BWW Interview: James Hayden Rodriguez of THE LIGHTNING THIEF at Winspear Opera House
This afternoon, I had the opportunity to speak with James Hayden Rodriguez, who is currently playing Luke/Ares in the national tour of THE LIGHTNING THIEF, based on the Rick Riordan novel of the same title. I reached him in beautiful, breezy Eugene, Oregon, where the weather was great and he was enjoying some time before his show this evening.
Name: James Hayden Rodriguez
Hometown: "I live in Los Angeles. I'm from New York, originally. I was born in New York City. My parents were split, so my mother lived in Virginia and my dad lived in New York and I went back and forth a lot growing up. When I graduated from college, I moved to New York and I lived there for a little while - and now I'm out west! LA is so different from New York, but that's why I went: I needed a more chill environment, more sun, less of a fast-paced world and that's what I got and that's what I love about it."
Current Role: Luke/Ares in the national tour of THE LIGHTNING THIEF
Jared West: Thank you for taking time to speak to me today. We are looking forward to having you and the cast of THE LIGHTNING THIEF come to Dallas soon.
James Hayden Rodriguez: "We're so excited for Dallas! We're in Dallas for a week and we're coming right off a layoff, so some people will actually be in Dallas the week before to soak it in. I'll be back home in LA [during the layoff], but I'm excited to stay in one place for a week."
Jared: Growing up in New York, what first inspired you to perform?
James: "Honestly, as long as I could talk, I've been singing. My mother would buy me toy microphones and toy guitars. [Laughing] I was obsessed with Madonna as a child, so when she would have her big HBO specials, I would run around the house singing all her songs, playing with my toy guitar and singing into my mic. It was pretty clear from an early age that I was going to be a performer. That was probably my first inspiration. I was also in choir my whole life growing up, and then I started acting when I got to high school. I have had inspirations along the way that have guided me to what I'm doing now. Obviously, I'm not trying to be a pop sensation like Madonna, anymore. My path has swerved a little bit. But, I've been inspired by a lot of people to get to where I am now."
Jared: Did you ever have a moment when you thought that theatre wasn't the right path for you?
James: "No, I don't think I ever did. When I was young, my father was always very clear: if I wanted to do this, if I wanted to be an entertainer, it was going to be a rough road. New York is a rough place. It's cliché, but the mentality in New York City is that you have to develop a thick skin. I've had that in my head since I was little. So, I've always known that, whatever I decided to do, I'd have to be so confident and so aggressive in my pursuit for it. I've just always had that mentality. And sure, everyone has moments of doubt throughout their career, wondering if they'll make it. But, those are fleeting. I have known for a very long time that this is my path. I just have to stay strong to that. Maybe I go a few months without getting a job and get rejected over and over: that can beat you down pretty quick. So, you just have to go back and remember what it is that you do well and what makes you special. If someone doesn't like it, that's their subjective opinion. You have to be very confident that you do what you do only the way that you can do it."
Jared: Do you consider THE LIGHTNING THIEF your "big break?"
James: "THE LIGHTNING THIEF has definitely been the most fun I've had doing a show! One of my goals when I was younger was to create a role in a new work. A lot of what I do as an actor is replace other actors in shows that have been up for years and years. So, doing THE LIGHTNING THIEF is the first time that I really got to sit down with a new piece of work and develop this character from the ground up and watch it transform onto the stage, and then have young kids really relate to what I've created. [They] come up to me afterwards and tell me how much this [show] has helped them get through situations. It has been such an incredible experience. So, yeah, I would say this one."
Jared: Let's talk a little about THE LIGHTNING THIEF. For those who aren't familiar with the show (or the books that they are based on), how would you describe the story?
James: "[Laughing] Well, one of our famous quotes is that THE LIGHTNING THIEF is one foot in Harry Potter and one foot in DEAR EVAN HANSEN, which I think is pretty true. The book series came out a little after Harry Potter did and it follows a similar structure: three best friends who are taking on the world and fighting monsters. But, it's really the story of Percy Jackson who learns that he is a demigod. He has grown up in a single-parent home his whole life and, when he comes of age, he is told that his father is actually Poseidon, the Greek god. So, he goes to a camp where he learns to use his powers before embarking on this huge quest into the underworld. [Laughing] It's so complicated to try and say it in one concise statement. That's the short version of it, but what Percy learns throughout is how to use his inner strengths. He grows up with dyslexia and ADHD, and those are the qualities that make him feel like a loser. He's been kicked out of all these schools, so he just thinks he's a bad kid, no matter how hard he tries. Then, when he learns that he's a demigod, he starts to understand that those things from his previous reality were actually his powers from the godly world that were being suppressed. So, in this new godly world, these powers are helping him through incredible scenarios. He learns a lot about himself and his own inner strength. It's a really good show for kids, but also for adults. I think we've put something in there for everyone.
Jared: Before you got involved with the show, did you have any previous interest in Greek mythology? Were you a Percy Jackson fan?
