For those who wear the badge of the oft-maligned millennial, the ’90s feel like modern American folklore. From the emergence of grunge and alt-rock in the Pacific Northwest to the proliferation of rap, hip-hop, and R&B from coast to coast, music—emitting from the radio, blasting out of boom boxes, and playing on personal Walkmans—provided a unique, new soundtrack for the era. Mixtapes included an array of genres as artists of every kind pushed the boundaries of popular culture. As a media scholar, I delight in dissecting how this decade still influences our content creation (and consumption) today. As an actress, musician, and fellow millennial, Alexandra Shipp also considers herself a fan, and perhaps an expert, of ’90s popular culture. She played R&B icon Aaliyah in a 2014 TV movie and had roles in Straight Out of Compton and the X-Men franchise. Fortunately, I got to spend an hour connecting with Shipp over a few of our favorite ’90s cultural touchstones, including musical theater genius Jonathan Larson.
Larson, who died the day before his groundbreaking musical Rent premiered on Broadway, helped to usher in a fresh sound and a new vision for what theater could look like as we neared the new millennium. It is his work—featuring a diverse cast and spanning genres—that continues to inspire today’s auteurs like Lin-Manuel Miranda. In fact, Miranda makes his directorial debut with Tick, Tick… Boom!, which is available November 19 on Netflix. Shipp stars as Susan, the girlfriend of Andrew Garfield’s Jon in the highly anticipated adaptation of Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical. The story follows the couple as they pursue their dreams—Jon as a musical theater writer and Susan as a modern dancer—in the gritty world of early 1990s New York City.
Given the dark undertones of the film, it was a relief that the sun was shining over both Brooklyn and Los Angeles as we both logged on to Zoom. Shipp, who lives with her brother and two dogs, was perfectly illuminated inside her apartment, her caramel-highlighted curls catching the light along with her megawatt smile. Casually clad in a vintage Betty Boop sweatshirt (more on that later), Shipp evoked the relaxed-yet-energized spirit of her character, which provided the jumping-off point for our conversation.
Photo:COURTESY OF NETFLIX
For those not yet familiar with Shipp’s work, I’ll put it simply: She’s a triple threat. Shipp can sing, act, and dance, but prior to this role, Shipp had no formal dance training. In fact, Shipp began a rigid training regimen months before setting foot on set. “I worked so hard to be able to play a modern ballerina because I’m not a dancer,” she shares. “I wasn’t asked to do any of this prep. I wanted to do it because I wanted to do it right. I wanted to be able to sell it.” By the time Shipp got to New York for filming, she was dancing about six hours a day in addition to doing daily two-hour workouts in order to achieve the physique of a dancer.
It is this thoughtful immersion into her characters that makes Shipp’s performances truly next-level. “My favorite thing about acting is that I get to learn a lot of new skills,” she explains. For instance, with Storm from X-Men, it was fighting—everything from mixed martial arts and boxing to scrappy street-fighting techniques. With Tick, Tick… Boom!, Shipp learned not only how to be a dancer but also how to carry herself. “I had to become comfortable with my body in a more fluid and delicate, angelic way,” she explains. I can’t help but confess to Shipp that I was fooled. After watching the film, I was sure she had a dance background. Her performance is just that natural. Though, she effusively credits Melissa Schade and Ryan Heffington for their guidance and choreography for the film.
In addition to developing the physicality required to play Susan, Shipp became a student of the history of modern dance, studying the work of choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Katherine Dunham, and Alvin Ailey. “I was not familiar with modern dance in any way, shape, or form, so learning about the people who revolutionized dance in the ’80s and ’90s was really fun,” she recalls. “It was like a master class, and it was also like cramming for a test.” This moment in our cultural analysis brings us to Miranda. While Larson was a student of Stephen Sondheim, Miranda notably credits Larson’s Rent as being a major “aha!” moment. “Lin is great at showing off the physicality of theater,” Shipp divulges. “You can tell that everyone in the cast is acting from head to toe, and I think that makes this feel theatrical in a time where people have been missing theater.”
Since she is a multi-hyphenate, Shipp unsurprisingly has always been a fan of musicals. However, she is the only actor in Tick, Tick… Boom! who has yet to appear on a Broadway stage. While this was certainly motivation for her self-imposed dance immersion, Shipp was particularly nervous about performing her song, a duet with Vanessa Hudgens, that comes in the middle of the film. Although the majority of the show features contemporary rock (and the most incredible classic Broadway ballad), Shipp’s song is undoubtedly influenced by ’90s R&B, which she attributes to Miranda, and evokes major Aaliyah vibes. It’s also a scene in which Shipp felt encouraged to bring elements of her personal experience to the character. “It was exciting for me to be occupying a space that was originally written for a white woman because it challenged me to come to a scene or song with my own energy based on my own ancestry,” she explains.
