I remember as a child in the ‘60s, there were two teenage dance shows on television: American Bandstand, which was for white teenagers, and Soul Train, which was for black teenagers. My parents didn’t like either one. I could usually get away with watching Bandstand, but Soul Train was absolutely forbidden. This real-life segregation drama unfolded in living rooms throughout America, and was the theme of the Broadway hit (and later the movie) Hairspray.
Today I talked with the fabulous Nikki Blonsky, whose bubbly performance as Tracy Turnblad in the movie version of Hairspray takes us back to the early ‘60s, when the popular music of the day created an upbeat backdrop to one of the most tumultuous times in America’s history.
THE VIVANT: The producers of the theatrical version of Hairspray have issued a new casting rule, which closes a loophole that requires casting to more accurately portray the racial makeup of the show. Specifically, the rule states that white actors cannot portray black characters. Hairspray of course, portrays the fight for integration and civil rights in the early 1960s, so that would seem to make sense. How do you feel about this new casting rule?
NIKKI BLONSKY: I think staying true to the identity of Hairspray is really just about the integrity of the project. It’s such a well-written project, and a movie with such heart and passion behind it that with the story, which I feel is more prevalent than ever, it has to be no other way than having an integrated cast. I couldn’t imagine it without. The heart would go away. Because Elijah Kelley, and Queen Latifah are the heart of that movie, and without Seaweed and Motormouth, I believe Hairspray wouldn’t have been as incredibly well sung and brilliantly acted. We all did a fine job, but they really just got it to another level. I think we all worked hard, but the community deserves to play the part that was written for them. I shouldn’t be playing the part of an African American woman, because I don’t know their struggles no matter how many books I read, or how much I educate myself. Nobody will ever know what it’s like to walk in anybody’s shoes. The struggle of the African American community right now is on another level, and my heart breaks daily. So I think what is happening is correct, and the community deserves to play the parts that are written for them.
THE VIVANT: I can’t imagine a white actor playing Seaweed, I’m not sure why anybody would even want to cast that. Is that really happening somewhere in community theaters?
NIKKI BLONSKY: I would really hope not. Unfortunately nothing surprises me in today’s world.
THE VIVANT: White actors portraying characters of color isn’t a new thing. We saw it in the first few runs of Miss Saigon. And Breakfast at Tiffany’s too, is such a wonderful movie, but I always cringe a little bit when I see Mickey Rooney hamming it up playing the Japanese landlord with such stereotypes.
NIKKI BLONSKY: I think that movies are truly the land of “anything is possible,” but I believe the integrity of a project and the message needs to get across every time.
THE VIVANT: Hairspray is one of those unforgettable, timeless shows. It will remain part of theater and film history for years to come. Vogue named it “one of the most watched movies on Netflix.” What is it that makes Hairspray so memorable?
NIKKI BLONSKY: I believe that if the musical community had a heartbeat, it would be Hairspray. It’s so alive. It’s such a powerful, strong message. It’s a feel-good movie, but it teaches you something. I’ll always go back to when I met Angelina Jolie at the SAG Awards. I went up to her, because I never new when I would run into Angelina Jolie, one of my idols, again. What I heard from her blew me away. She turned around and she said, “Oh, Tracy Turnblad!” And I was like, oh my goodness! I was gob smacked. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe that she knew that I walked this earth. You have no idea how much this woman means to my career. I idolized her. I’ve watched all of her movies. Unbroken is one of my favorite movies of all times, she’s a genius. When she said to me that her children asked her and Brad to put on the movie before the SAG Awards, I was blown away. Then she proceeded to tell me that, and I feel comfortable telling this story because she is such an open figure and she’s so honest about her life. She told me that they are an integrated family, but before Hairspray, her children didn’t really realize that there was a point in history when African American kids and white kids couldn’t dance together on television. She told me that her and Brad had sat down and given the kids a whole history lesson, and it bonded their family. They had such a lovely conversation over it, and that meant the world to me. I felt right then that the message had gotten across, and we were on the right track to what had clearly opened these children’s eyes.
THE VIVANT: You’ve really hit on something there. There really was a time when black and white teenagers could not dance together on television, and I’m old enough to remember it. When I was a kid, there were two shows, there was American Bandstand for white teenagers, and Soul Train for black teenagers. My parents hated them both, but I could get away with watching Bandstand, but Soul Train was forbidden. I think a lot of people don’t realize that this really was a thing. What was portrayed in Hairspray really happened.
