Alexandra Shipp
Alexandra Shipp (Photo: Thomas Concordia/Getty Images for Supper Suite)

Alexandra Shipp’s is the first and last voice we hear in Tick, Tick… Boom!, a film that is full of soaring, joyful, impassioned voices—though, funnily enough, she isn’t singing in either instance. Her opening voiceover serves as a guide, a brief primer on the man at the center of the musical. In a sense, she’s the voice of memory. Based on Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical stage show, Tick, Tick… Boom! is an unusual hybrid of biopic and musical, deftly helmed by Lin-Manuel Miranda in his feature directorial debut. Andrew Garfield stars as Larson, who is struggling to finish writing his first musical before his impending 30th birthday. Shipp plays his long-suffering girlfriend Susan, a dancer who is beginning to imagine a life beyond the day-to-day struggles of surviving as an artist in early ’90s New York City.

As the film opens in select theaters—with a debut on Netflix coming on November 19—GRAZIA chatted with Shipp about movie musicals, the real-life inspiration behind her character and working with powerhouse performers like Garfield and Miranda.

How familiar were you with Tick, Tick… Boom! before you were cast in the film?

My particular relationship to Tick, Tick… Boom! was knowing Jonathan Larson through Rent. I was a big fan of Rent. I had never seen Tick, Tick… Boom! onstage, so when I first got the audition, I dove into as many YouTube videos as I could find. I listened to the soundtrack over and over and over again. I was just like, Alex, you have got to absorb more! It really deepened and broadened [the experience] for me.

What kind of relationship did you have to musical theater?

I love movie musicals. I know it’s controversial, you know? A lot of people are like, You gotta see it onstage! And I’m like, Yes, of course. Duh! But to see it [at home] means that I get to rewind it—or used to be able to rewind it. I get to watch it over and over and over again. Some of my most formative memories of musicals were on VHS, you know? Watching Grease, watching West Side Story. I grew up loving Shirley Temple, and I had an entire boxed set [of her movies]. I have always loved movie musicals, so to finally be a part of one…It just feels like a really beautiful full circle moment.

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp on the set of Tick, Tick...Boom!
Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp on the set of Tick, Tick…Boom! (Photo: Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

The film is sort of bookended by voiceovers from your character. How do you interpret that choice to have Susan set the scene at the beginning of the film and effectively eulogize Jonathan Larson at the end?

I think it’s a testament to how much she and Jonathan loved each other in real life—not only in the film. There is such a mutual love and respect. In our final scene together where we’re saying…not goodbye, but just parting ways—it’s a major theme within the movie, it’s timing. Right? Love is just timing. And sometimes it’s the wrong time for people. And when Lin asked me to narrate the top and the end of the film, it was such an honor to be able to do that, and I think only showed the audience that much more of the connection that she had with him and the love that they shared. The reason why it didn’t work out was because of time, and that is just something that is so relatable.

Tick, Tick… Boom! is autobiographical. Do you know if there was a real-life analog for your character, and did you have the chance to speak to her?

Yeah, so Susan is a real person. She really dated Jonathan. When he writes about her in the play, he’s literally writing about their problems. Which is so wonderful and probably was insanely frustrating for her. I think that’s the thing about dating a writer; when they write about what they know you just so happen to come up! [Laughs] So, yeah, there was a real love there and she really was in his life. And she made it to every show in real life.

Did you try to get in touch with her to discuss the character?

Yeah, I really wanted to meet her, but sadly COVID happened and I wasn’t able to. But I know that she’s a firm supporter of this film, and I just hope that I was able to do her justice with the tools that I had. I got to speak to other people in their lives. His sister Julie Larson was onset all the time. And so, I got a lot of information from her and the people around Jonathan.

Garfield and Shipp in Tick, Tick... Boom!
Garfield and Shipp in Tick, Tick… Boom! (Photo: Macall Polay/Netflix)

Tick, Tick… Boom! is about the struggles of creative people. I wondered how it compares to your experience as a performer. Was there anything that you particularly related to? Or was there anything that cast your own experience in a different light?

