BWW Interviews: Ceasar Fernando Barajas Talks His Career and Teaching
Houston native, Cesar Fernando Barajas has been working hard as a professional performer for years. He recently relocated to New York City, where he is currently making a living doing what he loves. Next week, he'll be returning home for a highly anticipated Q&A on March 6th and to teach a workshop on March 7th at The Wilson School of Acting & Musical Theatre. Recently, I got to speak with Cesar Fernando Barajas about his career and his passion for motivating and inspiring others.
BWW: How did you first get involved with performing?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: I actually, as a kid, started performing. My mother would relate stories to me about how I would be the lone three or four year old on the dance floor at weddings, quiñceaneras, parties, and anytime I heard music. I started formally performing in the fourth grade, so that would have made me seven, eight, or something like that. I was lucky enough to start professionally when I was 15, and that was at Six Flags' Astroworld right there in Houston!
BWW: You came to performing as a career after attending Houston ISD's High School for Health Professions and being in the Navy. When did you know you wanted to perform professionally?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: It didn't dawn on me that I was going to go professional until my initial route of going to medical school didn't pan out. I literally was told in 1999, a year away from my commissioning as a Naval Officer and a year away from graduating from Prairie View A&M, which is right outside of Houston, that I would have to wait at least five years before I went to med school. At that point, I sort of panicked because I had these plans of going to medical school and becoming a doctor, hence going to Health Professions in Houston. Performing was always just a hobby, so I decided to finish out my undergraduate degree. I switched majors over to Health and Psychology. During the summer between my junior and seniors years of college, because I got asked to do a world tour with country music artist Jo Dee Messina, and I had to turn it down. I turned it down only because I was two semesters away from graduating, and my parents', first and foremost, request for my brother and I was to finish school. They worked their butts off to get my brother and I situated and to go to college, so they wanted to see us graduate and have a degree. But, I made the vow then that if I ever got the opportunity again to perform on that sort of professional level that I wouldn't turn it down. Low and behold, literally, I graduated and I was on a bus and touring with a recording artist, named Laura León, in Mexico. That started my professional career. From there, I went off to grad school and learned about musical theatre. Then, I went off on subsequent tours, and that started everything else. Here we are now, almost 11 years later. [Laughs]
BWW: You've performed on stage, in music videos, in commercials, and on film for television. What are the differences between these different mediums of acting and dancing?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: A lot of people try to relate them, and even though you're in front of, let's say, an audience, the differences between them are so unique. For instance, on stage you have a live audience. On stage things go wrong all the time, and you have to play through them, where as in commercials, music videos, film, and television, you do take after take after take.
A lot of film, television, and even music videos-depending on the budget of course-are very much a hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, now sit and wait. Because they're going to go and make sure everything is set up via the cameras. You have the lighting crew, the electricians, the grips, you've got dollies being moved. Where you've got two hours of a film or a half hour of a television show, you're looking at months of preparation and work just for those two hours. On stage, your three weeks of rehearsal is all you have. Then, you're on the stage and that creation you've put up is now alive and moving. With film and television, you can go back and always change things. You can re-shoot, you can decide to delete a scene, add another scene, change locations, or you can mimic locations. It's just completely different.
I actually don't have a preference. I love doing them both because they are so different. I never really feel like I have the same thing going on all the time. Of course, dancing on stage as opposed to being in a straight play is a whole other subject and a whole other storyline.
BWW: How do you handle the unique challenges presented by each of these mediums?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: I try to observe a lot. Just this past week alone, I shot an episode of the The Black List for NBC, and I played an FBI agent. I took some pictures of me suffering in the snow, and I titled one of the pictures-we were on location at a park in Rockaway, Queens, New York-"Am I In Narnia?" [Laughs] It was so beautiful, but it was a particularly rough shoot. The crew, from the director down to the grips, was just in a really, really sort of hurried-and I don't want to say rude mood, but they were not in the greatest of moods. They were falling behind schedule. We had snowstorms halt the production. We had a rainstorm halt the production. And it was a pretty intricate scene; it involved us rushing up in SUVs, jumping out, and we had to hit the marks. The lead actresses had to be careful not to fall down snow banks and stuff like that. I tired to just observe, so what I did was just watch what was happening with the assistant directors, the PAs, the director himself, sound, and how they were handling things.
It's the same thing in a theatre setting. My girlfriend, Jessica Vosk, is now starring in BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, but I've had one of the upmost valuable lessons in just being a fly on the wall when she comes home and she talks about the process she's going through, from creating to rehearsals, from previews to opening, and now that they are finally open, it's like "Wow!" So, getting her perspective as a swing cover, getting perspectives from principal characters in the theatre, getting perspective from actually getting to sit down with production from the show, like the Assistant Director, and having a conversation with Jason Robert Brown, himself, about the score, what they're doing, and how they're changing things. It's been one of those things where I just try to make sure that I'm observant.
