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Elijah Kelley wants to entertain you

Amid `Hairspray's' marquee ensemble, the young actor captures attention in the length of a pop song.

July 14, 2007|Gregg LaGambina | Special to The Times

Elijah Kelley is sitting in a swath of sunlight on a coffee shop patio in Los Angeles, and he's as surprised as anyone that he's even made it this far. That doesn't mean he has small dreams.

"I want to be an entertainer," says the 20-year-old, who's getting his first big break in "Hairspray." "Frank Sinatra did it. Sammy Davis Jr. did it. I want to bring that back."

In seeking to capture the spirit of his bygone heroes, he's not boastful; he's hopeful. And he can't stop smiling.

"I wanted to explore the talents that God has given me. Why not? If I could half-sing or half-act, I would either not do it or work until I got to the full potential of what I could do. Work has been put in, and I think we might have something." He laughs. "We'll see. The movie hasn't come out yet, but we'll see."

The movie, directed by Adam Shankman and adapted from the Tony-winning Broadway production, which was itself an adaptation of the 1988 film written and directed by John Waters, lands in theaters Friday. Some of the same team that brought "Hairspray" to the stage worked on the film, but it's the cast that's feeding curiosity about this new version.

John Travolta as Edna Turnblad is grabbing early headlines in his cross-dressing fat-suit performance opposite Christopher Walken as "her" sympathetic, doting husband, Wilbur. There's Michelle Pfeiffer, seething and vindictive as Velma Von Tussle, ever protective of her precious Amber, played by Brittany Snow.

Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle almost single-handedly carries the film's deeper themes of race and segregation to the fore.

Rising stars Zac Efron, Amanda Bynes and James Marsden all contribute to make the 1962 Baltimore televised dance competition both a terror and a triumph for newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, the overweight teen who tries to "integrate" herself into the competition, learning about race and justice along the way.

This doesn't leave a lot of room for Kelley, who plays Seaweed J. Stubbs, to make his own impression by seducing Bynes' Penny Pingleton. But in one of his early scenes, the three or so minutes it takes for him to snap and swing and swirl about her, in a seduction by way of song and dance, the movie is simply his for the duration of the number "Run and Tell That."

It's an arrival of sorts, a testament to his voice and his presence that in the length of a pop song, he's made himself memorable in the midst of a marquee ensemble.

"I'm so thankful for it, you have no idea," he says, shaking his head.

Kelley moved from La Grange, Ga., to Los Angeles a little more than two years ago, simply with that dream so many people have, to make it, whatever "it" may be. It's a risk and a leap, but Kelley didn't just have his family's support -- they also came along to make sure he got off to the right start.

"I'm the baby of the family, so my parents were ready to wrap it up and start walking around the house -- in their retirement robes! We're strong believers in the Bible, and the Bible says to train up a child in the way that he should go. What's a better place to facilitate your acting and entertainment talents than Hollywood? So two weeks after graduation, we were on the plane with nothing but clothes and faith."

Murmurings of a record deal in the works with Will Smith are neither confirmed nor denied by Kelley. ("If I said anything, I'd be in so much trouble!") When asked about his songs, he leans over and grabs my laptop to play them from his new MySpace page, saying, "I'll let you hear it. I can never tell people how it is without feeling boastful."

He's downright gleaming when he speaks of how his Mother's Day gift this year was bringing his mom to the "Oprah Winfrey Show" when he was featured in a special about the cast of "Hairspray."

Later this month, he's premiering the film in his hometown, where there are plans to proclaim a day in his honor and present him with a key to the city.

He laughs and says, "I don't know what it means -- can I go to the McDonald's after hours or something? But it sounds great."

There's a definite twinkle somewhere, in his eyes, his manner, his speech. It's all so new. We're still in the pre-"Hairspray" days. In dark jeans, sneakers and a pullover, he looks like any other hipster.

The days beyond "Hairspray's" opening pose another challenge. He got the movie; he's probably getting the record deal. Now might be the time to get the right advice.

"Latifah just told me to be myself. It's being yourself against all odds. Your status and your fame and this platform are not used to just be famous. It's not for that. It's ultimately to transfer it back to the people and help them out, and that's what I ultimately want to do."

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