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Even without the superhero costume and looming set pieces of X-Men: Apocalypse around her, Alexandra Shipp is magnetic. She’s curled up on a couch in the apartment where they’ve just finished her photo shoot, leaning slightly toward me, instantly pulling me in. She’s still wearing the dramatic eyeshadow from the shoot, but has thrown on a knit beanie. She’s glam and relaxed all at once, her eyes lighting up from time to time. When she gets excited, which happens often, she busts out a loud, goofy voice that fills the room.
On her very first day on the set of X-Men, Shipp felt powerful. Her character, a young version of Storm, a mutant with the ability to control the weather, has a shaved head and bright white mohawk and wears a flowing cape. “I get on set, and I look so badass,” she recalls on an unseasonably warm February day in Los Angeles, months after wrapping. On that day she was shooting a scene with Olivia Munn, Psylocke, a fellow mutant with telekinetic abilities. In the scene, Storm and Psylocke are recruiting new followers for the first mutant ever, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who wakes up after a thousand years and decides to wipe out humanity. “The energy was always high on set,” Shipp says. “Everyone was geeking out. Everyone was having fun.”
Over the past couple of years, the 24-year-old actress has taken on a diverse body of work. She went from starring in 2014’s Drumline sequel on VH1 to playing Aaliyah in Lifetime’s controversial Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B to playing opposite O'Shea Jackson Jr. in Straight Outta Compton. Now she’s set to make her big-budget action debut, which she says is a “huge leap” for her.
She’s rightfully excited (and a little bit nervous) about the magnitude of Apocalypse, a follow up toX-Men: Days Of Future Past. “I joke about this all the time, but I’m still that chubby girl from Arizona who loves theater and loves singing and loves writing music,” she says. “I’m waiting for people to be like ‘should she really be here? Are you sure you’re in the right place?’”
As her body of work up to this point suggests, Shipp is attracted to different projects, but action was definitely something she wanted to do. “Being 50 feet in the air and flying around was just so out there,” she says. “You don’t even think it’s possible.” She remembers looking down at everyone on the ground, hustling and bustling below her as she hung midair. “And then they’re like ‘alright Alex, are you ready?’ I’d be like, ‘Silence, ants!’” she jokes in a booming voice. Her tone suddenly shifts, and she laughs. “Yes, I’m ready, my legs are falling asleep.” She hopes it all looks as badass as it felt. But she’s admittedly worried because in real life, she has zero hand-eye coordination. “I hope that Storm doesn’t look like a total klutz,” she says, laughing some more. “That would really suck.”
The more she talks about her work and her love for developing new characters, the clearer it is that she does belong here. She’s confident in her work and eager to try new things and push herself. As for her haters, she’s willing to forgive but not forget. The Aaliyah Lifetime movie wascritically torn apart, but Shipp remains as bright as ever when talking about the project. In December, she tweeted, “Don't hate on me for #Aaliyah and then come back actin all brand new for #storm. I may have forgiven, but God didn't say nothin about forget.” She laughs when I mention the tweet and says it was her response to all the reactions she was seeing on social media about the Apocalypse casting news.
Shipp jokes that she usually only uses the internet for “menus” and “spell check,” and that when she started to get some name recognition, she balked at the urge to “sign up for social media.” But she’s not a social media pushover—trust, she’ll block the f*** out of anyone who gives her a reason to. But with X-Men approaching, she is trying to move past some of the vitriol she was met with after the Aaliyah movie, though again, social media participation is pretty far down on her to-do list. “I still like to use my AOL account,” she admits.
Shipp uses the word “beautiful” often, sometimes about unexpected things like the internet or the sisterly bond between two fictional mutants or shaved heads. She focuses on the light and seems to pay attention to the smallest of details, whether she’s talking about Aaliyah, Storm, or the complex themes of Dude, an indie film she recently wrapped on. At one point, she detours down a tangent about live theater, getting lost in a story about being in New York a couple weekends before and looking at all the people waiting outside the stage door at a theater with flowers and cameras in hand. “It was really beautiful,” she says. She describes the theatergoers’ passionate energy, the excitement on their faces, the glamor of the moment, and her intensity transports me there for a second.
Even when she’s getting technical about her acting, Shipp uses captivating language, breaking her characters down to their voices, their bodies, and their energies. “That’s why I love film, because you get to create a character and then you get to finish that and move on to another.”
