When Jessica Rothe was cast in Damien Chazelle's highly anticipated musical, La La Land, alongside Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, she'd never sung or danced professionally. But after the actress, who trained in classical theater, started rehearsing, she felt right at home. "It was the most similar experience I've had on film to being live onstage because everyone's working so hard to keep so many balls in the air at one," she explains. InStyle sat down with Rothe before the film's Dec. 9 release to get the scoop on what it was like to shuffle alongside some of young Hollywood's heaviest hitters.
What can you tell us about your La La Land character?
I play one of Emma Stone's character’s roommates. The amazing thing for us as her roommates is we are the only characters besides the leads who get to perform a song. For the most part Emma, Ryan, and John Legend have the songs. So we have this big song and dance number that we worked our butts off rehearsing.
Are you a dancer?
I'm not. I took ballet when I was eight, like a lot of other people. Mandy Moore—the choreographer, not the actress and singer—did a brilliant job helping us. She choreographed for So You Think You Can Dance and a lot of Broadway musicals. She was so patient and so wonderful because a lot of us were not trained dancers, so she helped us find the things that came naturally to us and then made those moves look gorgeous.
Do you have a favorite scene?
There’s a part of the move where the roommates try to entice Emma’s character to go out on the town with them. One of my favorite things about the film in general is that the roommates were originally written as catty and mean—very stereotypically Los Angeles, if you will. But Emma didn't like that, and she said to Damien, "These are the only young women in the film, and I don’t like that we're portraying females in this catty, competitive way.” She didn’t think that her character would live with people who are cruel to her because it would make her a weaker protagonist. So we reworked the characters, and that song turned into a very tongue-in-cheek, we're-gonna-have-fun-and-silly kind of thing.
How did you prepare for such an important sequence?
We rehearsed probably three weeks leading up to that first day of filming. It was very intense. The energy is so important. You have to nail each specific moment and make it really sharp and clean, but still full of life and joy.
What was the most surprising thing about working with Emma and Ryan?
Emma and Ryan give the most gorgeous performances, and they both put in so much amazing work to get there. Ryan learned to play the piano. They have a whole tap sequence--neither of them had ever tap danced before!
Were you a fan of director Damien Chazelle's work before you took the role?
Yes, and I don't think people will be disappointed at all. Damien is a genius. He not only took this very treasured kind of cannon of musicals and used it as inspiration and paid homage to it, but he also reinvented the art form. And I think people who go see the film will find that it feels comfortable like a really wonderful old sweater. And I think that it's a movie for dreamers and for people who have been in love, and people who want to fall in love. It speaks to a lot of different parts of life and what it means to be an artist.
VIDEO: Emma Stone's Changing Looks
What’s your dream genre?
I was trained in classic theater, so I love me some good old crying. I love down-and-dirty and grit. But I do think that my favorite dramas are ones that are dark comedies because I think that the only way the audience and the actor can really go as dark and deep as you may want to go is if there's some levity added to it. But I want to try everything. I would love to play a Bond Girl one day, but I'd also love to work on a project as challenging and heartfelt as Room.
What’s next for you?
I just shot a movie with Alex Roe, who was in The Fifth Wave, called Forever My Girl. It's based on a book and it’s kind of like Sweet Home Alabama meets The Notebook. I'm also about to go and shoot a movie called Half to Death in New Orleans, which is like Groundhog Day meets Scream Queens.
Watch the trailer for La La Land above and catch it in select cities starting Dec. 9.