Interview by Jana Letonja

Triple threat Madison Thompson is starring in Paramount+ series ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’, which premiered this April. Most recently she was seen in the third season of Netflix’s Emmy-winning hit ‘Ozark’ and in the Amazon film ‘Emergency’.

Madison, you are starring in Paramount+’s ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’. Have you watched ‘Grease’ before you got cast on this series and how excited were you when you booked this role?

Joining this show was a dream come true. I have watched the original ‘Grease’ movie so many times, but what seemed to be a bigger part of my upbringing was the music. Growing up, I listened to the ‘Grease’ soundtrack non-stop. My dad even had the original vinyl from his childhood and we would play it on the record player. Not to mention, I am a total theater kid, so I was a huge fan of the original broadway musical too. I begged my highschool theater teacher to let us perform ‘Grease’ my senior year because I have always wanted to play the role of Sandy. We never ended up doing ‘Grease’, but little did I know one day I would get to originate a character in this incredible universe. 

In the series, you play Susan, one of the most popular girls at Rydell High, a bit of a drama queen and the main source of conflict for the Pink Ladies. Would you describe Susan as a really stereotypical mean girl?

Susan is not the villain of ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’, but she is definetly the antagonist of this story. When developing the character with our brilliant creative team, it was always my goal to make sure that Susan didn’t turn into the stereotypical blonde mean girl or ‘Regina George’. As the season develops, the audience really gets to learn more about Susan’s home life and past, which inform a lot of her not as nice tendencies. I wanted to make sure that all of Susan’s lines were delivered with truth. While some might interpret her choices or words as mean, Susan is never saying them with mean intension. She is simply trying to protect herself, her reputation or friends. 

Major spolier alert. What a lot of people don’t realize in the pilot is that Susan is a very broken and flawed character. Audiences eventually find out that she has a very mean mother and Susan also has a big secret. She had an abortion of Buddy Aldridge’s baby. This was a traumatic experience, especially in a time period in which women’s reproductive health was not prioritized. Therefore, she is extra on edge to protect her reputation and make sure that no one knows what actually happened to her. She is essentially trauma bonded to Buddy, without Buddy knowing, and will do whatever it takes to protect herself and his future, even if it means ruffling a few feathers to save her own future. Susan is not the villain, the 1950s is. 

What excites you the most about portraying Susan?

It is not often that young female roles are written to be so nuanced and accurately flawed. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be a part of such an iconic universe, to dance and sing, and to get to play a character with such an interesting arc. 

Another favorite part about playing Susan is her over-the-top wardrobe and glam. I think I spent the most time of any character in hair and make-up because Susan has such a specific, glamorous style. Everything about her apperance must be perfect because it is essential to who she is as a character. Half of who Susan is is the fake perfect persona she puts on. Blonde coiffed curls, tailored clothes, bright colors, clean nails, glammy and chic make-up that would reflect the bombshells she looked up to from the era. 

What would you describe as the most fun part of filming ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’?

My favorite days on set were by far our musical numbers. We did 31 musical numbers this season with 30 original songs and one ‘Grease’ cover. We spent so many hours in voice lessons, the recording studio, dance training, dance rehersals, camera rehersals and costuming fittings that mounting a musical number was like opening night on Broadway. Our crew was always a spectacular audience. 

One of my personal highlights was shooting the ‘Girls Can’t Drive’ musical number in Episode 6. This is Susan’s first solo musical number in the series. It was a dream come true to work alongside the legendary choreographer and director Jamal Sims and sing the songs of Justin Tranter, who has written numerous pop hits. I even got to stunt drive a car.

At the age of 10, you began performing in a wide range of musical theater roles, from Ariel in Footloose to Brigitta in The Sound of Music. How much does being able to musically perform on TV mean to you?

Peforming on a musical series is fulfilling my biggest childhood dream. I have been training for what feels like my entire life. Working on our show is three times the amount of work of a normal film project. We have so much more prep, learning songs, recording, dance rehersals and filming dance sequences on top of a 60-minute episode of normal scenes. All this hard work makes it even more rewarding when the show comes togehter. 

Now that I have gotten a taste for it and a lot of expeience under my belt, I hope to continue doing more musical projeccts throughout my career, whether that be movie musicals or Broadway itself. One of my dream roles would be to play Heather Chandler in my favorite musical ‘Heathers’, on screen or stage.

What or who inspired you the most to begin a career in acting?

