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She's the Man: A Q&A with Amanda Bynes

July 10, 2007

I recently interviewed the very busy interfaith actress Amanda Bynes, who has a co-starring role in the movie musical version of Hairspray, which opens in theaters on Friday, July 20.

The movie musical is an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical of the same name that opened in 2002 and is still running. The Broadway show was itself adapted from John Water's 1988 cult comedy hit.

Amanda Bynes plays Penny Pingelton in the new film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, which was itself an adaptation of a 1988 film. Hairspray opens Friday, July 20. ©2007 David James/New Line Cinema

The movie musical is choreographed and directed by Adam Shankman, who is Jewish, and the songs are by Jewish composer Marc Shaiman.

The story is set in Baltimore in 1962. Heavy-set teenager Tracey Turnblad seeks and gains a bit of fame as a dancer on a teen "dance party" program that is broadcast on a local Baltimore TV station. However, Tracey is appalled when she finds out that the owner of the TV station does not allow black teens to appear on the dance program and she leads a fight to end this injustice.

Playing Tracey in the movie musical is newcomer Nikki Blonsky, 18. Blonsky was raised in a working class home on Long Island, New York. Her father is Jewish and her mother is Catholic. Blonsky was raised in her mother's faith.

John Travolta, in full drag--and fat suit--plays Edna Turnblad, Tracey's loving and very overweight mother. Having a man play Edna is a Hairspray tradition. The role was created by the late transvestite actor Divine, also known as Harris Milstead. Jewish actor Harvey Fierstein then played Edna in the original Broadway production.

Christopher Walken plays Tracey's father in the movie musical. Jewish actor Jerry Stiller, who created this role in the 1988 film, has a small role in the new version as Mr. Pinky, a dress shop owner who outfits Tracey.

Playing Tracey's "dreamboat" boyfriend is Zac Efron, 20, who is best known as a star of the hit TV movie, High School Musical. While Elle magazine recently described Efron as Jewish, my sources tell me he is probably of interfaith background.

Playing Tracey's best friend, Penny Pingelton, is Amanda Bynes, 21. Penny's African-American boyfriend, Seaweed Stubbs, is played by newcomer Elijah Kelley.

I caught up with Bynes a couple of months ago, just a week after she celebrated her 21st birthday. She had just finished-up filming Sydney White, a college comedy that is a sort of re-telling of the Snow White story. It is scheduled to open this fall.

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine named Bynes one of the ten most powerful celebrities under 21. Her Sydney White director, Joe Nussbaum, told me that Bynes was a "natural," smart and genuinely funny. These attributes have taken Bynes a long way in a short time.

Born and raised in Southern California, Bynes comes from a stable middle-class household. Her father is a retired dentist and her mother was her father's office manager. She did a series of stage musicals as a young child before landing a role on a children's program on Nickelodeon in 1996. Her talent stood out and she was given her own show on the cable network, "The Amanda Show." "Amanda" was almost like a kid version of the old "Carol Burnett Show," with Bynes doing comic skits and sketches.

In 2002, she made her film debut in Big Fat Liar, following that up with a hit WB comedy series, "What I Like About You," which ran from 2002-2006. She has starred in two feature films (What a Girl Wants and She's the Man). Both flicks were quite successful.

Bynes, who is pretty, but not gorgeous, has a sweet "girl next door" quality that appeals to a very broad audience. She comes across as a "real person" that girls would like to be or would like as a friend--and boys would like as a friend or girlfriend.

Here are some highlights from my interview.

Your Sydney White director told me that he thought this film was a good step in your career--"that you are 'bringing your audience along.' Have you thought about the difficult transition from a teen star to an adult actress?

Everything I do is a transition, because I am growing-up. I am doing roles that are suitable for me now. I'm 21 and it is fitting that I am doing a role that puts me in college because if I was in school, now, I would be in college.

Any career game plan?

I wouldn't say that I was going to play any younger. I am going to do what works for me. I want to make people laugh and to find roles that are strong female roles---roles that I find challenging---for the time being I am content with the roles I have been doing.

