This week Playbill catches up with Tony winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who is currently starring in the Westport Country Playhouse's production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal, which continues at the Connecticut venue through April 24.
Heredia originated the role of Angel in the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent, garnering Tony, Drama Desk, and Obie awards for his performance as well as an Olivier nomination when he reprised the role in London. The actor was also seen on Broadway opposite Harvey Fierstein in the revival of La Cage aux Folles and Off-Broadway in Original Sound, Tales From the Tunnel, and Eli's Comin'. Heredia's screen credits include Rent; Flawless; Rainbow Bridge Motel; tick, tick,… BOOM!; Banshee; Blind Spot; Without a Trace; and Law & Order Special Victims Unit.
What is your typical day like now?
As of this interview, a typical day for me is, thankfully and appreciatively, grabbing some quick fuel and coffee to catch the morning bus to Manhattan for rehearsals for Next to Normal. I’m still figuring out what my first TikTok is going to be. So much pressure.
How did your casting in Next to Normal come about?
I auditioned for this show two years ago. I went in four times, and my last callback was more of a work-through than an audition. Marcos Santana really put me through the paces as we explored and dug into the emotional/psychological subtleties of Dan and his world. And then a week after that, the world ended as we knew it. I thought that was the last I would hear from them until I got a call in January telling me they were offering me the role of Dan. I was so surprised and excited, not to just play the role, but to work with Marcos because after the auditioning process, I knew he was the kind of director that was going to continue to challenge and bring out the best in me. After all this time, I feel I’m better prepared for this more than before.
Are there any parts of the role of Dan or the musical itself that seem particularly poignant/relevant following the events of the past two years?
My God, where do I begin? If there’s ever been a perfect time to shine a light on mental illness, it’s right now. This show is a microcosm of what’s happening on a global scale. Like this family, we are all sharing a collective trauma that in turn is isolating us (literally and figuratively). Because of its elusive and individualized nature, it is either over-medicated, misdiagnosed, dismissed as “the blues,” or suppressed because of cultural, antiquated stigmas. Grief and PTSD are as real as any physical injury or ailment. Left untreated it metastasizes, making its way to the surface, revealing only a fraction of how far gone the problem really is. This pandemic has triggered a population already struggling with mental illness and created a whole new generation of people in emotional and psychological distress.
What would you say to audience members who may be feeling uneasy about returning to live theatre?
We’re in a time where theatres are taking painstaking care to make the live experience safe for audiences, theatre staff, and actors alike. If you trust the theatre and their protocols, you should patronize them. We all need each other, but feeling safe is important. I wish we could go full steam ahead, but the unpredictable nature of all this requires that we take things day by day. So far so good. We’re coming back!
Given your long connection with the late Jonathan Larson, what was it like to be part of the tick, tick,… BOOM! movie, and what was your experience watching the film?
It was an honor to be in the film and be honored in a scene with people that I’ve admired and have inspired me to do what I do. It was a dream come true. Twenty-five years later, Jonathan’s message speaks as loud it did then. And, it’s always a welcomed family reunion when I see Daphne Rubin-Vega and Adam Pascal. I saw it at home first and held it together until the end. I cried like he left us yesterday. I thought I got it all out by the time I went to the premiere. Nope. Same feeling. It’s a testament to how well the film captured his essence and his passion and how there are some losses you’ll never get over no matter how long ago it was.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
I was very lucky to be a 24-year-old kid of Dominican descent from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to grace a Broadway stage and win a Tony Award because of a show that broke ground in almost every single way. Rent dared to tell the stories of the disenfranchised in all its beautiful colors. If not for New York Theatre Workshop and the producers taking a chance on Jonathan, I wouldn’t be where I am. Prior to Rent, I never saw anyone that looked like me on Broadway play a major role, so I never had any designs for it. Since then the show and the character Angel has opened up a world of possibilities for BIPOC and LGBTQIA people. In these times of re-education, I would like for those in power to see us not just as a gimmick, a quota, a necessary stereotype. Broaden your world view, and take a chance. For my fellow artists, keep creating and keep the faith. And, for audiences I say, you are our lifeblood, and we need you to help keep society evolving through the unifying communication of art.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
I learned that I’m more resilient than I thought I was.
Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
I’ll be in Anna in the Tropics, directed by Elena Araoz, at the Barrington Stage Company July 20th-30th in the Berkshires. Come and watch us play. I have my memoirs paired with a one-man show in the works along with some other show ideas trying to make it to the surface. It never ends.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
New York Theatre Workshop will always be near and dear to my heart. I participate in events for an organization called Movember Foundation that raises funds for men’s health and mental health and suicide prevention. And, in this time, I say donate and support the Ukraine in their time of need.