I never really planned to have a career in acting and my TV/film career all happened because of a mistake. I loved doing musical theater and performed on stage in my school and local productions. I begged my mom to let me take theater in an afterschool program and sign-ups had already ended, so my mom signed me up for the only class she could find, not realizing it was a TV/film class. I fell in love with the class and made so many friends. It all started because I loved the connections and friendships I was making. However, once I graduated from the course I was scouted by an agent and manager and started booking jobs. Then I realized I could do what I love and be paid.

What really has kept me in acting so long is the incredible women in the industry that I look up to and aspire to be one day. My main source of inspiration is Reese Witherspoon. Not only am I a superfan of her movies, but I admire her drive as a producer and social activist. In the next stage of my career, I want to start developing and producing TV and film projects and I find a lot of guidance and support from following her journey. 

Before ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’ fans were able to watch you in Netflix’s Emmy-winning hit ‘Ozark’. How fun was it starring in a crime drama series? What kind of roles excite you the most?

I often describe my experience on ‘Ozark’ as the best acting class I have ever taken. The show was a well-oiled machine led by the most compassionate and hardworking people. I am still so close with many of them. Working on a drama series is very fulfilling as an actor. It is a challenge mentally and emotionally and I always felt much gratitude to work opposite heavy hitters like Laura Linney, Jason Bateman, Julia Garner and Janet McTeer. 

The transition from ‘Ozark’ to ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’ might be the best indicator of what kinds of roles excite me the most, dramatically different ones. I love completely transforming myself physically, vocally and energetically to build new character worlds. I love the challenge and the experience of doing something completely new. After coming off of ‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’, I am really looking to sink my teeth into roles that are grounded, flawed, grungy and a little messy after playing such a coiffed, melodramatic character. Switching up my roles from drama to comedy to musical keeps my acting tools and choices fresh.

In addition to your professional acting career, you are a full-time student at the University of Southern California, where you are a Presidential Merit Scholar and pursuing a Business Degree in Cinematic Arts and minoring in Musical Theater. Why do you believe education is so important for young women?

Education is something that has always been important to my family and to me. I think education gives people, especially young women, the opportunity to transcend the limitations put on their life or upbringing and build empathy for others. Education imparts knowledge and knowledge informs power. With education, young women are better able to understand their rights and abilities, protect themselves, as well fight for the rights of others. 

I am specifically very passionate about Arts education. The Arts change lives. No matter what field one goes into or what career path a young person takes, the Arts can be essential to building skills to push them to be leaders of their respective fields. It teaches skills like creativity, public speaking, collaboration, communication and fosters a strong sense of community. 

What made you decide to pursue a Business Degree in Cinematic Arts? What are your ultimate career goals in life?

One of the main reasons I pursued a business degree is because, not so secretly, I love math. I also enjoy the study of finance, entrepreneurship and commerce. When I was looking at college degree programs, I decided I wanted to do a Business Degree in Cinematic Arts because I thought it would perfectly complement my acting career. I had already taken hundreds of acting classes, but I lacked education on how the industry worked at large. Actors are often the last piece of the puzzle in a production, but I wanted to know how a production works from start to finish and who got it there.

Long term I want to be a multi-hyphenate. Actor, entrepreneur, producer, philanthropist. I hope that my business degree combined with my experience as a younger performer will help me reach my goal of producing and eventually starting a business one day. 

Madison, what can you share with us about your upcoming projects?

Unfortunately, there is not much I am allowed to share right now. One of the only things I can share is that I have some projects I have been personally developing for some time and I am excited to share with the world. I do always have an ongoing list of dream projects, though. My top ones at the moment are ‘Marvel’, rom-coms and Reese Witherspoon and ‘Hello Sunshine’.

I am a huge ‘Marvel’ fan and am heavily anticipating upcoming ‘X-Men’ projects they are developing. There are so many powerful women in that slate that I would want to play, like Emma Frost or Rogue.

My favorite movies to watch are the classic 90s rom-coms like ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’ and ‘Pretty Woman’. I am so nostalgic for these movies and think we need to start developing more of them again. I would love to play a lead in a rom-com.

I could go on and on about my adoration for ‘Hello Sunshine’, but my dream would be to collaborate on a project and play opposite Reese Witheerspoon as her daughter in a movie. Maybe a film about the dynamic of southern mothers and daughters, an experience that both of us share as southern women.

photographer EMILY SANDIFER
styling AMANDA LIM