'Dark Phoenix' Star Alexandra Shipp on Finding Her Voice as Storm

The actor recalls observing Sophie Turner’s method turn to play Jean Grey and details the multi-picture deal she signed to join the X-Men team.
Alexandra Shipp at Tuesday's 'Dark Phoenix' premiere.   |   Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic
The actor recalls observing Sophie Turner’s method turn to play Jean Grey and details the multi-picture deal she signed to join the X-Men team.

Alexandra Shipp is closing out a chapter of Storm’s story with Dark Phoenix.

The actor first played the X-Men superhero in 2016’s Apocalypse, a film she joined after a protracted casting process that saw her sign a three-picture deal with options for more. Those future films likely won’t come to fruition now that Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige is expected to reboot the franchise following Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Thus, Dark Phoenix serves an appropriate swan song for Shipp and the castmates she’s grown with over the past few years.

With Apocalypse, Shipp was a newcomer to the world of big-budget films, but the experience allowed her to learn the ropes (and wires). She also lived with co-star Sophie Turner during filming, with the two building forts and singing together in their downtime. With Dark Phoenix, Turner’s Jean Grey is estranged from her fellow X-Men, having been transformed by a cosmic power. To preserve that distance, Turner decided to live alone and apart from the cast on Dark Phoenix.

“It felt a little bit more adult; it was more coming over, making dinner and everyone going their separate ways on Dark Phoenix,” Shipp tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Less forts, unfortunately.”

The process was more adult for Shipp in other ways as well. She felt established enough to give input on her costume and to push her character in new directions. In a recent conversation with THR, Shipp also discusses her anxiety over reshoots on any project, her upcoming lead role in Shaft and her reunion with her Love, Simon costar, Nick Robinson, on Silk Road.

While researching you, it was easy to notice how free-spirited and outgoing you are. Do you think your personality has helped you in auditions, and whatnot, since young actors are often a bit guarded or measured?

Yes, but I think it’s also like a muscle. I think every human being struggles with being guarded and trying to be who they are in moments in which they feel like they can’t — especially young women. It’s trying to be yourself, but not being too weird, so that people in high school can still like you. We like to think that we’ll grow out of that thinking once we graduate high school, but the reality is we’re always going to be that nerdy 14-year-old girl who’s second-guessing everything that she does. It’s an uphill battle; it’s a struggle every day to try and be like, “I’m going to be myself; I’m going to be whatever ‘normal’ looks like.” I do think that the more I let go of trying to be who everyone else wants me to be, and the more I just be myself, makes it easier for people to say, “I’d love to work with her because she’s not going to second-guess herself; she’s gonna give us something new and something different every time.”

Storm was misguided for most of X-Men: Apocalypse. How has the character changed now that she’s under the influence of Charles and Co. in Dark Phoenix?

When it comes to Storm, she’s constantly looking for that family. Because her parents passed away suddenly when she was really young, she’s always looking for that. In Apocalypse, she was looking for that father figure in Apocalypse, that male figure to follow. Now that we’re seeing her in the ‘90s, she’s really found her family and is solidifying those relationships as an adult. She’s not a kid anymore; there’s no second-guessing. She is home, and she wants to take care of her home. That’s what I’ve always loved about Storm: she cares about the people around her because she cares so much about family and loyalty.

Does it feel like you’re playing a different character in some ways since she has a new allegiance, an updated look and a different mind-set than she did on Apocalypse?

Yes and no. What I tried to do with my performance, especially in correlation with Halle Berry’s Storm, is that I wanted to show you different versions, because you now is not the same as you when you were 18, 10 or 21. Those are all completely different people, and yet, they still come from the same stuff. They still have the same background; they still have same traumas and triggers. Now, she’s learned how to control her anger, so that she doesn’t just lightning-bolt anyone who pisses her off. [Laughs.] So, I wanted to create that throughline, not only from Apocalypse to Dark Phoenix, but also with Halle’s performance of Storm. This is still Storm, but this is just her at a different place. We’re meeting her where she’s at right now, not from what we’ve known her to do or be.

