BWW Interviews: NIKKI BLONSKY Joins OC's Men Alive for 'GREASY HAIRSPRAY,' July 15-16
Singer/actress Nikki Blonsky truly embodies that notion of overnight success. Plucked from obscurity at age 17, then-newcomer Blonsky beat out hundreds of young girls from a nationwide open casting call to land the coveted lead role in the big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical HAIRSPRAY.
Acting much like a seasoned pro alongside showbiz veterans John Travolta, Christopher Walken, and Michelle Pfeiffer, she won raves for playing the pleasantly plump heroine Tracy Turnblad, a young high-schooler in the 60's with a penchant for high hair, risque dance moves, and racial integration. The Long Island native similarly excelled in the same role that also made stars out of Marissa Jaret Winokur (Tony winner from the original Broadway cast) and Ricki Lake (Tracy in the original 1988 John Waters cult film that inspired the stage musical).
She followed up HAIRSPRAY with noteworthy turns in the Lifetime telefilm "Queen Sized," and last year starred in the critically-acclaimed (but sadly, short-lived) ABC Family original series Huge. This weekend, though, Blonsky is slipping back into familiar territory as she joins MEN ALIVE - The Orange County Gay Men's Chorus for their 10th Anniversary Concert "GREASY HAIRSPRAY" at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on July 15 and 16.
Under the direction of founder and artistic director Rich Cook, Blonsky will once again sing and dance as Tracy Turnblad, performing live many of the memorable tunes from HAIRSPRAY alongside the colorfully-costumed choristers. The two-day, three-show concert event—which celebrates two hit Broadway shows, GREASE and HAIRSPRAY—marks the grand finalé to Men Alive's 10th Season.
With just days until opening night, Blonsky took a break from rehearsing in New York to chat briefly with BroadwayWorld's Michael Lawrence Quintos about her star-making role in the movie musical, her early childhood influences, and her elation about collaborating with the guys of Men Alive here in Orange County, California.
BWW: Hi, Nikki! First, let me say how much I loved you in the movie HAIRSPRAY and how much I miss your TV series HUGE!
Nikki: Oh, thank you! I love BroadwayWorld.com! You guys have always been so kind and so nice to me, so I love all of you over there!
Oh, great to hear! Well, I should say, too—in the spirit of full disclosure—that I am not only a writer/critic for BWW, but I am also a singer in Men Alive! So, I can tell you first-hand that everyone in the chorus is super excited about you joining us for our 10th Anniversary show!
Oh, yay! That means I get to meet you [in person]!
Yeah, I'm actually going to be singing right next to you as one of the "Dynamites" in the "Welcome to the 60's" number!
Oh, that's great! I was just actually rehearsing that song last night with my musical director! I'm so excited to see how everything will come together and play out because, with that song... I've never performed that song [live]. John [Travolta] and I recorded it separately. So the first time we both ever heard the finished product was when we were shooting the scene for the movie! So when I perform with Men Alive on the 15th and 16th, that will be the first time "Welcome to the 60's"—the movie version of the song—will ever be performed live!
Awesome! Glad we're first! And you have performed some of the other songs live before, right?
Oh, yeah. I've sung "Good Morning, Baltimore" about a million, bajillion times! [Laughs] I've even done it as "Good Morning, Tokyo"... "Good Morning, Rome"... every country where I premiered the movie, I tried to spice it up! [Laughs]
That's great! So are you excited about revisiting these songs again?
Yes! Honestly, they just make me happy. I mean, they bring me back to a point in my life when I was 17—I was a baby, you know? It was my first project. There were all these emotions.... I was learning all the dances... and I was discovering Tracy within myself. It was just a time of joy, discovery, love, laughter and song. I was just being 17 playing a 17-year-old! [Laughs] It was the greatest time in my life, and it's something I will remember forever. So I'm glad I get to sing these songs again! It just brings me back to that moment when I sang "Good Morning, Baltimore" on top of a garbage truck! It was just so much fun! It seems to me to be ages ago, but, really, it was only just five... six years ago!
And it's still such a fun movie to sit through! I can't tell you how many times I've found myself stopping on ABC Family whenever that movie comes on... and I own it on Blu-ray!
