“The Get Down,” Netflix’s new show about the genesis of hip hop (the first six episodes premiere today), has all the ultra-stylized theater you might expect from creator Baz Luhrmann. But much like the aspiring (and beautifully outfitted and afro-ed) teens making names for themselves in the Bronx in the story, it took a lot for it to get there – and quite a bit of hustling for cash. At upwards of a reported $120 million, Luhrmann’s first TV project ended up snowballing into Netflix’s most expensive series to date, thanks to a nearly three-year saga that included two showrunners, consultants like Nas and Grandmaster Flash, and enough shooting locations to cover most of New York’s boroughs, plus the West Coast.
But while production’s been happening “for eternity now,” in the words of 17-year-old Skylan Brooks, who plays a youngster named Ra-Ra, it’s been well worth the wait. From Jaden Smith and Dope star Shameik Moore to a 15-year-old named Tremaine Brown Jr., who was discovered busking on the train, the cast is a true diverse mix, though all had one thing in common: A love for hip-hop. Still, Luhrmann had some serious history lessons in order — the cast really came together in the Dojo Room, a vaulted space in far-flung Queens where production eventually landed, and where the young actors went through what was essentially a ‘70s bootcamp. A typical afternoon, for example, might include Grandmaster Flash spinning turntables, dialect coaches teaching Bronx slang, Jaden Smith learning to breakdance, and master choreographers Rich and Tone bringing back disco dance moves – often all at once. Meet the cast where it all got down, here.
Shameik Moore You might recognize Shameik Moore from his starring role in Dope, but his ultra-suave part in “The Get Down” is a long way off from nerdy Malcolm: “Shaolin is the original bad boy of hip hop,” Moore said of the graffiti-master-turned-aspiring-DJ he plays. Before filming started, the Atlanta-born 21-year-old stayed with A$AP Rocky, who showed him the city and even became an inspiration for Shaolin. But Moore’s comfortable standing on his own, too: Next up is a short film to go along with the soundtrack he released earlier this year, plus an album to add to his roster of recordings, which includes songs with Pharrell. “I started out with dancing, started singing, started acting, acting blew up, so I’m bringing it full circle,” he said.
Herizen Guardiola Much like her character Mylene, whose passion for singing and disco gets her kicked out of her conservative father’s house, 20-year-old Herizen Guardiola wasn’t allowed to listen to hip-hop growing up in Miami. But though Guardiola took up modeling once she moved to L.A., singing’s always been her passion: “It was just to make money for my music,” she said of first signing with her agency. Eventually, she switched to their theatrical board, got her first gig with “The Get Down,” and started studying up on Diana Ross and Donna Summer, who were the main inspirations for her character. Now that Guardiola’s caught the acting bug, it looks like some action and sci-fi movies are in the works, too: “I kind of want to make the two separate,” she said of her two acting and musical careers (like Moore, she plans to release an album soon).
Tremaine Brown Jr. Tremaine Brown Jr. might be the youngest person on set, but from the get-go, the 15-year-old has had some serious style: When a woman stopped him during his usual freestyling routine on the A train to ask if he’d like to audition for Netflix, the then13-year-old simply handed her a business card. Though he’d never acted before, soon Brown Jr. was performing for Baz Luhrmann and rubbing shoulders with Nas, who he ended up playing in a Forest Whitaker film on a break from “The Get Down.” Though he’d assumed he landed the role at the rapper's recommendation, it turns out his acting chops were better than he thought: Nas actually isn’t involved with the film, so “it’ll be a big surprise,” Brown said with a laugh. As for what’s next? “I’m gonna do more acting and show the world that I do music, too.”
Shyrley Rodriguez Newly graduated from theater school at Rutgers, and a day before turning 22, Shyrley Rodriguez tried out for her first-ever audition and ended up landing the role of Regina, “a fiery wild thing” who’s one of Mylene’s best friends. “It was a nice birthday gift,” she recalled with a laugh. Rodriguez, now 23, had always loved to perform, but growing up in New Jersey, money for voice and dance lessons was scarce. “The Get Down” was her first experience on a set, and it’s one she doesn’t take for granted: “I was blown away by all of it,” she said of filming her first scene at a dinner table with surrounded by the full crew and cameramen. But she soon got comfortable with costars like Jaden Smith: “I even tried to do the breakdancing,” she recalled with a laugh.
Skylan Brooks While much of the cast had never been to the Bronx, Skylan Brooks had spent quite a bit of time in the borough: He filmed The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete there back in 2012. In fact, though he’s just 17, Brooks’s roster of IMDb credits is longer than most, including roles in films like Southpaw and Seven Pounds, no less. Growing up in L.A., Brooks started dancing at just five years old, and though he later dropped it for acting – and singing with a group that caught the attention of Oprah – it’s a skill he’s more than proud to still have. “I always knew how to breakdance and b-boy, but they helped refine the skill,” he said of preparing for “The Get Down.” The only thing he wasn’t ready for, it seems, was the ‘70s fashion: “I had to adjust to the short shorts, but I love it now,” he said. “There’s a lot of fly stuff in here.”
Stefanée Martin Fresh from her acting school showcase in L.A., Stefanée Martin, 26, had a full agenda of meetings with agents, and didn’t think much of it when she sent off a quick video to one of them of her singing, which she filmed on her iPhone. An unexpected response – “Baz loves your tape” – called for a change of plans: She cancelled the play she was set to do that summer and came on board as Yolanda, Mylene’s 17-year-old friend for whom Martin found inspiration in old “Soul Train" episodes. Though she’s actually 26, 18-year-old Jaden Smith plays her older brother — but behind the scenes, she was more like his older sister, fielding his complaints about the afro wig he wore to hide his dreads. “He hated it,” she recalled with a laugh. “He hated it.”
Watch W's most popular videos here: