Interview

Maddie Ziegler: ‘I knew that people were going to love Music or hate it’

The dancer, best known for being Sia Furler’s muse, is now the lead in the pop singer’s controversial directorial debut, playing a girl with autism. She talks to Ann Lee about stardom, sisterhood and Shia LeBeouf

Thursday 11 February 2021 14:58
<p> 'It was all made with good intentions and with a good heart;" Maddie Ziegler on her role in Sia's controversial new autism drama 'Music'</p>

'It was all made with good intentions and with a good heart;" Maddie Ziegler on her role in Sia's controversial new autism drama 'Music'

When Maddie Ziegler hangs out with pop megastar Sia Furler, their favourite thing to do together is to watch pimple popping videos on YouTube, eyes glued to the screen as they wait for the pus to explode. “It sounds so weird, but it’s literally our obsession,” she says gleefully. “We'll just watch those for hours and hours.”

The pair are extremely close and have been ever since Sia cast her in the music video for her huge hit “Chandelier” when she was 11. The Australian singer first spotted Ziegler, now 18, on Lifetime’s long-running reality series Dance Moms, which follows aspiring dancers and their pushy mothers. She was the standout star of the show, a gifted dancer with natural talent from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who made her TV debut when she was just eight. But it was her collaborations with Sia (six more videos, a Grammy performance, concert appearances) that turbocharged her budding career. 

While Sia is famously camera-shy, preferring until recently to hide her face behind outlandish wigs, Ziegler has effectively become her public alter ego and creative muse, bringing a wild and playful energy to their dance routines. “I'm very honoured that she trusts me,” she says from Los Angeles, exuding an air of sweet-natured calm as we talk over Zoom. Perhaps she’s had enough of being someone’s public alter ego for today though as she’s chosen to switch her camera off. “I don't feel much pressure in terms of being her face for performances because I did it at such a young age and every time I’ve worked with her, it’s just so fun. We are like family.”

If that doesn’t sound intense enough, Ziegler revealed in 2019 that Sia had become her godmother. “I go over to her house all the time and just jump on her trampoline,” she says. They’re neighbours, too – she lives nearby with her boyfriend, the singer Eddie Benjamin. And they’ve teamed up once again for a project that’s about sisters, Furler’s brainchild and directorial debut, Music, a film where Maddie stars as the titular character, a 16-year-old on the autism spectrum. Her life is thrown into turmoil when her grandmother dies and her wayward sibling Zu (Kate Hudson), a recovering addict, returns to take care of her.

Maddie Ziegler with Sia in 2015

Before the film was even released, the trailer attracted an onslaught of controversy on Twitter. The singer was accused by people in the autism community of being “ableist” by casting the neurotypical dancer as someone on the spectrum. Furler fired back that if she was guilty of anything, it was “nepotism”, adding that she had hired “13” neuroatypical actors in other roles. “I can’t do a project without her [Ziegler],” she insisted on Australian TV show The Project. “I don't want to. I wouldn't make art if it didn't include her.”

Ziegler remains diplomatic when asked about Furler’s comments. “I’ve actually stayed out of all of it just because, you know, I’m 18 years old and it’s a lot of pressure.” But she can see why her casting has caused upset and is willing to admit that. “I understand why people would want someone who’s actually on the spectrum with autism to play this character,” says Ziegler. “But in terms of the dance sequences, I think that’s why Sia chose me to bring the dream world to life. It was all [made] with good intentions and with a good heart.”

She was 14 when she filmed Music, which was co-written by Furler and children’s book author Dallas Clayton. It’s since been nominated for two Golden Globe awards for best motion picture and best actress (for Hudson) in the musical or comedy category. Ziegler’s character is largely non-verbal and frequently escapes into her own imagination, which erupts into bright, bold and highly stylised dance numbers. 

Reviews have pointed out the limitations of her acting performance and such a challenging role would probably have been better suited to someone with more experience but it’s hard to argue with how brilliant she is in the musical sequences. Like in many of Ziegler’s performances, her dancing represents something raw and free, whether it’s Music’s colourful way of seeing the world or her leopard-like moves as Furler’s younger self in the “Elastic Heart” video (but more on that later).

