Spinning Platters Interview: Julianne Hough and Kenny Wormald on “Footloose”

by Jason LeRoy on October 13, 2011

Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough in FOOTLOOSE

WHYYYYYYYYY??!?!??

This was the universal reaction when it was announced several years ago that Paramount was mounting a remake of the much-beloved Kevin Bacon classic, Footloose. And however skeptical you remain about it, just know that the remake as originally conceived — which was going to reunite High School Musical director Kenny Ortega and star Zac Efron — would have been far more likely to offend your sense of ’80s cultural reverence. But then Ortega dropped out and was replaced by Craig Brewer, best known for decidedly adult films like Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan. Brewer, himself a Footloose devotée, set out to make the most authentic update imaginable, and a lot of that would depend upon the casting of the iconic roles of Ren (Bacon’s character) and Ariel (originally played by Lori Singer). Enter the unlikely duo of Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough.

Hough was best-known as the two-time winner of your mom’s favorite TV show, Dancing With The Stars, as well as for her successful country music career. Aside from a supporting role in the draggy campfest Burlesque, she was largely untested as an actor. Wormald was a complete unknown in the acting community but a superstar within the world of dance, in which he’d danced in videos for Madonna, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, and Nelly Furtado, as well as toured the world with Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveShow tour. And now, they are your new Ariel and Ren.

You may be surprised by how much better Brewer’s Footloose is than you’re expecting. In addition to Brewer’s competence as a director, Hough displays surprising dramatic chops (she has since filmed a role in the highly anticipated Rock of Ages film adaptation, and was recently cast as the lead in Diablo Cody’s directorial debut, Lamb of God). And Wormald is a natural, resembling a cross between Cry Baby-era Johnny Depp and Grease-era Jeff Conaway while evoking such fellow Boston-area actors as the Afflecks and the Wahlbergs. The film also stars Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell as Ariel’s churchy parents, with a scene-stealing comedic breakout performance by Miles Teller (displaying remarkable range compared to his work in Rabbit Hole) as Willard, the character memorably played by the late Chris Penn in the original.

Spinning Platters recently sat down with Hough and Wormald (under the firm restriction that we were not permitted to ask them to dance) to discuss a wide range of topics, from working on a project that makes so many people skeptical and Hough’s experiences on the notoriously difficult Burlesque shoot, to lighter subjects like hairography and which day of the week Jennifer Lopez might not be a bitch, as well as the ways this remake may actually improve upon the original.

You’re out on this big press tour right now, going from city to city, answering a lot of the same questions. Do you ever get used to it? Does it just feel like part of the job?

Kenny Wormald: It would be great to have a little more time in some of these cities, but I’ve been touring for a while now as a dancer. Hotel, airport, hotel, airport…

Julianne Hough: It’s kinda nice to go to these cities and see them really quick, because you get to see their reaction here and see the next city the next day. You get to see the difference, you see what kind of people are where. It’s fun!

KW: It’s cool to see the different reactions to the film in different places. We showed it down south and they had a certain reaction. We showed it in Boston, we showed it in Toronto… Pretty much everyone is feeling good about it, which is a relief. They come in feeling kinda skeptical, which we understand, but they leave happy. That’s why we’re doing this.

And Craig Brewer has been out on tour with you for a lot of it, right?

JH: Yeah! We’re always like, “We’re sorry, we don’t give as good of an explanation as he does!” [laughs] He’s so good at public speaking.

KW: It’s funny because we’ll be in an interview, and it’ll be me, her, and Craig will be seated next to us, and the interviewer will be like, “Why [did you remake this]?”, and we both just go– [Wormald and Hough simultaneously look toward where Brewer would be seated].

What was the audition process like for each of you?

JH: Mine was totally different, it’s such a long story. I was attached to it when it was going to be a musical, so I’ve had it for a very long time, longer than anyone who’s attached to this movie. Then when Craig signed on and it was going to be this movie and not a musical, I had to fight for my role. He kinda wanted to start from scratch with an actress, because I was probably hired for my dancing and singing. But I fought for it and told him, “This is the reason why I moved to LA in the first place.” I wanted to be an actress and a singer. I just kinda fell into Dancing With The Stars. That’s just what happened.

