When audiences began loving 1980's hit musical film Fame, how many people had any idea that it would prove to be such a cultural touchstone? The film spawned a television series and spin-off, a stage musical, a reality competition series, and now comes full circle with a new cast in a new film by the same name. That new group of students at the Academy of Performing Arts is led by Kherington Payne (from TV's So You Think You Can Dance) and Asher Book (who attended the real-life 'Fame' school in New York), and they recently sat down with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier to talk song, dance, and an on-screen education in the arts.
Emmanuel Itier: How was the director [Kevin Tancharoen]? Was he frightening?
Kherington Payne: Oh, no. [Laughs]
Asher Book: No, no, not at all. I found out, before the film even started, we had mutual friends. How random I knew some of his…
KP: Me too. Wow.
AB: He’s so young.
EI: How old are you?
AB: I’ll be 21 in three days.
EI: Oh, time to party.
AB: I know. Gotta take a trip to Vegas.
KP: I’m 19. The boring age.
EI: Seriously, do you plan to do something?
AB: Oh yeah. Actually, I fly back the night of my birthday. I won’t be doing anything crazy that night. I might go out with some friends and stuff, but I’m gonna take a Vegas trip and then do a party in October for all my friends in L.A. so that will be fun.
EI: How many are there in LA?
AB: I’m gonna bring a couple hundred for sure. It’s gonna be big.
EI: What are your audition processes like for this…
AB: The most crazy process I’ve ever gone through for an audition. That year, I was kind of putting off acting. That was the only audition I really took on that year. I got back to L.A., I auditioned for it and just felt it was right because I connected so much with my character and I got to sing, so I was like, “Hell yeah I’m gonna go on this audition.” So the next day, I got a call back, and I’m thinking things are moving along, and the next thing you know, I’m waiting six months. And in that whole six-month process, I’m taking meetings with the director, I’m taking screen tests, meeting with everybody… It was crazy. And then, like four or five months in, they said they’d given the part to somebody else, and I was just heartbroken ’cause I’d worked so hard and gone in to so many meetings, and I’m like, “What did I do wrong?” They kept telling me I was the number one pick, and I’m like, “What?” So the next thing you know, I get a second call saying, “We’d like for you to come back in for the second screen test.” So I did. I was like, “Man, if they don’t tell me on the spot if I got it or not, I’m gonna just kill myself.” So they did. They told me, and they said I got it, and they said, “Would you like to play the part of Marco?” It was just the most crazy day. So a lot of hard work.
KP: Mine wasn’t that intense. He has a good story. But the filmmaker saw me on the show So You Think You Can Dance? and was like, “Hey, she can dance. Let’s see if she can act,” so I came in. I’ve never acted before. I got the script the night before and then I auditioned at 10:00 in the morning. I didn’t really look over it. I kind of did, but I kind of didn’t ’cause I was kind of confused. I’ve never done this before. So I drove to L.A. and was sitting in the waiting room, and there were a bunch of people auditioning for the same part as me and they knew exactly what they were doing — they’ve done this before — and it was so intimidating. I was just sitting there sweating, my heart was pounding, and I was like, “Okay, I’m not doing this.” I called my mom and I was like, “Okay, Mom, I’m leaving. I will be home in a little bit. I’m too scared. I’ve never done this before.” She’s like, “Why are you leaving? It’s experience. You never auditioned before. Just go in there and have fun. Who cares?” I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” So I went in there and they were like, “Okay, we’ll let you know,” blah, blah, blah. I got a call back, so I was really excited. So I made sure I worked with the acting coach so I got it down, and a week later, I found out I got it. It was kind of crazy.
EI: A week later?
AB: Yeah, right. Why can’t I get some of that? At least even it out a little bit. No, wait…were you the last person cast?
KP: I was the last person cast.
AB: Huh. I thought I was. Maybe you’re right… I think you were right after me. ‘Cause I think I was, and then they had to find you…
KP: They’ve auditioned, like, a whole year.
AB: But the whole process of them even finding these kids was, like, months on end. They were like traveling the country…
KP: Like you were saying, it was crazy. We were very lucky and very thankful.
AB: Very blessed to be here.
EI: Could you tell us a little bit about the characters you play?
AB: I play Marco. He’s the aspiring singer. He grows up Italian, very good family, in the restaurant, and he sings in the restaurant. He eventually finds his way through his independence and his easygoing attitude. He goes to the Fame School… I actually went to the original Fame School, in my personal life.
