Interview: Christina Aguilera
BEVERLY HILLS, California - It is, as they say in showbiz vernacular, an "entrance."
It's not just the silk sheath dress into which she's almost managed to squeeze herself. Or the silver bracelets that jangle merrily as she stalks through the door. Or the full makeup of one who knows she's on display. Or the white Papillon dog - name of "Stinky" - trotting behind her. Or the common touches: the bowl of vegetable soup she's busily eating, or the furry blanket spread over her knees.
There's also the simple fact that Christina Aguilera exudes presence as soon as she walks into a room. This is what 30 million albums can do, not to mention those five Grammy Awards and four No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts.
As she approaches her 30th birthday on Dec. 18, she exudes confidence and authority, despite the fact that her latest project - the gaudy musical, Burlesque - takes her into the challenging new territory of acting, singing and dancing on screen.
"I had so many bruises every day," she says. She especially remembers reprising Marilyn Monroe's old number, Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend, before the cameras.
"I was whipping that long strand of diamonds around. . . . I smacked my legs so many times in rehearsal before I got it right."
Burlesque, which opens Nov. 24, marked the first time in her life she really had to dance. The bits of footwork she's done in live performance don't really count.
"I'm vocals first, so I'm very much about my mike and working everything around my vocals, but here everything was pre-recorded, so I fully had to solely concentrate on the dancing."
The bottom line? "Doing this movie was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."
Still, she isn't one to complain. She's just reporting on how it was. "I bruise easily. I looked like a car accident some days after rehearsal."
On the positive side, she says she learned new skills, styles and techniques. "I felt very empowered."
In brief, obstacles or challenges exist to be conquered. Call it empowerment or self-confidence or control of her own destiny, Aguilera seems to possess it in spades. It's probably been that way since her childhood: In the small Pennsylvania town where she grew up, she was known as "the little girl with the big voice."
She plays Ali, a small-town girl who heads for Los Angeles to fulfil her dream of a performing career. She talks herself into a job at the Burlesque Lounge, an ailing revue theatre presided over by Tess (Cher), a feisty veteran of the nightclub wars, and eventually becomes the lounge's star entertainer - and its ultimate saviour.
As she talks to reporters, Aguilera is constantly pushing back the blond curls that are tumbling over her face or else fiddling with her silver bracelet. Her dog has settled into the chair next to her and watches her attentively. But is this real nervousness? She's too organized for that. In fact, she makes it pretty clear she was only prepared to do Burlesque on her terms.
"There have been a lot of attempts making movies like this that haven't turned out so well, and I definitely had to think it over to do Burlesque," she says. She looked at director David Antin's script and decided early on that her character lacked drive: "She didn't have enough Me." Then she had a meeting with Sony Studio boss, Amy Pascal. "You know, I just don't think she's for me," Aguilera told Pascal. "I want someone with more bite, more passion for what (she wants) in life."
Pascal still wanted her, so the script was rewritten to serve the 29-year-old Aguilera's clear-eyed vision of what she needed from her first film project. She needed empathy with Ali's character.
She herself came to the project "wide-eyed and a newcomer and open and vulnerable to everyone's opinions and ideas, and ready to learn" - just like the character she was portraying. The humility isn't phoney; neither is the underlying determination to succeed
Cher, more than twice Aguilera's age and a film and pop icon, proved a valuable mentor in all kinds of ways.
"We would talk about love and relationships a lot. She's done everything before any of us. I mean, how could you not learn from Cher? Her work ethic, the way she commands attention when she walks into a room - yet exudes such peaceful tranquillity and love for everyone. She just makes you feel warm and welcome - more inspired to do a better job because you want to step up to the plate."
There are moments of conflict in the film - the jealousy of a rival performer played by Kristen Bell, Tess's reluctance to allow innovation as a means of rescuing the Burlesque Lounge, Ali's own conflicted relationships with a sympathetic barman (Cam Gigandet) and a suave millionaire (Eric Dane). Aguilera was determined to pull off a convincing character study.
"I definitely wanted to portray Ali in a very likable sense. Some of the scenes, I had to yell at Cher and there are moments that are explosive, but there was no point in the movie where I wanted to come across as bitchy."
It was a matter of "putting forth my best effort in making Ali someone that every girl could relate to, that every girl would want to be, in the sense that she starts out really vulnerable and scared and afraid . . . and ends up conquering what she goes for, kicking her foot in the door, taking risks."
Some of her many musical numbers in the film come from other sources - Etta James' Something's Got a Hold on Me, or the Mae West oldie, A Guy Would Take Some Time. But there are others she wrote herself - Express, Bound To You (the big ballad of the movie) and Burlesque, the finale.
With the music, she was in her orbit. "I knew what I wanted to do. . . . I was very focused in knowing where I was going."
This may have been her first feature movie role, and as someone fresh to acting, she worried about her limitations. Learning lines was "overwhelming" until she understood the process and how to pace herself.
But in other areas of production, she confidently wielded influence. For example, costuming, where she and designer Michael Kaplan worked together closely. Her favourite outfit: the feather bustle and bra she wore for the song, I'm a Good Girl.
"You needed to feel comfortable," she says. "I also needed to know, from my standpoint, what the dancing was going to do whenever a certain material stretched or didn't stretch. We were definitely collaborating on ideas constantly."
There was also the issue of her director, Steve Antin, who had never before directed a feature film.
"I had a few reservations about that, as I'm sure everyone had a few reservations about me acting in my first film. But I went to the office of Steve Antin and looked at his boards that were strewn all over his wall.
"They were referencing Cabaret and beautiful women, and you could tell that this man appreciated a woman's beauty and body, the way it moved, the way he wanted it to be lit, the way he wanted it to be shot.
"There are many ways you can conceive or interpret burlesque, and I wanted to make sure he had the right idea. He appreciated the art form so much that I knew it would be a perfect fit, him and I. And we hit it off like we'd known each other for years. I knew it was going to be done in an elegant and beautiful way."