When Alexandra Shipp appears on our video call, she is draped in a linen blouse with her cat trailing into the camera frame. “Evander! Excuse him,” she laughs, “It’s like whenever I open up the camera, he wants to make a show of himself.” Speaking from her Los Angeles home, Shipp is luminous in nature, emitting infectious joy. All charisma and elegance, she is a water sign, but a wildfire chases her—one that cannot dare to be tamed, one that continues intensifying.
Growing up in Phoenix, Shipp felt like an outcast. Back then, she says, she needed to escape from herself. She was a spirited kid with a rambunctiousness to match. Under the counsel of her brothers, she knew how to kick ass whenever she came in contact with a bully. She didn’t recoil from those who teased her—if anything, it fueled her to find her truth. Instead of lamenting, her foray into acting came by way of a starring role as The Stinky Cheese Man in an elementary school play. “I was an angry child, and I had a lot of my own trials and tribulations. When I was acting, I didn’t have to deal with that, and I could be my own person. I love to be able to change my face, change the way I talk, change the way I walk,” she says, grinning with a million-dollar smile that refuses to waver through our ninety minutes together.
To put it lightly, Shipp was spellbound by the freedom acting afforded her. Theater became her shield and no one was going to clip her wings. When she was seventeen, she attended to her creative pursuits, moving from the sleepy Arizona suburbs to Los Angeles. After some time chipping away at the Hollywood scene, Shipp’s oeuvre expanded with a novel-to-screen adaptation of Love, Simon, and a portrayal of R&B songstress (Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B). In 2015, Shipp turned heads playing Ice Cube’s wife, Kimberly Woodruff, in Straight Outta Compton and then to sporting a frosty mohawk as Storm in X-Men: Dark Phoenix. This summer, she makes a splash in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.
Shipp clearly has an antenna for interesting projects that allow her to evolve. In tick, tick...BOOM!, her performance as Susan Wilson, a professional dancer and the partner of RENT creator, Jonathan Larson, was met with universal acclaim. The Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed project propelled Shipp to come into her greatness. During the audition, she shared that she thought she was doing too much. In part, she says because women of color have to navigate a minefield about how they are perceived. Is this another case of bringing a knife to a gunfight? Can she be herself without being labeled as ‘intimidating’? Over time, this roulette of questions ends up developing calluses.
“For a lot of people who do not have a lot of interaction with us,” she considers, “women of color tend to come off as intimidating, which is totally their problem and not ours. But I have to be aware of that when it comes to casting, and who I am, and what I represent to white people, specifically. I knew for this audition I could just go HAM. I wanted to show Lin who the fuck I was as a singer and a performer. I knew I had to give all the colors and flavors.”
Through her performer’s telepathy, Shipp knew that Lin-Manuel Miranda would appreciate someone who over-delivered in their expressiveness. Her doing “too much” was clearly an asset. Here, she was given a playground to showcase the confluence of her talents, simultaneously singing ballads and dancing opposite Andrew Garfield. A sense of grit chases her. Her prep work for Susan alone consisted of a deep dive into researching choreographers like Alvin Ailey, twice-daily gym sessions, and professional dance training. Naturally, she credits her work ethic to her mom. Under her desk, Shipp observed her mother (a publicist and yoga teacher) media train people. If Shipp were to make it in the industry, she knew she had to be equipped with two resources: originality and generosity.
If a role is dialing into something completely unique, Shipp is into it. She can be a cold-blooded killer in Tragedy Girls or a Barbie oozing with charm. Shipp leaned into her intuition about the much anticipated Barbie feature, trusting that Greta Gerwig would command the ready-made blockbuster with her signature gravitas. “There’s no way that Greta would ever do something corny–I know this ain’t going to be bad,” she jokes of her only expectation going in. “I could tell you the plot and you’d be like, ‘What? That can’t be the synopsis.’”
Amidst that Mattel pink canvas, Shipp sculpted the backstory for her character, Author Barbie. “The thing about doing something with Barbie,” she shares, “Is that the lifetime the character has lived comes from a box in someone else’s creation. For me, I was like, ‘She’s a poet. She grew up reading poetry and reading dissertations about math and science, and though she can write about both, she won a Nobel Prize for her poetry on the truth about being a Barbie.’”
