By Mitchell Kuga
As he prepared to audition for the role of Jake Tailor, the straight love interest in the coming-of-age dance comedy Work It, Keiynan Lonsdale did something unexpected: He asked to read for a part previously written for a woman. There was something alluring about the queen bee of the Wood Bright High School dance team, who embodied a trope of Mean Girls wickedness he wanted to turn on its head. “I've never seen a guy play this role before, a queer villain in this capacity,” says Lonsdale, noting that director Laura Terruso and the film’s producers (which includes Alicia Keys) were “completely open” to the change. Part of the appeal was playing evil, a departure from the good-guy roles he’d explored in movies like Love, Simon, in which Lonsdale played the sweet-faced love interest, or the superhero sidekick in CW’s The Flash. “I also generally try to be a nice dude in my life,” says the 28-year-old Aussie over Zoom, a week before Work It’s August 8 Netflix release. “So I wanted to unleash the dragon.”
What emerged is Isaiah, the fire-breathing leader of the Thunderbirds dance team who goes by Juilliard now, a name-change he hopes will manifest an acceptance letter to his dream school. Played by a pink-haired Lonsdale with a pinch of camp expressed most pointedly through a white feathered dance ensemble, he’s conniving and singular in his ambition to attend the prestigious performing arts conservatory — even if it means destroying the hopes of protagonist Quinn Ackerman, the overachieving do-gooder with two left feet, played by Sabrina Carpenter. After Juilliard rejects her from the Thunderbirds, Quinn forms her own rival team, a ragtag crew of high school misfits, including Quinn’s horny best friend, Jasmine, played by YouTube star Liza Koshy. Backstabbing, a budding romance, and schoolyard dance-offs ensue, with all roads leading to the Work It dance competition.
Lonsdale spoke to MTV News from Sydney, where he’s been quarantining for the last two months. Creatively, he’s using the time to work on visuals for Rainbow Boy, his debut LP that he released in May. (On the horn-studded breakout single “Gay Street Fighter,” he channels some of Julliard’s over-the-top bravado: “Bet they wanna taste the bussy so good.”) But quarantine has mostly been a way to recenter, the longest Lonsdale’s been home since he moved to the United States nearly seven years ago to pursue acting. “In a lot of ways, when I was living [in Sydney] I wasn't comfortable with who I am,” he says, describing the last two months as a process of “reconnection” —including taking dance classes at the studio where he used to teach. To his surprise, many of his students are now adults, pursuing their dreams in ways that fill Lonsdale with pride. “It's cool to see your friends go for what they want.”
MTV News: You studied dance at a performing arts high school and played a dance student in the Australian television drama Dance Academy; did playing Juilliard feel like déjà vu in some ways?
Keiynan Lonsdale: It was lovely to be in another dance production and the camaraderie definitely mirrored that. There's something about constantly sweating with people, you form a fun bond. But in Dance Academy, my character, Ollie, wasn't very comedic. He was very serious. It was my first TV role, and it was all ballet-focused for the majority of it. Both characters had big egos, but with Work It there was a lot more sass.
MTV News: Was Juilliard inspired by anyone you went to school with?
Lonsdale: We never had one person at my school who was the top bully, but we had our fair share of drama and fun, and we were all little divas in some way. So I pulled from different people; sometimes teachers, sometimes other people I would meet at dance competitions. Not necessarily in terms of the meanness Juilliard has, but just that fire.
MTV News: Was there space for you to inject your own style or choreography into the dance numbers, or was it pretty set?
Lonsdale: The routines were fairly set but there were a lot of moments where Aakomon Jones, our choreographer (Pitch Perfect, Black Panther), allowed Julliard to have his flair. They would just allow me to freestyle or experiment, excited about whatever was going to fit on my body. But even in those moments, I did want to make sure that I wasn't adding in Keiynan, that I would still keep it in the vein of what Juilliard would do, how Juilliard is dancing. It was fun to dance as someone else.
MTV News: I noticed some vogueing elements in the freestyle.
