How Alexandra Shipp Spiced Up Her Tick, Tick... BOOM! Audition Tape [Interview]

Alexandra Shipp has come a long way since her "House of Anubis" days. After starring in the Nickelodeon teen soap opera, the actress delved deep into the film industry, appearing in everything from "Straight Outta Compton" to "Love, Simon." Marvel fans will recognize her as a young Storm from the Fox X-Men franchise but in her latest role, Shipp is showing off an entirely new superpower: singing. The triple threat performer recently joined an impressive roster of Broadway all-stars for Lin Manuel Miranda's directorial debut, "Tick, Tick... BOOM!"

Existing somewhere between a musical adaptation and a biopic, "Tick, Tick... BOOM!" tells the story of Jonathan Larson, the theater legend behind "Rent," amongst other beloved musicals. As Susan, Shipp plays Larson's girlfriend, but as the character sharply reminds him in the film, she's also an artist in her own right. A dancer recovering from an injury, Susan is caught between her love for Jonathan and for her craft — a difficulty that really resonated with Shipp.

I had the pleasure of speaking to her in the run-up to the release of "Tick, Tick... BOOM!" and she shared what a thrilling and huge undertaking it was to star in the film. Shipp proclaimed herself as not your "conventional musical theater voice," which became even more of a reason to make the role her own ... starting with her audition tape. In our full conversation below, Alexandra Shipp talks through her audition song, her duet with Vanessa Hudgens, and the joy of working on a set full of theater people.

"One of my favorite things about Susan is that she is a hopeless romantic."

So, I assume you're a pretty big musical theater nerd, yourself.

I do love musical theater, yes.

Were you super familiar with "Tick, Tick... Boom!" before getting the role?

I actually was not familiar with "Tick, Tick... Boom!" I knew of Jonathan Larson from "Rent," I was a big fan of "Rent." And so when I initially got the audition, I threw myself into as much information as I possibly could find because I hadn't seen it on stage before. So I found clips on Instagram and YouTube and I listened to the soundtrack and I did a deep dive into who Jonathan Larson was and how he got to where he got. And I became that much more of a fan.

What drew you to Susan in particular?

I think that one of my favorite things about Susan is that she is a hopeless romantic. I can identify with that and the way that she loves Jonathan, and then ultimately the way that she loves her art, which is dancing. Those are her two great loves. And I was excited to throw myself into deepening my understanding of love when it comes to relationships and my love for dance. I did not consider myself a dancer before this job. I was the queen of the robot. You know what I mean? I was not a good dancer, but in tackling this role, I was able to kind of overcome myself and really find a flow and a groove within my physical body.

Yeah, so thinking about her love of art and her love for Jonathan, she has this speech to him, in the middle of their fight, where she tells him, "you're thinking of me as the girlfriend and you as the artist." It's interesting that we see everything through Jon's eyes and so when he loses sight of Susan, so do we. What was it like for you to portray that?

I think that what's so interesting about this movie is that, when you have it from someone's perspective, someone narrating it the way that Jonathan does in "Tick, Tick... Boom!" you do see that perspective. But the thing about artists is that art is their first love. They're focused on what they're doing and at times, other things, or people can fall to the wayside, whether it's his relationship with his girlfriend, his relationship with his best friend, whatever that looks like. It can be really hard when you're hyper focused on your craft and on what you're doing. And to play that with Susan for this film just shows how easy it is for that to happen. And how everyone, whether you are an artist or you have a scientific brain, it's slowing down and appreciating the people around you. And being in the present. That is really monumental to happiness.

The movie is also full of artists who all have different perspectives on ... how you sacrifice art or what you sacrifice for art. What's it like for you, as an artist, reading all these perspectives, and working through Susan's approach versus Jon's versus Michael's?

With Susan, she's an artist who's working through an injury, and in every industry, there are setbacks, there are ebbs and flows. As an actor, there are times when I'm working a whole bunch and then there are times when I'm not working at all. And these things can affect us emotionally and mentally, but it's how we come out of it that I think really defines us as individual individuals. And for Susan, she wasn't going to let this injury stop her from doing what she has always wanted to do, which is be a dancer and love being a dancer. And I can identify with that so much because there are times when I'm like, am I doing what I need to be doing right now, what I should be doing? Why am I doing it, especially when I'm not working? And the truth is, yes. If this is something that you love, this is something that you're passionate about. You have to do it. There's nothing else that you can do. And that's 100% Susan.

"It's really scary auditioning for Lin-Manuel Miranda!"

What was it like working with Lin for the first time? And on his directorial debut?