“I felt so much responsibility,” Ziegler says of her decision to take the role. “But I felt I was capable. I knew going into this that people were going to love or hate it.” Despite this, she says she knew she had to be the one to play Music because she loved the character so much.  

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The dancer, whose acting credits up until now have included The Book of Henry and To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You, researched for the part extensively by studying Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as a teen with autism in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and watching YouTube videos of people on the spectrum. “I’d get in my head at times: ‘I’m going to try and replicate those mannerisms and those tics.’ But then I started watching each video and I realised every single person is so special in their own way. That’s how Sia and I came up with Music, her mannerisms, and her own thing going on.” She sounds genuine, but this is the kind of wide-eyed naivete that suggests Ziegler might not have been the best choice for the role in the first place. 

Maddie Ziegler in Sia Furler's controversial new film ‘Music’

You get the impression though that she won’t let some bad press stop her. Ziegler has been working hard on building her empire. She isn’t just interested in acting and dancing – she’s written her own YA trilogy about the adventures of a young dancer as well as a New York Times best-selling memoir, The Maddie Diaries, released when she was 14. After they worked on Music together, she launched MaddieXFabletics, an activewear collection for Hudson’s clothing label. 

It’s an impressive resumé considering Ziegler is still only 18 – though, occasionally, glimpses of her former tweenage self bubble to the surface. She speaks giddily about her plans to launch her own makeup range and is similarly effusive when she talks about her favourite actor, Zendaya. “She's literally an icon,” she gushes. “I'm so inspired by her and I hope to have a career like hers.”

Unlike many child stars, she seems to have escaped the addictions and meltdowns that others have fallen prey to. “It's not a normal experience to grow up at such a young age in the public eye. It’s a lot of pressure. It can be scary. It is a hard thing to cope with,” she admits. Still, she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had. “I would not change a thing about it because it's gotten me to where I am now,” Ziegler continues. “But the only way that I was able to get through it and stay grounded was by having a few solid friend groups. Whenever I wasn't working, I was with them just being a normal kid.”

It must be hard to feel like a normal kid though when you’re dancing like it’s a contact sport in situations with far older male actors. When Zielger was 12, she was cast opposite Shia LaBeouf for the “Elastic Heart” video, which currently has over 1.1 billion views on YouTube. Stuck inside a giant cage, the pair performed a powerful interpretive dance in flesh coloured suits, wrestling and play-fighting. Furler claimed they were playing two “warring” parts of herself but admitted in the same tweet that she had “anticipated some ‘paedophilia!!!’ cries for this video”. 

There was criticism, of course, largely since forgotten, though LaBeouf has recently made headlines again for all the wrong reasons. It’s now been two months since the singer FKA Twigs, LaBeouf’s ex-girlfriend, filed a lawsuit accusing the actor of sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress. Furler has since come out in solidarity, claiming that she was “conned” into an “adulterous relationship” by the actor. Addressing the allegations, Ziegler says carefully: “I stand with any woman who has faced abuse, and I do not think it’s right. I had a good experience working with Shia. He was so respectful to me, in terms of making sure that I felt good with what I was doing. But I don't think what happened is okay.”

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It does seem a little unfair that Ziegler with her fresh-faced enthusiasm has been caught up in the various controversies surrounding her collaborators, especially as she is poised to find her own feet as a performer. Next up, she will be appearing in Steven Spielberg’s eagerly awaited remake of the musical West Side Story, one of her favourite dance films growing up. “Being in the remake just feels surreal,” she says. “I love this cast and I cannot wait for people to see it. We kept it true to the original film.” 

Ziegler is ready now to strike out by herself. While her relationship with Furler has been transformational, it’s one that has also helped her discover her own identity. She says that their work together liberated her as a dancer and taught her to come out of her shell. “The second I started working with Sia, all of the training that I ever had just went out the door, and it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” says Ziegler. “I felt like I could just be myself. I feel like that's what Sia has taught me – I don't have to be anyone that I'm not.”

Music is out on iTunes, Amazon and Sky Store from 15 February