'Rocky Horror' Team Creates a 'Place for Outsiders to Feel at Home': On the Set of Fox Musical Remake

Miranda Penn Turin/FOX
The cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do The Time Warp Again. 

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again" premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET.

Darkness has fallen in Toronto, a prime destination for American moviemakers, where the cityscape can easily stand in for New York or Chicago -- and for the highly particular setting of a Transylvanian Convention.

For the making of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again -- the Fox musical premiering Thursday night (Oct. 20) at 8 p.m. ET -- there is a gigantic gothic castle, Casa Loma, which rivals Windsor’s The Oakley Court, where the original Rocky Horror was shot in the '70s. On this evening’s set visit by Billboard in early April, which runs well past midnight because Adam Lambert is only in town for a few days to shoot his cameo as Eddie, the location is a soundstage, not the popular tourist attraction at which they already shot a chase scene in the tunnels.

Inside the Rival film production lot, in a nondescript building, madness takes its toll for director Kenny Ortega’s “reimagining” of the campy cult classic . Actors and dancers -- lead and background -- are dressed in garb suited for Halloween (of course, Rocky Horror Picture Show characters have been favorite costumes for 40 years), glam bands or a regular night at a club or EDM festival. Hair is brightly colored; makeup is art; heels are high; clothes are studded, spiked and sparkly. The rock 'n' roller in you might even want some pieces, by costume designer William Ivey Long, in your wardrobe. 

And there on the set replicating the inside of a castle is the sonic transducer, famously described as “some kind of audio-vibratory-physio-molecular transport device.” It’s just one of the gismos inside the wacky, out-of-this-world laboratory digs of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania (played by Laverne Cox of Orange Is the New Black), who is also an alien that seduces a prudish couple (Ryan McCartan as Brad Majors and Victoria Justice as Janet Weiss) who knock on the door when their car breaks down in a rainstorm.

Yes, boys and girls, if you aren’t familiar with the sci-fi/B-movie genre parody Rocky Horror, featuring Tim Curry in the iconic lead role (he plays the criminologist in this version), you’re probably having an “are you kidding me?” moment right now.

“You came on a magical night,” says Annaleigh Ashford, who plays groupie Columbia. “Eddie, my boyfriend, has been frozen and Dr. Frank-N-Furter used part of his brain to make his Frankenstein, which is Rocky.”

Murder, seduction, sex, cross-dressing, singing, dancing, a laboratory-made, gold-spandex-shorts-wearing Adonis boy-toy -- it’s a wonder such a storyline (originally a 1973 stage production by Richard O’Brien then the 1975 film directed by Jim Sharman) got made into a musical and film 40-plus years ago. But then to redo such a legendary work? That is as daring as some of Frank-N-Furter’s outfits. 

“It’s a brilliant film and it’s so campy and it is so weird and the original is so amazing and Tim Curry is fabulous, but what we're bringing to it is really exciting too, reimagining it,” says Justice, who takes on Susan Sarandon’s role. “The production value has been amped up, the choreography has been amped up, and I’m so excited for everyone to see it.”

“There is a level of risk attached to [remaking it], but nothing great happens without a risk,” notes Staz Nair, who plays the aforementioned boy toy Rocky and is sitting for the Billboard interview wearing the requisite shorts.

“We’ve got so many great members of this team that are from the original production who are really making sure that we stay true to the original, but that being said, we are very keen to opening it to a new demographic, because unfortunately Rocky Horror Picture Show is slightly out of the age range of the new generation of children and the millennial children. We’re really keen to show that, not to say, ‘Look, we can do it better and new,’ but ‘This is what Rocky Horror is,’ so they'll go back and watch the original and compare the two.”

The cast members -- Cox, Nair, Lambert, McCartan, Justice, Ashford, Reeve Carney (Riff Raff) and Christina Milian (Magenta) -- who spoke with Billboard in between takes for Lambert’s “Hot Patootie! Bless My Soul” scene, complete with motorcycle, were just loving the experience of working with Ortega, who directed High School Musical, and getting to dress up in such cool costumes and makeup. But they all saw a bigger picture for a film that some conservatives, even today -- 40 years later -- would find inappropriate and unsuitable for young people. 

“It’s about liberation, the freedom to be whoever you want to be and the freedom to conquer whatever you feel you need to conquer,” says Nair.

Carney agrees: “I think it’s a place for outsiders to feel at home. That’s why I relate to it, and I think a lot of people do and why it’s lasted as long as it has.”

“Day by day and decade by decade, we’re becoming more open-minded,” believes Milian. “Times are changing constantly and consistently. All the actors when we came into this, I knew we would all connect because to play these roles, you have to have an open mind. 

“There’s a sense of freedom in realizing there are guys in heels dancing and it’s not a joke; it’s part of their world," she adds. "It’s what it is. And it’s like nothing. So I hope they all watch it with rose-tinted glasses and see the beauty in how fantastic it is and how well they play their roles.”

Cox, a trailblazer, has no doubt benefited from the changing attitudes of this decade, as the first trans woman to have a role on a major TV series and now on a made-for-TV film in an iconic role. There is a long way to go for trans people, but the fact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again has been made for prime time on a major network is evidence that the people at the top are opening their minds too.

“To even have a job and have a career, it’s not lost on me that this society is not set up for black transgender women to succeed, for us to live our dreams. So every day I’m very aware that I am a black transgender woman who is No. 1 on the call sheet for a really big-budget TV movie. And that’s a really special thing for me and I hope it inspires a lot of people and I hope people are super excited about what we bring to this legendary film.”