Interview with Wilson Cruz
Also see interview with Christian Campbell
Jonathan Larson's musical tick, tick ... BOOM! recently kicked off its national tour right here in Dallas Texas. To get a better insight into this autobiographical musical from the creator of Rent, I met with stars Christian Campbell and Wilson Cruz in the lobby of the Majestic theater the day before the tour opened.
I found both actors to be extremely quick witted, engaging and very outgoing gentlemen who have wicked senses of humor to boot!
Wilson Cruz is best known for his portrayal of the troubled, introspective teenager Ricky in the critically acclaimed ABC TV series My So-Called Life. Cruz's television credits also include the role of Victor on Party of Five, for which he won an ALMA (American Latino Media Award) for Emerging Actor in a Drama Series. He has had guest appearances on Ally McBeal, ER, and Sister, Sister, and has appeared in numerous feature films, including Nixon, Johns, Joyride, All Over Me, Supernova and the upcoming Party Monster, which will also star Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green. Wilson is very familiar with Jonathan Larson's work, as he played the role of Angel in the Los Angeles production of Rent.
John Garcia: You were the first actor to replace Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel in the Broadway company of Rent. How did that feel?
Wilson Cruz: Had I not already performed the role for two months in Los Angeles, I probably would have been a mess. But I had already found the character and they allowed me to make it my own, so it was an easier transition working with the New York cast.
JG: Did you do Rent with Neil Patrick Harris?
WC: Actually, we both opened together at La Jolla Playhouse (in San Diego) and then we moved into the L.A. show. I was supposed to go on tour with Rent like I am with this show (tick, tick ... BOOM!). But Wilson left [the Broadway Rent] to go do the London version and they needed an Angel in New York. So I said, "You mean I don't have to pack my bags anymore? Yeah ... I think I can do that!" (we both laugh).
Michael Greif (Rent director) was really lovely in the rehearsal process, saying, "I don't want you to give me Wilson Heredia's performance, I want you to make it your own and do your own thing." So there wasn't the pressure of having to replicate a performance, which in some shows you're asked to do. Especially when they have won a Tony Award for it!
Anybody who would have seen both Wilson and me perform the role would have seen two completely different performances. And I love Wilson Heredia; he's actually a good friend of mine. I loved his performance. In fact, it was his performance that made me want to do the show. Nobody can do what he does better than he can. He was incredibly supportive and he was glad that somebody was coming in, thereby allowing him to go to London to do the show.
The great thing about the whole Rent experience was that most of us in the cast had not done a lot - if any - Broadway. So we all got to be very supportive of each other. There wasn't this "I'm better than you" attitude. We wanted to do justice to Jonathan's work. There was a sense of responsibility to honor the work of this man who wasn't there any longer.
JG: I totally understand. I saw Rent on Broadway the week after they won the Tony, and I was a complete mess at the end. I still consider it one of the best musicals ever written.
WC: Well I'm not going to argue you on that point! (laughs)
JG: How did you come into tick, tick ... BOOM!?
WC: I was actually in New York filming an independent film ...
JG: Party Monster?
WC: Right! I was on the set and they forwarded me a copy of the script ... so I read it and listened to the music. I was already familiar with some of the music because of Rent and Victoria Leacock (one of the producers). When you're in Rent, she gives you a wonderful history on Jonathan Larson so that you kind of know of what kind of a person he was.
JG: It must have been really exciting to get personal input and history on him.
WC: It truly was. But I hadn't pictured myself really in this show because Jerry Dixon, who originated the role I'm playing, well, we're both to completely different types.
JG: He's African American ...
WC: ... and he has this very deep baritone voice. We're both totally vocally different so I was saying "Well, I'll be reaching for those notes!" (laughs).
But I had a meeting with them and they were willing to transpose some of the music to fit my vocal range if I accepted it. I didn't have anything to do for six months ... and they had put together a really great cast. I also loved (director) Scott Schwartz' work with Bat Boy. So with all those great things, there was no reason to not do it.
JG: The lead role (played by Christian) is autobiographical to Jonathan Larson. Did they give you personal histories on the people you play?
WC: I actually met the person who is "Michael" while I was rehearsing Rent. He's one of the persons who were diagnosed in the early '90s and for whatever reason, the virus never progressed. In the period within the show, he's just found out. So its a very tumultuous and frightening time for him. If we were to take the show and continue for a year we would find out that he actually remains healthy but still has the virus which has not progressed in his body.
He isn't African American or a person of color ... but it works for the show (laughs).
JG: If I'm correct, there is one more show Larson wrote before tick, tick ... BOOM! - Superbia?.
WC: Superbia, right. The show is mentioned in tick, tick ... BOOM!; in fact, one of the songs from Superbia, "Come to Your Senses," is sung in tick, tick ... BOOM! by Nickie (Nicole Ruth Snelson). I consider this the 11:00 o'clock show stopping number. We may have to stop the show after she finishes. Like I can probably go backstage and pee because of all the applause.
But really, she sings the hell out of that number, she's incredible! There is no intermission, so that's our break, the applause from her performance of that number. Its like, "Alright honey! take a bow!"
JG: (After laughter has subsided). Do you think it is difficult being a Latino actor?
WC: I think it's hard being a Latino anything, but I mean that in a good way. I think it's the challenges that makes us who we are. I think there are challenges that are inherent in being a person of color within this industry. There are very few roles that are written specifically for Latinos, unless you are in jail, a drug dealer, a gang member, or hooligan of some sort.
So in my career I have strived to show that this is not who we truly are. At least in the people that I know, that I grew up with, or within my family.
JG: Do you go after roles even if you are aware that you're not what they are looking for?
WC: Oh yeah ... my very first role was something that was not written for a Latino, my first TV show called My Great Scott. They were looking for three choir boys who where white. I wanted to do it, so I went to the casting director. But she said, "You're not what we're looking for," and I was like, "uh yeah, shut up and listen." (laughs)
Even my agent didn't want to send me to this because she didn't want to get on the bad side of a casting director, but I still went and got the role!
But some directors, producers, writers, and casting directors don't think of people of color when it comes to certain roles. So I tend to force my way into a lot of auditions for roles that were not written with an actor of color in mind.
But you know, it's always about challenging people's agendas and stereotypes. And sometimes, to be fair, they just haven't thought about it, you know what I mean? My job really as an actor is to say, 'Hey, think about me! When you wrote this, you pictured a white person, but what about me?" and give them a reason to change their minds.
JG: As a Latino actor myself, I totally understand and wholeheartedly agree with you. When I see people of my own color on stage, screen, or TV playing the roles that we're not stereotyped in, I truly do feel a boost of encouragement. It's like, "Ok, we're not being pigeonholed all the time in certain roles." For example, when I saw your performance in Ally McBeal.
WC: In fact, that role (in Ally McBeal) was actually written for a white actor. But, I totally agree with you. I think of people like Benjamin Bratt, who's completely breaking down stereotypes every time he's on the screen. And it doesn't hurt that he's gorgeous (the laughter swells). He and his wife make a beautiful Latino couple, and now they have the nerve to have a baby!
NOTE: At this point in the interview, Christian Campbell has arrived talking on his cell phone in the background. I thank Wilson for the interview and tell him to break a leg Tuesday night. As I prepare to interview Christian, Wilson wickedly throws in a zinger, "Tell us about your sister (actress Neve Campbell) and Trick."