Debbie Allen

Fame interview with Debbie Allen

Thu, 01 Oct 2009 3:44p.m.

In the 1980s, a young actress named Debbie Allen became known the world over thanks to the film musical Fame and, most prominently, through the television series which followed in its wake.

Two decades later, Allen has returned to the Fame spotlight.

A new Fame movie chronicles the intensely competitive world of a performing arts high school in New York where a new generation of hopefuls are given a chance to live out their dreams.

Last seen as the series’ tough-as-nails dance teacher Lydia Grant, Allen now plays a new if somewhat familiar character - the school’s no-nonsense principal, Angela Simms. 

Over the course of her career, Allen has received three Emmy Awards for her choreography and another two for her performances, along with a prestigious Golden Globe for the Fame television series.

She is also an accomplished producer, director and author in her own right, and a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Most recently, Allen directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway and is currently preparing to remount the show in London’s West End.

Here Allen chats about all things Fame

What’s it like returning to Fame?
Well, I just thought it was wonderful when I heard that they were finally doing it again, because I wanted so much to revive it. We first talked about it ten years ago and we’ve been talking about it forever. I was just happy to be recalled and participate in something that is such a big part of my life and my career.

Which begs the question, why make a new Fame? Didn’t the original film and television series speak for itself?
Absolutely, it spoke for itself. But a good idea is still a good idea ten years later. It’s still a good idea twenty years later, and it’s a good idea thirty years later. That’s how long it’s been. It’s a classic story, but it still relates to what’s happening today: to see young people in this setting, taking hold of their lives, trying to find their way through the arts to express themselves, to become who they’re hopefully destined to become. Just to explore that struggle and what it means today… This is also a time where we’re seeing a revival of the film musical itself. With the popularity of films from High School Musical to Stomp The Yard, this was a no-brainer. 

I understand you’re playing a different character this time around?
Well, I’m the principal of the school, Angela Simms. But as far as I’m concerned, Lydia Grant got married (laughs). That’s it! I play “Mrs. Simms” in the movie. So I had them give me a wedding ring… In the film, you’ll hear people call her “Mrs. Simms,” and that’s all you hear. So for all the fans of Fame from years and years, they’ll see her as Lydia Grant. “Oh, she got married and she’s the principal, now.” The writer’s intent is that she’s a different character, that’s for sure. But we actors have our own creativity that has nothing to do with the producers, writers or the director (laughs). We make up our own truths!

It works for me, Mrs. Simms...

How did you become involved with the new film?
The producer, Gary Lucchesi, called and asked if I was interested, in homage to the original, to play the school’s principal. I said, absolutely I’ll play the principal. That was it.

I’m assuming you didn’t have to audition this time around?
No (laughs). And I didn’t have to audition the last time either (laughs).

What was the original shoot like?
Alan Parker was the director… I had a big number and everything that I was going to do. But by the time they got around to shooting it, they already had a ten hour movie (laughs). So they gave me the dress and they said, “We love you Debbie Allen but we can’t shoot your song because the movie’s too long already.” You see, the movie was developing as he was shooting it. Alan Parker was an amazing director, but the way he filmed it, you didn’t always know when he was actually shooting. Sometimes he’d say, “Ok, let’s move on,” and you had no idea that he had shot the scene (laughs)… So for me, it was really about the TV series, you know, that took it to another level around the world.

What was the experience like this time for you? Surreal…?
No, it wasn’t surreal at all. You know the dance world and the theater arts world for young people is something I’ve been involved with since I did the first Fame. I have my own dance academy and I’ve taught around the world… So there was nothing surreal about it. I didn’t feel like “Oh my God, I’ve been transported to another planet,” or something (laughs). It’s kind of what I do every day, in a way.

What did you think of the new cast, starting with your fellow teachers?
I thought that they were brilliant. I mean, I thought they were all really well placed. Charles Dutton is the drama teacher. Kelsey Grammer is the music teacher. Bebe Neuwirth, who actually- I actually gave her, her first job in television! She played in the Fame TV series. She played an evil ballet teacher (laughs)… Now she’s back as a dance teacher. 

And the students?
Oh, the kids are just adorable. That Naturi Naughton and Kay [Panabaker] – they are, wow… I think they’re pretty amazing.

Did they ask you for any advice or input; even the director, Kevin Tancharoen, is fairly new to filmmaking…
Well, we didn’t have a lot of time for that kind of thing, really. The kids were just very respectful and very happy to meet me. They made me feel really special, you know. And Kevin… Yes, he’s a young director. But he has great instincts and he understands all the toys, all the bells and whistles. And he’s good with people – that’s important. I knew he would get what he needed. You know, this is such a big story. It takes place over four years, and it’s several different character’s lives that you’re looking at. It will be interesting to see how the audiences respond to it. Personally, I think it’s going to work. It’s a lot grittier than High School Musical, which is a wonderful film. But this is different from that, very different from that. It’s a much grittier film – the landscape is in a deeper reality, if you will.

What were your expectations when the first film came out? Did you know it was going to be a big hit?
I had no idea (laughs)… It was a surprise. And the whole thing with the soundtrack… None of the soundtrack really existed, except for Out Here On My Own when we shot it. You know, we shot a lot of it with temp tracks. We didn’t really know what the music would sound like because it wasn’t even done yet. So when it came out, it was so exciting. We saw ourselves up there – I mean, it was great... We actually held a screening of the original film about a year ago and I was surprised at how packed the theater was. I guess I’d forgotten how strong Fame was and its impact on the theater going public. It still held up and it was still great. And those songs were amazing.

What are your hopes for the new film?
I hope it will have that same kind of impression on a new generation of young people. That they’ll get a glimpse of how things happen, and how the choices they make can affect their lives.

One of the major themes of Fame is that success is achieved through hard work – ostensibly your signature line from the television series, which opened each episode. You’ve had a quite a remarkable career ever since. To what do you attribute your own success?
Like you said, the hard work that I’ve given it. Everything that I’ve done, I’ve had to work for; I’ve never had anything that just happens. I mean, I’ve always had my hand on the bar in the dance studio. I’ve always worked and I’ve continued to push myself. And I’ve continued to challenge myself, trying new things, regardless of what anyone thinks. I mean, I just directed a big Broadway show – a play, not a musical, Cat on A Hot Tin Roof. It was a smash hit and I’m on my way to London to remount it. How do you go from a successful dance background to that? It’s a matter of continuing to develop yourself, to study, to train, to learn and to not be afraid to fail. You have to just get out there and do it.

Which is almost identical to Fame’s message.
It is. If you want fame, you have to work for it - it’s so true. There are so many great artists that reach a certain pinnacle and that’s where they stay. And that can be fine. That can be the end of it. But the people that continue to do it, they always keep working and growing. They never try to phone it in. They always try to develop themselves and try new things. You’ve always got to try new things…

What advice would you give to someone starting out today?
I would say, get into some kind of training. You have to try to master one art form, somewhere. I was in the dance world. Then I became a choreographer. Then I became a director. Then I became a producer, and then a writer. All these things were natural progressions. But it came out of something. … You know, good looks and all that doesn’t get you to where you really want to be. You really have to get some skills. So I would say, train and find a way to get them.

3 New Zealand

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