Alexandra Shipp must be longing for a role that doesn’t attract controversy. Her first big part, as the lead in the 2014 American cable TV drama Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, was condemned by the late singer’s family, and her fans started a petition to get it cancelled. Two years later, Shipp’s casting as Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse sparked a colourism row and online abuse. But, thankfully, she seems to have sailed into calmer waters in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s critically admired and perfectly innocent film musical Tick, Tick... Boom!
Dressed in a candy floss pinstripe blazer and speaking over video call from LA, the 30-year-old actor laughs as she recalls the bewildering experience of shooting Miranda’s directorial debut, a movie musical based on a stage musical about writing another musical. Yes, it’s complicated. “It was hard because I had never seen Tick, Tick… Boom!” she says. She’s talking about the stage musical. Keep up. “I’d only read it and heard the songs, so I tried to piece together as much as I could."
The film stars a leaping, grinning Andrew Garfield as the playwright/composer Jonathan Larson, back when he was desperate to make the big time in musical theatre in his late twenties. It chronicles his struggle to write Superbia, the retro-futuristic musical he finished in 1990, six years before his Pulitzer winner Rent. Larson didn’t live to see Rent’s stratospheric success: he died at the age of 35 from a rare heart condition on the night before its first preview performance. Shipp gives a comparatively gentle, restrained performance as Larson’s girlfriend, Susan, who’s left feeling like an extra in the story of his life. She’s a dancer and has been offered a job opportunity outside of New York. But Jonathan can’t consider leaving the city, he’s fixated on one thing only: writing the biggest song in Superbia.
Shipp was ecstatic to land the part. "I don’t consider myself a traditional musical theatre singer, so in the audition tape I just went for it,” she says.
Tick, Tick… Boom! is set against the backdrop of America’s Aids crisis. Some of its most moving scenes are shared between Larson and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús), who jolts Larson out of his fog of narcissism when he tells him he’s HIV positive. “That’s one of my favourite scenes in this movie,” says Shipp. “It’s so impactful and it really leans into the narrative of the film, which is, what are we going to do with the time that we have?”
The musical is being tipped for Oscars. It’s a feelgood movie for winter that’s unlikely to cause any kerfuffle – no doubt a relief for Shipp, who, as already mentioned, has had a fair few scrapes with public opinion during her 10-year career. In 2014, with the Nickelodeon series House of Anubis and the daytime soap Days of Our Lives under her belt, Shipp starred in Lifetime’s Aaliyah biopic. It follows the meteoric rise of the young singer whose life was cut short when she was killed in a plane crash in the Bahamas, aged 22. The project was beset with issues from the start. Aaliyah’s own family condemned it and blocked the rights to her hits. Timbaland, who was depicted in the film, spoke out against it, calling it “disrespectful”.
Zendaya, who was relatively unknown at the time, had been cast to play Aaliyah, but pulled out. When it was eventually made, many took issue with the way it romanticised the relationship between R Kelly and Aaliyah, who got married illegally when he was 27 and she was 15. When I ask Shipp what she thinks of this criticism, her answer is brief. “My thoughts are, I am but a lowly actor who did not write the script, but I tried my hardest to do that woman justice.”
Filming was gruelling. Shipp was working eight-hour days, seven days a week. But she has happy memories of making the film, of throwing on baggy clothes and bandanas, of dancing and singing. It must have been difficult then to reconcile the backlash with the fact she enjoyed making it so much. "It was hard because I was the face of it,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s a tough subject matter, it’s a hard story to tell and the process of making it was really strenuous. Everyone’s got opinions and ideas and all I can do is focus on my work and try not to take people’s opinions personally.”
Two years later, Shipp made her debut in the X-Men franchise as weather-bending superhero Storm, taking over from Halle Berry. Again, the project was hit with criticism. Some accused the film of colourism and felt that the role should have gone to a dark-skinned Black actor. Shipp engaged with critics at the time, tweeting: “This conversation about Storm is so stupid, I’m out…. If I lose my job to another actress, I hope it’s for her talent and grace, not her skin.” She later told Glamour magazine: “[I tweeted back] at people who criticised me for not having dark enough skin for my role in X-Men because we’re not going to have this conversation about a cartoon character. You’re not going to tell me that my skin colour doesn’t match a Crayola from 1970. Growing up, when I was reading the comics, I pictured her looking like me. For any black girl, for there to be a black superhero, we picture them looking like us. So when I auditioned for the role, I wasn’t like, ‘Oh man, I’m not dark enough.’ I was like, ‘Finally, this is my moment.’”
But now, when I begin to ask Shipp a question about X-Men, she flashes a sideways glance off-camera and mimes “oh my God” under her breath. It’s awkward, but she tells me to go on. When I get onto her tweet, though, Shipp cuts in, saying, “Can we go to the next question?” It’s clear this subject is now off limits.
Shipp is very forthcoming and eloquent on other topics of debate. We talk about the recent incident on the set of Rust, where Alec Baldwin discharged a gun, killing cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injuring director Joel Souza. From X-Men: Apocalypse to Straight Outta Compton, Shipp has worked on many gun-filled sets and was shaken by the story. “What a horrific accident,” she says. “I feel so heavily for Alec Baldwin in that moment because he is not a murderer. And yet he had a gun put in his hand and he shot someone, thinking it was going to be fake. When I walk on set and I’m shooting guns, I sell it like it’s real but I know in my mind that it’s fake. So for that to not be a reality is just so shocking. It’s a scary risk. A change has to be made to ensure the safety of not only the people on set but even the people around.”
“Whenever I’m doing stunts, I work closely with my stunt team, with my props team,” she continues. “I’m very intentional and specific. And I’ve really trusted the people I was working with. But you never know. I’m sure Alec really trusted the people who handed him that gun. That’s the problem with guns. Guns kill people.”
She is also clear on her views on the LGBT+ casting debate. “When it comes to cis actors playing trans roles, that’s a problem for me,” she says. “Trans actors should be hired to play trans roles. But to look at an actor and say, ‘Hmm, well you’re not gay,’ to me just doesn’t make any sense, because we don’t know who they are. We really don’t. And they shouldn’t have to explain that to us. There’s no right way to be gay. If we keep that narrative going, we keep people like myself in the closet.”
Shipp came out publicly in a joyous Instagram post in June, telling her followers: “I’m not denying anything any more. I’m not scared any more. I have #pride in who I am and what I’m doing on this planet.” Reflecting on the post now, she says she “felt like this huge weight was lifted and I was able to control my narrative. It’s something I don’t think I’d have been able to do five years ago, honestly, but I feel like the world is moving at such a fast pace. I was only met with love and celebration. That felt really good. I guess I had just built it up in my head.”
It was only two years ago that Shipp came out to friends and family. “By the time I got around to telling people, they were like, ‘Yeah, we know,’” she says. “I was like, ‘Crap, you guys knew the whole time, no one said anything!’ Did I even know? I think what I struggled with the most when it came to my sexuality was, am I gay enough to be gay? It took me a long time to find that there’s no right way to be gay or be queer. You are who you are, it’s a spectrum. I didn’t have a lot of examples growing up of what it would look like for me. There was always this black and white, binary way of looking at sexuality.”
She smiles broadly. “The more I learn about myself the more I deepen my understanding of what that looks like and how autonomous and individual that experience is. But where I specifically fall on that spectrum, that’s mine. That’s nobody else’s business.”
‘Tick, Tick... Boom!’ is out now on Netflix