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Madison Thompson

1883 Magazine chats with Madison Thompson about Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, her dreams of working with Reese Witherspoon, and more.

Madison Thompson was born to do this. The triple threat has been putting on one-woman shows for her family as long as her memory can recall. Growing up with a bedroom lined with musical Playbills and show tunes in the speakers in her childhood home, she’s finally booked her dream role – Thompson currently stars as Susan, queen of Rydell High, in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies on Paramount+. 

Not your typical mean girl, there’s a depth to Susan that can at least be partially credited to Thompson’s training and experience as an actress. Her breakout role was quite an emotional one– she played Erin Pierce (daughter of the Navarro drug cartel attorney Helen Pierce) in the critically acclaimed series, Ozark. And although Susan is an antagonist in the Grease series, halfway through the season you see a different, more vulnerable and almost insecure side of her, which Thompson translates delightfully on screen. Behind the camera, Thompson played a huge role in Susan’s image, from studying fashion trends set by the actress Sandra Dee to collaborating on mood boards with the show’s costume designer. She embodies Susan in every sense of the word. 

1883 Magazine chats with Thompson about her journey as an actress growing up in Georgia, her love for musical theater, her dreams of working with Reese Witherspoon, and possibly joining the Marvel Comics Universe someday. 

 

I would love to hear a little about your origin story. How did you first get into acting?

Absolutely! So, I have been acting for quite a long time. My parents would say I started right when I was born. I was a pretty animated kid and they were constantly trying to find ways to let me perform– I always wanted to put on a ‘one woman show’ in my bedroom. I think I might have done like 50 shows of Annie where I played every single character and they had to sit through that performance, so they knew from my early age that I really loved to make people laugh and perform. But it really started when I was about fifth or sixth grade. I was in a course in my middle school and they had auditioned for the Sound of Music and they needed kids from the middle school to play the children in the high school show. I was cast in the high school show and I think I might have peaked in that moment!

After that I asked my mom if, instead of going to soccer practice in the afternoons in the Georgia heat, I could go to acting classes. My parents are both lawyers – I don’t really have any family in entertainment so she didn’t really know where to start. Instead of signing me up for a theater or a musical theater class, she accidentally signed me up for a TV film class and the rest is kind of history! I felt like I really found my people there. Because of the change of the tax credits in Atlanta at the time, a ton of film and TV production started happening there, and casting directors and agents would come by our class to find extras for productions, ao I was sort of sucked up unknowingly into the industry being one of the only kids in Georgia that was in the entertainment world. Once I got into high school, I really started taking it seriously and was signed by an agent and spent some time in Los Angeles and got representation out there. And I started doing small guest stars and co-stars on shows like NCIS: New Orleans, getting to work with Scott Bakula, Creepshow & some shows for ABC. And then I kind of kept auditioning, obviously being under the age of 18, there’s a lot of rules and requirements on what you’re allowed to work on.

Once I turned 18, the game kind of changed for me because I looked younger and could kind of play younger roles, but still work the full hours of an adult. My career really changed when I got a very specific audition for a show called Ozark on Netflix. It was actually my third or fourth time auditioning for the show. I had gone in many times and worked with a casting director on other projects and so it came into my inbox and I felt really weirdly, like, I kind of knew I was going to get it. I read the description and I was like, “oh, this is me, I can play this role.” I joined the show and I thought I was joining for two episodes. Two turned into four, turned into five, turned into seven. I really had no idea how big of a role Erin was going to be in that specific season. And then the show came out during the pandemic and it just kind of blew up. It was already a big show, but it really did transform overnight and opened a lot of doors for me. At that point, I really started taking my career seriously. I loved what I did, but you know, you get to a new step in your career when doors like that open and Ozark really opened some amazing doors for me. And I worked on a bunch of things since then; shows like Boo, Bitch on Netflix. I also did a feature with Amazon called Emergency, and then that all sort of led up to the audition process for Grease

 

So it all kind of spiralled from you being like in the right place at the right time in Atlanta, amazing! I was going to ask you about this later, but since you already brought it up, I did want to bring up Ozark. I, obviously, as well as the rest of the world, am a huge fan of that show. What was it like being on such a huge breakout show? And working with such an incredible seasoned cast? 

