'Rocky Horror' time-warps to a new generation

The freshly vamped Dr. Frank-N-Furter will see you now.

The castle door to Fox's The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again swings open Oct. 20 (8 ET/PT), revealing a two-hour homage to the 1975 cult classic celebrating sexual fluidity, fishnets and flying popcorn.

A fresh face leads the effort. Laverne Cox is taking over for Tim Curry in the indelible role of the mad scientist, though she's  channeling "60% Grace Jones, 30% Tina Turner and 10% Beyoncé,” she says, recalling pointers given from director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (High School Musical).

Wish granted.

As Frank-N-Furter, a flame-haired Cox seduces and sings in Rocky-red lipstick and winged eyeliner, with a freshly devoted Riff Raff (Reeve Carney), Columbia (Annaleigh Ashford) and Magenta (Christina Milian) at her beck and call.

The actress, who rose to fame on Orange Is the New Black, says she first saw Rocky Horror in college.

“I immediately just connected with the campiness of it all, and the music," Cox says. "I went out and got the soundtrack immediately and learned all the songs. There was something so sexy and coquettish about Dr. Frank-N-Furter that I really connected with."

It's no surprise that everyone involved in the Fox update had a first-time story.

"I was about 19 or 20 and I went to a screening," says Adam Lambert, who takes over for Meat Loaf in the role of doomed gearhead (and Frank-N-Furter foe) Eddie. "I dressed up like a freak and had a great time," he laughs.

But those behind the project, scheduled just in time for Halloween, knew obstacles awaited in re-creating the Time Warp 41 years after the film's release. For decades, midnight performances of Rocky Horror have been a pop-culture mainstay, with fans queuing up in boas, garters and heels. To date, the film has raked in $112 million at the box office.

And before the Twitterverse implodes, fans should know it's not a straight remake, OK? "It is a tribute to Rocky Horror,” says Ben Vereen, who takes on the role of Dr. Everett von Scott. "It’s today’s interpretation of all those who had been before us doing the Rocky Horror music show.”

The film blends the play's audience participation with plot: In various scenes, cameras pull out to show movie-theater  fans throwing popcorn and taking "It's a jump to the left/And then a step to the right/With your hand on your hips/You bring your knees in tight/But it's the pelvic thrust/They really drive you insane/Let's do the Time Warp again!"

“We need to introduce it to this generation, because I feel a lot of people my age and younger have never even heard of it.” says Victoria Justice, who at 23 steps away from her years on Nickelodeon's more kid-friendly Victorious with the role of the virginal Janet (memorably played by Susan Sarandon) and spends much of the movie clad in a scant white bra and slip, as Sarandon did.

"This is the first time that mainstream America and people who remember me mainly from Victorious are going to realize, ‘Oh, OK, she’s not a 17-year-old high-schooler anymore,'" Justice says. "She’s an adult and is growing up, and is going to be taking on roles that reflect that. Not that I’m saying that every role I need to do in my bra and underwear!”

Rocky Horror has long been viewed as a haven for individuality, and the remake embraces the campy, subversive themes that made the original (a box office dud in 1975) a lasting sensation.

“The thing that’s so brilliant about it is, you sit and watch it and you realize it was pretty shocking for its time,” says Lambert, an American Idol finalist who initially connected to "the glam of it all. I loved the message, sort of like, 'This is me, and I can be anything.'"

Justice calls Rocky Horror a movie “that's for anyone who has ever felt like an outcast or that they were weird or different or didn’t even fit into a specific gender category. ... Who cares if you’re a guy and you want to dress up like a girl sometimes? Who cares if you want to make out with a girl? Do whatever you want to do! Just be true and authentic to who you are. This movie, that’s what it’s all about.”

Fans will be relieved to find the remake's plot — and most of the dialogue — untouched from the original. Unlike other recent musicals, performed live, the film was shot earlier this year in Toronto, and the cast bonded by doing trust falls with each other at the start of rehearsal.

And Curry, 70, gave his stamp of approval to the project by signing on.

The actor, who suffered a stroke in 2012, has been confined to a wheelchair and is still best known for his vampy Frank-N-Furter, appears in the update as the Narrator/Criminologist, though it may not have been his first choice.  “I actually offered myself as Dr. Scott, because I was already in a wheelchair,” he said in August. “They thought the narrator was a better fit, and I enjoyed it a lot.”

Vereen remembers Curry being “happy to be there. When he was on the set, and he was doing the Narrator, there were tears" from the cast.  He was brilliant. When you know what he’s been through, and where he’s at right now in his life, and you see that performance, you’ve got to just stand up and give homage and say bravo, a standing ovation."

But even with Curry at her side, Cox knew it was no small feat to take the reigns of the iconic character. Today the trans actress is pragmatic about the dated terminology involved in Frank-N-Furter, who identifies as a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.”

Cox toyed with changing the character's identity to transsexual, as the term 'transvestite' is “something that’s sort of a pejorative now,” she says.   "But you don’t change the words to an iconic song."

Discussion of the terms matters, and Lambert is comforted by how far we've come. "If you look at the past five years, our country’s been through a really great education on what trans is," he says. "People’s eyes are opened and people have been educated, and it’s wonderful."

Still, Cox is aware that some have taken issue with her casting.

“A lot of people have issues with a trans woman playing a character who identifies as a transvestite, but I doubt that any of the white cisgender men who played Dr. Frank-N-Furter over the past 40 years, all of them probably do not identify as a transvestite either," she says. "But they’re actors who are playing a part. And hopefully people will be able to distinguish between Laverne Cox and the characters I play."

Lambert calls reworking the gender of Rocky Horror's central character "a really interesting twist. The movie is such a cult classic that you run this tightrope between paying respect to the original and also coming up with something new. And casting Laverne was a brilliant choice in creating a new context for the character, and one that feels socially responsible."

It's a project that completes a career full circle for Cox, who will soon make history as the first trans woman to become as a series regular on network television in CBS' upcoming legal drama Doubt, with Katherine Heigl.

Watching Rocky Horror for the first time "gave me permission to not just dream it, but to be it," she says. On set, "I couldn’t believe it every single day I got to get up and go and record the soundtrack and rehearse and shoot this movie. But I got to do it, and everyone should be able to live their dreams."

 


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment