Ester Dean, who is part of Jay Z’s Roc Nation, has spent years behind the scenes, writing hit songs for some of music's biggest names like Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna and contributing vocals to albums by everyone from Usher and Mary J. Blige, earning five Grammy nominations along the way. But her newest project may be the first to let her really shine: Dean stars as Cynthia Rose, a lesbian college student in the soon-to-be-a-smash Pitch Perfect, a film by gay director Jason Moore centering on an all-girl a cappella group that also stars Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, and Brittany Snow. Dean, whose own self-titled album will be released this year on Interscope Records, talked to us about (lesbian) method acting, going back to school, and whether she's ready for fame.
You’ve spent the last several years writing hit singles for some of music’s biggest names. Are you ready to step into the spotlight yourself now?
Ester Dean: I really am. I think everything that you do comes with a challenge and comes with a little nervousness. So I definitely got a little nervousness, but I’m like, I might as well. I got to do it. [Laughs] I’m a jumper.
Let's talk about Pitch Perfect. I thought the film was great.
Oh thank you. I love this movie.
So tell me what was the filming like? What were rehearsals like for Pitch Perfect?
My goodness. OK rehearsals were — we all got to Baton Rouge [Louisiana] and we had to go to this building and we all stayed at this hotel so I remember walking in and [producers told me there'd be] about 8 to 11 hours of dance. And I was like, "Dance? You didn’t tell me to dance!" I sing, you know? And we literally had a cappella classes, learning how to sing it and knowing how to do the parts with our mouth. We had dance and then we'd have lunch and then… we had to ride in the same van back [to the hotel]. It was so much like college or high school. [Laughs] It was crazy, but I really appreciate it because if we didn’t do that, if we didn’t do all that work we put in there, that movie wouldn’t have come out good — because we couldn’t have faked those moves, we couldn’t fake those sounds. We all had to record it; it wasn’t any time to be faking anything, that’s for sure.
You rock a different look in the movie as well.
Yeah, I remember when I did the audition I had all this black hair and had a kind of cute little bob and I got there and I told Jason, the director, I would totally cut my hair off. And he was like, "You would?" I was like, "Yeah, I’ve been wanting a reason to do it anyway." So I went and I found this picture and it had the red hair, and we had a little blond streak in there and just cut it all off. I like it.
That’s great. I love that your character is just part of the pack. There’s nothing really that makes her different than the other girls, even though she’s gay.
Right. I didn’t want to [treat it like] "I’m playing this gay character." No. I’m playing a woman who likes what she likes. You know, it had a look to it.
So are you a method actor? Did you have to go hang out at lesbian bars to get a feel for the character?
Well, you know, me and Alexis got it on a couple of times, you know. [Ed note: Alexis Knapp plays the sex-crazed co-ed Stacie.] Like, get in your character, you know? I’ve been after boys for a long time, I’ve been doing that for like, 20 years anyway, so it all worked out.
Are you ready to be hit on by women now? Or does that already happen to you?
Well, you know what, well, they haven’t yet and I’m thinking to myself, Come on girls, come on! I am cute. You know, if I don’t get hit on by girls or guys, I’m really going to have to figure my life out. [Laughs] So, whichever want to come, you just bring it on. I need a date, that’s all that matters.
That’s all that matters?
Yes, I’ll take a date from anybody.
What was the most surprising part about doing Pitch Perfect for you?
The most surprising part was actually them taking me on because I had no acting experience. I never had been on stage or on set, or in a movie. I had done a couple of voiceovers but the fact that they went on and let me do, be raw with it and learn as I went, that was so surprising. And I’m so surprised how good the reviews are because honestly without being funny, I thought that, you know, it totally [would go straight to] DVD. But it was so good. Once you got to see the whole movie, you’re like, Wow, this movie’s good. Because we didn’t get to see any of the other parts, we just knew our part.
Right, that’s always hard when you haven’t seen the final product until the end.
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So are you hoping to do more acting after this? Is this a stepping stone?
I’m hoping to get a date after this, and I’m hoping to get another acting part after this. Hopefully, I get both, you know. But at the end of the day I’m really excited. It really made me happy to be on set, and I think now I understand why people like to do movies because I see that you get to take away friends. And that’s what I got to do. I got to take away some great, great people and I didn’t know that that’s what was going to be the real reward from it. I really got some good friends.
Yeah, it's a insular moment where it’s all of you just bonding over doing this film.
Exactly. And we really had to bond. There was no time to not bond because we all had to get those parts and we had to do our best and it was all of us reflecting on each and every one of us if we didn’t do it well. We all had to work together. [My co-stars] taught me some stuff. I really think they taught me how to act, just knowing that you go and have a back story and learn who your character is. So, I learned a lot from them girls. I’ve just seen [co-star] Anna [Kendrick] two seconds ago. I love running into them. I love them.
I expect that your fan base will probably be expanding because of the film.
It is and I feel like, you know, hallelujah, because, goodness, I really need some fans. So, I’m so happy about being able to be Esther Dean from Pitch Perfect, and have a little more depth as to being an actor, because when you’re Esther Dean the songwriter, that’s cool you did it but the spotlight goes to somebody else. And you respect that —you just know that that’s not really your identity, that’s you helping someone else’s identity.
So it’s a big transition, becoming, yourself?
I don’t know how big it was. I get bored fast so I was just like, OK somebody give me something to do. I’m sitting here still, I’m going to lose my mind if I sit here and don’t do anything.
That’s great. Do you have any projects lined up already?
Well, I just did an audition and I hope they say yes. And then of course, I’m lined up for my own song coming out with Missy Elliot. And then I just want somebody…I have an agent but I’m like, Am I doing enough? Am I showing myself enough? So it’s still very new to me about this whole process. I just really want to be able to know that I am doing everything that I’m supposed to do. I don’t think that I’m some girl who needs to be the lead role or something. I’ll do a walk-in the store scene, you know what I’m saying?
Yeah. You’re ready to be a background player if you have to.
Yeah, I’ll work for it, tell them come on.
Your collaborations with Rihanna, Katy Perry, Robin Thicke all went to number one on the Billboard charts, and you’ve worked with a slew of top musicians. Who haven’t you collaborated with, that you’d like to work with?
I would love to work with that damn Pink, she is so sexy and awesome to me. She just gives it, and I’m like, God, I want to work with Pink. And of course, a lifelong dream has always been to work with Celine Dion and if she ever does another album, I’m going to be like, stalking her at her house. Wherever it is that she’s going to be, I’m stalking her. And then it would be nice to do Mariah Carey. I’ll put it on my board, I’ll do a vision board and put those girls on there.
Have you heard Pink’s new album?
Oh, it’s already out! No.
It’s just come out. It’s fantastic.
I bet it is. She’s so damn good. She’s so good.
But you might be the rare person who loves both Pink and Celine Dion. We usually don’t hear those two together.
Oh, because you know what? I come from a "There She Go" Pink, the one where she was just singing, singing, singing. I just love music. I love people who sing from the heart. A lot of people think that they know music now with people growing up, but you don’t know, you haven’t heard anything until you hear somebody cry out their heart and sing on that album. Even if they didn’t write it, they are singing that thing like they went through that [heartreak] two days ago. I just love it. I love real, real singers and real, real people who are free to open up and show their emotions. And that’s Celine and Pink. Those two girls, they don’t apologize for nothing.