Nikki Blonsky takes on a “Huge” role


By Stacey Harrison

There’s not much shock value these days in a TV show that opens with scantily clad teenagers prancing about in the sun. But the teens in Huge aren’t the sort you usually see flaunting their physiques.

Set at a weight-loss camp, the ABC Family comedy/drama based on the novel by Sasha Paley premieres tonight. It follows a group of heavyset teenagers trying to get themselves healthy in both body and mind. Girth aside, they tend to fall into the usual high-school types — the pretty girl, the rebel, the shy one, the jock, the artsy outcast — and they often have to navigate the same kinds of cliques and social hierarchies that await them back in their everyday lives. As star Nikki Blonsky puts it, “Even at fat camp, some girls are bigger than others, so that separates them.”

Blonsky, who shot to instant fame by nabbing the starring role in 2007’s Hairspray, leads a cast of young actors who don’t fit the Hollywood ideal of beauty and are often relegated to friend roles, or comic relief. Huge puts the focus on them and delves into their characters beyond defining them solely by physical appearance.

It also offers Blonsky the chance for people to see her as someone far different than the sweet, bubbly Tracy Turnblad. Her character, Will, is a “rebel without a cause,” determined not to conform to the skinny image her parents want for her. In addition to not dressing like she comes from a wealthy family, Will is looking to actually gain weight while at Camp Victory, and immediately establishes a black market of candy bars and junk food that she sells to others. Yet her inner conflict shows through in a memorable introduction, where all the campers are made to get their pictures taken in their swimsuits, in an effort to get them to confront the reality of their bodies. Will turns it into an act of defiance, stripping off her clothes while belting out a sexy tune, and grabbing the attention of anyone who will look. Then, seconds later, she wonders aloud, “Why did I just do that?”

“It’s not all about weight,” Blonsky says of the problems the characters must work through. “We think in terms of exercising and eating healthy, but there’s a lot more that goes into a fat camp. There’s a lot of mental stuff that happens. We’re dealing with huge emotional issues, family issues, relationship issues. … it’s still something that kids who don’t have weight issues can really come in and find something they’re going through in our show as well. Ultimately, it’s inner change that leads to the outer change that some of them are seeking.”

Costar Raven Goodwin, who plays the mousy and withdrawn camper Becca, puts a finer point on it, saying, “Being overweight can mean a lot of things. It’s more than physical. Look at Gina Torres’ character, Dr. Rand. … She’s a very in-shape woman, but her character carries around a lot of weight. Just like we’re at Camp Victory, she’s at Camp Victory. She’s the leader of the camp, but she’s … one of us in a way, because she’s still carrying around that weight.”

But body image certainly is a large factor in these characters’ lives. Hayley Hasselhoff (daughter of David) plays Amber, who has posters of skinny models on the wall that serve as her “thinspiration.” Another character leaves camp after it’s discovered she was binging and purging. There are stories of kids who lost weight one summer at camp, only to gain most or all of it back. The weight can also come between friends, when one is successful in shedding pounds and dress sizes while the other isn’t.

The ability to play such richly drawn characters is part of why Blonsky was happy to make the transition from the big screen to television. She’s turned up in a few projects since Hairspray — an adaptation of the Broadway musical that plucked her from her job at a New York ice-cream shop to singing and dancing with the likes of John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken and Zac Efron — but Huge could be the role that shows she’s in for a long career.

Hairspray was the gift of all gifts,” she says. “It was incredible. But the amazing thing about this industry and this business is that we have the opportunity as actors to play different roles and different characters. [In a TV series] we get to be the characters all day long, and live with them and really nurture them and create them, and then take them home with us and study them so that we’re prepared for the next day. It’s a fantastic experience.”

Photo: (from left) Raven Goodwin, Harvey Guillen, Ari Stidham, Nikki Blonsky, Hayley Hasselhoff, Ashley Holliday; © 2010 Disney  Enterprises Inc. Credit: Andrew Eccles