Broadway Spotlight on...Sebastian Arcelus

By: Mar. 17, 2005
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There are many ways an actor prepares for their big Broadway break. It's more than just reading Stanislavski's book, laughing along with Waiting for Guffman, taking some stage combat classes and browsing The Drama Book Shop—an actor best prepares by believing in themselves and being open to anything. And having a little luck on your side doesn't hurt, either.

Acting is also about perseverance and taking risks. You know, the whole, "Leap and the net will appear." Okay, okay, okay, maybe that's a LITTLE clichéd, and trite, and you've heard it quite often, but it's true—so true. And in an industry as cutthroat and competitive as performing arts, it's no secret that sometimes the harder your goal is to achieve, the more you WANT it. It's the talent, the competition and the stomach butterflies that make it so great.  

You've heard the big break stories. Stories about how rising stars were 'discovered' and given a break when they least expected it. One minute, you're just a Joe-Schmo, the next minute you're sitting next to James Lipton staring into the eyes of New School University students. We've all heard that Catherine Zeta-Jones was 'discovered' as a chorus girl. That James Gandolfini was a struggling Manhattan bartender and bouncer before his Broadway debut in 1992's revival of, "A Streetcar Named Desire." That Jessica Lange was a struggling Greenwich Village waitress before her big break in Hollywood, which lead to her stage debut in "Streetcar…" Even theatre legend John Barrymore was not always destined for the stage. Barrymore, who was often slammed by critics for his portrayal of "Hamlet," aspired to be a magazine sketch artist, and went to art school, before he set foot on Broadway. Sure, a Broadway debut may be about luck, but it's also about tapping into—and embracing—your hidden talents, cultivating your own personal craft and taking risks. And sometimes where you start off career-wise is not always where you end up. 

Sebastian Arcelus, 28, knows about theatrical risks. Currently appearing in the whimsical Beach Boy's musical, Good Vibrations as sufer-boy Jan, Arcelus made his Broadway debut in "Rent" in 2002. But unlike some other actors you read about, he didn't set out for a performing arts career immediately…

As we chat in his Good Vibrations dressing room an hour before a Wednesday evening curtain call, Arcelus admits that he's still in shock that he has the opportunity to do exactly what he loves to do—perform. Even though Vibrations is his second Broadway show, and he's appeared in many productions both off-Broadway and in other cities and countries, he still can't believe the opportunities he'd had on stage. "This is wild to me," he says, still in shock that he 'made it' to the bright lights of Broadway. "I'm happy to be here, as a professional working actor." He slightly shakes his head as if he's waking up from a dream in complete awe, but the truth is, he *is* here. But getting 'here' took perseverance… 

Arcelus, who grew up on Long Island, wasn't a famed child-actor or the son of famous parents. He didn't take professional voice lessons in grammar school or beg his parents for an agent. Nor did he take courses at Strasberg or Stella Adler. But Arcelus always had a hidden star-power just waiting to emerge. "I was always pretty theatrical," says Arcelus. "I was always acting out." His first acting experience was in sixth grade, when he played Charlie Brown in, "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown." And after playing one of the world's most famous loveable losers with a pet dog named Snoopy, Arcelus was always singing and acting in some capacity. 

Growing up so close to Manhattan was also a major perk for Arcelus. It meant easy access to shows. "I would see plays and musicals growing up," Arcelus says, "But I also played soccer, baseball and basketball and was class president." In other words, Arcelus was a hard-working and well-rounded student, not afraid to take on many tasks at once. He was so busy in high school, where he balanced sports with school productions, that he sometimes wouldn't even start his schoolwork until midnight. "I was burning the midnight oil doing work," he says. But as any actor will tell you, the ability to multi-task and be prepared for anything is not something you can just 'learn' overnight. "I embraced my artistic side in high school," he says.  

