Nikki Blonsky is about to have the wildest summer of her life. And last summer wasn’t too shabby.
Late last May, the then-17-year-old spark plug was preparing for what she thought was the role of a lifetime: the part of Carmen in Great Neck South High School’s end-of-year musical. “It was the biggest role I ever had, and I was so excited and so nervous,” she recalls.
After her performance, Nikki, born and raised in Great Neck, was looking forward to the prom and then to a classic Long Island summer: selling scoops at the Cold Stone Creamery, fluke-fishing with her dad in the Long Island Sound, and hanging out with her pet pug, Rocky. “We sit on the couch and my dog watches TV,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Wow—you’re just like me.’ ”
But Nikki’s couch-potato plans were ruined in June, when she became a movie star. “It all happened super-super-super-fast,” she says. This summer, she will star with John Travolta (in drag and in his first musical since Grease), Christopher Walken, and Amanda Bynes in Hairspray, the new movie based on the Broadway musical based on the classic camp John Waters film.
“Being Tracy Turnblad has been my dream role ever since I saw Hairspray on Broadway,” Nikki says. “I instantly connected to her.” Their stories do share a nice bit of symmetry: Tracy Turnblad is the ultimate regular girl, who grows up watching The Corny Collins Show and not-so-secretly nursing her dreams of singing and dancing with her onscreen heroes. An antic performer with operatic range and a spring-loaded smile, Nikki is getting the chance to share screen time with some of her own heroes. “They told me, ‘Your best friend’s going to be played by Amanda Bynes,’ ” she says, “and I freaked out! I grew up watching The Amanda Show!”
After years of voice lessons, Nikki signed up with the small Long Island talent company Morgit Management and started trying to break into Broadway at the ripe old age of 14. “I auditioned for everything,” she says. She applied to the Broadway production of Hairspray at the age of 16—and was rejected. As unbowed as the indefatigable Tracy, Nikki kept at it.
“When we saw online that they were casting for the movie,” she says, “we made a tape of me singing and sent it in.” New Line loved her and her star-is-born story, to the extent that the first round of press may have exaggerated a narrative that was already a fairy tale. (The Times recently ran a correction after Morgit complained that the paper had portrayed Nikki’s casting as more of a lucky accident than manager-abetted hard work.) Her story is pretty improbable, regardless: plucked from thousands of actresses in a nationwide open call, even though she had never before performed professionally.
On the eve of her prom, New Line reps told Nikki that she was one of the final four contenders for the role and that they would be visiting her at Cold Stone to shoot a behind-the-scenes promo piece. They claimed it was for a DVD extra; in fact, it was a publicity stunt, staged for Entertainment Tonight.
“Next thing I know, I was serving ice cream to New Line executives without knowing it,” she says. “They turned on a laptop at a table and [a video clip of director] Adam Shankman came on saying, ‘I think you should make yourself a big ice-cream cone because you’re going to be playing Tracy Turnblad in the new Hairspray movie!’ ”
As you can see in the clip that is still making the rounds on YouTube, Nikki then fell, shrieking, to the floor. Through tears, she told the camera, “I followed my dreams, and my dreams came true.” Just try watching that video without tearing up—it’s like Billy Elliot with sprinkles on top.