Business-like determination aside, Shipp revels in her sensitivity. She’s a poet at heart, entranced by the words of Audre Lorde. She quickly runs over to the bookshelf that hugs her head like a halo and grabs a copy of Lorde. Since Shipp began substituting schooling for acting at a young age, she created a syllabus of her own accord. “My mom did not have money to send me to college,” she says. “We did not have it like that. I try to educate myself through the bibliographies of writers I really respect. I’ll read bell hooks and feel like the world is lost, I start questioning what I am doing with my life. Should I innovate? That’s when I turn to novels like Throne of Glass! I’ll need a couple chapters of that to get into a couple of chapters of Giovanni’s Room.”
Shipp is a self-proclaimed Dungeons & Dragons geek. Ever since she could remember, she savored fantastical tales about wood wren and pixies. When given the reins in developing her own gameplay, she responds, “It would definitely be giving Zelda. I need a quest. I love the idea of the quest being about love. You’re trying to find your love. I think all human beings are on that quest in real life, but you just gotta add magic and trolls. On the way they might meet people whom they are in love with, but they turn out to be your best friend. Love is the reason we’re on this planet. Through love, we get things like empathy and understanding. Learning about other people, places, things, and cultures through the guise of falling in love—that would be my videogame.”
She became the successor to Halle Berry’s Storm, something her younger self, nose in a graphic novel, would not have prophesied. Now, she confides that she isn’t looking to reprise the role of Storm anytime soon. It’s a heartfelt breakup with a character she grew to love. In some ways, Storm was an interlude to a journey she is still embarking on. “The world is ready for a different kind of storm and I don’t think that needs to be me. I used to joke that Storm was always in the ‘background.’ That’s how she was defined and written in the movie, and real X-Men fans deserve more than that. I think the next Storm needs to be a beautiful woman that runs the school and is helping mold the next generation.”
At 31, Shipp enjoys a dynamic wheelhouse of cultivated talents. She dances, sings, acts, and reassembles songs about inanimate objects. In between laughs, she sings a song she wrote about a tampon, ‘Got me hanging on, got me on a string, put me in a box so you can label me, I’m not playing games, call it what you want, it comes naturally.’ “When I want to be quiet, I read. When I want to be loud and expressive, then I write music. I have thousands of voice notes of songs that I write, ain’t nobody going to hear 99% of these. If I ever pass away suddenly and someone stumbles across these voice notes, you got the greatest hits there, babe,” she laughs.
By all evidence, Shipp is both enchanted by silliness and driven by activism. Currently, she’s leveraging her following to call attention to the writer's strike. “I’m looking forward to writers getting what they’re asking for right now. What they’re asking for is not too much and I stand in solidarity, but I also fight alongside their rights. They deserve to be paid fairly, to have skin in the game of their own creation, and not be replaced by robots.”
When Shipp is off the clock, she loves sipping some bubbly waters over inappropriate jokes with her friends. “For me, liberation comes from the community and not necessarily from feeling free at home, pantless on the couch with my animals. I feel liberated with the people that I love, that are totally fine with me being a full-blown nerd,” she smiles. “When women of color get together, we are unstoppable. When I’m with my Black female friends, I feel so powerful. There are ways that I learn from them and they learn from me.” Shipp admits, “Growing up with a white mom, I didn’t know how to wrap my head, and then a friend was like ‘Girl you sleep without a head wrap?’ ‘NO!’ She taught me how to do it and what bonnets to use. Though men are great, they will never understand what it’s like to be a woman.”
We share that uncovering signs in daily life is also a fundamental part of womanhood. Universally, we all look at signs as a reason to keep on. As she progresses in this act of her life, there is no need for someone on a white horse to come save her from a tower. She’s got enough courage to outlast any knight. “I’m ready for the various projects that I am producing right now that tell female-driven stories. Diverse stories. I don’t see a lot of that coming across my desk. As James Baldwin said, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ If I see that need for change, I want to be a part of it. If they don’t come to me, then I’m going to create them. If I can lift people within my community into the light and showcase their greatness, I am going to do it. That’s my queer Black woman agenda, and I’m doing it to my greatest ability.” She pauses, then adds, “I’m not a superhero in real life.”
Photographed by Alex Harper
Written by Jasmine Rodriguez
Styled by Ali Mandelkorn
Hair: Larry Sims
Makeup: Dana Delaney
Flaunt Film: Isaac Dektor
Photo Assistant: Darrin James