Lin is such an incredible human being and a brilliant director. I love working with him because he has so many ideas and they're all very specific and they all make sense. And he's able to take all of the ideas that we have and put them into something really smart and thought out and intentional. And he has this excitement when he comes on set, he loves what he does. And I love what I do and us coming together and being able to play within that is just the most fun. I have fun with Lin whenever I'm around him, especially when I'm working with him.

I know you've talked before about the audition process before being a little nerve-wracking...

It's really scary auditioning for Lin-Manuel Miranda! For the obvious reasons, right? He is our generation's Jonathan Larson in so many ways, in so many similar ways. But whenever I get an audition for something, I go, okay, we're not going to take this personally. We are going to do this our way. We are going to show them our version of this character. And that's the only way that I can get past throwing up in my hands. You know what I mean? I have to be confident in my idea and go, okay, well, they were just looking for someone else's idea.

So when I sent in my tape for Lin, I was like, I'm going to do what I think Susan would do. And we are going to set it and forget it. And so I did the acting scene, I recorded one of the songs. And I was like, thank God this is Lin, because I definitely do not consider myself your conventional musical theater voice.

So I sent him a tape that had so many runs. I took that song to church. I said, I am going to give you some sauce that you're going to want to dip everything into. And you can give me a pullback note on the next run. If you bring me in, we'll figure it out. And he liked it. And he reached out and was like, "I want to see her come in with Andrew." And I was able to go in and just perform for him. And it was just such a blessing.

Was the song that you sung "Come to Your Senses"?

Yeah, it was.

Right, so that becomes your duet with Vanessa Hudgens. I know it's not a duet in the original musical, so I was curious if you knew going in that you'd be singing it with her.

I knew that it was a song that Lin wanted me to sing. But I also knew it was a song that was originally sung by Karessa in the play. So I was really excited because I was hoping that I would get a chance to sing it with Vanessa, she's everything. And so when they kind of laid out all the sheet music at the first initial rehearsals that we were having, I just was that much more excited and gagged that I would get to sing it with her and have the opportunity to give a little bit of what I gave in my audition to the film. Because you never know. Sometimes they send you someone else's song and it's just the audition song. You know what I mean? So to actually be able to do that in the job was like, it was cool.

"Lin and I got to a place with the song where we really defined what every lyric was about."

What was filming that scene like? I don't know if it was a real rooftop, but it was a really beautiful scene.

[Laughs] It was so much fun filming that because I had Andrew sitting in front of me, watching me as you see in the film. And Lin and I got to a place with the song where we really defined what every lyric was about. And in "Come To Your Senses," I'm just asking him, how do you feel about me? What do I mean to you? And that just struck such a chord with me, that it was so emotional. And I mean, I've been there where you just love someone so much. And you're just like, yo. Tell me that you love me and you don't want me to go anywhere and I'll stay. And all it takes is that. And it's so hard to ask that of someone, it is almost impossible to be able to verbalize that and ask that of someone.

So, the whole time I was just thinking, I love you. Do you love me? And it was this emotional thing and I'm on this rooftop and I'm singing, and I'm trying to give it my all, and I'm crying. And we've got this big crane that's sweeping around me and it can be really overwhelming. It's not like singing on a stage. You're in the real world, you're out in the thick of it. But it was one of those things where, while we were filming, I was like, this just feels really special.

I spoke to Steven Levenson earlier today and he was talking about working with Andrew, who hadn't sung before doing this movie and seeing his transformation. I'm wondering if that's something that you noticed too?

Most definitely. Andrew is such a savant. He is just so brilliant. And him as an actor is like watching this incredible shapeshifting chameleon, how he can dive into different roles and different types of people. And he creates layers and he's singing and dancing and swimming and running around and being Jonathan Larson. And it was just such a pleasure to watch that. I wasn't a part of the top, top beginning the way that Steven was. But once I came into the picture, I was just blown away. I had obviously known his career prior and to see him as Jonathan and to work opposite him, not only acting but singing and dancing, it was just such a pleasure. And I felt like we were learning a lot of things together too. This was my first big musical. And so I was like, wow ... yay team.

Do you think there will be more big musicals in your future?

I would love to do another musical! I had so much fun. I think, in particular, I would just love to work with Lin all the time. He is such a fun human being and I feel like he got me to a place with Susan that I'm really proud of. And I think I would be just that much more nervous if I did it with anyone else.

And all around, there's a giant cast of, yeah, theater savants and so on.

Broadway heavy hitters, and then you got little old me who's like ... hi. Just going to stand here. But that's the thing about theater is, it's a community and everyone helps each other and loves each other. And everyone really made me feel comfortable. And like, I could be a part of the gang.

"Tick, Tick...BOOM!" is in limited release now, and hits Netflix on November 19, 2021.