Yeah, I catch myself every now and then watching it too whenever it's on TV. My dad or my mom will yell out "You're on, you know?! It's on ABC Family!" or "Turn on HBO!" I always wondered why they kept yelling to me about something on TV, but I finally knew why after the fourteenth time! [Laughs] I mean, I would just watch for maybe, like, a minute just to kind of re-live the memory... but then I'll go "you know, that was a great time in my life... but now I have to switch the channel!"
It really was this role that made you a star overnight! You were working at Cold Stone Creamery when you found out you were going to be playing Tracy Turnblad, right? How shocked were you to find out you nabbed the part while cameras famously captured your reaction?
Well, I was told that all those cameras were there [to get] behind-the-scenes footage, and that they were doing it with all four of the final girls [vying for the part] to capture them in their natural environment. So, whoever got the role, they would use some of that on the DVD bonus materials. And so I was just making ice cream for people—who I didn't even know were actually New Line Cinema executives! I didn't tell any of my friends that I even auditioned because, if I didn't get it, I didn't want to have to explain why. But I did tell some of my teachers because they were the ones that let me cut class a couple of times to go audition.... so a few of them were there in the store, as were my parents and my brother.
At one point the people with the camera crew were, like, "why don't you come out from behind the counter and give other people screen tests!" So I said "sure," and I went over, and out pops up one of the executives and he said "You deserve the big ice cream cone because you're going to be playing Tracy Turnblad!" And I fell to the floor crying and screaming! I couldn't believe it! Literally, in a matter of a second, my life changed.
And Tracy's such a great, forward-thinking character! For everything she believes in, above all things, she's truly an advocate for equality. I take it from your gorgeous NOH8 campaign portrait—plus the fact that you're singing with Men Alive—that you yourself believe in equality. Tell me, how do you feel now that your home state of New York is allowing everyone to get married legally?
I was... [Pauses]... I can't even tell you! When I did the NOH8 [photo] campaign, I was so excited to do that! My mom did it, too, and we did a shot together. My family and I believe in equal rights for everybody. I have never been so proud to be a New Yorker as I am now... now that they've legalized gay marriage! Everything is the way it really should be. Hopefully Californians will hear my cries during "Good Morning, Baltimore" when I get there and they'll all finally come to their senses! [Laughs]
Equality—or, more specifically, acceptance—seems to be a running theme embedded in many of your other roles besides Tracy Turnblad. Is this a conscious decision on your part when selecting your projects?
Oh, yeah. You know, I could've gone into [other] roles that were more mainstream or could have gone into a different direction. But I made it very, very clear that after HAIRSPRAY, I wasn't just going to do anything. I was going to do something that either pulled at my heartstrings or was going to make a difference in other people's lives. And so I did a Lifetime movie called "Queen Sized" which told the story of a plus-sized girl getting nominated for Homecoming Queen as a joke, but she ends up retaliating by [seriously] running for Homecoming Queen—and winning! That movie for me was such a cathartic role to play because I was picked on at school. I really just wanted to show those girls out there [like me] in the world that you can be Homecoming Queen! You can do that!
I also did a movie called "Harold" with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Ally Sheedy, where I played a really, really not-cool kid. My character was the leader of what they called "the Nerd-Herd." So, in the movie, I was able to express my inner, you know... I don't want to say nerdy-ness... [Laughs] ...but she had this, uh, eclectic style. And I've also played a character on an MTV show called Valemont. The show was very serious about vampires, but my character was this light-hearted, bubbly girl who never stopped running her mouth. She dressed in 80's fashion and totally didn't fit in anywhere. I love playing those characters because those are the roles that are eventually the kind that draw people to you. I think people see the same stories all the time... the same type of love story all the time...
But I think with the roles that I've chosen—everyone that I've played—have been all over the spectrum. I once played a prissy, not-so-nice assistant at Elle Magazine [in TV's Ugly Betty], which was a complete opposite to the heavy-set Homecoming Queen I played in "Queen Sized." Ultimately, I just want to keep doing projects that give people hope and [secure] their faith that things will change, and that people's minds will be opened.
That's great! Sounds like you have the makings of a true role model. You know, a lot of our readers on BroadwayWorld are young students who dream of someday having the same career as you have. Do you have any advice for our young readers who want to pursue a showbiz career?
