By Maureen Lee Lenker
December 18, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST
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Lip-syncing might seem like a breeze. All you do is sing along right?

The cast of Soundtrack, which hit Netflix Dec. 18, found out that it’s a lot more complicated than jamming along to your favorite song in your car.

The musical drama, which follows the intersecting lives of multiple Angelenos, delves into the soundtracks of our lives by bringing together elaborate lip-syncing musical numbers that double as emotional fantasy sequences. Each member of the cast is called upon to lip-sync at least once in the 10-episode series — and it presented a new challenge for the entire team, including creator Joshua Safran.

He has experience bringing a musical to television, thanks to his stint show-running the second season of NBC’s Smashbut this was an entirely different animal. “Learning to lip sync is similar to being in a recording studio. In fact, a recording studio is, in a weird way, easier because [the actors] learn the song on their own and there’s a producer there for them,” Safran explains. “But there was no producer here, so they had me and a lip sync coach and James, the choreographer.”

Madeleine Stowe (Revenge), appearing in her first ever musical as movie star Margot, notes the gap between expectation and execution. “You would think you could just do it because we do it in our cars all the time, but there’s so many small nuanced details and if you just do it, you’re wrong,” she explains. “One of the things we tend to do is open our mouths more when we’re doing it than a singer would because that’s one of the ways we sell it.”

With the help of a coach, the cast learned the two keys to nailing a lip sync number — breath control and repetition. Even for Jenna DewanSoundtrack’s Joanna, who has plenty of experience dancing on camera, it was an eye-opening experience. “It’s wholly different and a lot more difficult than I ever imagined it to be,” she tells EW. “I have a completely new respect for pop stars and anyone that has ever had to lip sync to their own music. You want to match the song exactly, but also infuse your own stamp on it and your own emotional arc on it for the character. It’s fun, but it’s challenging.”

Parrish Lewis/Netflix

As Megan Ferguson, who plays Gigi, explains it, it’s about listening to more than the words — you have to listen to the breaths in between the words. “They suggested you learn the breath of the singer in the song, so when they inhale and those micro moments right before a word — are they hesitating? are they early? Is it a loud sound?”

“You have to learn the breath-work exactly how they do it in the song. You can’t just speak the words,” adds Dewan. “You actually have to act it as your character, so there’s a lot going on at once and there’s a lot to think about to make the numbers really shine. And putting your own spin on it. You don’t want to just do what you’ve seen in the music video.”

That also means you have to know every inch of the song inside and out. “Repetition,” star Paul James, who portrays aspiring musician Sam, stresses. “Literally listening to the songs when you’re doing the dishes. When you’re in the shower. Some were easy — the ones you know. There was an app we used so you can slow down the music.”

“I listened to them all day and all night,” adds Ferguson. “I had it playing in my head on repeat. If we filmed the song that day, however many days before I would only listen to that song. I never got tired of them, which is a sign of a good song.”

Once the actors have the words and breath-work down, then it’s time to add further complications — acting the emotional tone of the song, intricate choreography, paying attention to camera movements and more. It’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your belly. “You’re literally like ‘Jesus take the wheel,'” jokes Ferguson. “Maybe you get all the words one time, but not the steps. Maybe you get the steps next time and not all the words. Hopefully they can cut it all together and focus on the background dancers if you didn’t [get it].”

James quips that he quickly found an easy solution for attempting to keep straight his attempts to mouth the words, nail his dance moves, and play to camera. “If you don’t remember, just turn your head away from camera,” he suggests. “If you’ve lost it, turn your head away and no one will ever see it.”

The cast hold varying opinions on whether actually singing along is helpful or not. “It’s lip syncing because they take out our own voice, but when you’re filming it, you’re singing it at the top of your lungs,” proclaims Dewan, but in contrast, Ferguson says, ” I absolutely did not do that because that would be highly humiliating. But that helped some people have your body look like you’re actually singing. I sort of whisper sang.”

Ultimately, the number one imperative was to ground the lip-syncing in the overall performance. Acting the song became the key objective, as opposed to anything else. “It really relied on the acting,” explains Callie Hernandez, who plays one-half of a romantic duo as Nellie. “Whatever we had just come off of — that would guide the vibe or the energy of going into the dance or the songs.”

That was particularly evident in scenes where they didn’t have physical action or dance moves to fall back on. “It was a difficult leap to make. You just do it and it’s nerve-wracking,” explains Stowe. “The more physical a piece was, the easier it was to do.”

Hernandez also cites a number from episode 6, explaining that it had less dancing and singing than most of her numbers. “It didn’t have as much direction or structure,” she says. “I struggled with that because I didn’t have certain things to do.”

Though the lip-syncing ended up being a far greater challenge than any of them anticipated, it was also the chance to indulge some childhood fantasies. “I wasn’t completely sure how that was going to look and how I was going to pull it off,” says Hernandez. “But something switched in my brain, and I was like, ‘Oh this is my five-year-old dream. This is what I did when I was a child — just sing and be in my own music videos. It was my favorite thing to do — pretending.”

Soundtrack is available on Netflix now.

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