KP: Isn’t that cool?
AB: So he finds himself going to the school, and the whole movie is pretty much my love interest in the movie, which is Kay Panabaker. So I’m constantly pursuing her, and you’ll see the ups and downs of our relationships and all kinds of stuff that comes with it.
KP: I play Alice. She’s an aspiring dancer. She’s the girl who you would think has everything. She’s rich, she’s beautiful, she’s the most talented girl in her class. She’s so focused on it. She was going to this school to be a dancer, and you just go with her journey of working her butt off.
EI: And you started dancing when?
KP: When I was two. It was kind of crazy. My mom just put me in class. I think every Mom just puts their little girls in class, like, “Oh, she’s gonna be a cute…”
AB: That’s crazy.
KP: Weird, right? I have videos. It’s pretty funny…
AB: What do you even look like at two? [Laughs]
KP: It was a class of two- to four-year-olds, and within the hour, you fit in tap, ballet, and gymnastics. Sometimes, kids go running to their Mom like, “Mom, I don’t want to do this,” so it was kind of crazy.
AB: Were you that kid that did that?
KP: Kind of. Well…I don’t know. I was like, “Mom, my shoe is not fitting.”
EI: Could you even walk when you were two?
KP: I was walking. Girls are more mature than boys, actually.
AB: Early on, and then it changes.
KP: But I just never stopped going, and I never asked to stop going, so she kept putting me in class and I loved it, and now here I am.
EI: Then you went to performing arts school or…?
KP: I didn’t. I went to a public school. I was on the dance team at school. Didn’t get to go to graduation, which was really sad, ’cause I got on the show So You Think You Can Dance? and from there, it’s been a crazy year and a half.
EI: You really had a Fame experience.
KP: Yes, I did. Work hard. You have a dream, you don’t expect it, but it came up, and it’s amazing.
EI: And you started in music, right?
AB: I started on Broadway. That was my first thing ever.
EI: How old?
AB: Seven years old, I was thrown into the national Broadway tour Beauty and the Beast. I did that for three years, and I continued doing Broadway after that. Then I found myself living in New York for about four or five years, and that’s where I went to the Fame School. Then I started getting into TV and film and tried everything: modeling, commercials, voice overs, you name it. And then it just…I don’t know. One thing just kept leading to the next, and I found myself living in L.A. and pursuing the same stuff.
EI: Did your family just follow you?
AB: Honestly, the only reason I’m even here is because my mom enabled me. My parents were divorced when I was young, and my siblings were going off to college. I’m the baby of the family, so it just seemed like it worked. My mom pretty much gave up everything to help me follow my dreams, and she’s pretty much enabled me to do everything I’ve done today.
EI: When did you know you wanted to become a singer?
AB: With the Beauty and the Beast thing, I was kind of thrown into it. It was a crazy story how my next door neighbor… My sister was doing ballet at the big Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and I was taking piano lessons at the time. I wasn’t singing or any of that. I didn’t know what any auditions were or any of that. So my next door neighbor said, “There’s this open call for Chip in Beauty and the Beast — you should totally go for it.” I was like, “Okay, I don’t know what an audition is, but I’ll go.” So I showed up just totally out of my league. All these kids warming up in the hallways; I think, like, 70 or 80 kids were there, and I went just for fun ’cause my mom was like, “All right, we’ll take you.” And I got the job that day. Then my whole life has changed ever since.
EI: When did you guys first see the original Fame movie?
KP: I think I was, like, 12ish, around there.
AB: Growing up with a theatre background, for me, I guess I was always familiar with it…even going to the school, I knew of Fame. I knew the theme song. I just never really was like a die-hard fan. I knew everything about it, of course. It was just like a movie classic to me. Us getting close to the parts, I think we just had to do our homework and go back and watch it again.
EI: Is the actual school too different from what it shows in the movie?
AB: No, it’s actually really similar. Just to give the similarities, for instance, I’d have my normal academics during the day, and then on top of it, I would maybe have a music class or I’d have a drama class or improv class, or a dance class. And then, outside the halls, there would be someone singing or doing a choreographed bit or doing a monologue, and all that’s pretty relatable in the movie. So you’ll see that, and also it’s pretty accurate with the audition process. They have hundreds of kids come in and audition for the school, but they only accept a few. So you have to come in with a strong audition piece, and if you have credits, that really helps. Me coming from Broadway helped me a lot to get into the school too. But it just depends. Just getting into the school is a process.
