody of THE SHINING called REDRUM.
Yes, that is correct.
I know there have been some readings before, so where are we in the development process?
We are doing a 29-hour reading right now. I know they want to do a workshop in May, and I think they want to get it on its feet this year. A lot of people are really excited about it. Alice Ripley is involved. I play the little boy Danny; it's great, because I've always wanted to be Peter Pan, that's my dream role (laughs).
It's hilarious, anyone who loves THE SHINING will just die. They're nailing it.
Well, I will let you go real quick, but you posted this past weekend that you went to see HAMILTON. So, I have to ask, is it as good as everyone says?
Oh God! I am still trying to pick my jaw up off of the floor! It's unreal, it's life-changing. I didn't think I was going to be able to say, "It changed my life," but it did.
Everything good people are saying about it is exactly what it is. It's unbelievable. (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is the new Shakespeare (laughs).
Do you want to have Elle send you an occasional ray of sunshine? Follow her on Twitter @ElleMcLemore. Also, share what your favorite Elle-cheerleader role is in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. Also, don't forget to follow @BWWMoviesWorld on Twitter and "Like" us on Facebook for all of the latest movie news, reviews, trailers, and more.
You can see McLemore in AT THE TOP OF THE PYRAMID:
New York: March 4-10, 2015 - Anthology Film Archives
Los Angeles: March 7-8, 2015 - Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15
Cincinnati: March 15-16, 2015 - Cinemark Oakley Station