Lonsdale: Yeah, in the battle scene. That was actually great because I haven't done a lot of vogueing. In school, we had it every now and then, and I was exposed to so much of it over the course of my life, but it was the first time in person having some of these moves and intentions broken down for me. I remember feeling stopped in my tracks because, energetically, I was like, I get it. I really get it. Not in terms of getting perfect lines — there was a lot of work I needed to do — but in terms of the attitude and the intention. It's a special art form.
MTV News: I love that you basically created this queer character for yourself out of a female role. Since coming out, do you find yourself either pursuing different characters or being offered different roles than before?
Lonsdale: I think it's opened things up, for sure. But I feel like I've been very fortunate to be able to go for an array of different characters. It hasn't been limiting in any way — or perhaps in some ways it has and I don't know about it. I'm not focused on that. Our stories have gone untold for so long. It's really exciting to see all the different places we get to go now. That's going to keep growing, and it’s just cool to be a part of that.
MTV News: Is there a queer character you're hungering to play that doesn’t exist yet?
Lonsdale: It would be great, one day, to watch or be part of a queer superhero group. Just like, you know, some of the biggest and baddest players in the game. That would be really fun. I would also like to make my own characters, whether that’s in my music or my life. Anything with the ability to destroy stereotypes while not taking away from the character’s authenticity is cool with me. Also, anything that's going to shock a few people, because a lot of people haven't been exposed to what queer culture really is, and I think they've got a lot to learn from it. They would be some of the best roles ever, some of the best stories ever. There's going to be a wealth of them.
MTV News: Coming from Australia, has the Black Lives Matter movement changed the way you think about your work or the industry, in general?
Lonsdale: I first came to America in 2014 and it was the first time I had heard of it. I was in Atlanta so, coming from Australia, it was the first time I was surrounded by so many people that looked like me in my life. Everything started changing for me then. Even working on The Flash and having my cast family, Jessie Martin and Candice Patton, that became such a hub of an education for me — a Black education, and an African-American one, more specifically. For me, growing up in Australia, it was just different. I hear people in America say they were not taught a lot about the truth and I think, well, we didn't even get a quarter of that information in Australia. So, for my music, I made very conscious decisions with the lyrics I chose, working with the kinds of people who have the right intentions. It’s in the choices I’ve made with film and TV. It's at the forefront.
MTV News: When did you realize you were passionate about dancing?
Lonsdale: Dancing will always be my first passion. I was born into it, you know? I started in the living room as soon as I could stand. I was, like, two years old, the youngest of six, and tried to go to dance classes, but I was too shy. I didn't go back until I was four and was on stage since I was five. I just needed to be on stage dancing, constantly. I didn't really know how to communicate with people, I just knew how to dance. So that was it. I was born loving it.
MTV News: So you were the type who was super shy backstage but, once you got on stage, it was a completely different Keiynan?
Lonsdale: I didn't know how to look people in the eye when I was a kid. I walked around like this for years [puts face down] just terrified, but then I'd get on stage in my sparkly jacket, like, [raises arms in the air triumphantly]. I'd give it my all and then I'd become terrified again when I got off stage. Eventually, my mom had to figure out a tactic to get me over my fears, so she was like, “You won't be able to dance anymore if you don't start talking to people and looking at people.” And so I quit dancing for a couple of months because I'd rather just not look at anyone. I was also getting bullied at school because I was a boy dancing and all that stuff. And then, eventually, I couldn't resist. I went back to [dancing] and made the deal. Started talking to people. Started looking up more. So thank you, Mom.
MTV News: Circling back to Work It: Is there any one message you want audiences to take away from this film?
Lonsdale: I want people to dance, you know? This life is crazy. I want people to dance. Dance is the thing that brings me back to a sense of normality, a sense of strength that I often forget I have, and clarity. Even if you don't think you're the best, even if you don't think you have any rhythm, everyone has rhythm. It's in human nature. You just have to find that space where it's just you and your favorite tracks. It's just a matter of connecting to it. I feel like this movie will do this for people. I think dancing changes your life and it creates a community, as you see in the film, of misfits. But really I think dancers are the only sane people in the world.