My first day on set, I walked on and was doing a one-on-one scene with Janet McTeer, who is an absolute legend and she plays my mom. Jason Bateman was directing me and it was just us three. It was a surreal experience, and part of me is glad that I was younger at the time, because I don’t think I realized how big of a deal it was so I didn’t really have the nerves. I think I maybe went in a little too confident, but I felt like that confidence was key on a big show like that, when you’re in these rooms with incredibly prolific actors and heavy hitters, you really can’t second guess your training. After 10 years of training, you take the work and kind of go on autopilot and you just try to be present. It’s a weird combination. You forget all of the things that you have been training for and you just kind of rely on that experience to serve you in the moment. I always say that the show was like the best acting class. Like the best introduction to the industry I could have ever had. I learned so much about the skill it took to shoot a television show, everything from how they light scenes, to camera movements, those are all things that you don’t really get to learn in a classroom. And so to get to learn that along and just work opposite – you know, Janet was such a spectacular person to work opposite. She played my mom and not only is she an incredible actress and just has this amazing intensity, but she’s also such a giving scene partner and was so kind to me and really took me under her wing.

Any time I would look confused or have questions, she would pull me aside and be like, “hey kid, they’re going to turn the camera around and this is what that means. In this scene, you need to give it your all because this is going to be probably the coverage that they use during this part of the season.” Just things that, as a greener actor, you wouldn’t know, and so I’m so fortunate. Also like to get to work with Jason who was simultaneously acting, directing and producing the episode that we were in was just insane. It really opened my mind to what it can look like to work in this industry, and all the incredible positions and jobs and how amazing it can be to be a multihyphenate, and really inspired me to want even more with my career.

 

 

Moving on to Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies – how does it feel to be a part of such an iconic franchise? 

Oh wow. It is the utmost privilege to get to be able to be a part of the Grease universe. I grew up being a total theater kid. I still have musical Playbills all of the walls of my childhood bedroom. Musical theater is one of my first loves, and obviously Grease started as a musical on Broadway before it was even adapted into a film and became the iconic film that we love today. It was just so full circle for me to get to start a musical theater, have this love for musical theater, work on my television and film career, and then it kind of like all come back together in this beautiful project. I grew up loving Grease. My parents are huge Grease fans. My dad had these Friday morning tunes that he would wake us up with to start a good Friday, and on that playlist was a ton of Grease, so I grew up listening to this soundtrack. I had such a love for it. So when this project came into my inbox, it’s one of those pinch me moments of even just getting to go in for it.

 

What specifically drew you to the role of Susan when you decided to audition?

Susan was really interesting to me. Obviously this story is about the rise of the Pink Ladies but I always love antagonists in movies. I wouldn’t say Susan is the villain of this story because I think the villain is really the time period at which the story is set and the social context. But I think Susan is such an interesting character and like, not everything that you see is like what’s going on underneath. That’s something that the series really explores, especially  in the latter half of the season. You really get to hear Susan’s origin story, why she is the way she is and there’s some really incredible twists in her. She’s just a very complex character and it was such an amazing experience to, as an actor, play a character who portrays themselves one way and then when you get into other scenes where she’s, for example, with her mom or by herself, you get to see what’s beneath the surface. And she just became like this dual personality that was so fun to explore, and obviously then you add on the fifties clothes and the wardrobe and the makeup and the hair. She’s really special.

 

I do want to talk about the costumes you mentioned, but before we get there, I want to talk about episode 5. I noticed because she’s not like your typical popular mean girl, and in episode 5 she is starting to show a more  vulnerable and softness when she found out that Buddy didn’t win the election. Did you play any part in developing her character?

