BWW Interviews: Natalie Cortez Chats GIANT at The Public Theater

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Natalie Cortez is starring as 'Juana' in the New York premiere of GIANT, an epic love story based on the classic novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Ferber. Amid a turbulent culture of greed, bigotry and money, GIANT tells the story of a powerful cattleman, his new East Coast bride, and their family and friends who embrace and confront the joys and sorrows that loom as large as the state they call home, Texas. The musical, with a book by Sybille Pearson and music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa  begins previews Friday, October 26 at The Public's Newman Theater.

Cortez has appeared on Broadway in West Side Story and A Chorus Line. She has appeared Off-Broadway in Sidd: A New Musical. Her film credits include Falling Awake and Meet Dave. The actress chatted with BWW about this exciting new American musical. 

What can you tell us about your character 'Juana' in the play?

Juana is the wife of the Benedict's son. The show really is about Benedict and about this very wealthy family who own a huge ranch in Texas. And Juana is a Mexican girl who lives on the property and is the granddaughter of the head of the workers on the ranch. They're called Vaqueros and they're basically ranch hands, but very, very good and very respected. She basically lives her whole life in that town and that is how she knows the children of the Benedict. What happens over the course of the show is that she and Jordy, the son, fall in love and it's quite controversial, because it just shouldn't happen. There's a lot of tension between Texan and Mexican relations, especially in that time period. So it just explores that aspect, as it does in the novel too. It's very much based on the novel.

It's interesting because I know you recently played 'Anita' in West Side Story, and that show also explores the idea of tensions between groups of people.

Yes, but what's interesting for me to play a Mexican-American as opposed to a Puerto Rican, New Yorker, is that Anita is an immigrant, and while she is American because she comes from U.S. territory, she also has moved to New York, as opposed to Juana and her family who probably have been there longer than the Americans have. There's a very unique question there, one that you're constantly wondering about throughout the show which is, 'Who's land is it?,' because they were conquered by America, but they were there first. So it's not exactly the same types of problems and tensions that arise from the immigrant society, it's more about, 'Who are the immigrants?' And it's a really beautiful, interesting story to think about and I love that aspect of it.

You mentioned Edna Ferber's novel on which the play is based. Do you feel an extra responsibility to bring her work to life knowing that so many people are familiar with her classic novel?

Oh absolutely, absolutely. The novel is absolutely brilliant and is brilliantly written and Sybille Pearson and Michael John LaChiusa, I can't believe what they've been able to do with it, the book and the music are incredible. And I love that they're able to explore things and subjects now that I feel like maybe when the movie was made, weren't really able to be explored comfortably. And now we can explore those things that Edna Ferber seemed so adamant about in the book. So it just seems like a wonderful time for this to be coming.

You played the memorable character 'DiAna Morales' in the revival of A Chorus Line. What was it like to work with the legendary Marvin Hamlisch in that production?

He was an amazing man to work with. He just had such a great sense of humor, but he was very serious about his work. He was very supportive, while being very demanding, which is always what you want, someone who wants to get the best out of you. And he was really a joy to work with and to be with in the recording studio. How much he loved it and cared about his work was really exciting. And I'm so proud that I had the chance to work with him.

I read that when you were young, your father would regularly take you to Broadway shows. When did you first realize that theater was what you wanted to pursue?

I don't know honestly. I always try to think 'when did that lightbulb go off?' We went to shows and I second-acted many shows when I was a kid, and I just kind of always knew. I didn't pursue it as a child because I don't think I was ready for that kind of competition, I didn't have that type of drive yet, I just loved to do it. I would practice monologues in my bathroom mirror and things like that, but I think that it just kind of came to me when I started just doing community theater and taking classes here and there. I began to realize that I took it so much more seriously than everybody else and it just seemed that I wanted to be around people who took it seriously too. I think that's how it naturally happened. It wasn't like one day when I said 'Yes, this is what I'm going to do." I kind of didn't want to be around anybody who did anything else.

You are working with such an all-star cast in GIANT. What has that experience been like?

It's been incredible. I never thought in a million years I'd be on stage with all of the people I'm on stage with and have the chance to work with Brian d'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin and Michele Pawk and all of these people. They're just an inspiration on a personal level too, they are just such wonderful people. And on a professional level, we all know what they've done! So it's just really, really humbling actually and it's so fascinating because you just learn so much from them when you're watching them work. It's truly inspirational.

GIANT begins previews on Friday, October 26 in The Public's Newman Theater at its Astor Place home and will run through Sunday, December 2. Single tickets for GIANT are on sale now and can be purchased at (212) 967-7555, www.publictheater.org, or in person at The Public Theater box office.

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