As one of the iconic Rocky Horror Picture Show tunes says, “There’s a light over at the Frankenstein place.” On a recent set visit, there are tons of them, of every shade and size, hanging from the beams of a cavernous Toronto soundstage. It takes a lot to light a dark, stormy castle, a medical lab and—as one of the even more popular numbers goes—a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.
It also takes a lot of guts to pull off what this reimagining is attempting: a filmed effort (unlike recent primetime live hits like Grease: Live) that honors the original film’s subversive vibe while thrilling newbies and satisfying the demands of midnight-movie diehards.
“When we started developing Rocky Horror, the very first thought was to celebrate the fans,” says director and choreographer Kenny Ortega (Descendants), heartily aware of the devotion audiences possess for the 1975 classic. “That was most important.” Tim Curry starred as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the sexually fluid mad scientist who corrupts virginal betrotheds Brad Majors and Janet Weiss (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) after they crash the coming-out party for his titular, muscle-bound, Charles Atlas–inspired “creature of the night.”
The low-budget oddity, based on composer Richard O’Brien’s stage show, fast became the grande dame of cult films. And as a gender-bending homage to B-movies of the 1950s, it’s as much adored for inviting audience participation (cleverly injected into the framework of the update) as it is for Curry and Co., which posed yet another challenge to Ortega and fellow exec producers Lou Adler (producer of the original) and Gail Berman (the woman who brought Buffy the Vampire Slayer to TV): finding actors who could put their own toucha-toucha-touch on these roles. “We wanted a cast that didn’t fill anyone else’s shoes but just wore their own proudly,” says Ortega.
Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox has slipped into the fishnets and heels of Frank-N-Furter for a glam-goddess turn brimming with the fire of someone ensconced in their dream role. “I never thought I would get to play it,” confesses the Rocky devotee during a break on a snowy April night. “A black woman and a trans woman? Never!” But now Cox and her four-octave range are feeling the heat. “Millions of people will see it,” she says. “I want to do a good job, not only for me, but for the fans.”
While Cox is the dazzling epicenter of this technicolor mashup—equal parts rock concert, costume party and fever-dream Pride parade—the ensemble around her adds an impressive spin on what’s come before. “There’s been a little bit of updating, but we’ve stayed pretty true to the original,” says Nickelodeon survivor Victoria Justice, who spends most of the film in her knickers as Janet along with Disney kid Ryan McCartan’s similarly unclad fiancé, Brad. “You can’t sign on to Rocky Horror and not be ready to be in your underwear,” Justice laughs. “I was like, ‘Let’s do this! I’m ready to go!’” So was Curry. Despite a 2012 stroke that’s put the actor in a wheelchair, he gamely joined the project as the tale’s droll Narrator.
To flesh out Frank’s odd squad, the producers assembled American Idol breakout Adam Lambert as the doomed biker Eddie, pop star Christina Milian as a demented, domestic Magenta, and Broadway-to-TV faves Annaleigh Ashford (Masters of Sex) and Reeve Carney (Penny Dreadful) as the wide-eyed groupie Columbia and put-upon servant Riff Raff, respectively.
Staz Nair (Game of Thrones) signed on as the ripped Rocky, model turned chanteuse Ivy Levan assumes the usherette role cut from the 1975 film and stage legend Ben Vereen rounds it out as Dr. Scott, Brad and Janet’s old science professor.
Weeks before shooting started in Toronto, the cast and dancers practiced various numbers in Los Angeles. “We would rehearse for three or four days, and then we’d go record for the album,” McCartan recalls, adding that the extra prep time allowed for “plenty of nuanced differences” that modernize Rocky without diluting its eternal embrace of all things weird and wonderful.
“I think that’s what Rocky Horror is about,” agrees Cox. “For 41 years, this has been a beacon of hope for anyone who’s felt that they don’t fit in; they can go somewhere to be who they are. Not just dream it, be it. That’s what I hope for this production.”