EI: Did you learn anything academically as well?
AB: Yeah, I thought it was good. I didn’t feel like I was losing anything. They’re all highly trained. The school is well-respected. It’s not just like the Fame School — they have really well teachers that know what they’re doing.
EI: Do you have any stories of strict teachers?
AB: I remember there was this science teacher, but she was Russian. She had a very thick accent. She’s like, “Shut up!” [Laughs] I totally remember her. I don’t remember her name, though. I think she was missing a tooth too, and we always made fun of it. I was like, “What’s going on in your mouth there?” But she was a good teacher — she just was super strict, and I don’t think she was my favorite. I didn’t really like her too much.
EI: What are you going to go on to do after this? Are you going to pursue the dancing thing or the acting thing or…?
KP: Both — acting and dancing.
AB: Doing both.
KP: I was born to be a dancer. I’ve wanted to dance all my life and be a professional dancer, and then this came out of it, and now I’m looking at it a different way, and now I know I found a new passion, but dance will never go away. It’ll always be a part of me, so I definitely just want to pursue both and see how it goes. Hopefully it doesn’t get too crazy.
EI: How much do you train every day?
KP: With the movie and everything, I haven’t trained, like, my normal… At my studio, I was probably training, like, 20 to 30 hours a week.
EI: That’s not a lot of time.
AB: That’s crazy.
KP: It was like, from school to dance class to bed. It was that every day.
AB: When I’m on a strict regiment vocally, I warm up every day. Sometimes, when I’m busy, it just gets too crazy, but I would try to do one to two voice lessons a week, just to keep it up. Even the best singers out there still take vocal lessons and all that, just to keep all that tone. But even that, I’m always singing on my own, so it’s not like I’m not singing.
EI: Do you compose? Do you write songs?
AB: It’s funny. I’m getting more into it. I’ve never been that writer type — never been on that side of things, but I’d love to get into it more. I’m starting a little bit on my own, having a little help from professional people that know what they’re doing, but it’s a new thing for me.
EI: Do you guys feel like you’ve sacrificed any of your teenage years doing this? Performing?
AB: The opportunities that you get as a kid, and especially it being so fun and doing the traveling that I got to do, and always being around kids at a young age, I never felt like I was neglected. I got to go to a totally normal high school — it wasn’t a performing arts high school. I got to do sports and all that. So I feel like, growing up, I only got to do things that maybe other kids didn’t get to do. I just felt like, man, I had an awesome life growing up. I don’t regret anything. I loved every minute.
EI: Are you teaching kids dancing, Kerry?
KP: I actually am. I’m actually now the assistant coach of my old high school dance team, so it’s so fun to go back and now be a coach of these little girls that I was on the dance team of…and I’m choreographing for them — it’s fun. Then I’m teaching a lot around the States. People ask me to come teach gymnastics classes, so it’s fun.
EI: So is Debbie Reynolds’s career something you model yourself after?
KP: She’s great. She’s a great role model.
EI: What do you guys think of fame? Is it something you aspire to?
AB: I don’t think we ever really aspire for fame. I think we’ve both been in this business for a long time now, and if we were going for that at an early age, it just didn’t mean anything to us. We were only doing what we were doing because I feel like we were born to do that. I was born to be a singer and to follow the acting thing. I just feel like where we are is more meaningful, in life, to go after something that really makes you happy.
KP: We love to perform, and this is almost a job for us, and we’re so lucky that we actually love what we do and we get to do this as our career. We’re just artists who are doing what we love to do: entertain people, hopefully inspire people… Fame comes along with it, which is…cool.
EI: How are you being with paparazzi and the whole…other side of things?
KP: It’s crazy, knowing that your life is a little bit different and you’re looked at under a magnifying glass, and you’re in the public eye and everything.
EI: Has it already changed or…?
AB: A little.
KP: A little bit — nothing crazy.
EI: Are they camping out already at your house?
KP: No, not camping at our houses.
AB: No, no, no, not yet. We’d come out of our hotel and there’d be people waiting, trying to get autographs. It was definitely a trippy experience…
KP: It was cool.