NIKKI BLONSKY: I have to say, I come from a family where we didn’t see color at all. My mother dated a black man for many years before my father, and I dated a black man off and on for eight years. We knew that there was racism out there, but believed in love and equality for every single race, religion, sex, nationality, creed, sexuality. We believed I love for everybody and that’s how my parents raised me, and how my grandparents raised them. And those are the values and the messages that I will instill in my nieces and nephews and my future family. A human heart is a human heart. Love is love. Looks and personality are two different things, and looks are going to fade. I’m writing about this in my book, that things are going to sag, everything’s going to change. Wrinkles are going to set in. But we’re going to be remembered for our personality, for the mark we leave in this world. And hopefully we leave the world in a little bit of a better place than the way we found it. That’s my personal mission.
THE VIVANT: You were just a teenager when you were cast as Tracy, how did you land such a big role at such a young age?
NIKKI BLONSKY: It was a journey. A six month journey, which is a little bit longer than most audition processes, but it was the best experience of my life. It taught me so much about hard work and dedication, and just constantly going back to callback after callback, city after city, Baltimore, LA, New York, and just traveling with my mom and getting the experience of bonding and traveling together for the first time. It was a life changing experience. It definitely put me on the path I am now and it’s definitely made me the woman I am today. And I also have my mentor, Dr. Pamela Levy, to thank for that, and a lot of other people who have contributed to my story. It’s not just my story, it’s very much theirs as well. I think Tracy was just something I wanted. I wanted to play her more than anything in the world, and in my book I talk about how my parents asked me what I wanted for my 18th birthday. And I said, “I just got Hairspray! What could I possibly want?” And the answer was simple, it was my dog. But other than that, Hairspray was the only thing I ever really wanted, and I went at it full force. I’m a very much all-or-nothing type of person. I don’t go at things halfway.
THE VIVANT: Can I just say, you really made the movie. It wouldn’t have been the same without you.
NIKKI BLONSKY: That’s incredibly kind. And you go back to all of the incredible performances in that movie, everybody from Allison Janney to James Marsden, and Paul Dooley! It’s mind blowing really jut how mind-bending that cast was. How they got all those people in one place, I don’t know how it happened but it was nothing short of a miracle. But it was a beautiful miracle.
THE VIVANT: At 17 years old, you were making your big debut and working with such big stars like Christopher Walken and John Travolta. Was that a little intimidating?
NIKKI BLONSKY: I always remember the one thing my mentor Dr. Levy says to me. When I would get nervous before a school show she would say to me, “Nikki, get out there and do it.” I’m finishing the chapter on her in my book right now. Dr. Levy instilled this in me – just get out there and do it. So when we were at the readthrough of Hairspray, and there was every single producer at New Line Cinema, every dancer, every writer, every actor, a massive group of people. Of course, it starts out with Good Morning Baltimore. We had just recorded rehearsal tracks so they were going to play it and I didn’t have to sing it, so the nerves eased up a little bit. But then we went on to I Can Hear the Bells, and how it’s all up to me to kick it off. I remember having this “Oh my gosh” feeling, and remember thinking back to what Dr. Levy told me. Just keep going. And we did, and I did. So when you have these things that play through your mind from someone who has single-handedly helped you realize that you can do anything, you really can do anything. Whether it’s table reads with the biggest actors, or if I turned around tomorrow and decided to become a chef, it doesn’t matter. Dr. Levy will always support me, I know this. I think teachers are incredibly important in children’s lives. If I’m anything in this world, I would hope that I taught somebody something. And hopefully it’s about social injustice and that it’s very real.
THE VIVANT: I have to ask – in the show, your hair is gorgeous. That big hair! I remember my older sister used to have hair just like that back in the ‘60s. How long did you have to sit in the makeup chair to get your hair to look like that?
NIKKI BLONSKY: That wasn’t my hair, I had a wig for each different style, so there were three different wigs. I went through a process every day where it would be washed, blown out, pincurled and then the wig would go on and it would be teased and hairsprayed of course, because there was never a shortage. It was wonderful. For the girls, we had such big wigs that we couldn’t take a nap at lunch. The boys would sleep soundly, no problem. When Link Larkin says, “Sorry little darlin’, didn’t mean to dent your ‘do,” we were probably denting our do’s trying to catch a few Z’s.
THE VIVANT: Gotta love that big hair!
NIKKI BLONSKY: You know, I work with an incredibly talented hair stylist, Craig Gangi out in California. And this man – Adam Shankman and I used to joke that his left hand was a curling iron. I can iron my hair and throw some gel in it and call it a day, but hair is very much a craft. And on Hairspray there was no shortage of talent, like Judi Cooper-Sealy, and Jenny Miles was just wonderful. We were very fortunate.
