From Champaign to Hollywood: Lexi Atkins
There's so much going on in Lexi Atkins' life that it's hard to know what to lead with.
She's Miss Illinois in June 8's Miss USA pageant in Baton Rouge, La., and she was first runner-up for Miss Teen USA.
She's in "Zombeaver," a horror comedy getting the same kind of early buzz as "Snakes On A Plane."
In the movie she's shooting now, "Some Kind of Hate," she plays a teacher — "my first time not playing a teenager."
She hangs with Jennifer Lopez.
Her grandfather is the late Clint Atkins, probably Champaign-Urbana's best-known entrepreneur.
Oh, and guess who advised her to move to Chicago to study at Second City? Just a little-known actor by the name of Bill Murray.
Atkins, 21, was an athlete, singer and actor at Champaign's Centennial High School.
She was first runner-up at Miss Teen USA in 2010. That pageant led her into acting.
Glamour becomes her. Her winning wardrobe to become Miss Illinois last November was "a black bandeau bikini and a bold red gown with a plunging neckline," examiner.com reports.
But she's also down to earth. She tweets about life as an actress (@lex_witter), and still has a soft spot for Champaign, where she studied at Centennial and The High School of St. Thomas More.
"Work takes me everywhere but Champaign, but I make sure to come back. I'm loyal to Champaign," she said in a telephone interview.
Grandfather Clint Atkins, who owned The Atkins Group, was a partner in Fox/Atkins Development and VersaBuoy International and the developer of subdivisions and shopping centers here — as well as a philanthropist.
"He was a big influence in my life — and he's still in our lives," she says.
The younger Atkins excelled from the beginning, starting with dance lessons before entering St. Thomas More and then moving on to Centennial.
She was a track star on a 1,600 relay team that took fifth place at state in 2009, and also scored high in cheerleader competitions while at Centennial.
Years of dance recitals probably helped with her running speed. Dancing overtook competitive athletics in her life.
She's well-remembered for one musical at Centennial, "Footloose." Atkins raves about her former teachers. Suzanne Aldridge, who teaches English and theater, calls Atkins "a perfectionist."
"She had done all those dance recitals, but had never been in a show before," Aldridge says. "Still, she was the best team player." The teacher said Atkins brought up the level of professionalism for the rest of the cast.
In "Footloose," she had the lead female role of Ariel.
"On one song, 'I Need A Hero,' she kicks her leg totally above her head," Aldridge says, still seemingly in that moment. "She'd always nail it."
Choir director and teacher Marian Wyatt agrees.
"I loved to watch her dance," she says, adding that the standing split was a favorite memory.
"When she was dancing on stage, the auditorium would just get quiet. She was just beautiful to watch," Wyatt says.
Perfectionist about staying ultra-thin, Atkins taught Wyatt about "unwiches."
"I had never heard of them. She would order a sandwich with no bun. I have eaten 'unwiches' ever since Lexi was in my class. I can't remember the last time I had a sub on bread," Wyatt says.
Aldridge says Atkins has character to match her talents.
"People sometimes think she's all beauty and no substance — there's a lot to that young lady," she says.
But her time at Centennial would be short.
Things went so well with her career that she had to squeeze in studying between calls. She moved on to home-schooling.
About this time, Atkins considered a move to Los Angeles to be available for casting.
"After I competed in Miss Teen USA and didn't win, I wanted a change. My parents wouldn't let me move to LA," she says.
As a sort of compromise, Atkins found a second city.
Her father, Spencer Atkins, is friends with Bill Murray.
"Bill Murray said 'move to Chicago,'" she says. She describes him as "super-funny, a blast. He's been somewhat of a mentor."
Atkins started taking classes at Second City and worked on her improv skills. Soon she was getting film offers.
"It helped a little having the pageant on my resume," she says.
She went to Los Angeles and took classes with famed coach Lesly Kahn.
"Second City and the improv work I learned there is what really got me going as an actress and those are tools that I still use to this day. I think all actors should be in regular improv classes to keep you quick, in the moment and always on your feet with your partner," she says.
She praises Kahn for improving some of her techniques:
"I learned very quickly from all the intensity at Lesly Kahn that comedy is really the HARDEST form of acting, especially TV comedy. It's not natural, usually, the way you play out the scenes to make the jokes 'funny.' "
Kahn sent her out on her first audition, which was for a small role in a very low-budget film.
"But the directors of that film loved me so much that they had me audition for lead, which I then booked," she said.
With several roles in movies and TVs behind her, it looks like "Zombeavers" could be the movie that makes her famous.
"It's my first big role. 'Zombeaver' is just starting to come out, and it has already had a lot of attention as a 'Sharknado' type of movie," she says.
Its U.S. premiere was April 19 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
"This may very well be the most important film you will ever see about zombie beavers," said Jordan Rubin, director and writer of "Zombeavers," the first week it came out.
"The film has so many aspects, sexy, fun, thrilling — it's really scary but meant to be funny and fun," Atkins says.
Though the wide release date has not yet been set, its trailer got great reviews. The trailer is at http://bit.ly/1d6Pgrp
Comments on it range from "My life is better for having seen this trailer" to "this is a fake, right?"
The movie website Bible Variety centered its review of the movie on its B-movie attraction.
"The toxified beavers themselves, admirably rendered as animatronic puppets rather than via CGI, are adorably disgusting in a retro, Troma Studios sort of way, complete with a guttural growl that sounds like the Muppets' Animal with a bad case of acid reflux."
In "Zombeavers," Atkins plays Jenn, who has just split from her boyfriend as the zombie beavers begin to take their toll on campers.
"My character has the biggest transformation. They put a lot of effort into the creature effects in that scene," Atkins says. "It took hours of work before going on set."
Another up-and-coming film is Universal's "Boy Next Door" with Jennifer Lopez.
"J Lo is so sweet — she went above and beyond to make me feel comfortable on the set," Atkins says. "At the Oscar party she came up to me and was really warm."
The movie will be released in 2015.
Atkins is all over the Internet as a star to watch.
"I saw an article in Polish with my picture," she says. "I'm famous in Poland."