How Jose Llana’s Preparation for ‘Here Lies Love’ Changed Over Time

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Ten years ago, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s “Here Lies Love” became a downtown hit. Now, the immersive musical about the rise and fall of notorious Filipino power couple Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos has come to Broadway, with Jose Llana reprising his turn as the infamous dictator. Here, he discusses how he prepped for the role and how a changing world has altered his take on the character.

You were born in the Philippines when Marcos was in power. How did that affect your thought process when you auditioned for “Here Lies Love”?

I went in there with full bravado and said, “I’m going to be your Ninoy Aquino, [who led the opposition against Marcos].” I was so intent on playing my childhood hero and I walked in with such authority that they were like, “Actually, can you read for Marcos instead?” But especially during that first rehearsal process, I was very honest [with Byrne and director Alex Timbers]. I said, “You’re talking with a guy who has activist blood in his veins. I will not allow myself to be part of the story that in any way glorifies them.” [But] they were always intent on telling the whole story, and they understood that Ninoy is the hero…and that Marcos and Imelda are not. 

How did you find your way into Marcos then and now?

I tried to do as much reading as I could. The problem with that was that everything written about Marcos—by him or by people he hired to write his biographies—is full of fiction. Then I had to step back and read more about what other people were saying and do research on whether that person’s account of him is legitimate. 

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And the difference between preparing [then] and now is that 10 years ago, Obama was president, and [revolutionary leader] Corazon Aquino’s son was president of the Philippines. We were telling the story from such a positive world. Now, we’ve lived through Trump, we’ve lived through [former Philippines President Rodrigo] Duterte, and we’re living through Putin. A lot of my research coming back into this production had less to do with specifics about Marcos and more [to do with] understanding what it means to be a dictator.

When I saw the show, I was standing on the dance floor, and it was such a unique way to experience it. 

You’re part of the show. You are the voting populace. And that’s the point—by having the audience be a part of the storytelling, it’s saying you have to be held accountable for the choices you make in electing your public figures. Marcos was not elected in a vacuum; he was elected [thanks to] a popular campaign. Everyone was enraptured with [him and Imelda], and we need to get the audience to that point, before we start shedding away, to the reality and saying, “Well, this is who you elected.”

Jose Llana and the cast of “Here Lies Love”

Jose Llana and the cast of “Here Lies Love” Credit: Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy, and Evan Zimmerman

You’ve played opposite a few different Imeldas over the years; but the creative team, as well as actors like Conrad Ricamora (who plays Ninoy), have been with the show throughout. What has it been like to work with both new faces and longtime collaborators? 

That’s when you trust in the quality of the friendships and the people that you’re working with. I think we were blessed from the get-go between David and Alex and [choreographer] Annie-B Parson; the creatives in the room all led with kindness and collaboration. So when we’ve had these shifts—when it was Ruthie [Ann Miles playing Imelda], and now it’s Arielle [Jacobs]—that’s a big change. Every time the show tried to come to Broadway, a different producer was attached. The underlying theme was always that we believe in this piece of art that we’ve helped create; and wherever it takes us and whoever is going to be a part of it, we’re going to make sure that the nucleus of people are kind and collaborative. 

“Here Lies Love” features an all-Filipino cast and multiple Filipino producers. Does it feel important to have your voice represented in this way?

Being able to tell this Filipino story in 2023, a year after Bongbong [Marcos, Ferdinand and Imelda’s son,] was elected president—it has to be stated just how important that is. When things started to get rolling, we said, “Wouldn’t it be a powerful statement if this cast [were] entirely Filipino, that we’re telling our story?” How immediate it would feel that Filipinos are telling other Filipinos—and non-Filipinos—that this happened in our country [over] 40 years ago and that it could happen again, because his son is back in power. When it was decided that Clint Ramos and Jose Antonio Vargas were joining the lead producer circle—we have five lead producers, and two-fifths of those producers are Filipino or Filipino American—the second I heard that was happening, I thought, OK, decisions that are going to be made now in terms of casting, marketing, and where money’s being spent are going to go through that filter of those five individuals who are going to be the lead producers of this company. And that means to me, as a Filipino American, that I’m going to be looked after in terms of the specific interests of being a Filipino telling this Filipino story. 

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done for a role?

I was auditioning for “Rent”; I actually had auditioned for the original Off-Broadway production. I had just booked “The King and I,” and I had, like, four months to kill before my first Broadway job started in ’96; and I bombed that audition. Two years later, they wanted to see me again. At this point, I must’ve been 21 years old, and I thought to myself, I bombed it the last time; they probably don’t want to see me. I went in there with this nonchalant attitude, like, Well, I’m going to try to have fun. And I sang “Today 4 U,” and I remember in the middle of the song, jumping toward [the casting team] at the table, and I took all their papers and threw them up in the air. It was hilarious and stupid, but I did it with joy and silliness. I booked the job—they offered me [the chance to originate the role of Angel in] the production in Canada, and I couldn’t do it. Can you believe that? I wasn’t available, because I had booked another Broadway show, and that show closed very quickly. Then they called back and said, “How about you come in to replace Wilson Cruz in the New York company instead?” So it turned out for the best. I guess it was the essence of the Angel that they wanted.

Arielle Jacobs and Jose Llana

Arielle Jacobs and Jose Llana Credit: Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy, and Evan Zimmerman

What performance should every actor see and why?

I saw “Sunday in the Park With George,” [starring Daniel Evans and Anna-Jane Casey], on a trip to London about five or 10 years after I became a professional actor; and it hit me in such a profound way that it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. 

What’s your worst audition horror story?

My worst audition stories are the ones where I didn’t prepare enough. There have been some big jobs that I really, really wanted, and then when I came home afterward, I said, You’ve got no one to blame but yourself.  

What advice would you give your younger self?

Relax. When I was in my 20s, I suffered from alopecia, where I would lose my hair in dime-size or quarter-size patches. It was hereditary, and it was completely stress-related. If I [could] take a little time capsule back to my younger self, I would just tell him, “You have time.” I spent way too much of my 20s feeling like every failure was a permanent failure—or every job that I got, if it wasn’t the biggest, best job in the world, I was wasting time. It was either 1,000 or zero, and I want him to see more of those numbers in between.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.