Actress Savannah May moves from her role on Nickelodeon to Lifetime’s cheerleading thriller.
Those familiar with Savannah May will best recognize her as the peppy and upbeat knight-in-training Buttercup on Nickelodeon’s “Knight Squad”. Over the two seasons of the show, the young actress has garnered a legion of supporters who are excited to see her continued success.
Her next project will show her fans, and those who might be unaware of her talent, her many abilities as an actor. Lifetime’s The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders stars Savannah, alongside Denise Richards [Wild Things, “Twisted”] and Alexandria DeBerry [“A.N.T. Farm”], and kicks off the network’s Cheer, Rally, Kill movie event.
“It was really cool finding that out!” Savannah says regarding the news that The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders is the first film to premiere for the event. “We had no idea that ours would be the one to kick off the whole lineup! The fact they wanted ours to start off the whole Cheer, Rally, Kill thing is a really cool feeling! I feel really special.”
Ahead of the premiere, Savannah is full of smiles and excitement. “I’m so ready for people to see it!” she exclaims. “The cast, the crew, everyone who worked on the movie – we worked so, so hard to make it the best it could possibly be. We put in the long hours.” She goes on to say, “All of our hearts and dedication were put into making this movie and so I just hope people really love it as much as we loved making it!”
When discussing what caught her interest in the film, the actress cites the Bring It On vibes that she got from the script. “That’s what drew me to the project in the first place,” she says. However, don’t expect too much of a similar storyline. “With ours, it’s a more typical ‘There’s a new girl at school, she has a secret, and she’s trying to change herself.’” Savannah portrays Ava, the new girl, who she describes a someone with a dark past due to events that occurred in the last year or so. “She’s gone through a lot of different, big, dark stuff. So when she comes to this new school, she wants to be on a dance team because she’s danced her entire life but the school doesn’t have a dance team.” To fix this dilemma, Ava’s mom, played by Denise Richards, encourages her to try out for the cheer squad.
“[Ava] starts off shy – typical new girl type of vibe. When she makes the squad, she kind of immediately jumps to high school royalty. She becomes the It Girl. That’s something that she’s not used to having or feeling and it all kind of hits her at once,” Savannah explains.
She describes Ava’s journey during the film as one of a timid girl to a young woman who is strong and confident. “[Ava’s] just so excited to be a part of the this new squad. But then when everything starts to take a turn and she realizes how dark everything can get with the squad with Katrina [Alexandria DeBerry] and her girls, Ava tries to come back down from this, ‘On Cloud 9, I’m so popular!’ feeling.” Through that, Ava tries to ground herself in the person she actually is and sticks up for her friends, making sure that they are aware of their worth, according to the actress. “She’s trying to become a better person and when she makes the squad and starts to see what it truly is, she sees the mean girl Katrina’s true colors starting shine through.” Savannah goes on to say that being on the squad comes at a big price.
What’s really cool is a lot of those scenes are based off of real-life events.
That inspires the change in her character. “[Ava] really tries to help everyone else throughout the school who’s felt the wrath of Katrina. She goes from this small, shy, timid character into this strong, confident, will stand up for anyone girl. It’s a really fun character to get to play to get to show that arc throughout the story.”
Another interesting aspect for Savannah to portray was the involvement of hazing. “There’s a lot of different scenes with cheerleader hazing incorporated within the movie.” She says, a bit amazed, “What’s really cool is a lot of those scenes are based off of real-life events.”
According to the actress, Lifetime came to the writing team with the idea of real stories being put into the film. “So these are actual moments that have happened in real high schools and colleges. That’s something that really stands out with our film!” With hazing in female sports or groups a less focused on topic in media, Savannah felt it was great to include that in the film. “You do hear about football hazing and frat house [hazing] and you hear about something like that but you never really hear about girls taking it into their own hands.” Talking about the events of the film, she adds, “Let me just say – the girls are crazy!”
A little taste of what viewers can expect is shown in the trailer, when Katrina is antagonizing Ava and other girls when Ava slaps Katrina’s phone right out of her hand. Savannah can’t help but laugh at recalling that scene. “That was so much fun!” As for any other scenes that audiences will enjoy, the actress has to take a moment to decide as there are so many.
