After dazzling music fans with gleefully idiosyncratic routines in Sia videos like “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart,” Dance Moms star Maddie Ziegler traded in her ballet shoes for scripts. In 2017’s The Book of Henry, she played a pre-teen grappling with ongoing abuse at home, flash-forward to 2020 where she starred in the sequel to Netflix’s hit rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved as a high-spirited high-kicking cheerleader. Now, at 18 years old, Ziegler is on a mission to prove she’s blossomed into a full-fledged actress. “I want people to know that I’m capable of acting,” she says, candidly. “It’s one of those things where I’m going to have to keep proving people wrong and [continue] working at my craft.”

In late 2018, the stars aligned for the ingénue as iconic director Steven Spielberg set out to cast his remake of West Side Story, set to be released this December. Auditioning for Spielberg twice, on two different coasts, Ziegler was tasked with bringing the vivacious “jet girl’’ Velma to life and the budding actress rose to the challenge. Immediately diving into research, she studied the 1961 original film to prepare for her forthcoming role. Harnessing her own youthful energy, Ziegler teased out a playful vibrance to Velma that hadn’t been explored previously. In that process, she unearthed an ability to transform into her character—a skill for shape-shifting that takes even the most seasoned actresses years to develop. “Once I got into hair, makeup, and wardrobe… something would come over me,” she says. “Maddie was gone, I became Velma, I was Velma.” Emerging from the experience more in tune with her craft than ever, the rising actress admits she still has plenty to learn. But don’t let her modesty fool you…Maddie Ziegler is a force to be reckoned with.

Hey Maddie, how are you?

I’m great, thank you so much.

So, as we all know, you’ll be starring as Velma in West Side Story. I’m curious to know what the audition process was like for you? What was it like when you got the call that you’d landed that part?

So, I actually auditioned in LA first. I went in, I learned choreography from the dance scene in the gym. Basically, I just did that scene quickly, then I left. I didn’t really think about it much afterwards because it seemed like a long shot. Some time passed, and all of a sudden I was flying to New York for another audition. I was so excited, but nervous. Once I got into that room in New York, it hit me. I was like ‘Oh, wait. This is the final [audition].’ I think everyone I was with in New York was all the people cast in the film. After that audition they immediately let me know they wanted me to come back the next day to audition again…so I did. I remember, after I did that last audition, I flew back home and I didn’t hear anything.

How much time passed before you heard if you actually got the part? 

It was months later, and I think it was actually on Thanksgiving. My team called me and they were like, ‘We actually have some bad news…We heard from West Side Story.’ They tricked me, but then they were like, ‘you got the part!’ I just started screaming (laughs). I was so excited. Just, growing up as a theatre lover and a West Side Story lover it meant so much to me to get the chance to play Velma. I was only sixteen years old at the time and getting to work with Steven Spielberg was a dream. I just remember thinking, ‘This can’t be happening I was in shock. I’m just so grateful for the experience…I really am.

I love that it happened for you that way, almost just how it happens in the movies. (Laughs). How did you prepare to play Velma? What was the character development or research process like for you? Did you read through the play, did you watch some of the previous Broadway shows? How did you prepare?

Honestly, even though I’ve seen the movie, I would just rewatch it a thousand times. Over and over and over again. I know the movie from front to back, but for me, it was more about capturing the energy that was portrayed in the first film—especially as Velma. I really zoned in on her and wanted to capture the essence she had, and kind of reinterpret that in my own way. Another way we prepped for an on-screen time was a ton of rehearsals and so many fittings. Once we had those fittings I truly felt like we were brought back into that era. What the coolest part about it, for me, was—once I got into hair and makeup and wardrobe something came over me. It was like ‘Okay, I’m in it. I’ve dropped Maddie. It’s not me anymore.’ And I thought the coolest part was we actually got to wear all of the undergarments that people wore in the ’60s. We had full corsets, we had bloomers, we had everything. So it was really cool to be brought back to that era. My mom was in the fittings with me, and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I used to wear this when I was young,’ or, she would say ‘My mom used to wear that.’ So, it was a full-circle moment for my mom as well.

I love that. I love that you’re still a rising actress, but you have this sense of method acting where you fully adopt that character that you are portraying. I feel like that’s hard for actresses that are seasoned, so it’s really amazing to hear that you can tap into that.

Thank you. It’s weird because I am still learning and by no means am I a method actor. But definitely, once I’m in the outfit on set, I just became Velma. Something else comes over me. 

And what were little ways that you tried to make the character your own? You watched it several times, you’re obviously very familiar with the character. What were a few things you did to tweak it and make Velma your own?

Well, what I thought was really cool was, I was one of the youngest ones in the cast. I do believe that I was younger than the actress who played Velma in the original movie. I would say that I brought a very young, youthful energy to the character. And I really just fed off of everyone else’s energy, and really tried to bring my own dance style with it. Of course, we were all doing the same choreography in unison, but we each had our own special characteristics and flair. The amazing part about the experience as we all were able to bring something fresh to the table, and have these individualistic elements while still doing choreography in unison. 

I have to agree. I think that’s probably one of the things that made the performances so strong. And you mentioned Steven [Spielberg] earlier. Obviously, we all know Steven is a cinema icon. What was it like working with him? Did he give you the creative freedom to dive into the character and make it your own? Did he give you any special notes on what to do? What was the collaborative process like?