THE VIVANT: You weren’t born yet during the time portrayed in Hairspray, but I’m sure you must have some insights into the period. How do you see the civil rights movement of that time period of the early 1960s comparing to what’s going on right now?
NIKKI BLONSKY: I went to a protest on Sunday, and I felt like I was filming the movie again. My mother, she was worried about me. She was like, “You have to go, but I’m just so worried,” about the coronavirus. And of course she’s in her sixties and I want to make sure she’s healthy and safe. So I’m cautious, I work my mask and my gloves, and sunblock, I wasn’t taking any chances. But what I said to my mother was, “Mom, in Hairspray, I talked the talk. Now it’s time to walk the walk.” If I can get paid to do it in Hairspray, I can surely walk alongside my friends of other races and fight for what is right, and for equality for every single human being on the face of the planet. And that’s simply my message.
THE VIVANT: I love that. So tell me about the Instagram Live show you have going on.
NIKKI BLONSKY: Nikki Nights is something I created during the quarantine. I started it, and then my publicist really helped it soar. She’s a dear friend of mine for over 20 years, and we did school shows together. She’s my longest friend, and I write about her in my book. The podcast has been a wonderful platform. I’ve had a chance to chat with so many wonderful people, actors, talented musicians, artists, and people from all different careers and paths. I’ve interviewed some of my idols like Ricki Lake, Carnie Wilson, and Rose McGowan, and it’s been truly a blessing. It’s now on Spotify and YouTube. I have to say, I had to go back to my dear friend (John Travolta) for inspiration, because I was listening to “Those Summer Nights…” and I said, Nikki Nights! And it’s very much inspired by John. Everything I do is inspired by John because he’s such an important figure in my life. He is a constant support system, and I’m incredibly blesse. Sometimes you just work with people, and it’s just that. You work, and you move on to the next project. And you have a fond memory, but you just move on. John never moved on from me and I never moved on from him. We have been friends for so long, and I adore him. So I had to go with Nikki Nights in honor of my “second mother.” He really is! I tell him that, and I wish him a Happy Mother’s Day on Mother’s Day every year. He knows it’s coming as sure as Christmas.
THE VIVANT: I also saw there’s a recently released movie, Ghost in the Graveyard, streaming on Amazon Prime. You play the role of Mrs. E. tell me about that one, is the horror genre a new thing for you?
NIKKI BLONSKY: Oh, horror is very new for me. But I’ve always been a big fan. My Uncle Steve, who is my inspiration in life, he loves sci-fi and horror and paranormal, and he passed that on to me. Now, I am a paranormal investigator, and I go with my buddy Chad Lindberg from Fast and the Furious, and our friend Nick Groff from Ghost Adventures, and we’ve investigated some pretty creepy places like Eastern State Penitentiary, and Lake Shawnee Amusement Park in West Virginia. I find horror fascinating, and I really wanted to do one, and I felt this was the perfect project, because I like a project that makes me think. This wasn’t just another slasher film. Those are great and they serve their own purpose, but I wanted to think, and Ghost in the Graveyard made me think. And it was with a new director, and I really like his style.
THE VIVANT: I know there was some talk a while back about John Waters writing a sequel to Hairspray. I don’t know if he’s still thinking about doing that, but if that were to happen, would you want to play a role in it?
NIKKI BLONSKY: Well! I mean, did Tim Allen play the Santa Clause? Yes! I have to say, my God, yes. I would do anything in the world to be a part of Hairspray 2 if there ever was such a project. It would be nothing short of the greatest honor of my life. I’ve never been so proud to have played Tracy Turnblad as I am right now. I believe that Hairspray has that balance with the message, and the amazing songs and the fun characters. So in today’s scary and unjust world, I think Hairspray 2 might be more prevalent than ever.
THE VIVANT: I hope John Waters gives it some thought! Now I know production of just about everything is still shut down, but do you have any new projects in the works?
NIKKI BLONSKY: I do, actually! I am thrilled about a project that I will probably be starting in August. It’s a new movie. I can’t release the name just yet, but when I can, I cannot wait. It’s another movie that has such a message for today, another story of injustice. I’m just thrilled to be playing this character in this story, with this message. I love movies that have a heartbeat and a message, and this movie does.
THE VIVANT: Now you have me curious!
NIKKI BLONSKY: I’m on a mission. I’ve never had such a fire inside of me. I don’t know what happened, but the quarantine just set me going, and I’ve never been so full force. It was a long time coming, but I’ve hit the ground running and I’m having a blast.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.