Hairspray director, starlet are kindred (Jewish) spirits

Nikki Blonsky spends a good part of an interview in a San Francisco hotel suite cuddled up to Adam Shankman and playing with his hair, but there’s no need to alert the tabloids. The relationship between the teenage star and the gay director and choreographer of “Hairspray” is close, but assuredly not romantic.

“We are alike in a lot of ways, which is scary how much like an 18-year-old girl I am,” Shankman says, and they both burst into laughter. They don’t borrow each other’s clothes, though — Blonsky sports a flowered blouse and black slacks while Shankman hangs out in a purple button-down shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers.

Blonsky, who makes her movie debut in “Hairspray,” grabs the opportunity to compliment Shankman for mentoring and protecting her. They’re being goofy friends now, but a different dynamic prevailed during production.

“It may sound crazy, [but] he had a lot of Jewish mom in him,” said Blonsky, a Long Island native whose father is Jewish. “Like Jewish-parent instincts, where he really wanted to make this experience the best it could be for me.”

Blonsky plays the exuberant and zaftig Tracy Turnblad, whose dream of dancing on a Dick Clark-style show despite a less-than-ideal TV physique has far-reaching consequences in early 1960s Baltimore.

“Hairspray” is a high-energy, lovingly designed musical that — the charming Blonsky and a cameo by Jerry Stiller notwithstanding — is about as Jewish as crab cakes. Yet Blonsky follows in the footsteps of Jewish actresses Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur, who played Tracy in the original 1988 film (written and directed by John Waters) and the 2002 Broadway musical, respectively.

The casting of John Travolta in the role of Tracy’s mother, Edna, which Harvey Fierstein played onstage, costs the movie some Jewish flavor. But Shankman believes it’s there in the interplay between Tracy, Edna and Wilbur Turnblad (played by Christopher Walken).

“When I portray the way that everybody in the Turnblad house talks to each other, it’s very reflective of traditional Jewish families. ‘This is how it’s going to be, and it’s my way or the highway,’ except not really. Because in Jewish households, what I have noticed is the No. 1 thing, no matter hell or high water, it always boils down to how much everybody loves each other.”

Happy to expound on his favorite theme, Shankman leans forward on the couch.

“In ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ that’s what he does — he breaks all these rules ’cause he realizes he loves his daughter. Another thing that’s strangely like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is that ‘Hairspray’ is a story about how times are changing, and having to change with the times.”

Shankman, 42, had a traditional Jewish upbringing in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles when “there were a lot of beach clubs that wouldn’t let Jewish members attend.” Conversely, Blonsky wasn’t raised Jewish in Great Neck, Long Island, of all places.

She sang at plenty of bar and bat mitzvahs, though, as weekend gigs. And before she landed her breakthrough part in “Hairspray,” her plan was to work her way through college singing with an orchestra at Jewish parties and weddings. Now, she says with a laugh, “I’m going to the University of William Morris.”

“If there comes a time that she wants to go back to college, she’ll just go. Nikki will do what she wants to do,” says Shankman, sounding a bit like a Jewish mother. “This one I’m not worried about.”

Shankman attended Juilliard, and worked as an actor and dancer in New York before returning to L.A. He segued to choreographing music videos, and made the leap to directing features in 2001 with “The Wedding Planner.” He ‘s been at the helm of a string of PG movies since then, and soon begins shooting the family comedy “Bedtime Stories” with Adam Sandler.

“I’ve always felt a bit — I think I’m about to make up a word — minoritized by my Judaism, because I grew up around so many non-Jewish kids,” Shankman muses. “But at the center of all of my work is family, and that is totally informed by my Jewish background. What I find myself being drawn to over and over again is family, and I’m drawn to it because the well just has no bottom.”

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.