BWW Exclusive: Preview of INSIDE ACT: HOW TEN ACTORS MADE IT AND HOW YOU CAN TOO- with Jose Llana!
Why do some actors make it and others don't? Ken Womble sets out to find the answer to this question, one that has fascinated and tormented him for years, in his new book, INSIDE ACT: How Ten Actors Made it and How You Can Too (Hansen Publishing Group, 373 pages, $24.99). To celebrate the release, BroadwayWorld will be featuring chapter previews from the new book. Today, hear from Jose Llana!
INSIDE ACT: How Ten Actors Made it and How You Can Too identifies what sets successful actors apart. For Womble it's about the inner choices, the inside acts of working actors acts that have propelled them to thriving careers in one of the most competitive professions on the planet.
Jose Llana was born in the Philippines and raised near Washington D.C. Jose made his Broadway debut as Lun Tha in the 1996 revival of The King and I (opposite Lou Diamond Phillips and Donna Murphy). He would go on to play Angel in Rent, Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song (opposite Lea Salonga) and originate the roles of Jessie-Lee in Streetcorner Symphony, Chip Tolentino in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Drama Desk Award) and El Gato in Wonderland.
Off Broadway appearances include: President Marcos in David Byrne's Here Lies Love (dir. Alex Timbers), Gabey in On the Town (dir. George C. Wolfe), Adam Guettel's Saturn Returns (dir. Tina Landau), all at the Public Theatre and Adam in Falling For Eve (York Theatre). Regional appearances include: Oliver! (Bill Sikes, Papermill Playhouse), Cameron Mackintosh's Martin Guerre (Guillaume, Guthrie Theater), Ballad of Little Jo (Steppenwolf Theater, Jefferson Nomination-Best Supporting Actor) and Candide (The Prince Theater, Barrymore Nomination-Best Actor).
TV/film appearances include HBO's Sex and the City opposite Margaret Cho and Hitch opposite Will Smith. Numerous cast albums and a best-selling solo album under the VIVA Philippines label. Jose is a constant advocate for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Broadway Impact for Marriage Equality.
Jose Llana: Focus on Your Career and Have Perspective
[The following is an excerpt from the Jose Llana chapter in Ken Womble's INSIDE ACT: How Ten Actors Made It-And How You Can Too.]
Ken Womble: It seems to me there were a lot of things that weren't just luck. It seems that in a sense you made that happen for yourself.
Jose Llana: Exactly, because the opportunities are out there, you just have to go look for them. I wonder in awe at some people in their mid-twenties who say they want to be an actor, and they've been in New York for five years, and I ask them basic questions like, "Have you picked up a Backstage magazine? Do you know how to find the auditions?" And they're like, "What? What's that?" There are so many resources for actors out there to find out what to do to find a job in this city and sometimes lazy actors just want something to happen for them.
If you talk to the most successful performers out there, they're the ones who go find the opportunities and make it happen for themselves. A lot of times, especially when actors get agents, they get lazy and sit at home and wait for their agent to call them. And a lot of times an agent is waiting for you to find the opportunity and say, "Get me an audition for this show."
KW: Can you give me other examples of how you've found the opportunities for yourself?
JL: I make sure every day I check Playbill.com and Variety.com. You've got to make sure that you're on top of what's coming in. When you read online that some director is prepping a workshop of an adaptation of this show and you know the show or you know the book and there's a character that you might want to play then, the first thing I do is e-mail my agent and say, "Hey, what's the buzz on this show? Keep an eye out for it. I'm going to look for the casting director. Make sure that my name is in the mix." So I have myself and I have my agent making sure that the first opportunity that show is auditioning I get myself in the door.
KW: Right. So you're not depending on your agent, you're working cooperatively with your agent.
JL: Of course.
KW: Who is your agent?
JL: I've been with Paradigm for a long time now. I've been very lucky to have a good relationship with them.
