This week Fox celebrates the legacy of 1975 cult musical film hit The Rocky Horror Picture Show with the release of a 2016 TV-movie adaptation featuring a new cast.
Inspired by early Hollywood B movies, Rocky Horror is the story of betrothed couple Brad and Janet (Ryan McCartan and Victoria Justice) who take shelter from the rain in the mansion of alien scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Laverne Cox, a role originally played by Tim Curry). Frank-N-Furter’s henchman Riff Raff (Reeve Carney) and other lackeys help the doctor bring his creature Rocky to life, with various characters seducing Brad and Janet away from each other.
We spoke with director Kenny Ortega, producer Lou Adler, and stars Cox, Justice, Carney, and Curry when they gathered at the Television Critics Association’s Press Tour this summer to promote The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.
Here are 11 things we learned about the new production.
It’s always scary when someone wants to remake a classic. If you need any reason to have no fear about The Rocky Horror Picture Show, let it be that Curry himself gives the Fox film his blessing.
“I do, indeed,” Curry said when asked if he endorses the new film.
Curry has recovered from a stroke and still sits in a wheelchair, but he performed in the new Rocky Horror as the narrator. While rehearsing with the whole cast, Cox got Curry’s blessing personally.
“We had conversations our first day of rehearsal,” Cox said. “I sang every song from the movie that Frank-N-Furter sings in front of Tim. As we would go through the songs, I would ask him what some of his intentions or motivations and what he thought the moment was. He shared with me some of his thoughts on it. I don’t like to divulge everything we talked about.”
Ortega particularly remembered seeing Cox and Curry bond.
“I’ll never forget the first day of rehearsal,” Ortega said. “Laverne was standing at the piano and was getting ready to sing ‘Sweet Transvestite’ for the very, very first time. And Tim was sitting at the piano next to the pianist. When she finished, the first voice that came out was ‘Brava’ from Tim Curry. And that’s what we all felt throughout this entire experience working with Tim, his generosity, his wit, his charm, his elegance.”
Fans have been singing the Rocky Horror Show songs since the original stage version’s 1973 preview performances. With weekly midnight performances of the movie since 1975, everyone knows what “Time Warp” and “Hot Patootie” sounds like. So the singers in this contemporary Rocky Horror are giving the classic songs a slight twist, so they sound the same, but new again.
Take, for instance, Justice’s perspective on the role made famous by now–well known film star Susan Sarandon.
“It was challenging as a singer, because I really had to tap into my falsetto more than I ever have before,” Justice said. “And I also wanted to push myself, because I wanted to find ad libs and things that were different and make it my own. That was actually a lot of fun. I wanted to keep the classic Janet voice where she kind of talks in this higher register, and it’s just a lot more sweet and saccharine in a lot of ways, but not copying her. So I think that was probably the biggest challenge is watching the movie and remembering certain things that I wanted to keep but then also forgetting the rest of it so I could be inspired on my own.”
Producer Lou Adler added that the music department, including his son Cisco Adler, produced new mixes of the classics. “What Kenny and I said in the beginning was be true to the original, but make it contemporary,” Adler said. “So there’s loops and samples, but it’s still the original music.”
If you only know Cox from acting, get ready to hear her sing. Orange Is the New Black hasn’t yet showcased these skills.
“She’s a force, five octave range, a degree in dance from a major university, acting her heart out in New York and studying for over 15 years, walking in and bringing something into the room that made us all realize there was no B plan,” Ortega said. “She had so much to give to it, a life experience, an incredible depth of talent, an enthusiasm, and a respect, an incredible respect for this film, all that has mattered. She was just an absolute joy. We knew it from the beginning that this was the person that gave us reason, really, raison d’être to make this movie.”
When Glee did its Rocky Horror tribute episode, the powers that be changed some of the lyrics that were considered risqué. For some reason, “Transsexual, Transylvania” was considered inappropriate and had to be changed to “Sensational Transylvania.” You still can’t say the F word on broadcast TV (the movie was rated R), but “Transsexual” is back.
“There were conversations about do we change this?” Cox said. “After my first conversation with Kenny Ortega, his vision for the film was what sold me. You cannot change the lyrics to an iconic song. You can’t. The term ‘transvestite’ is a term that’s antiquated. It’s not a term that we use anymore to describe any trans people I know, but in 1975 it was used in a very different way. So historically we want to honor that, and we want to honor this film that has been so iconic for so many people.”
If you only know Justice from her Nickelodeon show Victorious, The Rocky Horror Picture Show can be a chance to see her grown up. Not only is she playing Janet, Brad’s chaste fiancée who has a sexual awakening with the creature Rocky, but she played the empowered sexuality like the heroine of a gritty, violent Tarantino film. Justice says you can hear it when she sings “Touch Me.”
