The musical directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the story of Jonathan Larson’s struggle to write songs and find an audience. But it’s about more than that. Overcoming odds, the importance of constantly challenging yourself.
The themes spoke loudly to Alexandra Shipp, who plays Jonathan’s girlfriend Susan.She tells The Big Issue about where and why she seeks out challenges in her own life, the difficulty in dating an artist, working with Miranda and Jonathan Larson’s legacy today.
The Big Issue: Did you see yourself in Susan?
Alexandra Shipp: I definitely did. I related to her in so many ways. One: I’ve dated artists before. We’re crazy, I’ll admit it. But also, she’s so passionate about what she does.
I like to think of myself the same way when it comes to my craft. I’m dedicated to what I do. And so I found a lot of moments where I really relate to her [but] I find a lot of moments in which I judge her. I think it’s my job as the actor to judge my characters, but in doing so finding empathy for their situation.
So I’m like, Susan, girl calm down, give him a day or two. But she has self-respect, she has a job coming up, she cares about what she does, she has opportunities. And that means something to her because the only person who’s going to take care of you is you. Susan knew that. She chose herself. And a lot of times, especially in relationships, I’ve chosen myself – that’s why I’m single – it was a pleasure to play a woman who chooses herself in the end.
If you’re dating an artist – or you are an artist and you’re dating – does the work always come first?
Yes, it does. You have to understand in artists, that love is their first love. That has to come first. But if you really love someone, you love what they do just as much as they do. I think that’s the beauty when artists date each other, they both understand that my craft comes first. But I love you. There’s a mutual respect.
Of all the messages in the film, which one spoke to you loudest?
There’s this beautiful through line of time, and what we’re going to do with that time. That really stuck out to me because sometimes I can be so locked up in my own stuff that the majority of the time isn’t real. It’s just conversations that I’m having with myself in my head, scenarios that I love to make up. I miss things. So what really stuck out to me was you can’t miss what’s happening right in front of you. It made me want to step outside of myself and be more present.
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Just like Jonathan in the film, you turned 30 this year, was that a lesson you managed to learn before then?
We shot this when I was 29, so I did learn that lesson just before turning 30. We hear that clock. For me, it was like, What have I done? What have I yet to do? It kind of became like a bucket list of things that I wanted to do. Then the day after my 30th I was like, girl, you’re still a child!
Why should we blaze a trail when the well-worn path seems so safe and so inviting?
I love challenging myself. I’ve been really fortunate in my career to be able to play all different kinds of people and superheroes. I love taking risks and I love doing something different. I love challenging myself because otherwise why would I do it? If I’m always just going to play myself or take the road that’s always taken, I feel like I’m not doing myself justice.
With every role I play, I learn more about myself. I find myself in these scenarios, and I go, ‘Oh, what would I do?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s what I would do!’ I’ve got to challenge myself otherwise I feel like I wouldn’t be able to feel anything.
Do you think the rest of us as normal people are missing out on that, because we don’t get to experience these alternate realities?
You can though. What’s so beautiful about time, is that you could learn a new language, you could travel to a really cool place and learn about a different culture. Learn how to paint, how to play an instrument, put yourself in situations that you wouldn’t necessarily put yourself in.
As human beings, we have to challenge ourselves and get outside of our comfort zone, because then we learn more about who we are. If this freaks me out, I want to know why. If this makes me uncomfortable, I want to know why. If this excites me, I want to know why and then I want to do more of it.
Did you get freaked out making a musical with the legendary Lin-Manuel Miranda directing?
Oh, it freaked me out. Every day I went to work sweaty. Every time he called action, I was like, I’m ruining the movie. Every single time. Coming to work, I had multiple ideas. Is Susan here because she’s sad, frustrated, happy, excited, horny? Why is she doing what she’s doing? Then Lin would make decisions and give me notes that would elevate it.
That’s Lin, he’s a collaborator. It’s initially scary, but you realise really quickly that it’s all in your head because he is such a kind, loving, normal person. In my mind, I have him as this man in a cape saving the world, but in actuality, he’s human. He’s just a ball of pure love.
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What do you think Jonathan Larson’s legacy is today?
I’m really excited for people to see this movie because they get to learn more about who Jonathan Larson is. The things he says in in what he wrote relate to today. There are still these issues 30 years later.
He asks the questions and the more that people see his plays, the more that people learn about his story, the more that we’re able to ask those questions.
It’s like a form of agitation propaganda. You plant a seed, you ask why. Then you allow your audience to go home and figure that out. Starting that conversation is a superpower in my mind so I’m just ready for people to start answering those questions that he’s asking.
tick, tick…BOOM! is available to stream now on Netflix