Interview by Anna Altheide
What musical had the biggest impact on you growing up?
I feel like there were musicals that had an impact on me growing up because they gave me a passion for theatre, and musicals that had an impact on me because I finally saw myself in theatre. My mom and my grandparents had all these many golden age musicals on vinyl, and I used to know my grandma’s two-tape VHS copy of The Sound Of Music by heart. But the first live musical I saw wasn’t any of those—it was a touring production of Cats that came to DC (I think it was either at the Kennedy Center or the National Theatre). It’s so important to take children to see live theatre! It instilled in me an utter obsession with the arts that would not quit.
In terms of informing my life and imparting life lessons on me, I think the musical that did it best was Into The Woods, because it had something new for me at different stages of my life. As a teenager, I got the basic lesson of it: growing up, understanding that consequences have actions, and even wishes have a price. But as I went through other major life events, I’d come to understand and appreciate the relationship between parents and children, generational trauma, failure, and mistakes. Having done the show now, I still think a lot about concepts of morality and “goodness,” and about accountability. This show keeps unpacking itself for me and growing with me.
The first time I felt seen by a musical, though, was In The Heights. It was the first time I really thought, this is a Latin-American experience. At the risk of damning myself, I never thought West Side Story was for us. It’s about us, but it’s not for us. I’m reminded of that every time I see a new production of it. Not just the plot, but the music! I had never heard a musical before then that truly had a Latin style to it, and somewhere along the line I had internalized the idea that such a thing couldn’t be musical theatre… so to hear it in practice rocked my world. The first time I heard “Paciencia y fe,” I cried! I think it resonated with me in a way similar to Into The Woods, but deeper. I didn’t know how badly I needed a story of parents trying to make a better life for their children in America. The line “I spent my life inheriting dreams from you” still chokes me up.
I think I’m rambling now.
What’s your dream role and why?
I used to have a few dream roles—Jack from Into The Woods was one, but now I can say I’ve crossed that off my bucket list! Pippin (from, well… Pippin) and Mark from Rent were others. In general, I’m really drawn to the role of the young man/person searching for adventure, or for purpose, or for something bigger than himself. I think that’s something every role I’ve longed to play has in common.
These days, though, I care less about playing a role that’s already been written. What I want more than anything is to originate a new role on Broadway. I want to be on that OBCR, and I want a young trans boy to hear me sing and think, “that’s me in there. I can do that, too.”
How do you believe your identity has played a part in developing your current career?
I used to think of my identity as an obstacle, because I was told it was an obstacle. I still remember a workshop I did back in 2013. An agent who attended invited me to do a screen test at her office, which I did. After the screen test, she sat me down and told me I did well. She said she thought I was talented, but that she couldn’t use me. She said, “You’re Lebanese. You’re Puerto Rican. You’re transgender. The problem is, you’re a very specific type. There’s not a whole lot of people who are going to relate to you.” I was gutted! She told me at best, I might be a “good character actor” someday. That’s not a dunk on character actors, but I came away feeling like, “I don’t understand why you invited me here to tell me I was good, but that I didn’t belong in entertainment.” Ironically, I haven’t heard of her or from her since then.
I often feel like my story is the story of someone who took the long way ‘round. So far, I’ve spent most of my life knowing what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be but denying myself these things because I just didn’t think they were possible. I was told that I’d never make a career in the arts, so I decided to study something else. I was told that identifying as gay, as queer, as trans, etc. were punishable offenses, so I hid them. I was told that being of Middle Eastern and Latinx descent made me aggressive, lazy, stupid, and ugly (or, for some, an exotic plaything), so I tried to assimilate into whiteness. I didn’t have institutional support. I didn’t have social support. I didn’t always have familial support. I can honestly say that for two thirds of my life, I didn’t try because I didn’t think there was any point.
Coming out as transgender was an act of reclamation in so many ways. By the time I came out publicly, I had had enough: it was either transition or death. And not long after coming out, the world began to treat me and my newfound trans peers in such a way that “activated” me. I came out in 2010, started my medical transition in 2011, and was engaged in community activism by 2012. This kind of work taught me how to stand up for myself and assert myself in spaces where I wanted to belong. Not coincidentally, I started acting again in 2012, started taking acting classes, voice lessons, etc. Being transgender didn’t make my life easier, but it made me better equipped to face challenges. And it also gave me this relentless fire to gain everything I had denied myself or been denied for so long.
There’s a verse in Hamilton that always makes me cry. It’s in “My Shot,” when Hamilton says “I’m past patiently waiting/I’m passionately smashing every expectation/Every action’s an act of creation/I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow/For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow.” Like… that’s my line. And I’ve only known that feeling for eight or nine years or so.
I sometimes wish I could have gone back and done things different. I still think of going back and getting a degree in acting—because despite my experiences, I still meet people who see I don’t have a BFA and think I’m less legitimate as an actor. At the same time, I don’t regret doing it the way I did. All I want is to make sure other people in my community have things I didn’t. And if that means the moral of my story is that it’s “never too late,” or “you’re not alone,” or whatever, so be it. My experiences and my identity formed each other, and they made each other. And that’s how I got here. I don’t want to be anybody else.
What advice or wisdom would you give your younger self, or a young person in a similar situation?
You’re never not going to have to work for what you want, but don’t let people tell you it’s impossible just because it’s hard. People say, “if it’s not worth working for, it’s not worth having.” But people also like to tell aspiring actors about how hard the industry is, like there’s this undercurrent of “are you sure you want to do this?” Don’t listen to them. You want this, so get it. You’ll never be good at something if you’re even a little bit afraid of it.
Don’t fear all that’s possible for you. Don’t be scared because you walked into an audition room and didn’t see anyone else like you. Don’t be scared because you just wrapped up one production and you don’t know what’s next. You can’t always control stuff like that, but you can control you.
Being the best you that you can be is more than just showing everyone how talented you are. The business of acting is about so much more than whether you’re good or not. Be someone others like to work with. This community is tighter than you think. Be good to people: don’t treat people better or worse because you think one person’s going to open doors and the other one isn’t. That’s not the energy you want people to associate with your name.
This industry is competitive, and people are going to treat you like you’re replaceable, but you need to know you’re one of a kind. You’re going to face a lot of rejection, but you can rise above it. Also, learn to roll with the punches. The best way to survive in a feast-or-famine business like this one is to be adaptable, resourceful, and determined. There are so many ways an arts career can go. Don’t rule any of them out by being too single-minded.
If you feel like this industry isn’t making room for you as fast as you think, you might be right. I don’t know what the solution is; I’m still figuring that out for myself. Sometimes, I think I’m not going to see the progress I want in my lifetime, or at least not in whatever the entertainment industry would call “my prime” (Whatever that is). But I think there’s going to be a whole generation of younger actors who need the theatre landscape to be ready for them, and that doesn’t happen without all of us. You need to be here now, taking up the space you occupy. For you and for the kid who wants to be just like you.