While a handful of Broadway actors attended a conservatory, Arcelus chose a different academic path. He attended Williams College in Williamston, MA where he studied—not theatre—but Political Science, more specifically, the U.S. Involvement in Latin America in the Twentieth Century. At one point he even worked on the Clinton/Gore campaign. Arcelus admits he was a little bit torn about what he wanted to DO with his life, and decided his best bet was to enroll in a liberal-arts school…and take life from there. "In college, I played sports and studied poli sci. I didn't let myself think 'professionally' yet. I wasn't in the mindset." Like he did in college, Arcelus took theatre classes as electives and was even in an a capella group. But something creative was still missing from his life. After graduating in 1999, and itching to do something creative but still not quite sure WHAT to do, he traveled to Europe for a few weeks. "I wanted to get to know myself better," Arcelus explains. And when he returned home to New York, he realized acting was something he wanted to pursue…poli sci degree or not.  

Arcelus ended up working at a large financial corporation in NYC that allowed him the flexibility to go on auditions when necessary. During this time, he commuted from Long Island to Manhattan, jumping from work to auditions to the Lincoln Center Library where he studied up everything he could about theatre. "I listened to soundtracks, read plays…" He wanted to be familiar with as many aspects of performing as possible. Using his finance job as a backbone, Arcelus said he went to every audition in Backstage. "Equity or not, I'd just show up." These auditions would eventually lead to small acting jobs in Brooklyn and on Long Island. "I realized I've got to get out there," says Arcelus, whose typical workday at the time ran from 5am to 2 am. He also appeared in a regional production of, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.  

Before his big break in Rent in 2002, Arcelus auditioned for New Hampshire's Weathervane Theater, a reparatory theatre which he called, "an invaluable experience." While some big-city folks may shy away from appearing on stage in a small New England town, Arcelus embraced his opportunity to perform in a series of shows at the Weathervane Theatre, with just a few days of rehearsal time. This rigorous acting schedule would later pay-off for Arcelus…  

One of the shows he performed in at the Weathervane was Floyd Collins, a show that Arcelus holds close to his heart. And once the Weathervane shows were over and Arcelus prepared to head back to New York, he had the opportunity to star as Tony in a bi-lingual production of "West Side Story" in Guatemala. Yes, Guatemala. "Sure, there are tons of frustrating moments," said Arcelus about auditioning. "But you learn by getting out there." 

After appearing in more small productions in New York, Arcelus continued to audition and appear in whatever opportunities came his way. "You never know who is watching you," says Arcelus. "If you're performing in a small room, or a black box theatre, the experience follows you."  

One day, Arcelus received a call from the Weathervane director he had worked with two years earlier who had remembered him and asked him to audition for RENT. The show was looking for new cast members. Proving you never know who will remember you from an audition, even if it is two years later, Arcelus had a strong intuition from the start. RENT, a show that is believed to have changed the face of Broadway, is a show that has such a cult-following and success that even an opportunity to audition for such a show is remarkable. Arcelus was already a fan of the Jonathan Larson show that follows the lives of twenty-something's living in Alphabet City and trying to make it in NYC. So if you're hesitant to appear in a small theatrical show, you may want to think twice—you never know WHO is watching. 

At his Rent audition, Arcelus was asked to sing some of the songs from Rent including, "Glory," "What You Own," and "Halloween." Arcelus had a good feeling about his audition, but then months passed and he never heard anything from the directors. "I FELT I got it," he said, but a call never came. Trying not to let disappointment discourage him, Arcelus did receive a call months later, asking him into the show as a swing. A swing takes on many different roles within a show, and Arcelus first stepped up on stage as 'Gordon,' one of the show's supporting characters. He also understudied the roles of Roger and Mark, who were headlined by actors Trey Ellet and Manley Pope. "I went on stage a lot," says Arcelus, who would later take over the lead role of rocker-with-a-heart-of-gold, Roger. "I learned how to take on many roles at once from my time at the Weathervane Theatre." His persistence had paid off, and suddenly he was his own businessman. In fact, he went for two years performing professionally without an agent. His days of working in finance were behind him and he had finally landed what he really wanted—a career in the performing arts. 

Appearing in RENT was "a revealing experience," says Arcelus. He says that he was so excited—and nervous—to appear on stage in Rent that on his opening night, his mother swore she could see his heart pounding through his clothes. Becoming "Roger" also required Arcelus to grow his hair long, dye it blonde and grow a goatee. But at this state in the game, Arcelus was ready for anything. 

