By Cody Worsham
Life hasn’t quite gone according to script for actress Shelley Regner.
A Baton Rouge native and Parkview Baptist and LSU alumna, Regner was a self-proclaimed “drama nerd” throughout junior high and high school, with her heart set on Broadway. Growing up, her parents would drive her to New Orleans to watch touring shows at the Saenger Theatre, and she imagined the bright lights of the big city shining down on her.
“My whole plan was to do musical theater,” Regner said. “I always thought I was shooting for New York, trying to do Broadway. That was my big dream.”
After starring in various high school productions – often stealing the show with her big, beautiful voice and equally big, beautiful smile – Regner put that dream on hold in her first year at LSU, taking some time away from center stage.
“First year, typical freshman, I was undecided,” she said. “In high school, I was all about drama, and I think I was too scared to go full out and go into theater. So I took a year off of theater, and I realized – something’s missing in my life. So I went for it.”
With her eyes set on the Big Apple, Regner dove headfirst into musical theater, starring in productions at LSU and at the Baton Rouge Little Theatre – now known as Theatre Baton Rouge. When she graduated from LSU with a B.A. in Theatre in 2011 – “in four years, so I could get my TOPS,” she laughs – she returned her sights to the Big Apple.
“I was waiting tables, doing the typical try-to-make-money thing,” she said. “I moved back in with my mom and was just trying to save up enough to go off and be an adult.”
Then came the plot twist that changed Regner’s plans – and her life. Four months after graduation, she learned of an open call for a musical movie filming in Baton Rouge, an opportunity that sounded right up her alley.
When she showed up with 70 others – half of whom she knew from her time at LSU – the casting director asked the auditioners to prepare a pop song.
Regner pulled out a karaoke favorite: Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” As usual, Regner rocked it and eventually landed the gig, unaware of the prize at stake.
“I thought I was auditioning to be some background part of some musical movie no one knew about,” she said. “I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know who was behind it, who was producing it, who was auditioning for it. I just knew it was called Pitch Perfect.”
Then she saw the call sheet.
“I get this call sheet of this list of girls that I’m going to be working with,” she said. “I’m seeing names like Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson – these people I’ve been watching my entire laugh. It just hit me – What did I sign up for?”
Turns out, Regner signed up for a smash hit. Pitch Perfect was a Hollywood stunner, turning a meager $17 million budget into a $113 million global sensation.
She also signed up for the time of her life. It wasn’t the Broadway stage she’d dreamed of, but a movie set turned out to be a perfect fit for Regner.
“It was like summer musical theater camp,” she said, recalling her first days on set. “We’re going through an acapella boot camp, learning all these dance moves and singing harmonies. I was in heaven, and at the same time, you’re getting paid to do something you love. It was the best of both worlds – and I was still at home.
“And from that point on, it just kind of skyrocketed.”
By the time the movie wrapped, premiered, and blasted off into the cult hit it remains today, Regner made a tough decision.
She turned west, instead of east.
“I was ready to get out of Baton Rouge,” she said. “It had been 23 years, and I was ready to go off. So I went and visited some of my friends in L.A. for a quick trip – I hadn’t been in 11 years. And I loved it. It was such a laid back vibe, and it was a good transition from Louisiana. And I was like, You know what? It’s time. I can’t think about it anymore. I just have to take action.”
Regner made the Hollywood move, parlaying Pitch Perfect’s success into “the acting hustle,” as she calls it. She landed roles on various small projects, signed with management group Studio Talent Group – referred to her by LSU professor and mentor Rick Holden – and Across the Board talent agency.
Regner’s career has been gaining speed since. She landed a touring role as the lead on “Spank! Harder,” a 50 Shades of Gray parody that kept her on the road from January to April. And while touring, she got a call from familiar voices.
Pitch Perfect was getting a sequel, and after two years in L.A., Regner was getting a trip home.
She’s been back in Baton Rouge since May, filming Pitch Perfect 2. Of course, in two years, Baton Rouge has grown as much as Regner has – she even got lost on the way to this interview – but she’s also conscious of the things that will never change.
“What I love is just being close to family and friends,” she said. “It’s just funny how many things have changed, and then how many things are exactly the same.”
The biggest changes aren’t with the city, but with the movie itself. For one, the second go-round promises a different role for Regner, who spent much of the first movie beatboxing (despite no prior experience) and background singing, while dropping a famous line – “We’ve literally been here the whole time” – that’s become a fan favorite.
This time, under the direction of Elizabeth Banks and written by Kay Cannon, the shoot has a different feel.
“The great thing about both [Banks and Cannon] is they trust us enough that we’ll take their words and say them on screen, and then sometimes we’ll have takes where they’re like, ‘Say what you want to say.’
“So this go around, it’s been a lot more freedom in that way. They’ve allowed me to say certain lines. Regardless of what makes the cut, this time I’ve definitely been able to speak more. We’ll see if any lines make it out there.”
The film’s style has changed, and so has the scope. The original’s success has made the sequel an entirely different animal, a fact most evident at a recent filming. The Bellas filmed their big finale in Baton Rouge, and 3,000 extras showed up just to watch and cheer them on.
“It’s become this cultural phenomenon, especially among 10-to-18-year-old girls,” she said. “They love it. It’s become this amazing monster. It makes you feel like a rock star in a weird way. There were people chanting our names out in this crowd. I still think of myself as this little Southern girl that came from Baton Rouge and just likes to sing and dance, and I’ve got people that don’t even know me screaming that they love me and chanting. It’s the most surreal feeling.”
The crowds aren’t Regner’s favorite part, though. It’s connecting with the faces in them, the faces that remind her of younger self. At the finale’s shoot, Regner met a 10-year-old girl who flew in from New Zealand just to meet the cast, who arrived shy and quiet but left with a Bella makeover and a permanent smile.
“The perks that come with it come and go, but that feeling is really exciting. I just want to put a smile on someone’s face by smiling or dancing or whatever I can do.”
The finale also brought Regner full circle, when she met an extra from Parkview, her alma mater. The extra asked her role model for advice on how to make it in the acting profession.
Who am I to give any advice? Regner thought. I’m still working on it myself. After all, she’s yet to finalize plans after this summer. Though an L.A. return is certain, she still keeps New York in the back of her mind. Beyond that, Regner is as uncertain as any 25-year-old as to what the future holds.
Then, it came to her, and before Regner could even think about it, it came out, an answer as unscripted as her road to success.
“Just keep showing up,” she said, smiling. “Be in the right place, and the right time will come.”