KW: How do you prepare for auditions?
JL: That's a good question. I love auditioning. It's very stressful but it's also exciting and I feel lucky that when I'm stressed and nervous I do some of my best singing and performing.
When my agent calls me and says, "You have an audition on this day, for these directors, for this music, for this show," I pick a song that I think is appropriate for the audition, or they'll give me a song to learn and I'll hire a coach. I have two or three coaches in the city who are not only accompanists and piano players, but they're also acting coaches. I'll learn the song with them and then work through it and make some acting choices. Memorize it, that's a really important part.
I think where a lot of young actors misstep is their preparation for auditions. I think you have to treat the audition like a performance. A lot of young actors make the mistake of under rehearsing.
KW: Could you give me an example of a recent audition where you feel like you nailed it?
JL: Several years ago they were auditioning for the tenth anniversary of Les Mis and that was my dream show. I wanted to get into Les Mis so badly and they kept calling me back and calling me back and calling me back and I didn't get the job and I was so disappointed. Tara Rubin, who was the casting director, saw me at a benefit and pulled me aside and said, "I can't tell you why, but if you book anything long term in the next couple of months please let my office know." And I had no idea what she was talking about and I forgot about it.
And a year later everyone's auditioning for Martin Guerre, which was another show Cameron Mackintosh produced, along with Les Mis and Miss Saigon, and I booked one of the lead roles. I was the villain Guillaume.
JL: Yeah, and I said, "That's really fascinating." He's like, "Yeah, when you were auditioning for Les Mis on Broadway we were already casting Martin Guerre in London and we knew that you were perfect for this part, but we weren't doing it on Broadway for another two years." And I thought back to my disappointment of not getting Les Mis two years prior, but I booked a job! [Laughs]
You have to remember that out of some of the biggest disappointments you could still get something. You will always get something out of a good audition. Whether or not you book the job you're auditioning for on that particular day, if you do a good audition for that director and for those composers and for that musical director it will always help you down the road because everyone works on different projects after that show.
KW: Knowing that something might happen later down the road really kind of reframes it in a healthy way, it seems to me.
JL: I think every good performer needs to have the mentality that sometimes you're the best square peg on the planet and they're just looking for a round peg. You know, no matter how much you try to fit into it it's not going to happen. Down the road there's going to be a show looking for that exact square peg just for you. And you have to think that or else you're going to go home and cry yourself to sleep every night. And some people do.
KW: After The King and I you went into several other musicals on Broadway in fairly quick succession. Was there a sense of momentum from The King and I that helped you get those shows?
JL: I think so. I always say that The King and I was my big break. But On the Town in Central Park at the Delacorte Theater was what helped my career.
JL: When I was doing The King and I, I auditioned for On the Town, the Central Park version, and George Wolfe decided to cast me as the Gabey character.
KW: Right. Gene Kelly played that in the movie.
JL: The Gene Kelly role, yeah. And I think that was the first time that the Broadway community said, "Hey, there's that kid from The King and I. Oh, we can see him in parts other than Asian shows." And I think it was really important I did that and that started a lot of momentum for me.
[After] The King and I, I went straight into On the Town and then I did Street Corner Symphony, which was short-lived but a lot of fun, and then I went into Rent right after that. So, for three years I was not unemployed for very long in between those jobs.
But when On the Town went to Broadway, George Wolfe decided to recast my part with somebody else. I was twenty-one years old. I was demolished! I thought, "I'm done, no one's ever going to hire me, this is so embarrassing, this is terrible."
And you know I look back at that and I thank God that happened. Because it woke me up. It kind of burst my ego and my bubble where my twenty-one year old self thought, "Oh, this is easy, I can just go for any job and I'll get it. I'm always going to be in a Broadway show."
And I finally realized not everything's going to come easily. You could even have a job and have it taken away from you. My notices Off Broadway were mixed to good and I'm proud of the work I did in the part, but you've just got to move on and say, "You know, they wanted to recast it with some new energy."