AB: It was more cool and flattering than anything, because obviously we haven’t really experienced… Of course, we’ve had fans, over the years, of different projects that we’ve been doing, but, to the magnitude of what we know fame is going to do, it’s almost a taste of, like, “Okay, guys, it’s already started — wow.” This is the start of definitely something different.
KP: It’s very flattering.
AB: You just have to be careful in this business. You can’t let it get to your head. You have to really stay grounded and be ready for it. I feel like it’s helped because we have been in this business for a long time, and I feel like you have to have a good foundation. I have a great family that’s really been with me the whole time and that really supports me. I think if you’re just thrown into fame overnight, it’s a little harder of a challenge, but if you really mentally prepared yourself, I’ve definitely been in this long enough… I’m not to that point where, okay, I can handle this now, but it takes time. You just have to be ready mentally. That’s the great part. [Laughs] I’m not saying I’m going to be perfect, but you strive to do something…
KP: You strive to do the best you can.
EI: Asher, do you have a role model?
AB: So many role models. Oh man. Career-wise, I look up to a Hugh Jackman type because he can do movies, yet he can also go back to being well-respected on Broadway and that kind of thing. That’s cool for me because I would love to be able to do both, eventually. I’d love to come back to Broadway later in my life. But my mom is my role model. I look up to her. Besides that, I don’t know. There are a lot of people, I guess you could say.
EI: How did you like working with a young director like Kevin?
KP: It was amazing. He’s been in this business — dancing, and he knows music… It’s amazing that he put his own twist on this and he knew exactly what to do with this movie, and having it be his first movie and a lot of our first big movies, it was a really cool experience to work with him. It was really comfortable. We had a comfortable relationship with him. It was fun.
AB: Also, I think any time you’ve been in this business, I’m not saying that you still can’t be a great director, but I think you might not always have the hunger that he might have had for this project, ’cause this is his baby — this is going to make his career. So he wants to make this project the best he can make it. And just to see what he’s gone through and his vision for this movie has only inspired us, because we see how passionate he is to make this a wonderful and awesome film for everybody. He’s approachable, he’s young. I think he’s going to become the next hottest young director out there. I feel like he’s going to be doing big things. But that’s just my opinion…
KP: We’re very lucky to work with him.
AB: We were very lucky to have him as our first mid-big director to work with.
EI: What was the biggest difficulty for you doing the project?
KP: I’ve never acted before, so that was definitely a big challenge for me, but a good challenge. I loved it and worked my butt off.
AB: Having to learn piano for this film was a challenge. It was a process. There were hundreds and hundreds of songs submitted for this big piece that I sing in the movie. It’s called “Tribes,” an original song that I sing to this girl, and it the biggest issue was trying to find the song and what it was going to be. When we did find it, it was two weeks prior to shooting that scene, and I couldn’t have played piano before because they wanted me to only play that song, and this is on top of me shooting every day, all day. So I had to find time to really practice this piano piece, make it look natural, make it look like I’ve been playing my whole life. So that was a challenge because I was like, man, they’re throwing me into this in like two weeks and I gotta be on it. I don’t want it to look in the scene like…what am I playing? I want it to be like I’m with her and worrying about that, so that was a challenge for me.
EI: So no problem with the dance?
KP: Oh, dancing was definitely a challenge, but more so acting. I’ve never worked with Marguerite Derricks before, and I’ve known of her for so long, just being a dancer. She’s an amazing choreographer, so to work with her one-on-one and learn her style and have her be that mentor was amazing. I only had two weeks of rehearsal for dances, so it was a challenge learning, like, five or six dances…bruises, cuts, it was just very intense, and it was emotional, stressful, just crazy.
EI: Do you have any favorite dance movies?
KP: Wow, a lot. All the oldies — Flashdance, Footloose…and Grease for sure. Chicago is not that old, but I love Chicago. There are so many.
EI: Do you have new projects coming up?
AB: I’m releasing my second single with the band that I’m currently with. Besides that just focusing more on getting just the right next film, because I’ve had different offers and certain things that have come up, but it just doesn’t feel like the right thing. We’ll see, in the next few months, what I’ll be doing, but hopefully getting into another film.
KP: Just acting and dancing. I haven’t really gotten to focus on anything ’cause I’ve been so into this movie, and I just really want to take one step at a time. So after this is done, put it to the side and just focus.
MGM's new version of 'Fame' is in theaters now