We meet the X-Men actress on the cusp of serious stardom
FROM A ROLE in X-MEN TO MAX MARA’S FACE OF THE FUTURE AWARD, ALEXANDRA SHIPP IS on THE CUSP
of MAJOR. MOLLY CREEDEN TALKS BIG BREAKS, ASTROLOGY and HAIR POLITICS with A RISING FORCE
THERE ARE MOMENTS in one’s career when you become aware of the distance you have travelled since you started out. For Alexandra Shipp, it was when a waiter in Montreal brought out the oysters. Shipp had been auditioning for six years in LA – finishing high school online, hustling in side jobs to pay her rent, and booking a steady stream of TV roles, including Aaliyah in Lifetime’s Aaliyah:
The Princess of R&B. Then, in 2O15, she found herself at a dinner in Canada to kick off filming for X-Men: Apocalypse, with a cast that included Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender. She says of the night: ‘Sophie Turner and I were just eating these oysters and truffle mac and cheese, looking at each other, like: “Who gave us these jobs?”’
In an industry where it’s increasingly likely that a new talent emerges by way of a parent who works in the business, or through a skill for garnering Instagram likes, Shipp’s Hollywood story has an old-school arc. She arrived in Los Angeles from Arizona aged 17, after years of flying back and forth for auditions, with a role finally booked for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The
Squeakquel. ‘I was like, I’ve made it!’ she recalls — ‘And then I didn’t work for five years.’ Well, Shipp did work: she was a nanny, a shop worker, a mobile pet groomer. On the day of her X-Men audition, she could barely afford to put petrol in her car. ‘I thought about quitting a million times,’ she says. ‘The reality is you have to go in there and almost have this air of, “I’m probably not going to get this, but I’m going to give you my best...” And then you work your butt off in the streets to pay your rent, eat some ramen noodles and get to that next audition.’
Shipp now lives in the Valley in Los Angeles with a bluenose pitbull named Leila and a Yorkie named Kali the Destroyer, who she brings on jobs to keep her spirits high. ‘I’m a Cancer, Queen,’ Shipp tells me (she calls everyone Queen), ‘so I’m such a sensitive, emotional person — just a wreckage of tears and laughter. And when I’m working I live alone, away from everyone I love, and that can drive you crazy.’ A lot for Shipp comes back to being a Cancerian, she says. She grew up with an uncle who is a vedic astrologer, and the zodiac looms large. ‘In terms of dating, I give everyone — except for Piscean men — the benefit of the doubt. Pisces women, however, are my favourite on the planet,’ she says.
We’re in a suite at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood. Shipp is wearing a form-fitting Max Mara grey dress and her hair in relaxed curls. She has all the hallmarks of a theatre kid: gesticulating wildly, adding accents when it serves the story. Tomorrow, she’ll be honoured at the 2018 Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards, where she’ll receive the Max Mara Face of the Future Award, whose previous recipients include Zoe Saldana, Kate Mara and Chloë Grace Moretz. ‘What I like about Max Mara is how they make sophisticated women look sexy. Sometimes, when you want to be classy, you feel you look like Nancy Reagan,’ she says, putting on a Midwestern twang.
The significance of receiving the award as a woman of colour is certainly not lost on Shipp. As the daughter of a white mother and black father, she frequently ends up in the cross-hairs of naive, challenging and outright ugly conversations about race happening on social media (most recently, comic-book nerds on Twitter took issue with the fact that her X-Men character Storm was originally rendered with a darker complexion than hers).
Rather than ignore the comments or prepare watered-down PR nuggets offering platitudes about love and inclusion, Shipp has decided to address the conversation head on, which sometimes means engaging with the
“I’M SUCH a SENSITIVE, EMOTIONAL PERSON – JUST A WRECKAGE
of TEARS and LAUGHTER”
“BEING BIRACIAL, I WALK
this GREY AREA THAT MAKES PEOPLE ASK ME QUESTIONS they DON’T THINK
online chorus. ‘In this industry, there’s a reality when it comes to colourism. I know that a studio or a director is going to feel more comfortable with me in a lead black female role than they would with someone of a darker complexion. That’s a real thing. So with this Afrocentricity we’re now seeing in film, we’re getting a chance to show more representation,’ she says, alluding to the overdue attention and excitement around black cinema. ‘I am not every shade of black. I can’t play every shade — I haven’t had the same experiences as every person. And being biracial, I walk this strange grey area that makes people comfortable asking me questions they don’t think are offensive, even though, half of the time, they are. Most people are afraid to ask a dark woman about her hair, but they’re not afraid to ask me,’ she says. ‘It’s weird, but it’s something I think I can use to educate people.’
The actor is more open to ‘talking about the hard stuff’ – in part thanks to the Times Up movement. ‘I think it took a generation saying, “You shouldn’t have to deal with the same kind of crap that we did.”’ Whether it’s micro-aggressions on set, having a wardrobe unnecessarily sexed up or being asked to ‘Do the line more urban’, Shipp feels emboldened to push back if it doesn’t feel right. She’s been a careful observer of industry vets. ‘I learned a lot from Ashley Judd,’ she says of her time filming 2O19’s A Dog’s Way Home. ‘She has a calm power about her I’d like to find in myself.’
She also receives support from her group of friends – many with equally bright horizons – like Awkwafina and Lucy Hale, her co-stars in Dude, and Katherine Langford, with whom she remained close after 2O18’s heart-warming hit Love, Simon. ‘I have a great support network of women, where we come together, drink wine and talk about how to make each other better. It’s a beautiful coven community,’ she says.
When Shipp was growing up, she remembers watching Eartha Kitt in Boomerang and Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones and feeling something stir. ‘These powerful women gave me a feeling I could be strong like them. I wanted to play a knight in Camelot rather than one of the handmaids. I wanted to play Othello. Those women did that. They were fearless; they were also brown and looked like me. Even in a supportive role, they stole the show.’ It doesn’t sound all that different to how Shipp will be described in years to come.
Left: coat, £1,225; top, £145, andskirt, £37O; and below: coat, £2,4OO; trousers,£62O, and bag, £4O5, all MAX MARAELLE OCTOBER