Looking back on that experience, I could not have worked with a nicer person. It was a dream to work with him. With one of the biggest directors in the world, I was so intimidated. But the second I met him, he made me and everyone else feel so safe and welcomed. Everyone had a voice and an opinion on set, it was such a collaborative process. And you have to keep in mind this film, it’s his baby. He loves it so, so, so much. When we first filmed the dance scene in the gym, I will never forget him watching the monitor and jumping up and down with joy. He was just as excited as we were. He really made the whole process so much more fun because it was so light. The energy was so incredible and everyone was emotional because he was so invested—and we were, as well. So, all around it was a great experience. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. Of course, he had such a strong vision and had us do things until they were perfect—but, I think he really allowed us to have our own flair, which was so cool.

For one of your first major projects, in terms of cinema and film, it’s amazing that you got to experience that. I’ve interviewed quite a few actresses and actors, and they are not so lucky in their first few films. 

I know. I got so lucky. Also, something that I was shocked about, in a good way. People make assumptions, obviously, when you are held at such a high level, people must think, ‘Oh, they’re rude,’ or whatever. But Steven Spielberg was literally one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. It just goes to show, it doesn’t matter how big or well known you get, you can still be kind. It was so comforting and so grounding to see how humble he was. It was really inspiring.

Yeah. I like that little tidbit about him jumping up and down while watching you guys. That energy and joy definitely come through in the film. It’s infectious almost. 

Oh, one-hundred-per cent.

You mentioned that you were one of the younger actresses who were cast in this film. What was set life like for you? It’s really a dynamic group of talent for this film in particular. Was it like summer camp? I just imagine it being a bunch of fun—like, obviously it’s work, but being around your peers and people that are close to you in age, I feel like that probably made the experience a lot more fun than work.

We fully became a family. We still talk to this day, the whole cast. The Jet girls, we all have a group chat that literally still is being used every single day. I love it so much, ‘cause the Jet girls, we obviously were not nearly there as much as the Jet boys and the sharks. So, we had more of a smaller role. But, the second we came in, everyone welcomed us so much. It really felt like summer camp, because we were in New York, in summer. We would just show up to work every day and there was not a day that went by that we didn’t have fun. Like, literally, every day was a blast. Even creating the relationships between us and our partners was so much fun—because you really have to trust your partner when you’re doing that type of thing. Everyone was so welcoming and sweet. The boys are just so crazy. They have so much energy at all times. We’d be in between takes during dance scenes, and the boys would fully be playing all these games, doing push-ups, and doing pull-ups. I’m like, ‘They just never rest.’ It’s crazy. We would do ballet every morning before we rehearsed, and one of my favourite days was when we were in ballet class and all of our [dance] partners came in and handed us roses. It was really cute. So, there were fun little memories like that, that will always stick with me for sure.

Sounds like a blast, this was before COVID, right? 

Yeah, it was the year prior. We got so lucky because we could all hug each other and be around each other. I’m honestly very grateful for that experience, and that we were able to have it before COVID hit. It was one of those things where we were such a family, to the point where we were hugging each other and always being around each other. 

I feel like this project kind of solidifies your status as an actress. I’m not sure if you agree with that. I know you’re from the dance world, and dance and acting are worlds apart. What was it like getting to this moment?

I would say, first of all, I still pinch myself every day. I’m so fortunate that my transition from dance to acting was fairly smooth. I literally always say, ‘I really don’t think the transition would’ve been as easy for me if I didn’t have dance as my background.” It’s really helped me in so many ways to act. Just even how fortunate I am to be able to do my two favourite things in one movie is so incredible. But I still think I have such a long way to go with acting. I’m still in the beginning stages, and every day I’m learning more and more. I’m just so grateful I was cast in this movie because it definitely makes me feel like I’m one step closer to my goals. And despite what people may think, I earned it because I worked really hard. And just because I got this part, doesn’t mean I’m on top of the world. I’m still working every day, and I think I have so much growing to do. 

I definitely feel like you were made for this film, made for that part.

Thank you so much.

And, in terms of your start as a dancer, how do you feel that that has affected you as an actress? From an outsider standpoint, I want to know has it made it harder for you to be taken seriously as an actress? Have you had to fight harder to get into the door? 

For me, that’s actually exactly right. There are so many pros and cons to it. Of course, dance helped me transition to acting, but I still think, now, people are starting to take me more seriously as an actress. Although I still think that I’m mostly known for dancing. It’s always ‘How is she going to be able to prove that she can be an actress too?’ That’s always going to be in the back of my mind. And that is the harsh reality of it. I want people to know that I’m capable of acting without dance related to it. I guess that’s something I’ve had to kind of just prove to everyone. But also, you know, it’s either some people get it, or some people don’t. It’s kind of one of those things where I’m going to have to keep proving people wrong and keep working at my craft. I think there are so many other actresses out there that have been working for so long and that deserve so many roles. But, I also think something that makes me feel like I’ve earned it is…for every movie that I’ve done—I’ve auditioned for it. I’ve had to work for it, so it feels super exciting when I get those parts because I know I put that effort and time into it. But yeah, it’s definitely a fear of mine, not being taken seriously as an actress, solely. It’s one of those things, like I said, where I just have to keep proving to people that I can do it. Because I know I can. Even if it is not something that is proven right now, it’s something that is going to be proven.

Well said. So, to bring this lovely interview full circle, I’m curious to know what’s next for you? Are there any films you have coming out this year in addition to West Side Story? What are you excited about at the moment? 

I’m so excited honestly that the world is opening up more. Work has picked back up, and I’m so grateful. I have a few things I’m working on that are really exciting. I actually did a movie called The Fallout, written and directed by Megan Park, and that premiered at SXSW a couple of months ago. It will be released officially, in the next few months. I’m so excited for people to see that, and I hope they love it as much as I do.

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