Yeah! You know, I've been very fortunate to have such a great support system at home who have always been behind me 110%, but you really have to believe in what you do, and believe that [this career] is what you were put on Earth to do. And if you're having fun doing it and if people are enjoying your performances, then you're doing the right thing! I always say, if one door closes, four more are going to open. So there's going to be a lot of rejection—people are going to say 'no.' But for every 'no,' there is a 'yes.' Whereas you won't get one part, you'll get another part. So, yeah, I just think it's a matter of having a tough skin. It's a rough industry. It's not all glitz and glamour and Christian Louboutin heels. It's not like that! It's about having tough skin and working really hard with whatever your talent is. It's all about really being the best YOU you can be.
Great advice! With that said, let's talk a little bit about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Long Island... and grew up in Great Neck, Long Island.
Growing up, did you know you wanted to be an actor?
Oh, no. Actually, I was really more into singing since I was three. I used to sing around the house and my grandparents would say, "Oh, you're so good!" But, well, I didn't know! I just knew that, as I got older, I felt better emotionally and physically about myself when I sang. Whether it was at church or at home, singing was like therapy for me... a release. So people kept telling me, "You know, you're really good!" but I didn't know the difference between good and bad, because all I heard was what was coming out of my own mouth. So when I finally got a vocal teacher, and he was, like, "yeah, you are good... and you could make it." And, so, I was, like, "Oh. Okay!" That's when I started to really take it seriously.
Then, later my friend asked me to be in a musical with him, but I was, like, "Oh, no no no! I don't act. I just sing." But then my mother looked at me—and that look has stuck with me forever—and said "You just don't do any [one] thing. You can do anything you want to do! Do try! And if you like it, you like it, if you don't, you don't." And, so, I auditioned for the lead part and I got it! From that moment on, I was bitten by the theater bug and I haven't gone back since!
Now is it true that you also auditioned for the Broadway company of HAIRSPRAY?
I did! When I was 16, I went to Bernie at Bernie Telsey and Company and auditioned. I went back, I think two or three times in a matter of two weeks. I was so excited! I was, like, [pleading voice] please... I'm 16 and Tracy was just 16, now 17... this is so perfect! But after the last time, they came back and ultimately said "she's too young." But, I thought, I'm not too young! Tracy's my age! Get a grip on it, people! [Laughs]
But I just had this determination. I'm the kind of person who... well, some might call it stubborn, I call it driven. I made up my mind and said I am not going out without a fight! I will play this part on Broadway! I said, if I had to go back every single year for the rest of my life to audition, I will! And so I made that promise to myself, and on my 17th birthday, I checked on the show's web site and it said "we're casting the movie!" And I scrolled down [the article] to see what the [eligible] ages are... I kept saying "Oh, please say 17! Please say 17!" And it said "Ages 17 to 24" ...And that was it!
It was meant to be! So, as you were blossoming through these teen years, who were some of your idols and influences?
Growing up, my acting idol, I have to say, is Angela Lansbury. Angela Lansbury is just my absolute idol singing-wise, acting-wise... I just adore her. When I finally got to meet her [in person], that was probably one of the best experiences of my life. As far as singers... it's quite interesting because I was raised in a house where my grandmother was teaching me Patsy Cline and Dean Martin, while my dad was playing The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers. And then my mom would play Donna Summer or The Four Seasons... I was just a melting pot of music! So, on my own, I kind of found certain people like Melissa Etheridge, who's a very big inspiration to me. And with Céline Dion and Patsy Cline, they are three of my all-time favorite female singers that I adore.
Now, how about in musical theater? Any specific musicals wowed or influenced you when you were younger?
Oh, yeah. The first stage musical I ever saw was OKLAHOMA! I was just amazed at how all of this stuff could go on! I was thinking, there has to be people in the background! There's so many things going around! I saw people singing and dancing! So between that and seeing The Radio City Rockettes every year, I got this feeling that there's something magical that happens on the stage. The first real production that I just knew that I was meant to do this for a living was—and I was in high school—when I played Mrs. Lovett in SWEENEY TODD. That was, like, a defining moment in my life. I just studied the accent for so long. And to learn songs by Stephen Sondheim—and that whole score—it was a great challenge, but it was the best gift I could have ever been given. And then I followed that up with the opera CARMEN... where I learned how to sing and speak in French to play Carmen.
