It’s rare for the unknown cast of a show still months from debuting to walk the red carpet at the Met Gala, the annual A-list orgy, billed as the Super Bowl of Fashion, to which a prized ticket might be the entertainment industry’s hottest commodity.
It’s a whole other thing, however, for that cast to be responsible for people actually having fun.
“I’m gonna be honest with you,” Shameik Moore says. The 21-year-old star of The Get Down glances at a publicist anxiously shaking her head at the frightful thought, but Moore, still new to this, just laughs and continues.
“I like to have fun when I go somewhere. I don’t like to stand around, everybody being famous and drinking. Look, let’s have a conversation: ‘How are you, sir? You doing good today?’”
The Met Gala experience Moore is describing isn’t alien to us—Gwyneth Paltrow famously branded the soiree “un-fun” and vowed never to go again. But maybe the GOOP maven should rethink her stance now that The Get Down stars have made the guest list.
Moore attended the event alongside his young co-stars from Netflix’s epic new series, set in the South Bronx in the 1970s, creator Baz Luhrmann, and the legend whose life story served as rough source material for the hip-hop fairytale: Grandmaster Flash.
“I remember Grandmaster Flash got on stage and we all looked at Baz and just pointed up to the stage, too, and we all knew what he meant,” Moore says. “We just ran up there and started dancing and the whole place started dancing.”
At the biggest celebrity event of the year in a room full of the greatest entertainers of our time (Beyoncé was there, for one), it was the anonymous cast of a mysterious show that lit up the room. “That was a party, and it was affected by the Get Down brothers,” Moore says, while his co-star, Justice Smith, laughs by his side. “That’s all I’m trying to say.”
Of course, watch five minutes of The Get Down—or better yet, spend five minutes talking with its young cast—and it’s hard to be surprised by these actors’ unbridled, un-self-conscious charisma. These are students of Baz Luhrmann, after all. Subtlety likely wasn’t a major part of the coursework.
The Get Down premieres Friday on Netflix, unfurling a musical drama about a group of black and Puerto Rican teenagers living in the Bronx in 1977, at the time when the end of disco intersected with the dawn of hip-hop, and cultural tensions in a neighborhood literally on fire were about to ignite a new social movement.
It’s grand and messy and poetic and immediate and sweeping and all those things you think when you think of the ever-ambitious visionary behind Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby. It also boasts an untested but undeniably striking cast of new names.
Smith, 20, plays hopeless romantic Ezekiel, whose dogged pursuit of of the object of his affection, Mylene (20-year-old Herizen Guardiola), is buoyed by his knack for scripting powerful verse and rhymes—a talent that eventually has him partnering with Shaolin Fanastic (Moore’s character), one of the first DJ spinners on the cusp of greatness.
While the Bronx is literally burning at one of the bleakest times in the neighborhood’s history, these teenagers explode with the beauty of hope and passion. If only the curse of their circumstances would let them achieve their dreams—not to mention a baddie disco club owner named Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, at 30 years old, the elder statesman of the Get Down breakouts), who’s determined to stave off the coming cultural explosion.
“If you look at the story of The Get Down, it’s the story of young people, unknowns thrown together by their resources, trying to create something,” Abdul-Mateen says. “They’re on the brink of something. That’s very similar to us as actors.”
Collectively, the cast is one giant Cinderella story.
Guardiola, who sings and dances as aspiring disco queen Mylene, was homeschooled and finishing high school when she was cast, hustling as a street performer on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and playing acoustic nights in Venice at Full Circle, a sort-of spirituality based community center.
Smith grew up with the parents who were singers, the exact middle child of eight brothers and sisters. On the way to The Get Down he landed an Apple commercial and a Nickelodeon sitcom called The Thundermans. Moore, whose Shaolin Fantastic has been described as “a South Bronx Gatsby to Justice Smith’s Nick Carraway,” might have been the best known of the young cast, having starred in last year’s indie breakout Dope.
In the middle of he and Smith riffing on what a strange and invigorating experience the whopping 18-month Get Down shoot has been, marveling at how unlike the show is from anything else on TV, he doesn’t hesitate to throw down a little braggadocio: “The kind of project this is, we’re definitely going to be some of the most famous actors of this generation. Based on just this project alone.”
Then there’s Abdul-Mateen, who’s had probably the most unlikely journey to the fictionalized South Bronx. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in architecture, he worked as a city planner at the San Francisco Mayor’s Office. When he found himself unexpectedly laid off, he set a three-year deadline to make it as an actor.
Within a year he was enrolled at the Yale School of Drama, spending summers on stage at The Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, and eventually on set with Baz Luhrmann.
Was it hard to get in the mindset of the seedy, trashy Cadillac, the arrogant antithesis to the hope and ambition of his younger co-stars?
“Once I put on the costumes I had everything I needed in order to play this guy,” he says, laughing as he remembers the ’70s wardrobe. “There’s so much audacity about the guy who’s going to put on that white suit, that snakeskin green shirt, the lime green pants, or what I like to call my gingerbread suit: the monotone peanut butter-colored suit.”
Smith and Moore argue over whether the audition process took four or five days. “Slowly each day people got killed off until it was just us,” Smith says. As soon as they were all cast, Guardiola remembers, they were whisked off to what they called “the Dojo”: a boot camp of sorts where the cast rehearsed the musical numbers, practiced freestyling, and studied the educational care packages—books, DVDs—Luhrmann gifted each of them to immerse themselves entirely in the ’70s.
“I felt like a ’70s kid to the point that I’d use the lingo with my friends afterwards and they’d just stare at me like, ‘What did you say?’”
They’d have rap classes with Kurtis Blow and Rahiem from the Furious Five. Grandmaster Flash would come and hit the turntables to teach spinning.
“I remember in one corner Shameik would be breakdancing and in another corner Herizen and Yahya would be practicing their Hustle,” Smith says. “And then over there Mamoudou Athie, who plays Grandmaster Flash on the show, would be practicing his DJ-ing, and I’d be over on the mic practicing the rhymes for the show.” Taking a breath, he fawns: “Like all these subgenres of hip-hop coming together in this space.”
The lead-up to Friday’s Get Down launch, of course, is hardly as idyllic as the cast’s excitement might portray. The troubled production went so far over the budget—surging to a whopping $120 million overall, astronomical for a TV series—suffered so many delays, creative differences, story rewrites, and change of hands that, as reported by Variety, the show at one point was nicknamed “The Shut Down” on set.
“There were no secrets about the difficulties,” Moore insists, when asked about the delays. “There were difficult times, but we always knew that we were doing this so that the end product would be what we wanted it to be.”
Then that neophyte, energetic optimism kicks back in: “When people talk about The Get Down they’ll talk about the quality of the work, and they’ll talk about how unconventional the show is,” he says. “They’ll talk about how groundbreaking it is in its format and what the show is aspiring to do. And they won’t talk about the other things, because that was just a byproduct of our ambition.”