Every time a new young actor appears on the scene, there's a chance she could be the next big thing. Who knows, maybe Step Up will do Big Fat Greek Wedding business. Either way, chances are a pretty girl who can move her body will always find work in Hollywood.
Jenna Dewan makes her starring debut in Step Up. You may have seen her in Take the Lead, Tamara, or some of Janet Jackson's music videos. Now she plays Nora, an art school student preparing for her big showcase. In real life, she made her own opportunities.
"I'm from Texas and actually went to a regular high school but every day after school, I'd run to dance class and practice a lot and then go back the next day and stuff like that," she said. "I felt like I was in a performing arts high school but I wasn't. Actually, doing this movie opened my eyes to performing arts schools and it's pretty amazing I think. It's a great thing if you're a creative person and have some kind of acting or dance or singing, any art. I think it's great to be around people who support that and who are into it like you are and you can have one big family and teachers who know what they're doing."
Nora is a ballet dancer who learns to incorporate hip hop moves when she takes on a street dancer as her substitute partner. The music videos ensured that hip hop was part of Dewan's language too.
"I had danced with Janet Jackson and P. Diddy so I had done a bunch of hip hop. Really and truly my roots are in modern and ballet but, professionally, that's not really out there any more unfortunately so these artists aren't really having a lot of ballet dancers behind them so I had to learn hip hop really quick."
Even with elaborate dance numbers, filming the movie was a considerable relief from the rigor of music videos. "Music videos are notoriously long, not fun, grueling. You are known there as a dancer and it's kind of sad because dancers, in a lot of ways, are under-appreciated and kind of under-respected when it come to that so they don't necessarily treat you in a nice way when you do a music video. Me, I was fortunate enough to work with Janet who treats her dancers amazing so I didn't have that bad experience but, on a movie, it's just so much more in depth and you're there for three months versus two days. You're in front of a camera but it's more about the character and the scene and not so much about nailing a dance step. Even in our dance performances I would want to do the steps right but it was more about making the partnership and the connection and the story of Tyler and Nora together which is different than a video as well. But, it helps. Coming from a dance background definitely helped me move into acting because you are more comfortable in front of the camera, you understand movement. A lot of actors that are dancers, I think you can tell. They have a certain way that they hold themselves. There are a lot of things that helped but it is very different."
Trying to create her character proved more intensive than nailing the dance moves. "Acting-wise, the most difficult scene for me was the scene on the rooftop which, ironically, is my favorite scene in the movie. But the script changed so many times and there was a theme we were trying to say in that scene. It was basically how I had this vision and this passion for this thing, my dance and it was that and falling in love and not sure if I should tell him. There were so many layers and it changed all the time. The dialogue changed and it was just hard to make sure all of that came across in one scene. There was a lot of 'try it like this' and I'd have to go try it right on the spot and it was nerve-wracking but, ironically, it's my favorite scene so, hopefully, it worked."
Ever the trooper, Dewan soldiered on in the face of physical pain. "I had a hurt rib. I hurt my rib in a catch. I think Channing [Tatum]'s elbow went into my rib or something. He didn't mean to but I bruised it so bad so I couldn't lift my arms and breathe for like two weeks but that was pretty much the only injury we had and it was minor so we were lucky with all the dancing we did."
Being a dance fanatic growing up, Dewan exposed herself to the fine selection of 80s dance cinema. "Dirty Dancing, favorite dance movie ever. I loved Cry Baby. I watched that movie probably fifty times. Footloose was really good, Flashdance too but I was put off by the fact that she wasn't doing her dancing. When I found out, I was a little bugged but I still love that song and the dance. Those were pretty much my favorites growing up."
Step Up has many of the same beats as all of the classics - starcrossed lovers, social class, the big performance - but maybe it's time for a new generation to learn that formula. "I think that dance in universal. People love dance. Who doesn't like to go watch it, whether you can do it or you just want to see someone do it really well, or not well. It's fun for everyone to watch. You see all these TV shows. It's a way of expressing yourself creatively. It's different and it brings people a different type of feeling rather than just seeing someone sing or somebody act which are all great on their own but I think dance is something everybody relates to. You leave with that uplifting, invigorating feeling when you see a really good dance performance."
With acting doors now open to her, perhaps Dewan can be the next J-Lo crossover star. "It's funny, a lot of people ask me that. I think it's great what she's done because I really believe now, in Hollywood, the lines are blurring as far as being only an actor, being only a dancer, being only a singer. People are more willing to see someone on all different aspects and respect them for it because they are entertainers. Back in the day, it was great to be a triple threat and that kind of went away and now, it's kind of coming back. I don't sing. I'm not necessarily a singer but I would love to do a musical so I would get singing lessons in a heartbeat and, if my path took me that way, I'd go there. I'm not giving up dance by any means to start acting but acting is this new passion for me so I?m continuing with that and I'm sure dance will help me again in the future."
Her own role models were timeless icons Madonna and Paula Abdul. "Paula Abdul, I loved. I wanted to be her and Madonna combined but, as far as a dancer role model, I really didn't have one because I respected and looked up to people who were older than me at the dance studios I was at. There wasn't a famous dancer that I loved and wanted to be like. It was more singers and actresses. I loved Jennifer Gray from Dirty Dancing. She was my favorite actress then."
See Jenna Dewan in Step Up now playing.