Life at ballet school means all things Sugar Plum Fairies and pretty pirouettes, right? Not according to Netflix's new teen drama Tiny Pretty Things.
Set at an elite Chicago ballet academy, the series — adapted from the novel by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton — kicks off with one of the school's most promising students, Cassie (Anna Maiche), being pushed off the roof of the building. We told you; not your typical ballet school. While the police try to figure out what went down when Cassie did, the remaining dancers are more concerned with who will replace the prima ballerina. Among them is precocious Bette (Casimere Jollette), who will literally do anything to her unsuspecting classmates to land the lead role, and newcomer Neveah (Kylie Jefferson) who’s determination to change her life drives her to succeed in the dance world.
Along the way, there's a whole lot of pointe work, pliés, and port de bras, made possible by the fact the producers cast real dancers in the lead roles. We talked to stars Jefferson and Jolette about the grueling shoot, when they found out who pushed Cassie and that wild finale cliffhanger.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to be cast on this series?
CASIMERE JOLETTE: Everybody in L.A. knew about this project. As soon as I heard about it, I was like, 'Oh my God, I need to audition.' It was a self-tape and it was the most extensive audition that I've ever gotten. I had three days to do it and I had to find a studio to rent in L.A. while everyone else was trying to rent studios, auditioning for this role. I had to film myself doing a whole ballet class and a pointe class. I had to do partnering. I had to do a whole contemporary piece. Then I had to send the ballet videos along with photos and my acting auditions. I was obsessed. Usually I don't reach out to my agents and my team saying, 'Hey, please let me know!' But this was that project, that perfect, perfect project for me that I had to do that. It was so close to my own personal story, about a ballet school in Chicago and I'm playing this blonde girl ballerina. This is the perfect role for me! I grew up in Chicago, dancing. I trained at a ballet academy. But there's so many blonde ballerinas so it was really difficult and they did a three-times-worldwide search to find the main dancers.
KYLIE JEFFERSON: I wasn't even dancing at the time. I was an assistant for an executive and it got to a point where I needed to part ways. I needed to figure something else out. Tiny Pretty Things was the first thing that came my way, in any sense, audition or work. It took me some time to go for it. I was like, 'Well, I'm not really so much of an actress.' I'd only really take any acting classes as a dancer, but I was like, 'You might as well give it a go,' and I'm really glad that I did. It was so hard to get a studio because they were all booked because everybody was auditioning for the show. I was finally able to get a dance studio at 7 p.m. the night of the deadline. I was up all night trying to edit the video —I think I probably sent it in a little late too. But they wanted to see me in person and then at the call back.
Was it important to you that they cast real dancers and not just actors pretending to dance?
JOLETTE: Yeah and that's why they searched the entire world three times, to try and find the perfect, perfect people for these roles; not only that they have great acting skills, but are professional and real dancers. It's very hard to find a great dancer who can also act. They wanted both of those fields to be equal. So we didn't have stunt doubles. We didn't just film our faces and act like we're moving like Natalie Portman in Black Swan. We fully did all of our dance scenes and we rehearsed four weeks before we started filming. Then in between filming, we'd rehearse for 10 hours on a Saturday and then 10 hours on a Sunday, just getting all our dancing in. I don't think people truly realize how hard us dancers had to work on the show. It was two jobs. I've never been more exhausted, but it was the best experience. Now watching things where they're doing all their own stunts and performances and they're including another art form along with acting, I just give them so much more credit. I know how difficult it is and I hope people will see that.
JEFFERSON: It was honestly my favorite thing about being a part of the show. So often, as a dancer, we watch these movies that have actors that are portraying dancers and there's always times where we're like, 'Oh, that's not how it goes.' We were all so freaking excited to be a part of the conversation, to make sure that everything was really how it goes —making sure that the technique and the vocabulary and all those things were right. We were very verbal about those things and love that our writers on the show always wanted to collaborate and talk it out and make it better.
Once you got on set, how much of your day was taken up by dancing?