It’s actually really funny – I had no idea she was playing my mom until I got the call sheet for the first day of filming.
The excitement and joy is clear in her voice as she selects the first scene. “I’m really excited for all of them to see our huge pep rally routine. That one was a lot of fun to learn and I feel like all of us girls, we really worked on it hard to make sure it looked really great on camera!” Her second scene is more of a one-on-one interaction. “Another moment I’m really excited about is actually a small dance battle between me and Katrina. That’s going to be really interesting to see on camera. I’m excited to see how that turned out!”
Lastly, coyness seeps into Savannah’s voice as she teases, “I think there’s one scene in the end – I’m not going to give too much away – but it’s definitely a very action-packed, on-the-edge-of-your-seat moment and you don’t know what’s going to happen so that’s going to be really exciting to see how the audience reacts to that!”
Part of the excitement also comes from the fact that the cast only had two days of rehearsal for cheerleading scenes – one full day prior to filming and one full day while filming. Savannah explains this, saying, “There were only a couple of numbers in the movie and all of ours were dance, kind of cheer based. But we trained pretty hard those two days to make sure we all knew the counts, make sure we all knew the steps, to make sure that we all were as sharp and precise as we could be because we are all on a cheer squad [in the movie] – you want to make sure everything is perfect to a T.”
The young actress reveals, “We actually had five real cheerleaders who cheer at the high school we filmed at. They were in the movie as well with us!” She recalls filming this fondly, the awe still evident as she describes their talents. “They’re the ones who do all the crazy stunts and flips and gymnastics and everything like that! That’s really cool to watch them do all their stuff because I don’t think any of us really thought it would be that extravagant. Then when they whipped that out at rehearsal, we were like, ‘Oh my gosh! This looks so good!’”
In the film, the driving force behind Ava try out for the cheer squad is her mom. Having Denise Richards as her on-screen mother was both an exciting and daunting aspect for Savannah because of the former’s large acting resume. “It was such a cool experience,” she gushes.
“It’s actually really funny – I had no idea she was playing my mom until I got the call sheet for the first day of filming. And it was nerve-wracking!” she says, in the best attitude possible. There’s a laugh in her voice as she remembers the first day. “The first scene we had is actually the first scene you see my character being introduced in the movie. It’s with Ava and her mom in the car. [Denise] is dropping me off at my new school and she’s trying to talk up the new school, the new cheer squad, try and make sure that I’m all ready to go for my first day. And I’m really nervous which I think played well on camera because I was actually nervous in real life,” she confesses with another laugh.
I think that was a really cool thing to get to see in person and see how all of us work together.
“That was really interesting! I was really anxious to get to meet her and get to work with [Denise] and see what she was like. I remember, we sat in the car and she just immediately introduced herself and was so bubbly and was like, ‘Can we run the scene a couple times? Let’s just have fun with it!’ She is one of the sweetest people, I love her.”
Her praises for her on-screen mom don’t end there. Though she was intimidated to work alongside her at first because of her wide, “outstanding” background, Savannah says, “Getting to work with her and feel like we had gotten really close since she was so welcoming… it was a really cool feeling to have.”
Another cool feeling for the actress was having to step into a role so unlike the one she had been playing for the two years prior to the movie.
“I think since [The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders is] such a polar opposite role of my last character Buttercup, I’m so used to playing super bubbly and I made my voice an octave higher,” she explains of the difficulty of becoming Ava, demonstrating the changes she had made for Buttercup. “Doing something that’s so different so fast – I mean we had literally wrapped season two of “Knight Squad” and then I jumped into filming about five or six days later… To go from one role to another so fast was definitely a challenge but I was so up for it because I love Ava and I love the story. I love the message within the film and so I was really ready for take on that challenge of playing such a deep role.”
Teasing her film in just a few words, Savannah decides, “Edge of your seat.”
The experience felt like she was on the edge of her seat as this is Savannah’s first film role as well. “It was kind of a whole new, crazy experience,” she gushes, her excitement never dimming. “I’m so used to kids comedy and that’s what I got my start in with “Knight Squad”. Then I did an episode of “Bizaardvark” on Disney Channel and I did an episode of “School of Rock” so I’m used to having to play everything so up and energetic and full of life.”