Wow, two very distinct styles of theater!
Yeah! My teacher said to me when CARMEN came about, that she'd like me to audition for the part. I was, like, "Oh, that's nice. But, two problems: I don't speak French and I don't sing opera!" But she said, "You will!" And, you know what? I did! By the end of it, we rehearsed for six months word-by-word. I learned what every word meant so I knew what I was singing about. It was an amazing experience.
Nice! Now, I wouldn't be from BroadwayWorld if I didn't ask this question... do you have any dream roles in other musicals you maybe want to take on someday?
Oh, absolutely! I always say that if they ever bring back SWEENEY TODD years from now, I would die to play Mrs. Lovett again! And I would love to play Mary Poppins! Those are just such fun, fun roles! There are so many great musicals out there, but if they ever do bring SWEENEY TODD back... I'd be, like, great! Please! I'll do anything to play Mrs. Lovett one more time! [Laughs] And... I'd also love to originate a role on Broadway.
Cool! So, besides this upcoming concert with Men Alive, what can your fans look forward to in terms of future projects down the line?
Yeah, there's tons of stuff down the line that we're working on! There's one being done now that's in the hands of other people for another [TV] network, and there's also some stuff that I've been working on myself. So I'm kind of being mellow with that and really just taking a journey through this industry. You know, now I kind of feel like I have a little time to experiment, so I'm trying to see what works and what doesn't in this industry. It's kind of like a game. You wake up everyday and go with the flow and see what happens. One day you have a job and the next day, you don't. But I've learned that, sometimes, you have to create your own jobs! So I'm totally open to that as well! I love teaching kids to learn how to audition... But, yes, there's some stuff that my fans can definitely get ready for! Some really good stuff that I think will really please them... They'll get to know me a lot lot better!
Great! Thanks for the hints! I can't wait to find out what they are! Okay, so before we conclude our interview, I'd like to subject you to my favorite part: THE LIGHTNING ROUND! I'll ask you some quick, short questions and all you have to do is just give me the first thing that pops into your head. Okay?
So, what's your favorite musical of all time?
What song do you like belting in the shower or when you're all alone in the car?
"Don't Rain On My Parade"
Cool. You know... speaking of that song... that reminds me. I think you'd be great on GLEE!
You know, I would love to! So many people have been talking about it for a couple of years, and I'm just, like, saying... C'mon! It's time! I just want to go out there and have fun with those guys! Amber Riley [who plays Mercedes] is a great friend of mine. I feel that I would just love to be on the show and I would give it a 110% wholeheartedly!
Well, cool! You know what? Let's put it out there in the universe and maybe something will happen!
Okay... getting back to the lightning round questions... Which current actor or actress do you admire a lot and why?
Angelina Jolie is someone I really admire because of her work and also because she's a lovely person. But it's really because of the different types of work that she does... and not just in movies, but also with all of her charity work and travelling. And all of her movies are all so different from one another. When I saw "Girl, Interrupted," that was the movie that made me want to be in movies. That was when I went..."Ohmigosh, this woman is a genius!"
Awesome! Okay, next question... what scares you the most?
Um... spiders! And when the lights go out.
What is your one guilty pleasure?
... A lot of reality TV... and my two pugs!
What do you like doing on your days off?
I like to DVR all the Paranormal shows... like Ghost Hunters... Basically, on my day off, I like to watch all these crazy, scary shows so, you know, I won't be able to go to sleep that night! [Laughs] I just like to bite my nose to spite my face! So, yeah, let me watch all these scary shows so that I won't be able to sleep tonight... so that I'll be tired for work tomorrow!
What or Who irritates you the most?
[Laughs] Um... human leeches irritate me the most! You know, people who jump onto you because you're famous. They think they're just going to ride your coattails. That drives me up the wall and down because... I made it on my own. I went out there and got it on my own. You want it? You get it for yourself! I mean, I can help you... I'll guide you... especially with children, I'll help, guide and give advice. But I cannot stand adults or teenagers close to my age that are just literally trying to ride my coattails into the industry. That drives me insane.
