Identity

Netflix's 'The Get Down' Celebrates Disco—The Show's Young Stars Tolerate It

Baz Luhrmann's first foray into TV centers around the music that came out of the Bronx in the 1970s. We talked to some of the actors about making "Boogie Now" playlists and gorging on disco to bring the era to life.

by Gabby Bess
Aug 12 2016, 2:25pm

From left: Herizen Guardiola, Stefanee Martin, and Shyrley Rodriguez. All photos by Leah James

Netflix's new original series The Get Down is at once about the early days of hip-hop, the height of disco, the fraught political atmosphere of the South Bronx in the 1970s, and falling in love and growing up amidst it all. The resulting show—a quasi-musical executive-produced by Baz Luhrmann—is as frenetic as that sounds, but its young stars cut through.

There are a lot of plotlines that weave throughout the series—which premieres in two parts; the first hits the streaming service this week—but things center on a high-school boy named Ezekiel (Justice Smith), who writes poems and dreams of being an MC at a titular get down, and a high-school girl, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), who dreams of being a disco star despite her strict, religious parents. Their concurrent hustles and love story are the most magnetic parts of the show. Also a delight are their crews. Ezekiel's includes Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks); Dizzee (Jaden Smith), who loves wearing a vest with a fur collar and makes street art; and aspiring DJ Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), who is under the tutelage of Grandmaster Flash.

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Mylene has her girls, of course: Yolanda (Stefanee Martin) and Regina (Shyrley Rodriguez), who, in the pilot, help Mylene sneak out under the nose of her mean dad and go to a disco club, Les Inferno, so she can be discovered in a dance competition. Mylene sheds her dad-approved clothes in favor of a shiny gold halter dress. Her friends are in shiny outfits of their own.

When I went to Queens to talk with the girls at a stripped-down version of the Les Inferno set, Guardiola explained their friendship, on screen and off, this way: "Our characters' friendship is a lot like how we are in real life. We just got each other's backs. We're down for each other. Being in the Bronx, in a place where there's a lot of chaos, you have to find your day ones and the people that ground you. That's what we are to each other," she said.

She added, for emphasis: "We're kind of like the Powerpuff Girls. We have Blossom, who's the leader—that's Mylene. Yolanda would be Bubbles, and Regina is Buttercup, because she is a badass."

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Luhrmann told the publication that he casted young, unknown actors because "there aren't a lot of 17-, 18-year-old, bankable, African-American, Latino superstars hanging around," but he certainly did find talent. The fresh faces—many of whom count the The Get Down as their first acting job—do an impressive job of filling the show with life and authenticity. It's probably because they're having so much fun themselves.

"We have a lot of fun [on set]. Baz will let us improvise and run with our suggestions," Guardiola said. "But sometimes I'll say like, 'Bro,' or something so 2016, and they'll be like, 'OK, you gotta stick to the script.'"

"It still feels like a dream," Rodriguez, who recently graduated from Rutgers, told me. "When I first got on set I was like, wow, there's cameramen! And there's Baz Luhrmann! And there's Jaden Smith!" (After a period of reverence, she and Smith are now good friends. "He's really down-to-earth and cool. I love talking with him because our conversations are so abnormal," she said. "I love to talk about the universe and birth.")

Similarly, Martin, who just graduated from the American Conservatory Theater, can't believe she got a job like this right out of school. "I thought I was going to play Hermia in every single regional theater and be broke, and then maybe, eventually, possibly get a Kmart commercial—and then maybe one day I could be on Broadway?" she said. "So this is the complete opposite of everything I thought for myself. It's been a wild ride."

Indeed, being plucked from obscurity to feature in Baz Luhrmann's first TV project is certainly a dream, but I learned that the 20-something stars of the series have, well, mixed feelings about the era they portray.

Disco isn't terrible, but it should definitely stay in the 70s.

The fashion isn't a problem. "I love the clothes," Rodriguez said. "Even when they spray and tease out my hair, I think it looks cool. When we're in hair and makeup, we really do look like we belong in the 70s."

"I like the boys' clothes, and I like the Afros," Guardiola added.

But the most divisive topic amongst them is disco. On one hand, Rodriguez dove into the opportunity to explore the much-maligned genre. "I was only familiar with the music I heard on the radio—like, things that you sing along to because you've heard so much. But there's still so much I hadn't heard, so I really got into it through listening to more of the music," she said of preparing for her role. "I started a playlist for the show called 'Boogie Now,'" she added with a laugh. "It's still on my Spotify."

But Guardiola—whose character, Mylene, loves Donna Summer and wants to be the next big thing in disco—isn't exactly as enthusiastic. She comes from a dance and music background, and while she's never had any formal acting training, she's trained in ballet and acrobatics. I asked her if she had perviously done any disco dancing. "Oh, God no," she said, shuddering. "I've come to tolerate disco. There are some songs that I like." She reassessed. "My character's journey is very different from a journey I would take. But it's really fun to execute it."

Still, when one of the girls started singing a disco song that Mylene performs in the show, she shuddered again. "Don't do that," she said. "That was, like, a trigger."

She halfheartedly did the corresponding dance moves like a reflex, and then turned to me. "You'll see," she warned. "I mean, disco isn't terrible, but it should definitely stay in the 70s. I like the hip-hop, though, which is the real story of The Get Down."