“It has almost like a Quentin Tarantino, sexy kind of twang to it in the beginning, which is really fun,” Justice said. “I think I was able to throw in some new ad libs in there that was really cool for me. I did all kinds of fun stuff.”
The original Rocky Horror Picture Show (pictured above in film poster) was rated R, but Justice admitted she saw it when she was 15. At 8 p.m. on Fox, kids younger than 15 will be able to witness the updated version, and Justice thinks that’s a good thing.
“I think if I was a parent, I’d totally be down to show my fifth grader,” Justice said. “I’d be like, ‘This is a classic. You need to know these songs. You need to get familiar with these characters. You need to know who Tim Curry is.’ And then we would watch the original after.”
Still, Justice respects your decision if you do not show your fifth grader Rocky Horror.
“I think that’s up to the parents to make that choice,” Justice said. “It is airing on Fox. Even though the story is the same, the script is the same, it isn’t anything so scandalous that it wouldn’t be able to air on network TV. So really I think that’s just up to the parents’ discretion if they are comfortable showing their kids.”
Not only does the cast of 2016’s Rocky Horror Picture Show encourage young viewers to see the film, but they should share it with the whole family. Gender identity and open sexuality are topics parents are encouraged to discuss with kids, and Rocky Horror may help give parents a good opening.
Justice recalled her mom taking her to that midnight show at age 15.
“Actually my mom has always introduced me to all different types of art ever since I was little,” Justice said. “She’s like a super-cool mom who’s on the cutting edge of things. So it was so much fun, but it was so funny because I was a virgin to seeing a Rocky Horror midnight show, they were aware of it. The shadow cast took red lipstick and put a big V on my head and they drew a penis on my friend Josh’s face. So it was pretty funny. Our moms were up for the ride though.”
Cox has earned acclaim for the strides she’s made for trans acceptance. She’s broken down walls that stood in the way of trans actors in Hollywood, and it all goes back to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film was vital to Cox discovering who she is and having the courage to come out.
“When I was a college student and discovered The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the character that Tim created became a template for my own exploration of my identity,” Cox said. “Because of Tim and the version of that movie, ‘Don’t dream it, be it’ became a personal mantra. I’m being it right now.”
The kind of sexuality on display is not easy for everyone to access. It takes some viewers many performances and many years to go all the way and dress in fishnets and high heels like Frank-N-Furter and his minions. Everyone can go full Rocky Horror in their own time, but the cast of this movie had to rehearse specifically to bring the sexuality to life.
“I think when I started rehearsals for this movie, we all really got in touch with the sexuality of it,” Justice said. “During our first day of rehearsal, Kenny had us all do an exercise together where we had to basically walk around the room with all the dancers and all the actors and make eye contact with different people. Then he would say, ‘Okay, melt.’ Then we’d have to go up to that person we’re next to and melt and drape all over them. I was a lot of fun.”
Carney played a different kind of monster on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. He was Dorian Gray, the man who could remain young while his portrait aged instead. In Rocky Horror he plays Riff Raff, the role originated by Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien. It turns out, Carney really liked Riff Raff’s high heels.
“I think any sort of obstacles, anything you have to fight against as an actor is generally a helpful thing,” Carney said. “So for me, having the heels was kind of cool. I really grew to love them, to be honest with you. I’d actually love to get a pair for myself to wear at home. They’re really comfortable. They were very form fitting to my foot. You did have to be careful when you go over to the side like that. You had to make sure you didn’t twist your ankle.”
Midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show developed an audience participation component that became as famous as the film itself. Throw rice at the wedding scene. Call out answers to questions the characters ask. DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film have included audience participation recordings, but this film includes an audience in the film itself. They weren’t scripted, but the director still had to maintain some control.
“When we shot the film and we filled the theater with fans, we tried many things,” Ortega said. “We wanted to make sure the callbacks didn’t get in the way of telling a story but that celebrated the telling of a story. So together it was trial and error. We would try them, and we would say, ‘That one really works. That one really supports the story. That one kind of gets in the way and draws us back’ and found a way to balance the callbacks into the arc of our full story.”
While some fan groups tried to create a script that audiences around the world could follow, audience participation always became a sort of free for all. It’s hard to control a rowdy midnight crowd. The producers of Rocky Horror had final cut this time and chose the best audience participation moments.
“The callbacks are natural,” Adler said. “You can’t write them. As in the first one, it’s a space that was not left for a callback. Something in the dialogue or the visual just prompted the audience to either put on a hat when someone on the screen put on a hat or make a comment when Janet Weiss did. It’s just a purely natural sort of thing. You don’t write them, as we never did for the original.”
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again airs Thursday, October 20 at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on Fox