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Christina Aguilera’s career is built of bold moves – be it the “Beautiful” video, with its tight shots of men making out, or musically shifting from shameless pop to futuristic mode, as she did on this year’s album “Bionic.”
The powerhouse vocalist, who turns 30 in December, takes the plunge again with her first film out nationwide this weekend, “Burlesque,” playing not some rinky-dink character, but the lead.
“My goal wasn’t to star in a leading position but be part of a great film and have a couple of lines and get my feet wet – boy, that didn’t happen!” says Aguilera, who plays Ali, a girl with dreams too big for her small town.
After shooting down many scripts, Aguilera felt a special connection to “Burlesque,” writer-director Steven Antin’s first major movie that he describes as “a call-back to the old, fabulous MGM musicals.” She already knew the art form well, too: “I have a collection of burlesque books at home that I’ve had for years,” she says. “I’ve just always been intrigued and fascinated with the topic, and the beauty and heart and comedic value of it. It’s a beautiful, empowering thing for women.”
Promoting the film at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., with her dog Stinky in tow, Aguilera slurps some chicken noodle soup – pausing at one point to scold her assistant because it isn’t up to snuff.
“Soup drama,” she jests with a delicate smile. However edgy Aguilera is, it’s no wonder: she’s dealing with a divorce (she and Jordan Bratman filed in October) and, after “Bionic” bombed, working to find her place in the pop landscape again. Now there’s the gamble of Aguilera’s first film, one that was admittedly more than she bargained for.
“I was wearing so many different hats – more than anybody else on the film,” she says of writing and recording several songs, learning a different dance form and then, of course, actually acting for the first time.
It helped that Aguilera related to Ali, who leaves behind a troubled past in Iowa and stumbles into a swanky Sunset Strip burlesque club run by Tess (Cher). “Her background story came from a place inspired by pain,” Aguilera says of her character. “Lots of people talk about their situations and complain, but they never do anything about it. The thing about Ali that I love is that she makes the decision to leave, and that’s really hard. It really spoke to me.”
That’s not all that locked in Aguilera. Antin and Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper, partners on “Burlesque” and in life, eventually nabbed one of the biggest superstars ever: Cher. Aguilera wasn’t about to miss out on this little diva, big diva moment.
“It’s so weird to say this about the icon and the legend that is Cher, but she’s like an old girlfriend,” Aguilera says. “She’s an incredible person personally and professionally, offering amazing advice, stories, ‘been there, done there.’ She’s one of a kind.”
Antin thought highly of Aguilera too, calling her “the voice of a generation” as he spoke about “Burlesque” in Beverly Hills. From the get-go, the Grammy-winning singer was his first choice to fill the underdog role.
Throughout the 71-day shoot, Antin and the cast worked out huge set ideas and infinitely smaller touches, like the flower Aguilera wears in her hair during the “Bound to You” number – something Antin opposed, but Aguilera and Culpepper rooted for. “Little things like that, to very big things, were a constant conversation and collaboration,” she says.
A sneaky smile cuts across Aguilera’s face as she busts into a wicked snicker. “And guess who still had the flower in her hair?”
Another dialogue emerged over a Cher-Christina duet, which was discussed but never recorded. “We already had so much music involved – even Cher’s ballad (“You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” written by Diane Warren) came late in the game – and it was hard for everyone to agree on a song (for the movie), I think,” Aguilera says.
While shooting, Antin invited both actresses – and undoubtedly two of the world’s biggest gay icons – to view their scenes after they wrapped. Cher wouldn’t because she doesn’t watch herself, but Aguilera referenced them for future takes, according to the director.
“When she would really nail a take and have a wonderful moment I would want to celebrate it with her,” Antin says. “Sometimes I’d want her to see it so she knew, when I was shooting other angles, what I wanted her to go for.”
One scene caught many angles – not of Aguilera, but rather “Twilight” cutie Cam Gigandet, her crush in the film. “I hope they love this guy just as much,” he says of his evil onscreen persona, James, in the vampire saga.
What’s not to love? He’s naked so often his abs should have an end credit.
“It’s always kind of tricky,” Gigandet says, demonstrating with a tablecloth the sliver of fabric hiding his bits from everyone on set. “I had to take it out of my mind that it was actually Christina Aguilera, because she’s… Christina Aguilera! But after a while, she’s even bored by it all.”
In the scene, he strategically shields his junk with a box of Famous Amos cookies. Surely that won’t bore the millions of gay men watching – not that Gigandet, who isn’t one of them, cares how many guys gawk. In fact, “I hope there’s more!” he says.
And there very well might be, considering how over the rainbow “Burlesque” actually is: diva-duo Cher and Christina Aguilera aside, there’s Alan Cumming and the gay-for-pay Stanley Tucci. There’s splashy fashion and fun, throwback music. And there’s eyeliner, which Gigandet rocks during his lounge scenes. That, without the excuse that he’s part of some emo punk-pop band, leads Aguilera’s character to believe that he’s, ahem, gay.
Aguilera’s fell into this trap before. Biting her straw and laughing, she says: “I did have an ex-boyfriend that left me for a gay man at one point in my life.”
Acting, Cher, gay boyfriends – there’s a first time for everything.
Xtina talks new music, being bullied and supporting LGBTs
On supporting the gay community
When people aren’t being heard, aren’t being seen or aren’t being treated fairly or equally because of their own individual choices or who they are, I really stick up for them. It means a lot to me to put it out there, say in my music video for “Beautiful,” for example. So yeah, I’m very supportive of the gay community.
On being bullied
I have my own issues with feeling alienated as a kid. In school, doing what I did and maybe being a little smaller, I was definitely bullied for the attention that I got. It was definitely unwanted attention and there was a lot of unfairness about it, so I’m sensitive to that.
On new music
After the movie, I am a changed woman. I’m in a very introspective place right now, and I’m really into putting my heart out on paper. The last album I made was a little more playful in nature; I’d just had my son (2-year-old Max) and I wanted to experiment with an electronica sound. Now I want to get back to my roots.
On writing ‘Burlesque’ songs
It was a little out of body. I definitely wanted to write from her point of view and make sure it was about her, and not myself. But we do share some of the same issues. Ali didn’t really grow up with a father; I didn’t really grow up with a father. There’s vulnerability, but there’s also a fearlessness quality where she’s going to charge forward and go for it. I admire that.
On what she’d tell her younger self
I wouldn’t really advise her to do anything differently. Any mistakes that I might have made, or any failures I might have had over the years, aren’t, because they’re all lessons. I’m very proud of my body of work. I would only tell her: “Don’t change a thing, keep your head held high and keep working hard.”