With Apocalypse out of the picture, does Storm still maintain the same powers he enhanced?

Yes, he enhanced her powers, but because this is Marvel, I like to think that he gave her a “super-boost,” so that she could have the powers she was always going to have. He just gave her control and leveled her up in that moment. Apocalypse was able to get Storm to her full potential, but where we find Storm in Dark Phoenix in 1992 is her at her full potential, naturally.

Did you have a say as far as the costume or aesthetic this time around, since you weren’t too happy with certain aspects of the last costume?

What [writer-director] Simon Kinberg really wanted to focus on with this aesthetic was the downplayed ‘90s vibe. It’s very much my own personal style because I’m a ‘90s kid. So, I like baggy sweaters, plaid, layers and all of that. I really loved the wardrobe for this movie, but when it comes to Storm, I enjoyed being a part of that creative process. We give notes and stuff like that: “Oh, I like this; I can actually move in this.” Also, there’s something to be said about being a chameleon and putting yourself in a position in which you’re really uncomfortable, whether it’s clothing, hair or makeup. You looking the way the director wants you to look, in correlation with the entire scene or movie, is really exciting. It’s like putting on a mask. I not only liked where we went with the direction of her styling, but also, when I put on my wardrobe, did my hair and makeup and got on set, I felt like Storm walking into it. That’s super key for character building.

You had a famous moment on Conan where you talked about the process of filming Storm’s levitation sequences. Did you have a better experience with the harness on Dark Phoenix?

I did! It’s funny, we were shooting the train car battle scene, and I was flying over the train car while it’s supposed to be moving. So, I’m hundreds of feet in the air, with all of these giant screens, and it felt so much like Apocalypse at times. I would be like, “Hey, guys, I need to have a quick break. Give me a good 60 to 120 seconds, so the blood can rush back to my body. I’m feeling a little limp from the waist down; I’m a bit of a rag doll right now.” You still have those moments, but if you ask any stunt person, I don’t think you’ll ever get used to being on wires, physically. You just learn how to adapt. So, I felt more comfortable having already done Apocalypse; I knew the key things to look out for.

Simon Kinberg recently told THR that they’ve never really scheduled reshoots in advance on these X-Men movies, but they always end up happening. When you wrap principal photography, are you apprehensive about changing your look for your next project since you know you’ll likely have to return for reshoots months down the road?

Oh, yeah. Every time. Every time I wrap on any movie, I’m like, “All right, what am I going to do?” Especially after Apocalypse. I had a shaved head; they were shaving my head every day, down to the skin. I looked crazy. So, for a while there, I’d ask, “Can I grow my hair out? Are we gonna have reshoots? If I come back for reshoots, am I gonna need to x, y and z?” I was really fortunate for Apocalypse that I didn’t have to do reshoots, so I could grow my hair out and start feeling more and more like myself. But, every job, you get a little freaked out. If I pierce my ear, if I get a tattoo, if I go on vacation and I come back literally eight to ten shades darker, what is all that going to look like? Am I going to look different? At the same time, the reality is that’s just life. Sometimes, with these bigger-budget movies, you have a little bit more legroom, whereas, if it’s an indie film and you’ve gotta do reshoots, you can’t dye your hair or shave your head again.

You lived with Sophie Turner during Apocalypse; apparently, you guys even made forts together. Did you guys get to have fun when you were off set on Dark Phoenix, or was she separated from everybody in an effort to imitate the art you were making?