KW: I had a long audition process. I went in for a first read with just me, the casting director, and a camera. It went well, then callback after callback. The casting director had worked with Justin Timberlake, and Craig had worked with Justin on Black Snake Moan, and I’d been on tour with Justin, so they did a little communication with him, like, “Who’s this kid?” Justin was like, “He’s a great kid and a bad-ass dancer, you should definitely keep him going in this process.” So there was more and more and more, and finally I had a screen test. It was down to two guys, so it was like a battle to the death. [laughs] Then I met Julianne and Miles, who already had his role as well, and it went my way.

Did you feel trepidation because of the original?

KW: Not at all. Because I knew Craig was the director. And after that grueling casting process, I wasn’t gonna be like, “Nah…” [laughs] But we all understand people who are like, “Why did you do this?” Even Craig, he turned it down twice. Paramount asked him for his take on Footloose, and he was like, “I can’t do Footloose.” Then they asked him again, like, “Why are you turning down Footloose?” And he was like, “No.” But then they asked him again, and he finally got a vision for it. [mild spoiler alert] He said, “I’m going to kill the kids [in the opening scene]. That’s how I’ll make Footloose.”

This is the first time either of you have really been able to sink your teeth into a role. How did you find your characters? And how was it going back and playing teenagers? [Hough is 23, Wormald is 27]

KW: It was fun to go back to high school. You know, it still smells a certain way. There’s the same bad food.

JH: You still automatically raise your hand, like, “Can I go to the bathroom?”

KW: We had known the film so well as fans and as dancers. So I watched it again during the audition process, but then once I booked it, I didn’t watch it. I didn’t want to hear Kevin Bacon’s words in my head as I’m delivering them out of my mouth. So that was kinda my approach. We also worked with an amazing acting coach. He didn’t really give us line readings, like, “This is how you should say this.” He was more like explaining the environment. We watched a ton of movies and tons of old footage,  just like one kiss scene or one specific look. He was such a fan of breaking it down. We watched a lot of James Dean stuff. He definitely exposed us to a lot.

JH: Like you were saying, people discovered me as a dancer, so it was exciting for me to go into this movie and have, like, this big chunk of meat to chew on. There are some really dramatic scenes. I love challenging things, and when it scares me a little bit, that’s when I do my best and try my hardest. So that’s what it was all about for me.

Julianne, how did this compare to your experience working on Burlesque? Which I love, by the way.

JH: Oh, thank you!

I know that was a tough set.

JH: “Tough set.” Yeah… [laughs] It was very different, because I was a lead in this movie. I felt like I was taken care of, meaning the director had my back. If I ever needed anything — well, I never felt like I needed anything, because I was always taken care of. There, it was my first movie. I didn’t know what to do. I cried, like, every single time in that bathroom scene. Then for the closeup I was like, “I have no more tears left in my eyes! What is going on?” Nobody told me that you have to do it, like, 17 thousand times! [laughs] So I learned a lot, and I’m so glad I did that film before I did Footloose, because I got to learn the logistics of the actual actor’s world — marks and lighting and not stepping on each other’s lines and sound, and all of that stuff people don’t really think about but is actually kinda tough.

Kenny, there’s some crazy acrobatic work in your big warehouse dance scene. Is that you?

KW: They wouldn’t let me. I was gonna try, but they wouldn’t let me. They hired an actual gymnast who’s a Georgia State alum or something. So luckily, I didn’t have to die that day. [laughs] But the rest is me.

What were the most challenging dance scenes for each of you?

KW: I think that one was the most challenging for me. Three days of balls-to-the-wall going crazy. And it wasn’t just dancing, it was a lot of other elements — it was falling off a car, and getting back up, and hanging from a chain. I remember they had this stunt kid to do the fall when the chain gets stuck, and I was like, “Craig, let me fall! I’m a dancer! I know how to fall gracefully if you want, and I know how to fall messed-up if you want. It’s choreography.” So I did the fall, and I’m glad I did the fall, because it’s me in the film and not some cutaway to the back of someone’s head. [laughs] But that was definitely the most challenging for me. The dance steps themselves — we’re dancers and that’s what we do, so individual steps weren’t necessarily hard. But three days of shooting one dance scene, that’s tough.

JH: That’s what I was gonna say. The dances technically weren’t that hard. I wasn’t doing a lot of choreographed dancing, I was just kinda moving my hips and dancing around a little bit. But they were all fun. We had so much fun doing the dance scenes! A lot of them were in the middle of the night; we’d be doing our final dance at 6am and we’d be so tired that we’d be delirious.