When Apocalypse comes out, the internet is going to blow up, with or without Shipp, an inevitability Shipp understands: “These are characters that people have grown up with and have ideas about and have fantasized about,” she says. Shipp says she hunkered down and did her homework and “read everything.” She grew up watching the X-Men cartoon series, but wasn’t really a comic book reader. “I was more like the kid who was outside covered in dirt,” she says. But as soon as she found out she would be playing Storm, she wanted to read as many of the comics as she could get her hands on. She even tried to find the very first issue Storm appears in:Giant-Size X-Men #1, published by Marvel Comics in 1975. It retails for a few thousand dollars, so Shipp gave up on that one, but she studied as much of two-dimensional Storm as she could before then figuring out how to lift the character from the page to the screen.
“I’M STILL THAT CHUBBY GIRL FROM ARIZONA WHO LOVES THEATER AND LOVES SINGING. I’M WAITING FOR PEOPLE TO BE LIKE, ‘SHOULD SHE REALLY BE HERE?’”
Not only does Shipp play a character replicated over and over in comic and cartoon form, but audiences have also already seen Academy Award-winner Halle Berry play the character in X-Men,X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, and X-Men: Days Of Future Past. With Apocalypse, Shipp steps into the same character brought to life by Berry but at an earlier stage of Storm’s life. Berry’s Storm is a self-assured weather goddess who seems to have a clear idea of where she stands in the on-going battle between the divergent mutant factions led by Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto. Shipp’s Storm on the other hand is just an 18-year-old girl who doesn’t quite know how to control her power and who she is at the very beginning of her journey. Shipp admits that she initially fixated on Berry’s performance and would compare it to her own. Then she stepped back and realized that’s not what she was brought in to do. She stopped asking herself what Berry would do or what the cartoon version of Storm would do.
“What would Alex’s Storm do?” Shipp asks, letting the question hang in the air. But she has plenty of answers to that question.
“When you’re 18 versus when you’re 30, you’re two completely different people, so I really wanted to show where she came from,” Shipp says. “I really wanted to show how she became this Halle Berry weather goddess and how that transition kind of happened.” As she delves deeper into “Alex’s Storm,” any sense of self-doubt flies out the window. Since this version of Storm hasn’t mastered her weather-commanding abilities yet, Shipp says she tried to bring a more “animalistic vibe” to Storm. She attacks her character work from all sides. Shipp and her stunt double brainstormed the character’s physicality together, thinking about the bigger moments like how she summons the wind, rain, and lightning, but also focusing on smaller details like the way she holds her arms, lands, glares at someone, or how she looks when she thinks something is funny.
Alex’s Storm is a survivor. Like Shipp, she’s still defining herself, discovering her deep range of talents.
After wrapping on Apocalypse, Shipp landed a role in Dude, which also stars Pretty Little Liars’s Lucy Hale. Dude was a completely different project from Apocalypse, with a much smaller scale. She didn’t have to dangle from a harness this time around or don a cape. But Shipp loved the set for different reasons. The movie, about four girls during their senior year, was written and directed by a woman (Olivia Milch, daughter of David, in her directorial debut) and had a lot of women on set. “It was fantastic. It was a really cool set.”
As for what’s next, Shipp wants to continue to shake things up. Doing a role where she got to shave her head was something she had always wanted to do, and with Apocalypse, she got to check that one off the list. “I think every woman should shave their head at least once,” she says. Landing a gritty dramatic role as well as a really hilarious comedic role are also on her wish list. “I kind of want that moment where I can just open my chest, and then I also want to do something hilarious and funny, because I love comedy,” she says. “I always grew up just laughing and clowning and joking.” She’d also like to return to theater, which is where she initially started her acting career when she was 10-years-old. “I miss waiting for that light to turn on and getting ready for my cue and all of that jazz,” she says. Shipp wants to do it all, and she doesn’t worry about needing to be one thing.
So she’s making music, too.
In between roles this year, Shipp started working on some tracks that she describes as “an R&B, hip-hop, pop fusion”—even her music doesn’t fall into one category. When songwriting, Shipp doesn’t have to think about all those different character choices that she fixates on in her acting. She gets to play herself. “My music is 100% me,” she says. “It’s a representation of who I am, so I’m a little nervous about it, but I think people will like it. I’m just going to put some stuff out there. I love music, and I love creating and being creative. When you’re not working on a job, when you’re stressing about life and the world, it’s nice to be able to put some notes and some melody to it.”
With the Apocalypse press tour on the horizon, Shipp is ready for the world to see “Alex’s Storm.” “I’m just going with the flow,” she says. “This is a beautiful wave, and I’m just trying to stand upright and have the best intentions. I’m really excited though. It’s a new chapter, and I’m ready for it.”