James: "No, I was not! I had no idea what this was. Just like any audition, my agent sent me info and a script. So, I read the script and thought, 'This is really cool. I'll audition for this.' I booked it pretty quickly, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought I would do the show for a couple months and move on to the next show. Then, when I really sat down and started doing my research, [learning that] this is a huge book series and there's a huge fanbase attached to the book series that transferred to our musical, I [discovered] that it was something so much bigger than I had realized. It was really cool to get thrown into that. But, no, I had never read any of it until I started doing research for my character. And, now I love it - it's my world now! I love the Greek mythology and the whole story. It's cool because all of our fans have read the entire series, so they'll come up to us at the stage door after the show and they'll want to talk about what happens in the fourth and fifth books. It's really cool to connect with our fans like that, [but you have to know your stuff]. They'll quiz you!"
Jared: Speaking of the fan base, what has been their reaction to the show?
James: "It's been so positive! It really has. Our writers, Rob and Joe, did a really great job of using that first book as their bible. When we were stuck in situations, we'd always refer to that first book and try to figure out a way to make sure that we were really pulling all of our resources from that, so that when you see the show, you are seeing what you read. It's coming to life and we're not taking a bunch of liberties and changing the story. The fans have had a very positive reaction to that. They love it!"
Jared: Now, for those who have not read the books, is there anything they need to know before coming to see the show?
James: "No, I don't think there is. I have always been concerned because this show is so dense: there is so much information packed into a two-hour show. Is everyone who hasn't read the books going to understand what we're doing? But, we've gotten such a positive reaction from people who [weren't previously] fans, who have been able to follow the story. And, I think it's more exciting if you don't read it and you're just blown to the back of your seat by what we bring to you!"
Jared: What lesson do you want the audience to walk away with?
James: "For me, as an actor, and also for this show, what I was talking about earlier: finding your own strength and using your insecurities for the better. Trying to look past your insecurities and still be a strong person. That's the main thing I think people are going to walk away with. For me as an actor, it's very important to be an actor of color and have young black kids see me onstage and hopefully find a role model in me. If this is something they want to do, they can look up to me and understand that they have a place in this world. In general, kids go through so much in their adolescence, trying to figure out who they are, and young black kids especially. If I can be any beacon of hope to them, that's what I'm trying to do. We don't get a lot. We don't have a lot of people to look up to. Now, finally, stories are starting to be told that aren't stereotypical black stories. We're getting more of a voice now in the entertainment industry."
Jared: Speaking of the entertainment industry, obviously this show will come to an end at some point. When it ends, are there any onstage or offstage opportunities that you are hoping to seek out?
James: "Yeah! I moved to Los Angeles a little while ago. I've been working on some films in LA. Then, I've also been flying back to New York and developing a couple of new musicals, as well. So, once THE LIGHTNING THIEF is over, I'm hoping that one of my musicals I've been producing in New York will be onstage shortly after."
Jared: Anything you can share?
James: "[Laughing] At the moment, no. It's going to be at The Public Theatre. It's a very dramatic musical that deals with how we, as Americans, treat immigrants. It's a very powerful piece and I'm really proud of it and excited to share it - but I can't share too much right now, unfortunately."
Jared: You talked about creating a role and the enjoyment you received from that. Are there any roles already out there that you would call your dream roles?
James: "Sure! For me, they're bucket list roles that I would want to play - not forever, but for a short amount of time and say that I got to do them. I grew up watching THE LION KING movie; it was the first Disney movie I ever saw and I watched it ten times every day. I knew it forwards and backwards. Playing Simba in THE LION KING on Broadway has been a dream of mine since it came out and I'm hoping I get to do that. I would also love to be in WICKED. That's another fun one that has been around forever and I'd like to just pop in and play Fiyero for a second and then leave. But, I'm definitely more a rock musical kind of guy. That's how I started and where my career has been taking me, and I like to lean in to those rock shows. So, if RENT were on Broadway, I'd hope to be in that. Or if HAIR was back, I'd love to be in that."
Jared: Is there anything else that you'd like fans of the show to be aware of?
James: "Well, we like to stress the fact that we are sister musicals to BE MORE CHILL, which is a show on Broadway right now that has been catapulted to Broadway via its fandom. [That] is sort of a new thing for Broadway, for a show to get there because of its strong fanbase. We share a writer: Joe Tracz, who wrote our book, also wrote BE MORE CHILL. George Salazar, who originated the role of Grover in our show is now in BE MORE CHILL. Because our shows are similar, we say that we are sister shows and we're hoping that, if this is the future of Broadway, and that having a strong, young fanbase can get a show to Broadway, then we're right on that train! I think every show has the hope to go to Broadway. THE LIGHTNING THIEF has always been 'the little show that could.' It started from very humble beginnings and we have made our way up and up. One day, it might be on Broadway: we'll see!"
Jared: Thank you for taking time to chat with me today!
James: "It was nice to meet you, Jared. I'll see you very soon!"
Feel free to connect to and reach out to James on social media: @james_haydn. THE LIGHTNING THIEF arrives in Dallas at the Winspear Opera House on May 21, 2019 and runs through Sunday, May 26th, 2019. Tickets and more information may be found at www.attpac.org.