Young Mutant Power: X-Men: Apocalypse‘s Alexandra Shipp & Lana Condor

It's not easy to stand out in the X-Men universe. The movies are jam-packed with super-powered mutant characters, some of whom are so beloved that many fans show up just for them. We're talking Magneto, Professor X, Wolverine, Mystique. But in X-Men Apocalypse, in theaters May 27, two young actresses on the rise manage to shine despite the crowded cast of A-listers: Alexandra Shipp and Lana Condor. We interviewed both of them on separate occasions in Los Angeles about their first trip into the land of Marvel blockbusters.

Alexandra Shipp
was convinced she had no chance. Last year, when the actress auditioned for director Bryan Singer's X-Men: Apocalypse, she thought she'd go home empty-handed. “It was stressful and scary and rough, but I was living on Top Ramen at the time so I made myself go so I could at least steal all the muffins,” she explains over iced coffee and a muffin at an L.A. café. “Desperate times.” But the 25-year-old from Phoenix — who previously starred in Aaliyah: Princess of R&B as the late singer and appeared in last year's Straight Outta Compton — did far more than carb-load that day. She snagged the part of Ororo Munroe, a petty thief from Cairo whose ability to manipulate the weather attracts the attention of the big baddie Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who brings her into his evil fold as a white-mohawked havoc-wreaker named Storm.
“I found out I got the job via Tweet. My manager and agent called me at the same time — which is either really good, really bad, or someone died — and told me to go to Bryan’s Twitter page. There it was, him welcoming the new mutants. I just stared at that for, like, 10 minutes, making sure it was me.”
Shipp still can't quite get over that she gets to play the younger version of a character originated by Halle Berry in the first four X-Men films. “It's so flattering to be the O.G. Halle," Shipp says. "Someone is saying I look enough like that gorgeous woman to play a younger version? Oh my God. I love Halle. I want to know how she smells. But also, when I first moved out to L.A. at 17, my mom said, ‘Pick an actress who has the type of career that you want. Don't do exactly what they did, but use them as a roadmap.' For me, it was Halle, the first woman of color to win a lead female Oscar. That's why I put her on my vision board at this amazing charity event, when asked to put what woman inspires me. I wrote Halle's name and then I got this role. Talk about manifestation. Someone had to be listening.” Not that Shipp's mutant is exactly the same Berry's; this Storm doesn’t even play for the good guys. “She's rougher. She’s a street rat. Storm is completely out of control. When we're young, we do out-of-control things. We lead from a completely different standpoint than we would 20 years later.”
Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation.
Shipp as Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse.
Shipp says she owes everything to her Kundalini yoga teacher single mom and her grandmother, who died 10 years ago. “A week before she passed, she wrote a check to send me to a music camp in LA. That's where I met my first manager, who got me my first auditions. I wouldn't be here without these strong, powerful women in my life.”
Yes, Shipp really did shave her head to sport Storm's signature hairstyle (the platinum mohawk was a wig). “They wanted a punk feel, and I've always wanted to shave my head," she says. "I had a head-shaving party before I left for Montréal [where the film was shot]. I felt so much more powerful. People were scared of me, especially when I wore combat boots. This made me a total badass. I’d walk around with Sophie [Turner, who plays Jean Grey] and no one would bother her. I am growing it out now. It's definitely a look. It makes sweats high fashion, which is awesome for me because I like looking homeless 24/7. Lady Gaga won't let anyone see her without heels and full face. That’s so much work."
Shipp will next appear in her first comedy, Dude, with Lucy Hale and Alex Wolff (due later this year). But she'd really like to give singing a go. She’s been playing guitar and writing songs for years, and her early work can be found online — much to her team’s chagrin. “I’ve written so many songs, and many are bad or embarrassing," Shipp says. "But I leave them up because it's fun to see things you did when you were younger, and I think the fans will get a kick out of them. When I was young, my songs were really political. I was such an outspoken kid. Plus, I'm not saying anything that ain't true. The world needed change. I was going to be the one to do it at 13.”
