Ice cream server one day, ‘Hairspray’ star the next

[18 July 2007]

By Terry Lawson

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Yes, she really was in the Cold Stone Creamery, scooping ice cream. And no, she really didn’t know it was coming.

“I knew I was one of the final four,” says Nikki Blonsky, who was 17 and working at the ice cream store in her hometown on Long Island when she was chosen to play Tracy Turnblad. Tracy is the irrepressible plus-size kid who plots to integrate a dance-party TV show in 1963 in the movie musical version of “Hairspray.” “But when Adam came in with the `Entertainment Tonight’ crew to tell me I had the role, what you saw on TV is how it happened. It was a total surprise.”

Blonsky, whose previous acting experience was limited to the musicals and operas her alternative high school mounted annually, repaid the faith that “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman had after seeing Blonsky’s audition tape.

It was one of more than a thousand received after it was announced he and the producers were searching for a new face to play Tracy, portrayed by Ricki Lake in John Waters’ 1988 comedy that became the basis for the hit Broadway musical.

The new movie version, which opens nationwide Friday, also stars Zac Efron as the dreamboat dancer on whom Tracy has a crush; Brittany Snow as his snotty girlfriend; Michelle Pfeiffer as Snow’s former-beauty queen mother who is also the producer of the “American Bandstand”-style “Corny Collins Show”; Queen Latifah as the record store owner who hosts the show on the once-monthly episode when the black kids get to dance; Christopher Walken as Tracy’s encouraging dad, and John Travolta, in drag and fat suit, as Tracy’s protective mom.

“It was literally a dream come true, as corny as that sounds,” says Blonsky, whose enthusiasm seems not to have flagged, despite having just appeared “in three countries in three days for three premieres.”

“The first time I saw the play, I thought, I really, really want to play that character, because she was just so much like me. And the year before I was cast in the movie, they were looking for a new Tracy for the show, but they said I was too young. The women who played Tracy on Broadway were all a lot older, with Broadway experience.”

“It was way too easy to identify with Tracy,” says Blonsky, who, at 4 feet 10 inches, says she was teased at school about her height and weight. But like Tracy, she says, she had enough self-esteem to deal with it.

“When I was about 3 years old, I told my mom and dad I wanted to be a singer, and they were really encouraging. But as I got older, they told me `you know, this will be even harder for you than it will be other people who want to be performers, because you’re not blond and 5-10 and weigh 100 pounds.’

“But I also believed that this was what I was supposed to do, so I just didn’t let it deter me. And yeah, I got made fun of, but I also had a lot of really supportive friends and teachers, too. And when I started getting cast in the leads in the school plays” - she was doing “Carmen” when she landed the “Hairspray” part - “that really boosted my confidence. I knew I had made the right choices.”

The only real obstacle she faced for “Hairspray,” she says, was that she had never danced, “except at friends’ birthday parties and stuff like that.” But Shankman arranged for her to spend two months - “eight long hours every day” - working with the film’s choreographers before production began last August. And Blonsky says that while she had “some minor jitters” about sharing the dance floor with Travolta and Pfeiffer (not to mention Walken, who was a song-and-dance man long before he started playing heavies and eccentrics in dramas), the stars put her instantly at ease.

“It undoubtedly helped that I was making my movie with some of the nicest people in show business. Everybody was so supportive and happy to work with me. I didn’t meet anybody in the cast before we did our first table read-through of the script, but they made me feel like I was just another member of the club. They couldn’t have been nicer.”

Blonsky says that while singing and musicals are her first love, she is hoping that she will also be given an opportunity to try dramatic roles, and nonmusical comedy.

“I’m really thankful the movie turned out so well and that everyone seems to enjoy it so much, because I think that it really does have something important to say about accepting people of all colors and shapes and sizes. If someone sees me in the role and says, `OK, I may not look like a movie star or a model, but maybe I could do that, too,’ that would make me happier than any good review. That would really be the cherry on top.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/ice-cream-server-one-day-hairspray-star-the-next/