Following along while director Adam Shankman casts his Rock of Ages movie has been like seating a dinner party for a who’s who of Hollywood: So far, everyone from Mary J. Blige to Tom Cruise to Alec Baldwin and Julianne Hough have signed on for the hot-hot-hot flick, which begins shooting May 19 in Miami and will hit theaters next year. And now, meet the show’s leading man: Diego Boneta, who you might have seen recently on The CW’s 90210 or ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars. Boneta will play Drew, a budding musician who falls for a small-town girl (Hough) who shows up on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and expresses his emotions through songs from ’80s hair-metal songs. EW caught up with Ages director Shankman, who talked about casting Boneta, putting Cruise through rock-star boot camp, and why he didn’t choose Constantine Maroulis — who originated the role on Broadway — to be Drew.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What about Diego made him perfect to play Drew?
ADAM SHANKMAN: It’s very difficult to say, but it’s one of those instincts you have when you see somebody. I had the exact same thing about Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray. We had the same thing about Channing Tatum, Zac Efron. You say, “Oh my god, it’s them!” Because there’s an It factor. There’s an honesty about it that you can’t see — you can’t put your finger on. It’s just that they’re behaving — they’re not acting like the character, they just are the character.
Diego definitely isn’t an A-Lister like the rest of the cast you’ve assembled so far. Did you want to nab someone you could “discover”?
Yeah, I talked about wanting to discover somebody like I did in Hairspray. That was something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t holding myself to anything. I was open to everybody. I found that it was very exciting to find this person.
What was his audition like?
It was grueling and endless, basically. I put Julianne through it, too, to be perfectly honest, but with Diego, he came back to audition a second time for the casting director and he came back and auditioned for me. And when he came back and auditioned for me again, he had to do a different scene each time and he had to sing those songs which are so hard and so high! People in that era — in 1987 — sang like freaks of nature. All the music is written so high, so it was also difficult to find somebody who could find all the music.
Did you put Tom Cruise through the ringer while casting, too?
Here’s the thing about Tom Cruise: I knew in my heart he would never put himself in harm’s way about taking on a part if he didn’t think he could deliver. So it wasn’t until our first go around with his voice lesson that we sort of looked at each other and went, “This is gonna work!” And we were basically dancing around the living room and high-fiving each other because he actually has a fantastic voice. His grandfather or his great-grandfather was an opera singer, so apparently he’s genetically predisposed for this sort of thing. He’s having the time of his life and he is so grateful in a strange way that I even thought of him for this, because this is so outside of what he does. He is going to create an incredibly indelible character, because I told him this needs to be so far out there that it’s startling.
He’s going against type, it’s great.
The truth of the matter is, he knows he’s part of an ensemble. But he’s the driving force — it’s almost like he’s more into it than me. When he commits to something, it’s a commitment level I’ve never seen: He’s singing five hours a day; he’s gonna start doing rock-star boot camp. It’s crazy. And that’s following Mission: Impossible.
Constantine Maroulis, who was nominated for a Tony while starring in the Broadway version of Rock of Ages, made it known he wanted the role in the movie, too. Why didn’t you cast him?
Constantine is the absolute perfect human being. But I am deeply committed to casting at authentic age — I don’t want to have to ask anybody to act like they are 23. I wanted a 23 year old. Just like when I made Hairspray, I wanted a young girl, and when I cast Nikki she was literally still in high school. When you’re dealing with this heightened reality business, I think it’s better to go with what is as authentic as possible, and Diego is absolutely that. He is kid who came to Los Angeles with a dream and who sings and has an amazing voice, and drive. And he’s also as honest and sweet as you can possibly make him and he’s authentically the age. It creates a piece of something on screen that I don’t have to fabricate.
So you love Constantine?
I love Constantine. Constantine was a total inspiration, and he was fantastic, and I still have every intention of using him in the movie. I’d love to cameo him or have him say something — I think it would be a great show of support. We had the same thing with Ricki Lake in Hairspray. This was not about shutting out Constantine; this was about this is the next evolution of the project.
There are lots of rumors about other possible castings in the movie. Can we expect other big names?
We will be making some big announcements deeper into the week. I read some rumors that made me laugh, they are so not true. They are so super crazy and not true and have never been discussed.
I read today that Katy Perry is starring as a barmaid slash stripper in the movie and I was like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Nothing could be further from the truth. And then some other people that are said to be in talks are legitimately in talks.
Who is in negotiations?
Russell Brand is in negotiations, Amy Adams is another negotiation. Paul Giamatti’s in negotiations. But they are in negotiations still, so confirming them would be silly. What I will say about this movie is that things fall apart just as fast they come. Not all the time, but I’m basically at 100 percent of my first choices so far, but lots of other things come and go.
Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky