Alexandra Shipp wears an olive green shirt and patterned skirt. Her right arm is outstretched and her tattoo is visible.

Alexandra Shipp Is Present

The emerging actor on the chemistry and kismet of tick, tick... BOOM!

By Peyton Dix
Photography by Brian Bowen Smith
November 24, 20215 min Read

I can’t possibly imagine how magnetic Alexandra Shipp is I.R.L. Even via the staid confines of video conferencing, the rising talent, who plays Susan in the new Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed tick, tick... BOOM!, fills my computer screen with her warm smile, animated hands, and an immediately palpable energy. It’s so easy to talk to her that to call this an interview almost feels too formal. We cover a lot of ground, walking through her early-2000s memories of MapQuesting her way to L.A. auditions, her forever love of musicals and desire to play Annie, and her fast bond with co-star Vanessa Hudgens.

Shipp, who has starred as the heroic Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse and X-Men: Dark Phoenix and iconic singer Aaliyah in the Lifetime biopic, co-stars in her first musical alongside the Academy Award-nominated Andrew Garfield in a film adaptation of tick, tick... BOOM!, the semi-autobiographical one-man show by the late, great Jonathan Larson, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera RENT.

Alexandra Shipp wears an olive green tank, black belt, black boots, and a patterned skirt.

A legend in his own right, Miranda sets the stage for a tremendously talented cast to shine in his latest joyride (and tearjerker), which follows the young theater composer (Garfield) in early 90s New York City, as he battles internal pressure to make it as a young artist, the pitfalls of his personal relationships, the harsh reality of the AIDS epidemic, and as the title’s ticking clock suggests: time. Jonathan Larson’s clock famously stopped ticking too soon, as the venerable actor and composer tragically passed away the morning of RENT’s Off Broadway premiere.

Together with Garfield, Shipp creates a moving portrait of a relationship at the crossroads. She embodies Susan, a dancer with a gentle yet fiery spirit, who has a lot of love for her struggling artist partner and a simple wish for him to put her first. Not a dancer herself, Shipp dedicated hours of practice to embody their everyday movements: “Dancers hold themselves a certain way, they walk a certain way, there is a grace and regality to how they move about space. I really wanted to master that.” And she mined her own past relationships to adopt Susan’s mindset, “I was like, ‘Okay, I know this feeling. I know exactly where this is. Now where is this with Susan?’”

When it came to Shipp’s chemistry with Garfield, according to the actor, that was undeniable from their first audition scene: “I’m crying and Andrew is crying, and we look over and Lin is crying. Everyone’s crying. I walked out of that room and I was like, ‘I am torn to pieces, but I think I got it.’” Shipp and Garfield create a world between them that is full of joy and reluctant disappointment, offering the quintessential artist question: How does one dedicate oneself to art without sacrificing personal relationships, or love?

Alexandra Shipp wears a silver necklace and olive green tank.

Garfield’s portrayal of that inner battle was transcendent. “Working opposite him was so beautiful. The camera wouldn’t even be on me and I would be crying, and I’d be like, ‘Stop. I’m saving these tears for my take and you’re out here just making me sob, honey.’ It’s so realistic that it’s almost overwhelming,” she says. Through my Zoom screen, Shipp’s eyes grow big and her hand lands on her chest. She catches the feeling in her palms. I get it. Garfield is goddamn good, an uncanny Jonathan Larson in both appearance and swagger. His performance feels like one Larson would be proud of, and Shipp tells me that Larson’s sister, Julie Larson, is. As an executive producer on the film, Julie got to witness Garfield become Jonathan for the first time. “It was really beautiful for her to see her brother. It made me cry.”

2021 has been a big year for Shipp: Not only did she turn 30 this past July, but she also came out (publically at least, “Everyone who knows me personally is like, she gay,” she says). The concept of coming out can feel archaic, but Shipp was aware of how her platform could impact the queer community. Now, telling the story of tick, tick... BOOM!, entrenched in a queerness so specific to the theater space, her identity only further informs her understanding of the movie musical. “Queer culture is about happiness and love. The best thing about it is there’s no right way to be gay. And there’s a freedom within that that I think theater really encompasses.”

Alexandra Shipp wears an olive green tank, black belt, and a patterned skirt.

And of course there’s symmetry with Shipp’s recent 30th birthday, an age that Larson obsesses over in songs like “30/90,” lamenting that if he doesn’t achieve all the things by 30, he may never join the ranks of theater greats like Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford in the film). Shipp hears the ticking clock too. “There’s this whole idea that by 30 I’m going to be married with a kid, and I’m going to be owning my own business. On my 30th birthday I was looking at that list that I made throughout the ages and all of those maturity milestones. I think that there are things that I wish I could have done,” she says candidly. Everyone falls victim to quarter life crises but there’s something so specific about turning 30 — the weight of that age, the changes in your body, and the looming clocks on your watch, on your womb, on your life. You could argue that age is arbitrary. Shipp and I even joke about wanting to be thirty, flirting, and thriving. But rather than dwell on the what-ifs, the actor soon segues into the importance of embracing today as she welcomes this new decade. “I have friends who love me. I have the sun, I have the trees. When you look around, you really can appreciate life. Being present is all we have on this earth. I think the most beautiful message within the film is that if we’re present, we realize what true happiness looks like.”