What’s in a name? It’s a loaded question for the students of Goodkind High School, who refer to their Gay-Straight Alliance as the Geography Club to keep it a secret from the rest of their school.
Opening in theaters Friday, “Geography Club” is a new film that tackles anti-LGBT bullying through the eyes of students determined to make a difference in their high school. The movie is an adaptation of Brett Hartinger’s novel of the same name. Among the talented cast are Nikki Blonsky, best known for her role as Tracy Turnblad in the 2007 musical film “Hairspray,” and Alex Newell, who came into the spotlight recently playing transgender teenager Unique Adams on “Glee.”
GLSEN had the amazing opportunity to talk to Nikki, who performed at GLSEN’s Respect Awards – New York in 2011 and has been an active supporter of LGBT rights throughout her career. We spoke with Nikki on the phone about her own experiences with bullying, her connection to the cause, and how she prepared for her role as a punk-y lesbian teenager. Interview has been edited and condensed.
GLSEN: What about this movie first caught your attention?
Nikki Blonsky: I read the script and I said to myself, “This movie is so different. This movie is what kids need to see now.” This movie stands for everything I believe in. My gay fans have been extremely supportive of me – all my fans have – but I wanted to do this in honor of them. I wanted to step in their shoes for the movie and portray somebody in their community, to say I got as close as I could to the experience of living life as a lesbian.
Did you have any discussions with the other actors about the issues that are covered in the film?
We did. The night before we were going to start filming, I called the girl who plays my girlfriend, and I had only met her once before. I said, “I just want to talk to you about tomorrow. I want it to be really authentic. This isn’t about two women or two men, it’s about two people loving each other. So if we can find that love for each other just as humans and portray that, then I think we’ll be golden.” I told her we were an open book from here on out. From that day on, it was easy-breezy with her on set.
What was the most memorable part of working on the movie?
My look is very different in this movie. Between the cornrows and the leather jacket and the hoops and the Doc Martins and the chains, it’s nothing I’ve done before, and that’s thrilling to me. But probably my favorite part of this movie is sticking up for the kid who gets bullied all the time. I get right in front of the football players’ faces and give them a little bit of my mind, That, and learning the play the guitar in two days. I’m not Carlos Santana, but I learned a few things.
Can you describe your character, Terese, and how she fits into the story?
Terese is Min’s girlfriend, and they create this boring-sounding club called Geography Club because they figure nobody will want to join it, but that’s where all the LGBT kids are. Terese creates this really hard shell with the way she dresses, and the way she gives this look in her eye. She’s so afraid of people cracking that shell and seeing the soft, lovable Terese that’s inside, and I think that’s absolutely what so many kids do nowadays. I think Terese’s role is to protect the kids in the Geography Club and also to protect herself and her heart, and to show people not to judge a book by its cover.
Has bullying ever affected you? How?
I was bullied my entire school career, from elementary school all the way up – middle school was probably the worst time of my life – and I still get bullied to this day. I get mean-tweeted all the time, whether it’s about my weight, my height, my this, my that. A long time ago, my grandma taught me that people make fun of you because they’re insecure with themselves. When people mean-tweet me or when somebody says something to me, I don’t even respond. No matter how hard we all try, we’re not perfect, we’re never going be perfect. And if we were perfect, what fun would that be? Normal’s no fun.
Did you bring any of that experience to your portrayal of Terese?
I brought that all to my character. When people say mean stuff to me [as Terese] or look at me weird, I give them this attitude, like, “Who gives a crap about you, anyway? What horse did you ride in on?” She doesn’t have time for them and neither does the school. She never verbalizes it, but she looks at them and her little snark and giggle is more than they can handle.
Given your experiences, what advice would you give to kids who are bullied?
When somebody pushes you up against a locker or says something bad to you, just look at them and laugh them in the face. That will piss them off to the highest extreme. It’s telling them, “Your words don’t bother me. You’re wasting your breath.”
Your character in the film is afraid to come out. How do you think that will resonate with viewers?
Way before this movie, my closest cousin visited me while I was doing Hairspray. He said, “Hey, can I talk to you about something?” We went in another room and he said, “You’re the first person I’m telling because you’re the closest person to me. I’m gay.” And I hugged him, and he said, “Are you OK with it?” I said, “Are you kidding me? I love you and I want you to live the best, happiest life you can. I don’t care who you decide to partner up with, I just want you to be happy. If anything, I will hook you up with one of the most beautiful dancers in the movie.” Coming out is a scary thing. I couldn’t imagine doing it myself, but the people who do show us what real strength is and real courage is.
Why is it important to you to speak out about anti-LGBT bullying?
There have unfortunately been so many kids not knowing where to turn, not having an ally or anywhere to go to talk about these issues. When Geography Club comes out, I feel if everybody watched it the first week of high school, it would make things so much easier for the next four years. I think that kids just need an outlet, and parents could be a little more vocal with their kids. I’ve always been extremely vocal with my parents; I talked to them about every single thing, and I still do. You can still have your privacy, but talk to them, because they’re the ones who have been there since the beginning and they’ll be there till the end.
What message do you hope audiences will take from the film?
I hope audiences take away that love isn’t about gender. I hope audiences realize that this goes on in schools every single day across the nation and the world, and we need to stop it. And I think audiences, even adults who bully other adults, need to realize we have one shot at life, so why would you waste your time bullying another person? And it’s a funny movie at the same time. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll want to see it again.
That’s true! And there aren’t many movies out there like it.
That’s what I’m so proud about. People are finally taking this seriously and saying, "Hey, it’s a movie about today’s generation, we’re going to put it on a big screen." Everyone in a movie theater is going to see two guys kissing, two girls kissing, so what? That’s today’s generation. I’m so proud to be a part of this movie because I think it can do so much for this generation. I just hope everybody watches it. If every single person who sees it takes a little bit from the film, we’ll have done our jobs.