role call

Maryam Hassan Answers Every Question We Have About School of Rock

“The first day, actually, they told me that my character’s name was Laurie. I was like, Uh, I’m not a Laurie.Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Paramount Pictures

The Man called, and he wants you to watch School of Rock on a loop until you can finally stick it to him. The 2003 musical comedy, which stars Jack Black as a grubby, mattress-dwelling guitarist who cons his way into a substitute teaching job at a prep school to make his share of the rent, is one of those rare films that seems to offer something for everyone: Kids can laugh at Black’s multiple attempts at “creating musical fusion” in the classroom, adults can appreciate the loosey-goosey direction of Richard Linklater, and rock disciples can unapologetically mark it off as an earnest tribute to the genre. Hell, even Led Zeppelin liked School of Rock so much that they granted a rare use of “Immigrant Song” for a scene. It might also feature the most hard-core tracking shot in cinema history? And redefined what it means to pronounce the word “cello”? Okay, we’ll stop rambling.

Maryam Hassan, now a singer-songwriter who performs under the name Mayhrenate, plays one of the film’s star students tasked with elevating her fourth-grade class to Battle of the Bands greatness: Tamika, a timid girl who’s initially assigned to the band’s transportation squad. After belting out a few Aretha Franklin verses to Black’s gobsmacked substitute, though, she’s reassigned to lead and backing vocal duty (and given “The Great Gig in the Sky” to study, of course), which culminates in her very own verse during the big competition. Hassan had never acted prior to School of Rock, and despite choosing not to further pursue the craft in its aftermath, she still marvels at the “extraordinary” experience nearly two decades later. With Hassan’s new EP Plush out on January 27, she was nice enough to field a fawning call from Vulture and become our latest Role Call subject.

I know that School of Rock scouted kids who already had a lot of musical knowledge. How did you hear about the film? Were you looking to break into the film industry?
Sort of. They were looking for middle-school-aged kids, but I wasn’t actively looking for acting work at all. I was pursuing music — music is my passion and has been since the age of 4. It’s kind of a funny story. My brother used to go to camp in Vermont, and when he went there they would have talent-show family days, so I would always sing and participate when I was really young. Flash-forward to 2002, my brother’s camp friend was at a bar here in New York City and there was an open casting-call sheet. She called my family and said, “Hey, there’s this movie casting notice that’s looking for someone just like Maryam.” I legit found out about it from a flyer in a bar. My parents asked if I wanted to go to an audition, and I said sure. You know, I was 9. I was up for anything!

What did the call sheet reveal about the role?
They were looking for an overweight singer around my age. I was a chubby little girl. [Laughs.] Specifically, they needed someone who had range to sing Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. I’m an old soul who grew up singing songs by those women. So I went to the audition and there must have been, oh my gosh, 2,000 kids. There were way too many kids there. But I got in and out pretty quick and the casting people said that they loved me. They gave me a couple of lines to read, and they called a few hours later for a callback. By the next week, I landed the role.

Did you realize at the time that you were going to have a larger role than, say, sitting in a classroom and singing a few verses? After Miranda Cosgrove, I think you have the most screen time of the kids.
Going into it, I had no idea. It didn’t hit me until a month or so into filming the extent of what I was doing. I knew what the movie was about, but not enough to initially realize, Oh, we’re the kids who will be part of Jack’s band.

What do you remember about your first day on the set?
It was extremely cold. We filmed from November to February, and the weather was difficult that year. It was snowing or raining pretty much every day. Most of it was shot in Long Island City on a bunch of soundstages. I’m from New York City, but being there and seeing an area where movies are exclusively shot was a new experience for me. As soon as I got a script, I met the other kids and started going through the scenes. I was the last one to get cast, so it was a little bit more rushed for me than the others. The first day, actually, they told me that my character’s name was Laurie. I was like, Uh, I’m not a Laurie. I was like, This doesn’t sound like me. I asked some people if I could change her name to Tamika.

Why Tamika in particular?
I pulled that name out of the sky. [Laughs.] It had a little more flavor to it. I don’t know Laurie. I know Tamika. I gave it a shot, and they said it was perfectly fine.