Joe Nussbaum tells me that your parents flew to the Sydney White set to celebrate your 21st birthday with you.

They wouldn't miss it for the world. To have their youngest turn 21 was a big deal. I have a 33-year-old brother and a 24-year-old sister.

I understand that your father is Catholic and is a dentist and your mother is Jewish and is an office manager. Is that right?

My father is a retired dentist. As far as religion, I was raised both. I learned about both [Judaism and Catholicism]. My parents said it was up to me to decide [which faith to adhere to] when I grew up. I'm sort of a spiritual person anyway. I believe in being morally correct--treating other people like you like to be treated--karma…. I think there is something else going on.

I haven't decided yet [on a religion]. I don't know yet exactly what I believe.

John Travolta--yes, that is John Travolta--plays Edna Turnblad, the lead character's mother, in Hairspray. ©2007 David James/New Line Cinema 

Tell me about getting ready for being in a movie musical.

I trained really hard with a man named Eric Vitro, who is one of the best singing coaches in America. I got his name from my agent when I heard there were auditions for Hairspray. I used to do musical plays when I was younger but I haven't sung in a musical in 10 years so I hooked up with Eric and sang for about a month before I auditioned. I auditioned twice and got the part.

Tell me a little about working with Marc Shaiman and Adam Shankman.

Yeah, it was [Marc's] baby. We all worked with him on every aspect. He is very talented and I love Marc Shaiman. Adam is very funny, a very human guy.

Is there a moment when you realized what a big star you are, similar to the moment musicians have the first time they hear their record on the radio?

When I was staying at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York a few years ago, they had a small list of favorite movies you could watch in the room. On this small list of "favorites" they listed What a Girl Wants--I called my mom--seeing a movie I had done appear on this list was really weird and cool. Also, people come up to me and quote me and kind of do my accent, as when I played a guy in She's the Man. That means a lot to me--I've sort of imitated Jim Carrey and Jack Black and Mike Myers--and then to have people doing me.

Sort of like being part of a club you never expected to be in?

Exactly.

Tell me about working with Zac Efron.

He is a very nice kid, but most of my scenes were with Nikki Blonsky and Elijah Kelley. I didn't have any scenes with Jerry Stiller, but we were in make-up together one day and I asked him all about "Seinfeld," that was fun.

Was John Travolta as you expected?

He was. Working with someone who is sort of an icon, you don't expect it-but he really does sparkle-he has sort of a glow---its really odd but he does have sort of a glow about him. You will be blown-away by him. You will forget he is John Travolta. You will forget he is a man. There is a reason he is a highly-paid movie star. He is really interesting to watch work.

Well, if I may say this, you really do sparkle, yourself. You have an inner light that a lot of performers don't.

Thank you for saying that. My parents said you "don't want to lose your sparkle." So many people are dark and gloomy and horrible to be around. If I felt I was losing my happiness I would go to an island and figure out was going on in my life.

You seem to be part of the group of young performers who are never in the gossip pages. Did your family life have something to do with that?

Definitely. I was raised by strict parents. I wasn't allowed to go to the mall alone until I was around 16. I have really smart grounded parents who weren't nouveau riche. They really earned their money and they know the value of a dollar. They gave morals to me and I wouldn't want to do anything that would embarrass my parents.

I see that Hairspray was filmed in Toronto, and not Baltimore, where the story is set. Did you ever think that being a Hollywood actress would mean spending so much time filming in Canada?

Well, my Jewish grandpa and grandmother are from Toronto. Long before I was ever an actress I was in Toronto visiting and going to museums. My grandmother now lives in California, but I still have a lot of relatives in Toronto.

One last question, do you have a favorite Jewish holiday?

A holiday, I don't know. But I do have a favorite Jewish food. It is matzoh brei. My grandmother taught me how to make it and now I make it for all my friends.

 

Yiddish for "fried matzah," a common Passover breakfast dish that can be savory or sweet, ranging in style from closer to an omelette to closer to French toast, made of matzah and egg.

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

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