Photo:COURTESY OF NETFLIX
Shipp approaches all of her roles with this point of view and the intention of pushing the boundaries of what is possible. In fact, during our conversation, she was in the midst of packing for an extended stay in Ghana for her next project, where she’ll play a laparoscopic surgeon who is reconstructing the bodies of victims of female genital mutilation in the Congo. As she is an activist, it is important to Shipp that she uses her art to create positive change. “A lot of people think that Hollywood is very superficial,” she acknowledges. “But with TV and film, we have a certain number of minutes in someone’s life to change their perspective. The Greeks did that when they first invented theater in order to educate people who couldn’t read. We can educate people. We can raise that societal bar.” Shipp views theater as a form of activism but also uses Instagram to bring visibility to causes she’s passionate about and engage in meaningful conversations with her fans. “I want to be able to change people’s minds and provide a different perspective, and I try to do that in every aspect of my public and private life,” she says.
Like her millennial peers, it has taken Shipp lots of trial and error to determine what is worth sharing on social media. “I’m a very private person, but I am also of this generation where I want to be part of the conversation,” she acknowledges. Her personal social media strategy shifted following the resurgence of the civil rights conversation in the summer of 2020, which prompted her to delete everything on her Instagram and start from scratch. Since then, Shipp has been using her platform with intention and purpose, sharing moments of joy and promoting awareness but also providing a glimpse into her everyday life. She says, “I love going to museums and posting about art on my Stories; it’s my way of spreading inspiration because some posts can be dark.”
Shortly before turning 30 last summer, Shipp publicly came out as gay in a candid Instagram post. “People knew what I was and who I was dating, but the world didn’t know—and it wasn’t anybody’s fucking business,” she emotes. “If I had come out 10 years ago, my career would have been different.” She goes on to explain that typecasting is still prevalent in her industry. “You can’t just be the Black best friend who’s sassy and funny. You’re not just the queer kid who’s flamboyant,” she says. “There’s a world in which these characters are given the forefront of as storyline or a concept outside of a stereotype, and there’s space for a woman of color to be successful and be gay.”
It is this dream that not only drives Shipp but also propels the narrative of Susan. Shipp thinks of Tick, Tick… Boom! as a coming-of-age story where each character is racing against an internal clock and wondering whether it’s time to quit or if success is just moments away. “Susan never quit. She’s a real person, and she never stopped dancing. She saw Rent and was there for Tick, Tick… Boom! She never stopped doing what she loved, and that resonated with me. For any artist, if you want to be the most supreme version of yourself, you just don’t stop. I did all of the side jobs that I possibly could in order to be able to pay for gas to get to that audition so that I could achieve my dream. Eternal vigilance is the price of supremacy,” she declares, reiterating the Mark Twain quote that’s in her Instagram bio.
Photo:COURTESY OF NETFLIX
As early Oscar buzz abounds, there’s little doubt that success is in the cards for Shipp and her Tick, Tick… Boom! castmates. “Even though I’m an actor and performer, it’s really hard for me to be the center of attention for even a split second,” she confesses. “I can look a little uncomfortable on a red carpet. I never know what to do with my hands. Lift up your chin, don’t have your shoulders too high…” That, plus transitioning from her work in Ghana to Hollywood, will be a bit of a culture shock. However, Shipp is already meditating and processing, preparing herself to be present and enjoy this moment in her career. “I’m telling myself that my fears are only real if I let them be. I am a woman. I am strong. I know that I am resilient, and I am the gatekeeper of my life’s work,” she proclaims.
Upon her return from Ghana, Shipp will work with her stylist, Alexandra Mandelkorn, to compile looks for the bevy of press junkets and red carpets that await. Currently, they’re collaborating on vision boards that include images of Jerry Hall, vintage YSL and Valentino, and plenty of ’90s supermodels, but their main goal is for Shipp to look and feel comfortable in the spotlight. Given that inspiration, it comes as no surprise that Shipp is a savvy and enthusiastic vintage shopper, a hobby she and Mandelkorn share. “We both love to thrift and will spend money on a good piece, but I also love finding a deal,” she gushes. “Some of my favorite thrift stores are in the middle of nowhere. There’s one in Oklahoma that I will not give up… I travel for vintage. Let’s just put it that way. I’ll go rack by rack, hanger by hanger finding really fun pieces like this sweatshirt.”
Ah, we finally return to that well-worn Betty Boop sweatshirt. For those unfamiliar with the 1930s cartoon character, Betty Boop is another triple threat (albeit in just two dimensions) who made a lasting impact on Hollywood as one of the best-known sex symbols of the animated world. “I love Betty Boop. I’m obsessed with her,” Shipp excitedly admits. Ever the student, Shipp is bringing a book about Helen Kane, the ’20s singer and actress who inspired Betty Boop’s lighthearted flapper persona, on her travels.
After we part ways, I consider the cultural ground we’ve covered—from Greek plays to 21st century Hollywood, Great Depression–era cartoons to modern dance, and Mark Twain to ’90s music. It’s impossible to place Alexandra Shipp inside a singular box. As she is an artist who’s constantly pushing herself to learn, evolve, and excel, that boom just might be the sound of a dream—and years of hard work—finally coming to fruition.