Nerding Out with Aubrey Peeples: On ‘Jem and the Holograms,’ Internet culture, and really good music

One of the highest compliments I can pay a movie is to say “It feels like the filmmakers  just followed me around my sophomore year of high school and wrote a movie based on everything I liked back then.” (Also, let’s just call a spade a spade, everything I liked as a teenager is basically everything I still like, plus maybe also Russian novels and prestige cable shows.)

It’s always a good sign when my inner 15-year-old freaks out about art. It means that the work in question isn’t just “well-crafted” or “respectable,” it means it’s striking a deep and true chord. Being a journalist who also works in film and television, I look at every piece I come across like a critic, but every once-in-an-awesome-while, I stumble across filmmaking that makes me feel like a fan. Such was the case with the big-screen contemporary live-action adaptation of 1980’s animated series Jem and the Holograms.

(A crash course on Jem for those unfamiliar with the property AKA me until my sister introduced me via YouTube clips. The 80s animated musical series follows Jerrica Benton, a record company employee who secretly moonlights as pop icon Jem. To keep the paps off her back, Jem disguises herself and her sisters/band as pop stars with the help of holographic computer Synergy.)

When the first Jem trailer hit the Internet in May, fans of the animated series were vocal about their concerns. There was nary a hologram to be found. Also where was Synergy? And what had the adaptation done with The Misfits, Jem’s comically villainous rival band? The Internet basically could not have grouched harder on this trailer.

Having seen the film, I can assure you that Jon M. Chu (mastermind behind the Step Up franchise and Never Say Never) is deeply faithful to his source material. Without being too spoiler-y, let me just mysteriously put it this way: Whatever you love about the original cartoon, don’t worry, it’s in the movie.

Moreover, this 80’s tale of fame and technology and secret identities very much lends itself to a contemporary retelling. In a world where Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube and Lady Gaga would be basically unrecognizable in street clothes, this story about a singer being plucked from Internet obscurity who must then struggle to keep her public and private lives separate with the help of some serious styling feels about as 2015 as a pop story can be.

I got to sit down with Jem herself, actress Aubrey Peeples (whom Nashville diehards will also recognize as Layla Grant), and talk about acting, Internet culture, the nature of fame, and, of course, what it was like to play the best fictional pop star in history.

HelloGiggles: One of the things I was most struck by in the movie is the incredible chemistry your character has with her sisters [Jem’s biological sister Kimber is played by Stefanie Scott, her foster sisters Aja and Shana are respectively played by Hayley Kiyoko and Aurora Perrineau], and I was hoping you could speak to the work you guys did with Jon and each other to achieve such a rock-solid sense of sisterhood?

Aubrey Peeples (AP): Well, you know it honestly didn’t take much work. Stef and I have known each other for eight years, we played sisters before, granted it was when I was 10 and she was 13, we’ve grown a lot as actors since then, but I’ve known her for so long it was really easy. We hadn’t been in touch for a while, but this brought us back together and I drove her to work every day, I mean, we’ve become so, so close. And, I mean, the same with the other girls. I hadn’t met the other girls until this project, but luckily we all just really clicked. We had two weeks of rehearsal as a band before we really shot. We went over scenes and we were also doing, not dance rehearsals, but movement on stage rehearsals. So that put us on a fast track to getting to know each other quickly. And we really just clicked. We hang out quite frequently, even months later, we still do.

HG: Okay, so, I know it’s cliche to ask about process, but I’m always super curious. What kind of work do you need to do so that you can really deliver when the camera is on?

AP: Well, my acting coach is Kimberly Jentzen, and her book Acting With Impact really explains a lot of the techniques I’ll use. We work on everything together. I definitely, I like to write down things and whatnot. But with character work, I mean, there’s so many different things I could get in to….but I’d have to explain basically her whole book.

HG: We’ll just link it.

AP: Oh my God, she would love that.

HG: Yeah!

AP: But just different things to get inside your own head, you can use personalization from your past or imagination if you’ve never gone through anything before like your character is dealing with, all kinds of things, all kinds of things. But you definitely gotta put in the work.

HG: So, there’s been such bananas anticipation with regards to this movie, I don’t even think I realized how many Jem fans there were until that first trailer was released, and all the fans came out of the woodwork on the Internet, and so, taking all that into consideration, now that you’ve inhabited this character, what do you think it is  that captures people’s imaginations about this girl and her world?

AP: Well, I think from the beginning, it’s all about self-empowerment, and, in the 80s, having four female rockstars portrayed like that, I think it was very ahead of its time. But even still, I think that’s something that really resonates with people. And, regardless of age, I know it mights sound cheesy, but self-empowerment, self-expression, being who your are, standing up for what’s right, those are all things that are integral to a lot of people, as they should be. So I think that’s what resonates. And, of course, the crazy hair and makeup [of Jem and the Holograms], that’s like such a freaking extreme version of “BE YOURSELF!”

HG: That’s the BEST version of “Be yourself!”

AP: Ha ha ha, I think so.

HG: So going off that and talking about taking a property from the past and adapting it for the present, one of the other things I was struck by is, you know, film and TV projects often have a suspicious take on youth culture and have a technophobic take on the Internet, but your film fully embraces these aspects of modern life. Could you talk about how you guys transformed this 80s cartoon into a live-action love letter to the 21st century?

AP: The Internet culture thing is so interesting because it’s so relevant, and I feel like that’s what truly makes this special is that it’s bringing all the messages of the original series but in a new way, because we have to, to make it relevant to today’s youth, because the Internet is often what drives who you are, in a weird way, it’s how you can define how you can express yourself. So we wanted to bring all those messages of “be who you are” to kids today, and how do you do that, well, you gotta speak to them through the Internet. And so there are pros and cons to that, and I think the movie really beautifully depicts the pros and cons and the good and the bad of dealing with [Internet culture.]