Arcelus is incredibly grateful to his family, for being so supportive of his decision to pursue acting. Some families may hesitate at the idea of allowing their son or daughter to pursue a career in acting, but Arcelus had a built-in fan club from the beginning. Arcelus, who's father is from Uruguay and his mother is Italian says his family is, "great and so supportive." And growing up bilingual in a family with a strong cultural background helped him tap into his individuality. He makes a comparison of his life to the audition process. "I often say that when I was a baby, my parents put me a swimming pool and let me swim. That's how the audition process is…you get out there and try to swim." 

Being a swing in any production requires more than just an impeccable ear for dialogue and song. Arcelus jokes he lived like a hermit while in RENT to rest his voice, especially since Roger sings so many powerful, strong songs. But being cast as a swing also helped Arcelus learn about each character. "I got to see the story from so many perspectives," he says. "I was a better Roger since I played Mark. And a better Mark since I'd played Roger." Arcelus also says that you cannot judge your characters—you have to just BE them. After two years in RENT, Arcelus was cast in Good Vibrations, which opened on Broadway in early 2005.  

In Vibrations, Arcelus replaced American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini in the role of Jan. Guarini left the show less than a month before opening night. This meant that unlike the rest of the cast, Arcelus, the cast 'newbie,' only had a few weeks to rehearse and get into character. In fact, he went right from RENT to Good Vibrations, and was wrapping up his RENT roles while rehearsing for Vibrations at the same time. And although the characters of Jan and Roger could not be more different, Arcelus is grateful for the experience. "But both Roger and Jan have a ponytail," jokes Arcelus, although it's unlikely that RENT's Roger would ever roadtrip to Los Angeles.

The funny thing about Good Vibrations is that the cast is dancing and singing to upbeat Beach Boys music in their bathing suits, while the audience sits there trying to warm up from the frigid cold Manhattan winter. Arcelus says that he had heard about the workshop for Vibrations, and after Guarini left, along the way his name had come up as a possible replacement for the ex-Idol. 

Good Vibrations joins other show reviews on Broadway, which includes All Shook Up, featuring the music of Elvis Presley, Mama Mia! Which highlights the music of Swedish band ABBA, Billy Joel's Movin' Out and the upcoming Lennon, a musical based on the life of ex-Beatle John Lennon. "There has been a generation change—and a life change—on Broadway," says Arcelus, referring to the popularity of musical reviews on Broadway. "There is room for new creative works." 

When he's not Surfin' USA, Arcelus is lending his voice to animated cartoons. He has done voiceover work for cartoons such as Dora the Explorer and Yu-Gi-Oh! And in the moments of spare time he can squeeze out, Arcelus admits to being a film buff. "I'm an easy-pleaser in an audience. Give me a seat and I'm a happy man," he says.

When he has the time to check out other Broadway show, Arcelus certainly does. He enjoyed the recent Broadway productions of Assassins and Take Me Out, which were highly praised, but sadly, closed too soon. "Of course, Wicked gives me goosebumps everytime I see it," he says, referring to Broadway's latest smash hit that was edged out by Avenue Q for Best Musical at last years Tony's.

 When asked what Sebastian's goals were for the future, he remains optimistic and open-minded. While a TV role or film role would be an incredible opportunity, he admits he would miss singing and performing on a stage every night. And of course, I have to ask him if he'd miss New York if another opportunity took him away. "I love this city. I love the hustle and bustle and the pulse--that you can be anywhere in twenty minutes," he says. In other words, New York will always be home (Why do you think there are so many musicals set in the heart of Manhattan?). "What I love to do is where I love to be," says Arcelus, who remains incredibly optimistic and ready for the next curveball life will toss his way.

As the announcement comes on that it's almost showtime, I can't help but notice the look of excitement and mild shock Arcelus still hold in his eyes that he's be given the opportunity to do what he loves to do every single night. He's very enthusiastic about his chosen career path and open to pretty much anything, which is nice to see in such a cutthroat industry.

I hear his castmates running around backstage singing and laughing, and I am suddenly filled with an adrenaline rush when I think of the words, "it's…showtime!"

This is why I must ask Arcelus if any funny things have happened to him while performing live on stage. After all, unlike a film, you can't just 'cut.' And he does 'fess up that he had a pants-splitting incident in RENT.

"Funny things happen every night," he says with a grin. "That's the glory of theatre."