That was a significant speed bump in the early momentum of my career that made me grow up a little bit. I think that helped me form a thicker skin, and I had a little bit better perspective, which is what you need.
Steven Lutvak: Composer, Music Coach and Singer
Ken Womble: How did you first meet Jose?
Steven Lutvak: It was actually through my work as a vocal coach.
KW: What was your impression of him?
SL: I don't remember how he came to me, but as I recall he already had been to the open call for The King and I and he was being called back for Lun Tha. And my impression of him was he was very young, very beautiful and very, very talented. He just had it written all over him.
Can I wax a little rhapsodic right now?
KW: Yeah, please.
SL: I do a series of cabaret concerts on Long Island in one of the Guggenheim mansions, and I call singers that I've loved working with. And I don't even remember when it was that I called Jose for this, but the thing that always astonishes me about him is that he's completely capable of living in whatever genre you put him. So that he can sing "I Have Dreamed" from The King and I as beautifully as he sings Adam Guettel's "Hero and Leander" as beautifully as he sings "Just Once," the old James Ingram pop song. He can sing in any musical style without sacrificing the integrity of what is required. It's one of the amazing things about him.
And he actually did a reading and a recording of a show of mine some years ago, and I was trying to figure out who could possibly play this, and I smote my forehead and went, "Oh my God, it's Jose, of course it's Jose." He was so easy and fun to work with.
Somebody said to me years ago, "If you want to have a career in the theatre there are three things you have to do and in this order: number one, don't be late; number two, be nice to work with; and number three, be good at your job." And it's so true. Jose is wonderfully optimistic and has a delightfully positive energy.
When I hired him for this cabaret performance, we also had him do his big song "My Unfortunate Erection" from Spelling Bee. He wondered if that would be too much for this crowd and I said, "Oh, no, no, no, no, no." I mean, part of it is because he's so lovable, that this rather older stage crowd was not unhappy watching Jose sing about his erection. It's a testament to his genuine likability that he can get away with that.
Joan Lader: Voice Coach
KW: He said The King and I was his big break. However, On the Town, which he did in Central Park, was what helped him with his career because he played the Gene Kelly role from the movie and for the first time people saw him in a different way.
JL: The mold was broken when they cast Jose...they were color blind.
KW: Did that sort of open him up to other opportunities as far as casting? More range?
JL: I think so. Then he did Rent, which was totally different as well. And things have changed in the theatre, you know. Thank goodness. People are not so narrow minded.
KW: Jose talked about how important his work ethic has been for him, especially in preparing for auditions. Have you had an experience with him where you saw this work ethic in use?
JL: Well, certainly the way he prepares a book. He makes sure that he has music that represents different periods of Broadway musicals so that there's some variety. He has pop music, country music, traditional music theatre as well as new composers' music ready to go. He's prepared to sing in many vocal styles. In other words, he's prepared.
KW: What would you say are some of Jose's best qualities as a performer?
JL: His musicality, his incredibly unique voice and his commitment to the work.
KW: What would you say are one or two things that he consistently does right as a performer, as a professional actor?
JL: He is willing to explore!
Ken Womble interviews actors Debra Monk, Eric Ladin, Krysta Rodriguez, Tony Yazbeck, James Earl, Gary Beach, John Tartaglia, Robert Clohessy, Jose Llana and Richard Portnow about their inside acts, the important choices of their acting careers. The interviews explore the intriguing journeys that have led these actors to successful careers, and to Tony, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Awards, the most prestigious acting awards in theater and television.
Actor interviews are followed by interviews with two of each actor's success team, the agents, managers, directors and coaches who know them well. Womble then identifies the actor's most frequently used actions, skills and beliefs the keys to each actor's success.
INSIDE ACT is available as a paperback and as an ebook. Each actor chapter is also available as individual ebooks. Click here to purchase now!