What were your first impressions of Jack when you met him?
As a 9-year-old, he didn’t give me the impression of being an adult. He’s a big kid. I never felt anything like, Oh my God, I’m on the set with Jack Black. He totally dispelled the notion of how a movie star would behave. He played games with us all the time, sang all the time, and made up songs for us when we weren’t shooting. It was really easy and fun to work with him, and he made all of us feel so comfortable, especially since most of us had never acted before.

What types of games did you all play together?
We had a game that Robert [Tsai], who played the keyboardist, created. It was called “Six” and I can’t even explain it because it was completely made-up and had no set rules. You put your fingers out to face somebody, tapped their fingers, and if you tapped one they had to remove one. It was a math game. Very educational, clearly! I’m sure there’s hours of behind-the-scenes footage of us playing that damn game. There was so much singing and laughter at all times. Someone would randomly start singing, Jack would chime in with random words, and I would start hollering in the background. It was a free-flowing type of creation.

Did Jack’s teacher persona translate offscreen at all? Did you learn anything about music from him?
Honestly, I think Jack was more blown away by us. We were all so young and possessed such a huge mix of musical and vocal talents. He would often end a scene being like, “Wow, remind me how old you guys are! You can do all this stuff at your age?! How?!” He was fascinated by our talents and always seemed to enjoy watching us work. He was a fan in that sense.

I’ll reverse engineer the question for you then: What did you all teach him?
That’s the question I’d love to ask him, too. If anything, based on his reactions and our talents, maybe he was blown away by how young we took our crafts so seriously. We were all between the ages of 9 and 13, and were so passionate about what we were doing. We were all actively pursuing music and he really respected that.

I always love watching the classroom scenes where Jack affectionately rambles about rock history and theory. Did those scenes double as music education for you at all?
Absolutely. Growing up, I listened to all types of music. But, like you said, I had limited knowledge about rock music and its history. I may have known of something, like AC/DC, but to have more knowledge and historical context was important. I realized this after the movie came out. When I was filming those scenes, I was in the scene trying to remember my directions. It wasn’t like I was trying to learn a lesson. But afterwards, I was like, Wow, this is pretty cool, I get it. It expanded my musical palette for sure.

Even though you filmed in the winter, was there a camp vibe with all of the kids? Did you all stay in the same hotel?
A few of us lived in New York City already, including myself, so I lived at home. They would send a car for me every day. The others stayed in hotels. But they had all of us working with tutors every day in another part of the soundstages. Fourteen kids and 14 parents in one area. When we weren’t being tutored and doing our homework, we were playing Dance Dance Revolution or watching American Idol. Definitely the best school experience I ever had.

Were your normal school friends jealous you got to do this for a few months?
It’s funny you mention that, because a few days ago I got a tweet from somebody who was like, “Can you confirm you’re Maryam Hassan?” I responded yes. And he was like, “Oh my God, hey, we went to middle school together before you randomly disappeared for four months and I saw your face on television.” Nobody knew. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t have the time to, really, because it all moved so fast.

Let’s talk about a few of your standout moments. What was it like to belt “Chain of Fools” alone for Jack?
That scene was why I was interested in School of Rock in the first place. I got to sing. That’s my expertise and that’s what I’d been working towards. I fell into acting, but I was born to sing. It was interesting because after we did the takes for the scene and finished up, some crew members were quietly stirring in the background and whispering, “Wow, that was really great. Did you hear that voice?” It was like there was a small audience cheering me on.

And how about soloing in front of thousands of people for the Battle of the Bands?
That was an amazing experience. It was the only scene we didn’t shoot in New York City, at one of the most stunning theaters I’d ever seen. I actually got a better deal than the other kids: They flew me out to California to record the entire song in a professional studio. It was my first time in a studio that big — like, a multimillion-dollar studio where dozens of producers huddle in a booth. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was doing vocal production. I did all of the harmonies and my solo. Sing it again high, sing it again low. So going from that to an actual set … I remember they pulled out the school uniform outfits and we all couldn’t stop laughing. I loved the film’s stylist but when he pulled those outfits out I was like, Lord. [Laughs.] I learned the choreography the day before. It didn’t feel like we were being recorded. It felt like we were just performing. It didn’t feel like we were on a set, thanks to that gigantic audience. We didn’t do more than a few takes. It felt real. To have a solo, too, I was extremely honored. After that, I thought to myself that I could pursue singing seriously.