KW: Coming from the dance world, I’ve danced in movies, and I have a ton of friends in LA who dance in movies, and a lot of them got hired. So they’re on set dancing with us in the final scene. It was a blast.

JH: My mom and three sisters are in the cowboy scene, you can see all three of them dancing. My mom is dancing all over some guy. [laughs] I’m like, “Awesome.” My mom is so hot right now.

Julianne, when you said you were attached when this was going to be a musical, I’m guessing that means when Kenny Ortega was attached to direct.

JH: Yes.

What were some of the differences in his version of the film?

JH: Oh my gosh, it was so different. At one point I was going to sing the “Footloose” song. They were gonna do, like, a tractor scene and there were gonna be dancers all around the tractor, and instead of driving cars we were gonna be on horses… It was very campy, and probably would have been great for a generation that’s never seen it who’s very very young. But it would have missed out on a lot of Footloose fanatics.

Julianne, obviously you are working the hairography in this movie.

JH: [laughs]

KW: She toned it down!

What are some of the finer points of good hairography? And Kenny, as a short-haired dancer, how do you balance the scales to compete with her hair?

JH: [laughs] What’s interesting about the whole “hairography” term is I’m really just whipping my hair to get it out of my face, you know? But making it look sexy while doing it. Plus I had some extensions in there, so I wanted to make sure they were kicking around. Hair is an extension of your body. It’s like a limb itself. So you gotta move it!

KW: I left that all to her. I don’t think guys should be doing all that anyways.

Julianne, was it fun to shoot the scene toward the end where you’re beating up the chubby stoner guy outside the big dance?

JH: It…was…really fun. We were just like ad-libbing and stuff, like, “Run away like a little bitch!” And people laugh at that! So we’re like, “Wow.” That, and actually beating up Chuck (Patrick John Flueger) too, that was really fun. I’ve never done anything like that, and it’s like, you don’t realize how much angst you have in your body when you’re doing that–

KW: Or when you’re beating the shit out of a truck.

JH: Yeah, that was awesome.

Do you think there’s anything in this film that was missing from the original?

JH: I think there was a lot that was untold or unexplained in the original, and I feel like we did a lot of explaining, like how the banning of the dance happened. And for me, with Ariel and her father, in this version you understand her and where she’s coming from more, why she’s more of a wild child. It’s because she’s trying to get attention from her dad. She doesn’t feel like he looks at her or sees anything that she’s doing. He’s more of a dad to the community than to her. She uses her sexuality to get that attention, and you really see that she’s vulnerable and lost. I don’t think there was that much depth to her in the original. I always felt at the end, like, “Man, she’s just such a moody bitchy little teenager, why does she get him?” [laughs]

As a director, Craig runs a tight ship but also a fun set. How did you find that balance between professionalism and fun?

JH: Well, it’s our first movie, so we were definitely wanting to be professional.

KW: And being dancers and being on sets for the past decade, it teaches you a lot. So when you finally get an opportunity like we got, you take it very seriously. But Craig is loose and likes to have fun and keep us loose, so it was kinda like the perfect balance. And then it was this young cast all hanging out together. It was like summer camp.

JH: Yeah, and we really felt like kids too, or at least I know I did. It was so hot outside, so they’d bring out popsicles for us, and they’d bring out cupcakes and other treats. It was like, “Snack time!”

Julianne, you got to work with Cher on Burlesque. Kenny, you’ve danced in videos for most of the biggest pop divas in the world. What have the two of you learned from the divas you’ve worked with, and what can the rest of us take from them?

KW: I think some of those divas you speak of are very hardworking, and some of them are also very diva-like. [laughs] Working with Justin was the best experience as far as learning by watching, because he’s a gentleman to everyone and he’s respectful to everyone. He looks everyone in the eye, he shakes everyone’s hand, he says thank you. And not everyone does that. So I learned a lot from him. No matter how famous you are, you can still be a human.

JH: I notice that too. Like, the divas that come and go, those ones will come and go. But the divas that are around for a long time and are icons, it’s for a reason, and it’s because they’re respectable human beings and they work their asses off.

KW: And they know what they want.

JH: They know what they want. And they’re cool! Like, Cher was so cool. And Beyoncé, same thing. She’s such a diva but she’s just amazing, such a hard worker and always so cool.

KW: Everyone thinks Jennifer Lopez is a diva or bitchy, but she was always cool to us. I think it just depends what day of the week you catch her on. [laughs]

Footloose opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, October 14.

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