Yeah, she’s very method when it comes to things like that. She’s such a talented actress, and everything she does has a reason for it. On Apocalypse, she stayed at a hotel because she was filming Game of Thrones at the same time. She didn’t think that it made sense for her to have an apartment, so she just stayed at a hotel. Then, we realized that every time she was home, she was just staying over at mine. So, I said, “Hey, girl! We should just live together.” I play guitar so we like singing together and building forts. It’s nice when you’re working on a job to have someone to come home to, where you can make dinner, have a glass of wine and not feel so far away from everyone that you know and love. She’s from the U.K.; I’m from the West Coast and we’re filming in Canada. So, we really did build this beautiful sisterhood where it was like, “All right, baby, it’s me and you against the world!” Coming back to Dark Phoenix, it was two years later. So, we were a little bit older; it wasn’t our first rodeo, and our apartments were walking distance to each other, so that was nice. It felt a little bit more adult; it was more coming over, making dinner and everyone going their separate ways on Dark Phoenix. Less forts, unfortunately.

So, the Disney-Fox merger happened since Apocalypse. Out of curiosity, when you first agreed to play Storm, were you tied to a half-dozen movies in the event that they’re greenlit?

Of course. Because it’s Marvel and it’s a major studio with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of budget that they’re spending on it, they really don’t want to have to keep going back and forth and recasting. It’s a big process. The casting process for me, Sophie, Tye (Sheridan), Lana (Condor) and Kodi (Smit-McPhee), took months. A big franchise like Marvel can lock people in, so I signed a deal for three movies with an option for more — I forget how many. It’s always options based off of the studio’s discretion. You’re always like, “Yeah, I’ve got a five-movie deal!” But it’s only if the studio wants to make more. [Laughs.]

A week after Dark Phoenix, you’re back on the big screen as the female lead in Shaft. Who are you playing?

I play Sasha who is a doctor. She’s out of medical school and completing her residency. She is childhood best friends with JJ, the son of Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), played by Jessie T. Usher. Growing up, we were like a tripod with our other best friend, who’s played by Avan Jogia. Suddenly, Avan’s character dies and we suspect foul play. So, Jesse and I team up with Sam in order to prove what happened to our best friend.

Was being on the same set as Sam Jackson, Regina Hall and Richard Roundtree just as intimidating as those early days on Apocalypse?

Oh, 100 percent. It is the most nerve-racking experience to work with actors that you respect and have watched prior to working with them. I’ve been really fortunate in my career to work with not only incredibly talented actors, but also really great people. I haven’t experienced this yet, but I hear it’s not always the case. So, I consider myself very lucky. When you’re working with them, you can not only learn from them, but you can also grow in their presence. As an actor, knowing that I’m going to be working with Sam or Regina, it means showing up prepared, being off-book and ready to change the way we’re doing this damn thing. It doesn’t matter if I’m working with Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender or Samuel L. Jackson; they’re all incredibly talented artists, but they’re also really nice people. It’s nice to be around, because you can be the best in your field and not be a jerk. It’s a bit of an anomaly, but it is nice.

You recently worked with the original Jean Grey, Famke Janssen, in the upcoming film Endless. Did the topic of X-Men ever come up?

It did come up! She said, “Oh, Sophie is so nice. I got to chat with her.” And I was like, “Yeah, she’s the best.” Famke has done so much since X-Men that it was nice to just talk to her and ask, “How have you not lost your mind? How have you been able to keep your integrity and also your business savvy as a woman in the entertainment industry? How have you managed to make it last?” I respect her so much, and she’s a very, very talented actor. We had some really great dramatic scenes together. She’s one of those women who’s not afraid to impart that wisdom on the next generation.

You’re also reuniting with your Love, Simon costar Nick Robinson on Silk Road, which is such a fascinating story. What can you say about that project so far?

I’m really excited to work with Nick again; we’re friends in real life. We start in July, so it’s cool to possibly be working with him again. I’m interested to see how our chemistry will be in a romantic setting, because I play his girlfriend. In Love, Simon, I played his friend, so it was easy for us because we were already friends. I’m like, “Is it gonna be weird? Is he going to go in for a smooch and am I just gonna burst out laughing?” I don’t know; we’ll have to see, but I’m really excited about it.

  • Brian Davids