Absolutely. So maybe like unknowingly at first, when I was in the audition process, as you’re advancing through the roles, I was not privy to the full extent of her character arc. So I made up a lot of stuff, like a background for her on my own end because in those first couple of episodes she chased this Buddy so aggressively and sticks to this very strict narrative that almost seems hypocritical at a lot of points. And so when I was looking at her I was like, to empathize with this character, I need to understand her point of view. Why is she chasing this boy? Why is she so adamantly against the change that these other women are bringing and quite honestly would do her good as well? What is her perspective? And so for me in the audition process, I made up a lot of other backstory and things that ended up kind of being pretty close to what they had come up with the character. And those things kind of helped me contextualize why she was saying the things she said. My hope is that if people were to go back and rewatch the season, you would see after knowing what you know at the end of the season, you would look at the first five episodes in a different light. And that even when she’s in the drive-in and she said to Jane, “I’m so happy for you,” a lot of people I think might have taken that as a snarky response, but when I was delivering that line, if you go back and look, it is said with like the utmost honesty. Susan is happy for her. She’s never that mean, she doesn’t want bad things, she’s just trying to look out for herself in the same way that these pink ladies are.

 

I definitely could tell that she wasn’t like Regina George-type mean girl.

She’s not the Regina George-type. There’s so much more to her than meets the eye.

 

I also wanted to mention one of my favorite scenes in episode 5– the Halloween party! There was a bit of a shakeup there. What was it like filming that scene? It seemed like it would be a lot of fun. 

It was so much fun. So that scene where she is bringing the Pink Ladies into what is her haunted house, it’s just hysterical because it’s so melodramatic and over the top. That was actually my final test scene for the show, and our showrunner said that it was that scene that booked me the role. So getting to perform that scene was so special because it felt like I was finally delivering. I had gone through this long process to join the show, so many auditions and stuff, and I really loved that scene. It’s so funny and there’s so many moments of comedy, especially between this hysterical dynamic between Susan and Dot and the way that they play off each other is amazing. But my favorite part about shooting in that house was just with the amount of decoration. I mean just start at how crazy everybody’s specific costume is, and then you add in like these textures of all the balloon strings and all of the colors and the characters, I feel like episode five is really when our show hits its stride as an ensemble show and you really get to explore the incredible stories being woven between all these different characters. And that really starts right when they enter Susan’s Halloween Party.

 

I agree! It was chaotic, but in the best way.

Yes!

 

One of my favorite things about this series is the fashion! I read that you had the opportunity to create moodboards and work with the show’s costume and makeup team to help bring your character to life. Can you tell me about what that was like?

Absolutely. Getting to build Susan’s look was one of my favorite parts of the process of building this show. Susan’s character and who she is is so wrapped up in how she presents herself that it’s like really core to her identity as a character. It was also really fun because we started with hair and makeup tests. We had a pretty quick idea what she was going to look like. Obviously they wanted that blonde hair and in a lot of ways she kind of calls back to Sandy in Grease. A lot of the colors, that yellow sweater that she’s wearing– she’s kind of that prim and proper the way Sandy was, but in a different way. She’s also, of all the characters on the show, closest to in the sense of the fashion of the time. She definitely would’ve been the one that was up to date, had all the fashion magazines and definitely was buying all the top styles. Her mom would’ve dressed her to the nines and so she was sort of a princess and everything had to be, from the details down to her nails, to the shoes, how the socks matched the scarf, and how things tied in. And our incredible costume designer, Sam Hawkins, really did all of this research and built out these incredible mood boards. So I would walk into our costume fittings and she would have the Susan mood board up for me and she would have different ideas pulled and I would say, you know what? I really love the way she has this Valero with this dress and I would love for her to wear that in the future episode. And then Sam would take what I felt looked like Susan and felt like the energy of Susan and then would design and reinvent it with the colors and the textures and the fabric in a way that I could have never imagined and would put her own flair on it.