The jam session at the end is my favorite credits scene, period. Did you all do it in one take?
We didn’t really know how this scene was going to play out. Richard initially said, “We want you guys to just rock out and have a good time.” I recall doing three takes of something a little different and he was like, “Okay everyone, change of plans, we want to try to do this in one take.” He wanted us to feel as natural as possible and have some fun, like a jam session. We didn’t have anything planned. I was anxious because I’m one of the last ones to go and in my head I was like, Ugh, he nailed the keyboard, ugh, he nailed the drums. So I belted it out! Even though I sang “Chain of Fools” earlier in the movie, it was a smaller moment and I didn’t get to sing as loud as I wanted to. When I had this moment, I went for it. The reaction afterwards was priceless. The whole crew was like, Whoa. The acoustics in that warehouse were incredible. But Jack was the ringleader, and towards the end he was making us laugh with everything he threw at us. That’s what makes it such a monumental credits-rolling scene. You couldn’t have planned it.

What was it like being directed by an auteur like Richard? Especially since most of you kids had no prior acting experience.
He was the nicest guy ever. As a kid, you never know what you’re going to walk into. But he was so patient with us and I never felt any pressure from him at all. If anything, he was too patient, always giving us time to practice lines or take a moment for ourselves. It was always very light.

Something that I find interesting about School of Rock is that it’s grown into a mini franchise of sorts — there was the Nickelodeon show and the well-reviewed Broadway musical. It seems to get bigger and bigger every year. How has it been to witness this trajectory?
When it first came out, I was just happy to be involved and have the opportunity to sing in front of others. Thinking about the scope of it was never on my mind. It wasn’t until ten years after, at the reunion [hosted by the Austin Film Society in 2013], when I realized the extent of how big of a deal it was. There were adults, young adults, and kids who showed up and knew all of the words to our songs. I didn’t know that it transcended to a different generation, you know? A lot of us in the cast felt that way. I’ve had several girls reach out to me — overweight young girls — to say that I gave them confidence to sing. I mean, wow. It makes you proud to be part of something like that. And it inspired me, too. It was my first introduction to the industry and it inspired me to pursue it more on the music side.

In what ways did it inspire you? I know this is your only film credit.
Right after its release, I went out and tried to pursue other acting roles. I ran into some hiccups. I was 10 years old at the time, but I was bigger in size and taller than the average kid that age. I looked more like I was 15. I would go every single day after school to an audition and maybe get a callback. And you know what? I realized I didn’t enjoy it. It was discouraging. After a few months I told my mother that I wasn’t interested in doing it anymore and I wanted to focus solely on music. Being the supportive mom she is, she said that was totally fine. I started performing everywhere that I could ever since, and I’ve dropped a couple songs over the years. I’m so thankful for School of Rock because it taught me a lot of things about music at a young age that I apply to my career now. It’s a full-circle moment.

Are you still friends with a lot of your classroom castmates?
Absolutely! We have a group chat. We keep in touch pretty frequently and drop in our projects. I drop my music in, Miranda drops her acting projects in, stuff like that. Others have left the industry and talk about their families.

Is the guy who played Zack, who was recently arrested for stealing guitars, in the group chat?
Absolutely he is. There’s 14 of us. A few of them had a meet-up about a year ago in New York.

Which of these songs do you think is the biggest bop: “The Legend of the Rent,” “Step Off,” or “School of Rock”?
“The Legend of the Rent” for sure. It’s a very funny song. When I was younger, I would listen to it on repeat. You gotta be hard core!

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Maryam Hassan Answers All of Our School of Rock Questions