JOLETTE: It depends. The big dance scenes with all of the cast when we're in a huge ballet class, those would be 13 to 16 hour days. We were in the studio until 3 a.m., just doing all the dancing and little tiny acting scenes within those dance scenes. The big dance scenes, we would try to cram it all into one day. Then there would be days where I'd show up to set and go and do hair and makeup and then go and do one small dance scene and then be sweating, so I'd have to go back to hair and make up. There were days where we were hopping all over and then also in between these scenes, we would have a dance rehearsal. So if I had a two hour break or an hour break, even, I would have to go into dance rehearsal in between filming scenes, do my dance rehearsal, learn more routines that we had to film the next day and then go back into hair and makeup again because I'm sweating. Where you normally have all this downtime on set, we never had breaks. We never made it to our trailer because we were constantly going from rehearsal to filming.
JEFFERSON: I know myself and Casimere had very, very packed schedules and that meant that sometimes we weren't even able to take ballet class with the rest of the cast. I was personally making sure that I was eating enough and sleeping enough and making sure that I was keeping my body strong. When you're inconsistent with the work, you put yourself at risk for injury. I was like, 'Listen, this is what got me up in this room. I'm gonna make sure I finish strong.' Especially since I didn't really know what was happening on screen with my acting —I never looked behind the camera because I didn't want to psych myself out.
Did you get to improvise much or was it all choreographed?
JEFFERSON: In the scene with [New York City Ballet principal dancer] Tiler Peck, the audition scene for her, that was completely improvised. When we were in the club that was mainly improvised too, though we did placements just to get the timing, the travel patterns for everybody to move in and out etc. They also brought in so many amazing choreographers, so they were very intentional about making sure that we always had different voices in our choreography.
Both of your characters go through a lot in the course of 10 episodes and there's some real personal growth there. Was that fun to get into, acting-wise?
JOLETTE: I was kind of afraid, honestly, to approach Bette because right off the bat, she doesn't seem like the nicest person. She's kind of a bitch. She's very standoffish and she's the mean girl at school. So I was like, 'Okay, how do I make her likable?' Those characters have to have something behind them. Thankfully, they wrote her storyline and her character extremely well and they were able to make it very easy for me to give her that arc, to make her likable and give her something so people can then understand why she's the way she is and feel for her. I didn't want people to look at her and just hate her. They have to grow to like her. I hope I did it justice.
JEFFERSON: Neveah really goes on a journey. For me, it gave me an opportunity to heal from things that maybe I hadn't completely healed from. Neveah really gathered me together, personally and really taught me to show up for myself in a different light and to set a new tone in my life. She really put a fire in my spirit.
There's obviously an extremely competitive atmosphere at the academy on the show. How intense are the rivalries at real ballet school? Assuming no one is pushing anyone off a roof but—
JOLETTE: There's rivalry and friendship at the same time and that's how the dance world. It's so competitive. You live with these people and you work with these people every day, but you're all fighting to get that lead role. We're speaking the truth of the dance world on the show.
Okay, so speaking of competitive spirit, did you guys know who pushed Cassie going in or did the writers keep that from you?
JEFFERSON: They kept it a secret, but when it came out we were like, Boom! Oh, wait, that makes sense!
JOLETTE: It was a mystery to us the entire time. At first, we only had the first two episodes. It was so funny because we'd all be on set filming episodes 1 and 2, then we're like, 'Oh my God, we just got an email for episodes 3 and 4!' We'd be in our trailers together, scrolling through and finding everything out. It would be like that every time. We'd alway just be like, 'Oh my God, what's happening now?!"
What about the season finale cliffhanger, did you have any idea that was coming?
JEFFERSON: What I love about it is that they knew what was going to happen, but they never leaked that information to us because they wanted us to play that mystery as well. I think that helped all of our performances in the end and it made it a lot more fun. None of us had any idea..
Okay, you guys shot in Toronto and are a young cast of dancers, please tell me there were big nights out dancing whenever you had downtime?
JEFFERSON: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean that's just a given.
JOLETTE: I don't know what I was on for those five weeks we were in Toronto, but every weekend — we filmed Monday through Friday — we would go out clubbing. There was this one place in Toronto called Supermarket would go to every Saturday. Everyone would always come to over to my condo and pre-game. We'd go out dancing every weekend and then Sunday we'd get brunch and go shopping. We were never alone. I was never alone. It was just such a great experience and we made such a great group of friends. We're all around the same age, we all share the same passion and we've gone through this life-changing, incredible experience together. It's something we've all dreamed of as dancers. This is our dream role and to experience that with everybody, we didn't want to be alone. We just wanted to live it up.