She’s portrayed Aaliyah, and Ice Cube’s wife — and now Alexandra Shipp is taking the world literally by storm
You don’t really know Alexandra Shipp.
If you did, you’d know that while she was being dragged on Twitter in late 2014 for being too light-skinned to star in an already controversial biopic of ’90s pop princess Aaliyah Haughton, she was prepping a major boss move.
Y’all were over here hashtagging — she was over there fighting.
Fighting for a role of singer she greatly coveted. Fighting to prove her acting chops to all of her doubters. Fighting to get into superhero shape to kick butt in her next movie, X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest in the X-Men film franchise, which to date has earned more than $3.8 billion worldwide.
Be very clear: The words hurt. Shipp is not actually superhuman, after all. “In that moment, I was thinking … all of these people are trying to tell me how black I am,” she said. “And as someone who is mixed-race, no one can tell you how black you are … I’ve never been treated like a white girl.” But Shipp has weathered the storm. And then some. “That experience … made me more definitive about the decisions I’m making. ‘Hell , yeah, I did that movie! Hell, yeah, it was the most amazing experience. Hell, yeah, I got to play one of my idols.’ It made me more confident on my choices,” she said. “I’m not ever going to apologize for the things I’ve done.”
And why should she? She followed up the Aaliyah biopic by portraying Kim Jackson, wife of Ice Cube, in last year’s big hit Straight Outta Compton, which earned more than $200 million worldwide, a wildly impressive number for a film about gangster rap superstars from Los Angeles’ South Central neighborhood. And this week Shipp takes on her highest-profile role to date: playing a younger version of superhero Storm, the same character Oscar-winner Halle Berry originated on film in 2000.
For the role, Shipp shaved off her long dark locks to rock a Mohawk that on-screen eventually turns into the silver hair the African superhero is known for. Storm’s eyes turn solid white when her powers change the weather, and Shipp physically commands the screen — she effortlessly takes on the well-known role and melts into it, while giving her own authentically Shipp spin.
She was inspired by Berry. As a little brown girl growing up in Arizona, she had a silver-screen superhero with whom she wholly identified. Years later, Shipp was blown away when she had the chance to audition for a role playing the teen version of the character. “I’m such a Halle Berry psycho fan,” said Shipp, who turns 25 this summer. “I love how she’s able to take these powerful roles and make them graceful.” Shipp was blown away by Storm from the beginning. “She looks like me. She’s a female black superhero. I don’t have feel like I have to make myself look any different from who I am. I’m perfectly beautiful and powerful in my own way.”
And to get into fighting form for Storm, Shipp sought out the help of a fighter: mixed martial arts athlete Holly “Lil Bear” Lawson. She’s known for training Hollywood talent for fight scenes in big motion pictures — and for being a top 5 welterweight contender. “She’s a badass,” Shipp said, “and I am in no way, shape, or form hand-eye coordinated and/or physically fit. It’s never really been my thing. But Holly really helped me.”
Lawson, who also trained Oscar-nominated actor Rosamund Pike in 2014’s Gone Girl, introduced Shipp to circuit training and taught her how to consolidate strength conditioning into small batches, 15 or 20 minutes tops. While working on the film, they trained every day (now they’re down to three times a week for 30 minutes at a time), and Lawson got Shipp feeling confident about her body. “I’m superproud of myself,” said Shipp. “She put me through the ringer. I wanted to be as cut up as possible because in the comics, Storm is just so ripped. I don’t have that body type, but … I wanted to look like a superhero.”
In X-Men, Shipp, who moved to Los Angeles to pursue this career at 17, easily slides into an East African accent. In comic book folklore, Storm is the daughter of a tribal princess from Kenya who was reared in Harlem and Cairo. Shipp’s is a very authentic take on one of the most popular characters in the film franchise.
This moment is important to Shipp. True, she doesn’t have many speaking lines, but her presence is striking. It’s a major role and it’s also a chance to redirect and change the conversation. Not many actors — especially actors of color, and especially female actors of color — get a look like this.
The Aaliyah Lifetime biopic was critically problematic for a number of reasons: The producers couldn’t get song clearance, they didn’t have support from Aaliyah’s family and producers were trashed on social media for the casting of some of the singer’s closest collaborators, including Missy Elliott. Producer Timbaland dragged the film on Twitter, saying that he hoped no one was watching it.
Shipp landed the role after Disney star Zendaya Coleman backed out of playing Aaliyah; she too was slammed on Twitter for being too light-skinned to play the singer/actor. Coleman spoke with reporters at the BET Awards shortly after leaving the film, and told journalists she “felt like something with the production [wasn’t] all the way there, the project wasn’t all the way there. If I’m going to do something for someone I care about so much, I have to do it the right way.” Shipp, though, took it on, and with the winds being what they can be at social, she could have been finished before she got started. “I’m just trying to breathe and relax into it because I think that God has a plan for me,’ she said, “and I’m just riding whatever waves He throws at me.”
She rides those waves with a regime of daily meditation, courtesy of her mother, a two-time breast cancer survivor. “She is a single [white] mom of two brown babies, [and] as you can imagine, [that was] not easy in the ’90s. She is such a pillar of strength and every time I get a job offer, I always go to my mom … because she comes from the highest integrity,” Shipp said. And Shipp is comfortable charting her own path — that comes easy. She grew up speaking the ancient language Sanskrit, and she’s Southern Baptist; both inform the way she views the world and how she pushes past pain. “I … still hold true to those ideologies of … really grounding yourself and being thankful for where you’re at in your life,” she said thoughtfully.
And now that she’s hit that superhero status — a coup in Hollywood because these tentpole films bring in big numbers, a steady paycheck and worldwide recognition — you’d better believe the last thing she’s thinking about is what nasty something or other someone may throw at her on social media. “I know that everything’s going to be OK. As long as I come to every situation with the highest amount of integrity, no one can tell me anything different,” she said. “And as long as you stay true to your own guns, no one can tell you nothing.”