That's the key to all of these mediums. It's just staying observant and utilizing all that you're learning in order to apply it to your own work ethic, and when it comes time for you to actually go to work, just thinking, "Ok. You know what, this is the thing not to do. This is the better approach." I just try to go at it that way.
BWW: Recently, you were the assistant choreographer for IN THE HEIGHTS at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre. What was that experience like for you?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: It was AWESOME, but also one of the most challenging things that has ever happened to me. I've been directing and choreographing for a while-since 1997. It was kind of weird because I anticipated that the project was going to go about, you know, not without a hitch and not without a some bumps and bruises, but I thought, "Ok, I'm expecting a pretty easy path." I got to work with the invaluable Michelle Gaudette and her husband, Bruce Lumpkin. Bruce, of course, directed and Michelle choreographed. So, I'm like, "Ok. Here's a team who I have worked with. I know them personally. I know their family; we're all from Houston." I thought, "Ok. We're going to have a great, pretty smooth time. Let's get into Philly, knock it out, and we'll be good to go."
The creating and pre-production aspects of the show that Michelle and I went through were remarkable, just to observe and learn from her. She's one of my mentors in that aspect because she can flat out choreograph and direct anything. Her knowledge base is beyond anyone's I've ever really known. I'm also impressed by her ability to just learn. She took my advice, and she was researched. She's, hands down, probably one of the most researched choreographers that I've ever worked with.
Yet, the biggest learning experience was coming in and working with all of these New York based performers. Having been primarily on the West Coast, working out of LA, and the South, working out of Houston, Nashville, Atlanta, and all that, it was a completely different work ethic. It was completely different mood. It was not negative because everything that I ended up going through was a huge learning experience, but it was a little bit of a slap in the face. That has helped me because I'm now based out of New York. I now have a better understanding of how the mindset is for New York based performers.
BWW: In addition to performing, you've taken advantage of several opportunities to teach and mentor developing artists. What draws you to these experiences?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: You know the God's honest truth is I realized that I was put on this Earth as a teacher, mentor, educator, and nurturer first and foremost. Once that realization set in, I haven't ever turned down an opportunity to teach or to pass on some sort of wisdom. I had many, many wonderful people who, over the years, have sat me down and said, "Hey, you know what? Maybe if you approached it this way or that way."
Starting from childhood, my own younger brother has been one of my biggest mentors. His name is Alex, and he's a business owner in Houston. He runs and coaches his own gym. It's in our blood to be that sort of nurturing, sort of mentor type of character. He coaches and trains young athletes and non-athletes alike. We got that mindset from our parents, of course. My mother and father were very adamant about kind of just letting us make mistakes and learning, then coming back and saying, "You know what? Maybe if you had done this or that."
I take any chance that I get to talk to kids, and I call them kids not in any disrespectful form, because they come to me with a question. I didn't have some semblance of what was happening for me when I entered this entertainment world, this professional performance world, and many of these kids don't have that. So, if I can make their road a little smoother, then so be it. I love that I'm able to reach out to these kids, and they're able to take this advice. Now, I have kids that are dancing literally with New York City Ballet, they're dancing professionally out of Chicago, and I have performer friends of mine whose kids I sort of mentored who are now at the North Carolina School of the Arts, at HSPVA (High School for the Performing and Visual Arts) in Houston. So, it's just really neat.
One of my favorite quotes is, "A teacher effects eternity, but you never know where his influence stops." So, I like to think that I am creating this ripple effect, and when I'm long gone, somebody somewhere down the line will be able to say, "You know what, Ceasar took care of me. This is how I learned from him, so I'm going to teach it to you." That, in essence, is what we're on this Earth to do-to pass on a knowledge base so that it doesn't stop anywhere, and so that it continues to grow with people. You can pass on this love, this education, and this enlightenment, and do so in a friendly and safe environment. Many kids nowadays don't get that. We just live in such a fast paced world that sometimes it's just great to have somebody one-on-one go, "You know what? This is what you need to do."
I just finished advising a student of mine. She got an offer from Austin Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet, and Northwest Ballet in Seattle. It was just one of those things where I got to sit down and talk with her and her parents. Based on my suggestions and advice, they went a particular route. I'm just happy to be able to contribute in any way that I can.
BWW: On March 7th, you'll be conducting a workshop with Bryan-Keyth Wilson's The Wilson School of Acting & Musical Theatre. What are you looking forward to most about this experience?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: I met Bryan-Keyth and immediately connected to him. We have a lot of mutual friends in common, so we actually met for the first time physically maybe about six months ago. I can't wait because he's got this wonderful school and wonderful program going on. Again, it goes back to the previous answer about just sharing this wisdom. He's a very seasoned and experience veteran actor, performer, and dancer. I love that I'm going to able to-on the same plane as he-share with his students who share the excitement, fervor, and energy he does for performing. I tell people all the time, "Had I known at 15 when I started dancing at Astroworld that I was going to be doing this professionally, I think I would have gone a completely different route." So, these kids that know in their hearts at 10 or 11 years old that this is what they want to do, the sky's the limit for them. I, again, am just looking forward to contributing to their education and their steps forward, so they can say 10 years from now, "Oh my God, I took this workshop once from this guy named Ceasar, and he's awesome. I learned this, and I've applied it to everything thereafter." And there they are now on the big stage accepting a Tony Award, an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, or whatever. I'm looking forward to his kids, just being home, and sitting down with Bryan-Keyth and just talking to him. I wish him nothing but the best and all blessings for his school and his kids. I'm just super excited.