I think I related to so much of the film in the sense that it really does show the struggle of artists and the true ups and downs of the wins and losses. Throughout my career, especially at the beginning, whenever there’s a loss there’s this question of: Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now? And within this movie, that’s just such a throughline. When Jonathan doesn’t get his show picked up by a [producer], he runs to Michael [Robin de Jesús] and is like, “I wanna have a job!” I’ve had those moments where I’m like, Alex, you can’t do anything else. This is all you’ve ever done. This is what you love. I started in theater when I was 10. There’s no going back, you know what I mean?

Talk to me about working with Lin-Manuel Miranda. I imagine you’ve worked with first-time directors before, but Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t just any first-time director.

I think one of the best things about working with Lin was his excitement and love for performance. He really knows how to take all of the mismatched ideas and ingredients that I would come to him with and really create this beautiful meal. He is so intentional with the things that he does. The way that he sees the world and how he wants to capture it is just so special. Having him pull those moments out of me—some things that I didn’t really want to look at, you know? And being able to use that for this performance was just…prime. I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors, and everyone has their own individual level of brilliance. But Lin just knows what he’s doing, even when it’s his first time doing it. He has an idea and it just rocks. And I’m like, What’s that like? I bet you that’s a really great place to be!

Andrew Garfield’s role requires him to be such a ball of energy and enthusiasm for so much of the film. What was it like playing opposite that? Did you feel like you had to keep up, or was it more like creating a contrast?

Working with Andrew, you’re working with a thoroughbred actor. He is so talented and intelligent, and his choices are so specific. I obviously knew his work coming into this experience, and I wanted to rise to the occasion. So, I dove deep into my research, not only of this Jonathan Larson play in particular, but of Susan and I tried to stay as true to Susan and how I saw her, but also being open enough to go back and forth with Andrew. We really found this beautiful love language between Jonathan and Susan that I think translates not only when we see them in their sweet, intimate moments, but also when we see them in their darker fighting moments. There’s a way that people talk to someone that they love even when they’re yelling at them, and I loved where we got with that.

Garfield and Shipp on set with director Lin-Manuel Miranda
Garfield and Shipp on set with director Lin-Manuel Miranda (Photo: Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

I wanted to ask you about the song “Therapy.” The song itself is played for comedy, but it’s intercut with scenes of a really devastating fight between Jonathan and Susan. Can you tell me about playing that scene from your end? Did you have to put the song out of you mind in order to get to the real emotion of that fight?

Coming onto set that day, I was out for blood, you know? I got there before I even got to work, honey! I was, like, This motherf*cker won’t answer his phone? I’ve been trying to talk to him. He’s just being a neurotic artist… I had this whole inner monologue, so when I walked on set, I was like, “We need to talk…” And I held onto that energy.

In the original play, I’m singing “Therapy” with him, whereas in the film, I’m not singing “Therapy” with him. Which, I think, also helped me stay in that mindset. I wasn’t thinking about the song. I was thinking about the relationship. What’s cool about this movie is it goes from these dark, sad, terrible moments to these really beautiful, smiling, laughing moments as well.

As you said, in the stage version, your character is played by the same actor who plays Vanessa Hudgens’s character Karessa. Obviously, having those roles played by two different actors means that you don’t get to sing as much. I was curious about that choice and how you felt about it.

What I love about Lin is, like I said, he’s intentional. And he had specific ideas for what he wanted—even out of the music. He’s a musician, he’s a composer. And I trust his process. I didn’t need to sing all the songs if I got to sing “Come to Your Senses,” you know what I mean? So much builds up to that song that I’m like, This means that much more. I think that’s what he’s going for.

I feel like it’s been a big year for movie musicals. Other than Tick, Tick… Boom!, are there any that you’ve been especially into so far?

I mean, I loved In the Heights. I don’t know any Lin-Manuel Miranda fan who didn’t! I thought it was beautiful. I’m really excited for West Side Story. I remember first seeing that movie and, you know, I’m American and yet I was [singing], “I want to be in America!” I’m so ready for that to come out!