HG: Something you and your character have in common is you’re both very much in the public eye, and arguably there’s never been a more complicated time to be recognizable, so I was hoping you could talk about her experience and your experience, where do they overlap and where do you feel like you’ve had a different experience with being a public figure?

AP: Oh, I think I’ve had a way different experience because she’s way more famous than I am. I don’t think I’m well known enough to have any of the serious trouble that goes along with bad press and swarms of paparazzi and all the hate, yet. But so far I’ve been very lucky to have a pretty loving fan base, it’s a small fanbase, but people seem to really like where my character’s going on Nashville, and there’s been a lot of love for [Jem and the Holograms] so far, a lot of hate, too, because people aren’t sure what to expect from the film because it’s so different from the original. But I have loved my experience so far, I haven’t dealt with any of the negative side effects, but as so many iconic stars have shown us, it can get very, very upsetting. I mean, look at the Amy Winehouse documentary. Literally, every one of those paparazzi people should have their camera taken away from them. That kind of fame is a dangerous thing, and though I haven’t grappled with it, I think it’s important to relate to people that it’s not about fame, fame is not something to aspire to, it is not glamorous, I think it’s important to say that.

HG: Is there, like, a dream level of fame? Is there a version of it where you’re known just well enough to have access, but not so known that you suffer those consequences?

AP: I don’t know. I think it’s impossible now, you know what I mean? I do like this thing Bryan Cranston said, I’m paraphrasing, I don’t remember exactly how it goes, but he said he just wants to be able to support himself doing what he loves. And, to me, that’s the goal as well. But, to a certain degree, if you want to keep working, you have to get well-known. So I honestly think in today’s culture, it’s never going to happen that you’re super-famous and people aren’t trolling you all the time. I think it’s a very unfortunate thing, the media can really destroy people’s careers and it’s a very scary thing. So I don’t know if there’s a certain level of fame to aspire to, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing and support myself doing what I love.

HG: No, I think that is the artist’s answer, and the unfortunate thing is that commerce has to be a part of this to such an extreme degree.

Switching gears, one of the things the protagonists in your film value most is authenticity in music. Music that has something to say, that affects and connects people, and I would love to know what music you’re listening to right now (or all-time favorites) that’s had that impact on you?

AP: Well, the music that I listen to, I listen to old blues, soul, jazz, funk, that kind of thing. So, I don’t know if that’s necessarily speaking to today’s generation, because we’re so into the pop anthem right now, which is cool if it makes you feel empowered, but I don’t relate to it as well. You know, this film kind of got me more in touch with that, and you know someone who I think does a really good job of that is Tori Kelly, Scooter [Braun, manager of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande]’s client. I think she’s doing a really good job of being a female superstar, but, you know, her voice is very good, she’s not sugarcoated, you know. So I think she’s great as far as pop anthems. But mostly I listen to old-school blues, rock and roll.

HG: So, talking about the making of the film, do any high points that stick out, any learning curves you had to go through?

AP: Totally. I mean it was my first big feature being the lead, so it was very hard to adjust to the schedule, especially because we immediately started shooting nights. So we would literally go to work during traffic at 5 p.m. and go home during traffic at 9 a.m., sleep for 5 hours and then go back to work, and that was very strenuous because I didn’t have a break because I was in like every scene, but it was definitely something that I’ve wanted for so long and I wanted that challenge.

HG: Oh man, how did you operate on so little sleep?

AP: COFFEE. Coffee. I was like “Oh, this is why people drink Redbull and get addicted to drugs,” because you have to stay awake, so I just drank a lot of coffee.

So yeah, that was one thing I had to learn how to deal with, but it was awesome, at the same time, that’s what I want to be doing.

And definitely the whole role was a learning curve because she’s very different from me, I feel. I had a very interesting experience with her, I feel like because of that even a small scene was a challenge because she’s so different, she’s shy, she’s very guarded. I’m definitely introverted, but I’m also extroverted at the same time, I’m obviously pursuing this career in the public eye, so I feel like even the small scenes were a little bit of a challenge, and I really had such a journey with her, and I’m so fortunate I got to play this character. I’m really proud of how she turned out. I’m not sure what to expect, but I hope people think she’s relatable

HG: I read at some point you might transition and do some writing and directing. If you did get behind the camera, what kinds of stories would you like to tell?

AP: I would love to write something. I’ve tried. I wrote something a long time ago, a script that explored what it means to be a gay girl growing up, just based off things I’d seen my friends experience and what not, but it was a comedy. But I would like to say something about that in film one day. Or, I feel like if I directed, I feel like I would very much like to direct, but don’t think I would want to be in it if I was directing, I think that would be too hard, at least for me…But I would definitely like to write something that I star in. I don’t think I could write, direct, and star. I’m not Lena Dunham. I would like to aspire to be like her someday!

HG: One more writing question. I also read that at one point you thought about maybe going into journalism. As someone with a vested interest in journalism, what kinds of questions would you like to see the media asking actresses?

AP: Honestly, this is going to sound so ridiculous because you’re interviewing me, but I have loved all the questions you’ve asked!

KS: Oh, good!

AP: We’ve talked a lot about what I’m interested in and how I break down a character, and those are personal questions, you know? I hate being asked “Is it fun?” you know what I mean, and things like that, so I’d really like to see actresses be asked questions about the process and how they get into a role and also on the red carpet, it would be nice to see a lot more of that and a lot less of, “Who are you wearing?” — although I know that’s important. But that’s not something that’s ever important to me, I have to be forced to care about that. I’d much rather be asked about something that’s personal, than something surface-level.

(Image via Universal.)