You know what's really funny? It's sort of related to this, but not really. I was at an audition the other day for the musical SIDE SHOW, that they're doing at the Kennedy Center. One of the people he has coming down to teach after me was in the same audition. I heard him mention he was going to Houston. So, just in passing, I said, "Hey, you're going to Houston? You're going to have a good time. I'm from there; you'll love it." He said, "I'm going down there to teach a series of workshops." I said, "Oh really, with who? Because I'll be there week after next." He's one of the performers that's coming down as well for the Broadway series that Bryan-Keyth has going on. So I love the fact that Bryan-Keyth is reaching out to these wonderful and talented performers in New York and is bringing them back to Houston. That's what his whole series is about. It's about having these New York based performers and actors come to Houston and having them teach. I think it's great. He's thinking outside of the box, and that's the mindset I want to be associated with.
Everyone says there is a certain way to do things, but there really isn't. You can re-write the rules every single time you do something. Like today, I had an audition for a commercial, and everybody in the commercial audition was dressed in business suits. I literally strolled up in tennis shoes, jeans, a vest jacket, and a thermal. [Laughs] I was the only one that stood out. Everyone else got asked a question, and they took a picture. The photographer and the director took like 10 pictures of me, and I sat and chatted with them for a few minutes. I think that was good, but again, re-write your own rules. That's what I think Bryan-Keyth is doing. He's re-writing what he wants to do, and I think he's going to be an essence and a force in Houston, and many, many kids are going to be fortunate because of him.
BWW: Are there any dream roles you'd like to perform?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: Off the top of my head, right away, the first answer is Usnavi in IN THE HEIGHTS. You're a huge fan of it; I'm a huge fan of it. I was gracious enough to have you come up and see the show that I got to do, and Usnavi is the essence of what I'd like to play. Just coming from a Latino background, and his love story. Also, I never get to kiss the girl, so I'd like to kiss the girl at some point. [Laughs]
BWW: Are there any dream shows or projects you'd like to choreograph?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: Again, an awesome question. [Pauses] I don't have any that's sort of listed under a dream show. I do know that I'd love to choreograph a very sort of different and eclectic type of show. Part of the challenge in choreographing is what ideas of yours can you put into a show that's going to translate movement wise to an audience, to the rest of the show, and to the rest of the cast. I'd like any challenge that's going to pull me out of my norm because I'm usually known for the street jazz and hip-hop based sort of movements. Most people don't realize that I've choreographed contemporary ballet; I've choreographed classical pointe pieces. I'd love to take something that would sort of meld all of that-meld a bit of street jazz with the technical, classical aspects and utilize sort of contemporary ballet and hip-hop movements. So, if anything, I think a dream project I'd like to work on would be something that fuses all of that together.
BWW: What advice do you offer to others hoping to make a career as a performer?
Ceasar Fernando Barajas: Number one: be prepared for the toughest road you'll ever be on. It's not a road without rewards. It's not a road that's going to take you, chew you up, spit you out, and leave you in the fetal position, sucking your thumb, and crying on the side of the road. Most people don't realize just how tough this is. We, as actors and performers, face more rejection in one year of life than other people do in their lifetime.
The best advice I can give is to just believe in yourself. You're going to have your naysayers. You're going to have people from your friends to your family, loved ones, and significant others say to you, "Are you sure? Maybe this is not the right thing to do." For many of the kids that I've taught, coached, and mentored over the last 15 years, the reason they are not performing anymore is because they had a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a mom, or a dad say, "Hey, you know what? This is not right. You're not making any money."
You have to believe in yourself. You just have to. No one is put on this Earth to make you happy. You're the only individual responsible for your happiness. If becoming a performer is something you want to do, and you put your heart and soul into it, you can and will make a living doing it. I never, in a million years, ever expected to be doing what I'm doing, to be sitting here talking about it, to be making money from it, and to be alive and well and thriving doing it, but I've embraced it. I believe in myself. I believe in it. Now, the sky's the limit, and it's remarkable.
Ceasar Fernando Barajas will be doing a Q&A on March 6th from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and a Dance Master Class and Commercial Theatre Audition Workshop on March 7th from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. for The Wilson School of Acting & Musical Theatre. For more information about or to register for the Q&A and this class please visit http://www.thewilsonschoolamt.com or call (713) 714-7TWS.