Alexandra Shipp / Design by Tiana Crispino

Alexandra Shipp on Taking Beauty Risks and Creating Change in Hollywood

Plus, she discusses playing Susan in Tick, Tick... Boom!

Since the November release of her latest film Tick, Tick... Boom!, Alexandra Shipp has been basking in a beautiful whirlwind of busyness. The actress has spent her days shuffling between industry events, premieres, and late-night television appearances to celebrate the musical's debut. The film, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, chronicles the life of famous Rent playwright Jonathan Larson as he works to write a musical in the '90s. Shipp plays the leading lady Susan, Larson's girlfriend and talented dancer. 

Working on Tick, Tick... Boom! provided an unparalleled opportunity to tap into all of her childhood passions—acting, singing, and dancing. Shipp committed herself to the role emotionally, mentally, and physically (enduring hours of rigorous dance training daily) so she could "show up and shine" as Susan. And if you've watched the film, you know she did that and then some. 

When Shipp signs on to our Zoom call, she's enjoying a moment of downtime from her usually jam-packed schedule. Clad in a comfy white sweatshirt and nestled next to her beloved dogs, she appeared thoroughly relaxed and eager to chat. The actress' calm, endearing energy allowed the conversation to flow from subject to subject with ease. Now 30-years-old, Shipp is intensely focused on continuing to grow as an artist, cultivating greater self-awareness, and living each day with purpose. Ahead, she opens up about what it was like working on Tick, Tick... Boom!, why she loves taking beauty risks, and how she plans to create change in Hollywood. 

You've played many dynamic roles throughout your career—from the singer Aaliyah to Susan in Tick, Tick... Boom!. However, your journey began when you moved to Los Angeles at 17. What was that time like in your life? 

In the beginning, I just had blind confidence. I told myself; You are going to move to L.A., film Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, and everyone will see how great you are. It was incredible filming that movie. I got to work with Betty Thomas, and I feel spoiled to have been able to work with a female director as my first director. However, I was not prepared for all the hardships of being an actor or an out-of-work actor. But looking back at it, I'm so happy I was so blindly confident in myself because I did take that leap. All of those years of not working makes the success I now have much sweeter. 

Alexandra Shipp / Design by Tiana Crispino

Alexandra Shipp / Design by Tiana Crispino

Let's talk about your latest role Tick, Tick... Boom!. What made you want to be a part of the cast? 

I've always been a singer, and I never really got the chance to showcase those things. I did a little bit with the Aaliyah biopic. I recorded all of her songs for the movie, but I wanted to dive back into that on a bigger scale. I always let reps know I wanted to do a musical. When Tick, Tick... Boom! came up, they submitted me for casting. I knew the movie involved Lin-Manuel Miranda and was blown away by him in Hamilton. I love working with people who are actors and directors because we speak the same language.

What was the audition process like?

Lin is all about singers being true to their individuality, so I wanted to take my singing to the next level for him. I wanted to show him what I could do and give him way too many runs. I was also really happy I got to read with Andrew Garfield. Our chemistry was instantaneous. When we read the breakup scene together, I felt like I was breaking up with the love of my life. It was beautiful. We were crying in each other's arms and screaming at each other. It felt so real. Lin watched our audition on Skype because he was out of town. We asked him, "What do you think? Was that okay?" And he was a little misty-eyed. I remember leaving the audition feeling like I did something in that room. I feel like there was a moment of real truth to what I did during that audition. 

Your character Susan is a graceful dancer. What was it like training to dance like her? 

I danced when I was younger, and I danced in the Aaliyah movie. But, I did not consider myself a dancer before the musical. When you're filming movies, you're doing multiple takes. And when you're doing something physical like that over and over, you have to have a certain level of stamina. Ryan Heffington, who choreographed the film, connected me with the incredible choreographer Melissa Schade. She taught me all of the fundamentals of ballet. We rehearsed for three hours a day on top of working out with the physical trainer. 

For me, it was important to know how a modern ballerina would hold herself. I'm always thinking about the body when it comes to my craft. How does one hold herself? How does she look at people? How does she speak to people? Dancers are always dancing, even when they're standing still. They have a stage presence that radiates off of them, and it's something so blindingly magnetic. I wanted to encompass that when it came to playing Susan because this is her craft. 

From being able to help tell Jonathan Larson's story to working with people like Lin-Manuel Miranda, I'm sure this experience has been unforgettable. What aspects of  Tick, Tick... Boom! will you cherish forever? 