Every morning, I would come into the hair makeup trailer, I mean it would be like four o’clock in the morning, I’d be in sweatpants and no makeup. And by the time I left my trailer two and a half hours later, because I think I spent the most time in hair and makeup and costume than anybody else because her look was so specific, I felt transformed. I would walk a little taller, the way I hold my chin, even like the tone of my voice would change when I would put on Susan, on the face, on my hair, and in my clothes. It was amazing.

 

 

You basically became her! You walked in as you, and left as Susan. Were there any specific designers, fashion lines or fashion icons that inspired you when coming up with inspiration for Susan’s look?

Yes, I don’t think a lot of people know this, but a lot of Susan’s look is based on the actress Sandra Dee, which obviously in the movie and in the song– Rizzo makes Sandra Dee and kind of compares Sandy to Sandra Dee. But Susan’s character was actually based on the costume and style and look of Sandra Dee. And so if you look up photos of her, it’s a lot of her costumes we have taken inspiration from and her hair and makeup looks. I would say like 80% of the mood board was that original actress and like what she looked like during that time period, which is so funny because in the world of Grease, they’re making fun of Sandy for being like Sandra Dee and then you see those parallels with Susan because we based the look of her character off of that actual actress. It’s very full circle

 

I love all of the behind the scenes bits the cast from the show has shared on social media. What’s something that happened behind the scenes on set that’s a standout memory for you?

There are so many. Unfortunately because of Covid, a lot of the time in which we were shooting, we were not allowed to really hang out so a lot of the shenanigans and stuff that you’re seeing on set is like, it’s not put on, that was really the time that we spent bonding together. I think one of my favorite days was when I took a trip to Grouse Mountain with Marissa who plays Jane, Nick who plays Gil, and Maximo who plays Shy Guy. And we kind of just took this excursion and it was snowing up on the top of this mountain and we played in the snow for hours as if we were children. I think our job has a pretty grueling schedule, so to get to spend time with our cast members offset, really bonding, and we built a snowman and everything. It was just like an amazing day and it really just reminded me of how fortunate I was to work on a show with my best friends and truly our cast is so close. We’re close in age, close in a lot of experience and I think that really just adds to the dynamic of our characters that we’re so comfortable with each other. A lot of the playfulness and the improv and the moments that you’re seeing are born out of the fact that we love each other so much and we feel so comfortable to play as actors and that’s really, really special.

 

All of the roles that you’ve booked so far have been very diverse and very different. Is there any type of project that you haven’t tackled yet but have always wanted to?

That is a great question. I have a total bucket list of roles. As you said, I love roles that are so completely different from each other. I think that is what’s so fun about being an actor. I am a huge fan of the MCU and action movies, so I feel like I’ve done a lot of dancing and physical movement and stunts on this show that has really prepared me to hopefully take on a role in the future that is more action focused, and I would love to be a part of the MCU one day. There’s also a lot of actors that I look up to that I would love to work with. One of those is Reese Witherspoon. I am a huge fan of her, not only as an actress but as a producer and as a woman in Hollywood who has made a lot of incredible changes and steps for women. I love her production company, Hello Sunshine and the content they’re creating. So I would love to work on a Hello Sunshine movie and I would love to play Reese’s Daughter in something. That’s definitely on my bucket list. 

 

I can see that!

Yeah, I think if I could pick out any cool project to do next, I would love to do a romcom. As I said, I like to do different things and a romcom is something I’ve never done before. I learned from Grease that I really love working on projects that I’m just as big of a fan of the project that we’re making as everybody else. I’m a Grease super fan and I love romcoms like Pretty Woman and How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days. I am so nostalgic for those incredible films that I would love to start in something like that. Maybe it was Hello Sunshine. They do great romcoms.

 

I feel like that’s a huge gap that we’re missing in 2023, great romcoms!

Absolutely, I feel like we need to bring back the romcoms! 

 

Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies is now streaming on Paramount+.

 

Interview Rachel Martin

Photography Emily Sandifer

Styling Amanda Lim

Hair Clayton Hawkins

Makeup Lilly Keys

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