You might think that Elijah Kelley could land a major role in the new movie version of the musical Hairspray based on the strength of his role dancing opposite Antonio Banderas in last year's Take the Lead.
"No, I had to straight-up audition," he explains, calling from an office he's visiting in Toronto. "I did three, or maybe four, auditions for the part. I don't think anybody had seen Take the Lead. But it probably helped having that credit on the résumé."
The talented youngster is no stranger to Hogtown: he spent six months there, shooting the Banderas movie, and almost as long making Hairspray (which opens Friday, July 20). And the town is far from his Georgia childhood, which began a little over 20 years ago. His parents and grandparents hipped him to the bad ol' days that are more genially depicted in this tuneful remake of John Waters's 1988 original, which used a segregated Baltimore dance show to make points about American society.
"Things are certainly a lot better now, I think," Kelley says. "Forty years ago, I wouldn't have been able to sit beside Amanda Bynes, let alone kiss her, like I do in the movie. My mom and other people who grew up down South certainly told me what it was like not that long ago. It is very important to me that I was able to be part of something that explored the ridiculousness of all that, and it also brings to light the positiveness of loving one another and accepting who we are."
The film, adapted by choreographer-turned-director Adam Shankman, features Kelley as Seaweed J. Stubbs, the most popular dancer on The Corny Collins Show; on the monthly Negro Day, that is. But the film's best feature might be the spirit of its youthful cast, which Kelley is still bubbling over: "Dude, the infectiousness of that energy on the set; well, people say they feel that coming off the screen, and we had that same warmth when we were filming. It was that fun. Of course, Adam being the perfectionist that he is, we really worked some long hours. We did about two months of prep before we even saw a camera, or even a set; all dancing and singing."
Those are not new activities for Kelley, who grew up singing in church ("since I was, like, three years old"), was a star actor in musical theatre at his local high school, and made an impression on TV shows such as The Shield and Everybody Hates Chris. In fact, his high, interrogative voice greatly resembles Chris Rock's. The fledgling performer also recalls a young Sam Cooke; although that's not the Sam he had in mind: "Wow, that's the first time I've heard that. I usually get Sammy Davis Jr."
It's fitting, as he's set to play the Rat Packer in an upcoming project. Yet Kelley is not that forthcoming about his personal profile.
"I don't find me that interesting, eh," he says (with an attempted Canadian accent). It's likely others will soon disagree.