By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Talk about synergy. Back in the ‘80s, Hasbro hired an advertising agency to create an animated TV series centering on its line of rock star dolls, aimed at tween girls. The plot revolved around a young music company owner named Jerrica Benton who, through an advanced machine, nicknamed Synergy, created a holographic image over herself to create a rock band frontwoman named Jem. The band, known as the Holograms, was comprised of her younger biological sister Kimber and a pair foster sisters, Aja and Shana.
Now “Jem and the Holograms” is reimagined for a new generation in the live action music adventure starring Aubrey Peeples in the title role. Updated for the modern era, Jerrica/Jem is a shy, small-town girl whose musical talent is discovered online by an opportunistic music executive (Juliette Lewis, “Secrets and Lies”), who whisks her and her band off to Los Angeles to mold them into music stars. Jem and her band mates/sisters try to remain true to who they are and to each other while navigating murky waters of sudden fame. The Synergy robot bequeathed to Jem from her late father, the magic star-shaped earrings and other artifacts from the original series are incorporated into this 21st century update.
The pop-music filled film is directed by Jon M. Chu, who previously helmed the “Step Up” movies as well as another Hasbro property, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” from a script by Ryan Landels, who also penned the short film that appeared before Chu’s documentary, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.”
The 21-year-old Peeples is best known for her role as Layla Grant on the popular ABC drama “Nashville.” Born and raised in Lake Mary, Fla., Peeples got the theater bug early on, performing at the Orlando Repertory Theater for 10 years, before being accepted to Harvard. (She deferred enrollment when she landed the part on “Nashville.”)
Chu mounted on an exhaustive search for the right actress/singer to play Jem, and confides that the project was going to halt unless he found the right one. Peeples came in late in the audition process, but the filmmaker said he knew rather quickly she was the right one to star.
Musician Scooter Braun, with whom Chu had worked on the Bieber film, was tasked with coming up with seven songs for the film in three weeks, among them a demo originally recorded by Bieber called “We Got Heart,” which is now sung in the movie by actor Ryan Guzman, who plays Jem’s manager/love interest. Braun admits he accidentally was the one who let Peeples know during a FaceTime chat with her that she got the role, thinking she already had been told by the filmmakers. He asked her to pretend like she was surprised the next day when Chu called her.
During an interview, the brunette actress spoke about taking on the iconic ‘80s music icon, making her big screen singing debut and her own music style.
Q: Jon Chu said you are a very analog girl but also very modern. Can you talk a little about the process you went through to get the role and were you familiar with Jem beforehand?
Peeples: I was not familiar with Jem beforehand. As soon as we found out what this was, we did all our research but it was under wraps what the project was. It was originally called “#Famous” and then “Pink Moon” because they didn’t want people to know that they were doing Jem yet.
We (actresses) auditioned several times probably like five or six times each. The first time I met with Jon I thought I blew it. It was so bad. My car broke down on the way to the audition and I parked in a no parking zone. They had to move my car for me. I was like, “It’s a stick shift,” and they had to find someone (to move it). I was really sweaty because I was running late and trying to find a parking meter. When I got to the audition, I was like, “I’m so sorry. I’m gross.”
Jon was like, “Oh, she is quirky, just like the character.” No, I’m just very disorganized and messy. I had to sing at almost every audition, so it was a very long process but very collaborative.
Q: Can you talk about bonding with the other girls as a band?
Peeples: We all bonded right away. We had chemistry reads and I think what’s so cool about the film is our relationship in real life comes across on the screen. That’s what is so cool about it. Everything is so genuine and we love each other. We’re talking over each other and I think that’s natural.
Q: How long did you have to rehearse?
Peeples: We had like two weeks of rehearsal beforehand so right off the bat we were spending long hours, like 12 hours, together just for rehearsal. We really bonded through that. Stef (Stefanie Scott, who plays Kimber) calls it rock star training. Thank God we get along because that would be a lot of long hours.
Q: How excited were you when you got these iconic roles? Do you worry about how fans of the original series will receive this?
Peeples: That’s where the nerves came in for me is that we’ve changed a lot and there probably is going to be some hate (from original fans), but I feel like if we tried to replicate the series exactly, we would never have done it justice because it’s already so amazing. That might cause more hate so I hope that people will respect that we are trying to bring new people into the Jem world because that’s what it did for us. We didn’t know what Jem was and we’re in it. We love the whole Jem subculture. Hopefully, it will do that for young kids today.
Q: You guys got to work with bona fide rocker chick/actress Juliette Lewis. What was that like?
Peeples: She has been my role model for such a long time. I was so embarrassed when I first met her because I was like (in a nerdy voice), “Oh my God. We’re going to be best friends!” But she’s so cool.
Q: Jem has trouble dealing with her fame. How is that for you?
Peeples: I don’t think I’m nearly as famous as Jem is. (She laughs.) So I don’t know. I haven’t had a lot of experience with that.
Q: In doing your research, how much of the comic books and show did you pull into this and how much was your own musical background?
Peeples: We studied the series constantly. We had to do our research. I think the movie is very much updated but musically, I feel like this movie is very accessible to pop radio, which is awesome. For me, I had to do my research on that; I wasn’t used to it. (Producer) Scooter Braun is incredible and he kind of led the way to that. The music is going to be super cool for fans.
Q: Was it hard to get into the character? And when a lot of this movie resting on your shoulders, both music and acting, which do you feel is the most challenging for you as an actress?
Peeples: I do think that Jerrica/Jem is very different from me. I do think she’s very much a character. I don’t feel like we have a lot of similarities except for the fact that I really have no idea how to use the Internet either. I guess it’s challenging when you’re playing someone so different from you, but for me, as an actor, that’s what I prefer because that’s what you can really sink your teeth into. The most important thing about this is that we wanted to pay homage to the series while updating it. That’s something that we had to be very careful about and respectful of.
Q: How much time did you actually spend with your guitar and do you feel like you’ve honed that craft?
Peeples: I’ve played guitar for a few years now so I didn’t necessarily have to learn it but we did have a very short time period to learn the songs. We were all learning how to be a band and learning the songs vocally and also musically as well.
Q: What is your own personal musical style?
Peeples: I’m like a blues/jazz/rock fan. I write mostly blues music so definitely this is very different from me but I loved getting to do it because I don’t normally sing pop. So it was a big learning experience as well.
Q: What does Jem mean to you?
Peeples: I think at least one of the main messages of the series and in our film is about self-empowerment and self-expression and trying to filter out all the noise of worrying about what people think of you and just being yourself. It sounds cheeseball but I think that’s a good message for anyone at any age or generation, just because you always need to be reminded of that.