Lana Condor considers herself your average American teen. So yes, her life pretty much revolves around friends and social media. After her agent delivered the good news that she’d be making her feature-film debut in X-Men: Apocalypse as the mutant Jubilee, in the next breath, he said she couldn’t tell anyone until the studio issued a press release. Agony! “I was in school and surrounded by everyone I would tell good news to. It was the hardest secret I ever had to keep. I mean, I was going to be in a movie with Jennifer Lawrence!” recalls the bubbly 19-year-old, whose wise-cracking character is a student at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters and welcomes newbie Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) by taking him to the mall. (Hey, the film is set in the '80s.) “Luckily," she continues, "I was leading a spiritual retreat for [high school] seniors that week. I was praying and super grounded and I kind of forgot about it. Then when the news did get announced, no one there had their phones so still nobody knew. I went in the sacristy and just cried. It was such a dramatic moment.”
Before becoming Jubilee and meeting other mutants, Condor actually preferred another band of superheroes. “The Avengers are my jam — I love Ironman. Like love, love him," she says. "I always hear my co-stars talking about how they were X-Men fans from, like, birth. But my first X-Men experience was a midnight premiere of Days Of Future Past." Once she got the part, she says, "I watched all the movies, read comics, and watched cartoons. I can’t claim with a clean conscience that I have been dreaming of this moment forever. But I let Ironman go a little now that I know Wolverine. I met Hugh Jackman at ComiCon. It was a whole body experience: There was sweating. He’s so good-looking. He’s nice and he is just everything.”
Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation.
Condor as Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse.
Condor was adopted, along with her older brother Arthur, from Vietnam when she was 4 months old. “My parents are white — I mean, white as day. When people see me out to dinner with my dad, I think they assume he is my agent. But I have never really felt like I was misplaced or that I was in the wrong family. I love my family and am so grateful to them because they are the reason I have any of this. If I hadn’t been adopted, I would likely still be in Vietnam, working in a rice field." That said, Condor would like to visit her birth country some day. “We keep making plans to go back, but the trip keeps getting cancelled for one reason or another. I am desperate to go back. I feel like something would be missing if I never took that trip. Another issue is I don’t like Vietnamese food. My parents think that is so ironic.”
Other than her an uncanny endurance for hanging out at the mall, Jubilee's great claim to mutant fame is her ability to generate pyrotechnic energy from her hands. In real life, however, Condor would chose a different supernatural gift. “I would want Nightcrawler’s power of teleportation," she says. "Not only is it good in terms of self-defense and skipping traffic, but if I ever felt a craving for something, I could pop over to the best place in the world to fill that craving. Say we were sitting here and we wanted a waffle. Poof! In a flash I could take us to Belgium and we’d be eating breakfast in no time. It is a practical power.”
As Jubilee, Condor sports some choice Reagan-Era fashion: graphic tees, day-glow colors, hoop earrings. And she loved every minute of it. “One of my favorite things about being in this movie is that it takes place in the 1980s because I unfortunately did not get to experience it personally. The first thing I did was start studying the music. I made a Pandora playlist: ‘Come On Eileen,’ ‘You Can Dance If You Want To,’ Culture Club. I would love to time-travel back to the '80s. Bright colors everywhere. People seemed excited to be alive.”
Condor is currently shooting Patriots Day, the Mark Wahlberg drama about the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist attacks. And she has quite a bucket list of career aspirations. “I am obsessed with war films like Blackhawk Down and Lone Survivor," she says. "I would love to do a Vietnam War type of film, but I want to be a soldier because women need to be shown on screens in that light. They can fight and be strong and save the day. I also feel like I could shoot on location and learn about my culture at the same time. Oh, and the short-term dream is to be in the live-action Mulan. Of course I would want to be Mulan, but I’d play Peasant No. 2 if I had to. I think if you cut my hair, I could also look enough like a dude to play the dragon. I am willing to break that barrier for a dream to come true.”
This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry, chatting with up-and-comers, and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!

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