For the actress, turning her acting on its head and going from the formula of a multi-cam show to that of a film was exciting. “[Turning my training] all the way upside down to straight to such a dramatic and serious project with such a deep character, that was a whole new world for me and everyone was so sweet and welcoming.” In fact, she probably couldn’t have asked for a better director for her first film.
“The director Peter Sullivan – he was so fantastic with working with me to make sure I felt comfortable with what we were doing and [if] I felt good with how the last take went. I mean, it was such an eye-opening experience for me.”
Collaborating with the other actors on set also taught the young actress a lot about her craft. Watching each other and learning from what each person was doing helped a lot. “When you’re working on a set and you’re working with such incredible actors like we had, it was cool to be in a scene like with Alexandria and watch her just kind of shift into her character and come up with ideas of ‘What if we did this?’ or ‘What if I came behind her and did this and did this?’ I mean, doing that kind of stuff with each other, you’re always learning on a set.” She gushes as she continues, “I think that was a really cool thing to get to see in person and see how all of us work together. And to see how we were all kind of learning off of each other throughout a scene.”
On a personal note, Savannah learned even more on the set of The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders. “One big thing that I learned was how with the multi-cam, we have about four to five cameras and they all tape you at once and you do a couple takes and then you’re done. With the movie, we had two cameras that were filming my angles and then we would film the scene a couple times. Then we were stop and they moved the cameras over to get someone else’s angle. Then we’d do it a couple more times and we’d stop and they do it again but with wider shots.” She lets out a laugh of disbelief once she finishes her explanation, a little out of breath too. Her passion for her craft, and for this project, shines through every word. “I mean, all the different angles of coverage that they had to get for all of us was such a new experience and that was honestly probably one of the craziest parts. I’m just so used to all of us standing and getting on a little off of the cameras but then this one was just so different, it was crazy.”
The idea of continuing to expand her horizons and have new experiences in acting thrills Savannah. To jump from one genre to a completely different one had been an invigorating experience. “I think as an actor, you just kind of want to be able to do any kind of genre and you’d love to try anything that’s thrown at you.” However, the actress is torn on which direction to go next. “I love comedy and I love being able to make someone laugh, kind of leave reality for a minute, or whatever they’re going through, and make them feel good about something. But I also really love doing drama and making someone feel something that maybe they’ve never felt before.” She comes to a decision then, “I think I’d really like to play around with drama a little bit more since I don’t have as much experience in that, but I still love comedy.”
She laughs, pure joy radiating from her as she thinks of her passion. “Honestly, any genre I’ll do. All of it sounds like so much fun to me!”
Savannah has had plenty of fun throughout her career. In addition to The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders and “Knight Squad”, she has also performed with the original Broadway cast of Chicago as part of a special tribute. Picking a favorite moment is hard for the actress though. “Everything I’ve done has made such an impact on my life and on my career so it’s hard to just select one and say that was the best because they all have so many amazing moments and memories,” she gushes. “Definitely one that always will stay close to my heart is ‘Knight Squad’ because that was the first job I booked being in LA. It all happened so fast and I really wasn’t expecting to get it and to book that show. That threw my whole world upside down in the best way possible. I’ll always be forever blessed and grateful to have been a part of that.”
She feels the love of her supporters that she gained from “Knight Squad” and appreciates all the encouragement and passion they have shown her.
“I just want to tell them thank you so much for all their love and support,” Savannah says to her fans. “I know sometimes I might not see all of their Instagram posts or comments or likes, but trust me, I know they’re there!” She says with a laugh. “I appreciate and love them all so much. I mean, I would not be where I am today or doing what I’m doing if it also wasn’t for them. I feel like a lot of people forget that. They just think, ‘Oh, well I’m an actor!’ and ‘It’s just me!’ No, you have a whole group of supporters who want to watch you succeed and shine. They want to watch you soar and be the best you can possibly be. That’s another reason why I love being in this business. Being able to share my love with all of them.”
The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders premieres on Monday, September 2 at 8/7c PM on Lifetime.