The community. Every movie feels like summer camp. We spent a lot of time with each other and forged friendships. I talk to Robin de Jesús all the time. Vanessa Hudgens is one of my best friends. I heard Joshua Henry's single playing at Starbucks the other day, and I sent him a video of me dancing. People at the Starbucks were like, Is she okay? We love and support each other, and we're always sending funny memes in the group chat. 

Alexandra Shipp / Design by Tiana Crispino

Alexandra Shipp / Design by Tiana Crispino

You were able to showcase your beautiful curls in the film. Was that an intentional hair choice? How did you maintain your curls on set? 

My favorite thing about this movie was that Lin is a collaborator. With my hair, he was like, "What do you see?" And I was like, '90s Mariah Carey. I wanted juicy, long curls. When it came to preparing, I would set my hair in the morning. I would prep it with Pattern Beauty products, like their Leave-In Conditioner, and let it air dry. When I got to set, I'd let the hair department style it. If I had done all of that on set, my hair would have taken so long to do. Plus, as a woman of color, I prefer to set and prep my hair because I know my hair better than anyone else does. 

During your press run for the film, your beauty looks were incredible. Where do you draw beauty inspiration from? 

When it comes to hair, I'm inspired by the culture of Black hair. I'm also inspired by women who take risks with their hair. I always want to mix it up. As Black women, we get a chance to do that. Some days, I want braids. On other days, I want to rock a fro. I wanted to do something forward-thinking for my makeup during the press tour. I was wearing a lot of vintage clothing, and I wanted my makeup to have a millennial spin on it. One day, I wanted to do a rainbow eye. The next day, I wanted to go for a green look. I don't necessarily take as many beauty risks when I'm working on a movie because I'm portraying a role. But when I hit that red carpet or do a photoshoot, that allows me to serve looks.

Alexandra Shipp / Design by Tiana Crispino

Alexandra Shipp / Design by Tiana Crispino

What's the boldest beauty risk you've taken?

I bleached my brows for a red carpet. My makeup artist was hesitant. But, I was like, "Girl, we can easily dye them back." At that moment, bleached brows were what I wanted to do. I want to push limits and challenge the way people see art. I want to challenge the way people see a red carpet look. I could have shown up with a classic beauty look, which would have been cool. But I want people to see me as the artist I am.

When you're not filming or making a red carpet appearance, what does self-care look like for you? 

I try to find a way to do my self-care routine every day. But some days, I'm a little tired and just want to knock out. If I have a day all to myself, I like to spend it reading, writing, playing my guitar, or going to see friends. I'll also take my dogs for a long walk. I am also a bubble bath queen. When I am working, I always make sure wherever I'm staying has a bathtub. If it's the night before I have to go to set, I'll take a 20-minute bath. I like to put on a mud mask during my baths and listen to a murder podcast like Morbid. The next day, I wake up and look like I am glowing from the inside out. 

You mentioned you love reading. Is there anything you're reading currently?

I've been reading a lot of books about boundary work. I've been reading this book by Nedra Glover Tawwab called Set Boundaries, Find Peace. My therapist recommended it. I'm learning so much about myself, the reasons why I do things, and how to better protect my serenity. Self-awareness is another level of self-care. If I become more self-aware, I can take care of myself more.

Alexandra Shipp / Design by Tiana Crispino

Alexandra Shipp / Design by Tiana Crispino

Achieving greater self-awareness and setting boundaries are two of your goals for this year. Have you set any other intentions for 2022?

I'm in my 30s now, and I want to be better. I have been trying to educate myself. After George Floyd died, I was thinking; I'm an actor. What can I possibly do? I decided to commit to creating social change within my industry. The more I rise within this industry, the more rooms I get to be in. My goal is to bring a plus one to the table, whether they want me to or not. I check many boxes—I'm queer, Black, and a woman. I'm going to bring a woman, person of color, or someone within my LGBTQI community into these rooms. You will see their brilliance and know their name. This year is about lifting people within my community. 

We talked about your journey as a 17-year-old girl finding her way in Hollywood. What advice would you give to another young girl who wants to follow in your footsteps?

There's always an element of luck to success—that's the reality. But when we look at luck, we have to break down that definition. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. You have to be prepared so you're ready to show up in your greatest light when those opportunities come to you. Preparation isn't just hard work, either. What are you doing to prepare yourself? Are you reading books? Are you taking classes? When you are prepared with that level of work ethic, you can succeed. I've been acting in theater productions since I was 10 years old. I've been preparing for the last 20 years so I can show up and shine when I get an opportunity. 

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