On the opposite of that, what instantly puts a smile on your face?
My pugs! I have a 7-year-old named Rocky and a 2-year-old named Franky!
Awww. Okay, if you could trade lives with someone for one day, who would it be?
Oh, gosh. That's a really good question. [Long Pause] Maybe... my Mom. [Speaks to her Mom in room, Laughs] My mom just said, "You don't want to trade lives with me!" [Laughs] Well... I could say... and this is a total joke... but, I would love to trade lives with Zac Efron and see what it was like kissing me!
[Laughs] That's great!
But my real answer would be... you know, I would probably really love to trade lives with a doctor or a forensic scientist.
What's the one piece of advice you've received from a fellow actor that you've found very useful?
I've gotten boatloads of advice from John [Travolta], but Wilmer Valderrama said to me once... "If no one is coming to you with work, you have to create your own work." I really took that to heart and that's what I'm doing now. But I also remember John always telling me from day one... "you are an old soul... and if you just stay true and remain 'you'... you will continue to have a successful run, career, and life. Just continue being yourself! Never switch for anybody!" And I live by his words every day.
Wow, what great advice!
On the flip side... the one piece of advIce That I could give to anybody out there whether they're in the entertainment world or whatever world they're in... my uncle once taught me before he passed away very suddenly a few years ago... he would always tell me, "Kid, take it one day at a time." And that's how I live my life! Sure, it's good we all plan for the future... but there has to be a happy medium of living in the now... and when we get to tomorrow, we'll get to tomorrow. It's all about really embracing what's going on in your life at the moment—whether it's good or whether it's bad—and take it as it comes... and keep it moving.
Okay, one last question... what can we all look forward to when you step out on stage with Men Alive this week?
Orange County can definitely expect to just sit back and enjoy a good show! I can't wait to meet you guys [in the chorus], because I know we're just gonna hit it off and have a blast together! So I can't wait to see the show put together and us out there singing these songs! It's going to be an amazing performance ... and it also takes audiences away from whatever else [stressful] that's going on in their lives! That's the beauty of HAIRSPRAY! That's the beauty of GREASE! They're both such amazing musical movies that can just take you out of whatever troubles you're in and transport you into a totally different time period! And that's what we're going to do... we're going to sing, we're going to dance, we're going to have fun! And I encourage everybody in the theater... if you want to dance along with me, you can dance along with me!
Follow Michael Lawrence Quintos on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Top photo of Nikki Blonsky courtesy of Innovative Artists. Photos from the motion picture HAIRSPRAY ©2007 David James/New Line Cinema.
Performances of Men Alive: The Orange County Gay Mens Chorus' 10th Anniversary Concert "GREASY HAIRSPRAY" featuring Hairspray's Nikki Blonsky at the Irvine Barclay Theatre opens Friday, July 15 at 8 pm and continues with two shows on Saturday, July 16 at 3 pm and 8 pm.
Ticket prices start at $35 and can be purchased online at www.TheBarclay.org, by phone at (949) 854-4646 or in person at the Irvine Barclay Theatre box office. **Save 20% OFF all remaining orchestra-level seats for Opening Night (July 15) or the Saturday matinee (July 16) by entering the discount code "Nikki" at checkout.
The Irvine Barclay Theatre is located at 4242 Campus Drive in Irvine.
About MEN ALIVE - THE ORANGE COUNTY GAY MENS CHORUS
Men Alive - The Orange County Gay Men's Chorus was founded in 2001 by Artistic Director Rich Cook. In the short time since, Men Alive has quickly grown into one of Orange County's largest choruses and an active & respected partner in Southern California's arts scene. Since its first rehearsal in September 2001, Men Alive has grown from 13 singers to more than 150+ singers and volunteers. Now celebrating it's 10th Season, Men Alive continues to produce full productions that combine song, dance, and theatrics to provide shows of enormous popular appeal for all ages and backgrounds. The Chorus performs a wide range of musical styles including classical, jazz, gospel, traditional, contemporary, and popular. Several major and noted guest stars have joined Men Alive in performance over the years, including Michael Feinstein, Debbie Reynolds, Sam Harris, Leslie Jordan, and Broadway legend Bernadette Peters.
For more information, visit www.MenAliveChorus.org.