Will Roland Gets an Upgrade

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Photo Source: Kareem Black

On a cusp-of-spring Friday afternoon in March, Will Roland arrives for coffee in Manhattan’s Flatiron District saddled with a few large shopping bags. In the past week alone he’s opened a hit new Broadway musical “Be More Chill,” performed on “Good Morning America,” and shot an episode of the Showtime series “Billions.” His dressing room at the Lyceum Theatre, however, needs a few finishing touches, so the actor found the time for a quick trip to Housing Works.

“I’m a pretty enthusiastic decorator,” Roland explains before excitedly whipping out his phone to show off photographs of the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his fiancée, which he also decorated himself. But the fatigue of eight-show weeks and press obligations, he admits, is fervently bubbling beneath the surface. “I’m incredibly, incredibly tired,” he says, “but I’m happy as can be.”

In conversation, the 30-year-old displays not a hint of that exhaustion. In fact, he’s as ebullient as the sci-fi musical that brings him here, in which he plays Jeremy Heere, a teenage loner who takes a literal chill pill in order to reach new echelons of popularity. The piece marks Roland’s first leading role on Broadway—though not his first hit. Having originated the role of acerbic sidekick Jared in “Dear Evan Hansen,” Roland swapped that high school–set production in pursuit of this one.

To depart a massively successful musical for a brand-new one is a gamble, particularly when the latter has a history as capricious as “Be More Chill.” Adapted by Joe Tracz from the Ned Vizzini novel, the piece premiered at Two River Theater in 2015 and was presumed dead on arrival after a few unkind reviews. But a cast recording of the Joe Iconis score was released and the show went on to have a virulent afterlife online that no one could have predicted. An Off-Broadway run starring Roland came last summer and sold out almost instantly. Finally, seemingly inevitably, “Be More Chill” arrived on Broadway, with Roland in the most high-profile position of his career to date.

Let’s start broad, but at the beginning. You grew up in New York; at what point did the arts become important in your life?

I lived in the Village—neither East nor West—when I was little. I went to P.S. 41 on 11th Street and Sixth Avenue. My parents were not super artsy people. There wasn’t a ton of arts in my childhood, but I always enjoyed singing in the chorus. I moved to Long Island when I was 8, and in sixth grade transferred to this school called Friends Academy, which had a really bomb theater. They had two teachers at the head who were both graduates of NYU Steinhardt with educational theater degrees. I think it was super helpful that they decided to be theatrical educators because there are a lot of industry professionals who transition into teaching—myself included—who maybe aren’t the best teachers. These teachers were all about theater as a tool for creating community, so I started doing it because I liked the community that theater gave me. As time went on, I realized, “Oh, I can do this as a profession.” I wasn’t a kid who was like, “I want to be an actor!” when I was 12. I just knew I liked doing this, but I don’t necessarily know when “I want to be on Broadway” became the dream.

So you don’t think you need an “I must do this” epiphany in order to pursue acting professionally?

No, I don’t think so. One of the things I’m really crusading as I’m getting to teach young people is that I think there is a very toxic notion in our industry that if you at some point want to be an actor and then at some other point think, Maybe I don’t, you are giving up on your dream. If you decided you wanted to be an accountant then decided you wanted to be an architect, no one would deride you for giving up on your dream of accounting. Acting is a profession and a hard one, and you don’t really know what the job is until you get close to it. I wish there were a healthier way for people to be like, I want to try other things. It’s not a pancake that you flip, and the idea of checking boxes of success is super unhealthy. And if you have in your brain, “I hate auditioning,” or “I hate performing for this regional dinner theater right now, but when I’m on Broadway I’m going to love it,” it’s just not true. Achieving the thing you think you want does not make you happy. You have to find joy in the actual work.

Because if the goal is just to get to Broadway, then once you are on Broadway, what do you do?

Then you have to go to work every day and it’s the hardest job you’ve ever done. It’s a really tricky thing to tie your happiness to some future thing you could maybe achieve.

How have you personally managed to sidestep that toxic mentality?

It goes back to my days at NYU. I had been there for just a couple weeks, and this guy Joe Iconis [the “Be More Chill” composer] came in to talk to us about new musical theater and the landscape and what he looks for in actors and what he is interested in as a writer. And I was floored. I called my mom and said, “I met the coolest dude today! And I loved his music and he sang us songs!” I emailed him that night asking for the sheet music, and asked him what he had played and asked him when his concerts were. We spent the next couple years orbiting each other: He would come see me in shows at NYU and I would go to all his concerts, and I went to see his show “The Black Suits” at the Public. The first time we did something together there was when someone dropped out of his Christmas show in 2010, two days before the show. That was the beginning of our collaboration. I had no idea what “new” musical theater was, or any idea of the landscape or the scene. For me, new musical theater was Joe Iconis.

Do you think it’s serendipitous that Joe Iconis was the one to come into your class that day?

If a different musical theater composer came in that week, it would have not been the same thing. There is a certain bond Joe and I have in terms of what we value. I’ve done readings for basically every show he’s written in the last eight years, including the very first reading of “Be More Chill.” So, back to how you find happiness and success without tying it to when you’re on Broadway, for me it was finding a group of artists with whom I was simpatico and who fed me artistically so I could figure out my own voice—and then I could take that with me to strangers.

Is that the way you think about auditioning?

Well, I’m very lucky in that I have not gone to a ton of cattle call auditions in my life. It’s really tough the way people get treated in those auditions. Part of that is also because I always knew I was this “acquired taste” and, with the exception of “Dear Evan Hansen,” all of my best opportunities have come from my connections and my networking. I did audition for “Dear Evan Hansen,” though. I was in a hallway full of people and I was looking around and I was like, “Oh, these are all of the hot new musical theater actors in New York, I’m in the wrong hallway.” That’s how I felt in the summer of 2014.

How do you translate that energy into a productive audition?

[“Lady Bird” star] Beanie Feldstein has said for a very long time, “You either want the Bean, or you don’t want the Bean,” and that’s how I feel: You either want me or you don’t, so whether or not I felt like an impostor in that hallway, I was like, “Well, I’m here to do what I do and if I’m completely the wrong guy for the job I will leave the room and they’ll go ‘What the fuck was that?’ and move on to the next person and no one will be harmed.” It’s really hard but it’s important to remember the people who are behind the table are just as nervous as the people who are auditioning. The casting director has put a list together, and if the director hates the list then the casting director has to make a whole new list or he’s going to get fired. Everybody is constantly wondering, Are we going to find the people we need? Did we get the right people in here? It’s so hard not to put your self-worth in that moment, but it’s so necessary.

Is there any trick to not taking it personally?

It helps to remember it’s not about getting the job that day. It’s about introducing yourself to those people and putting your name in a folder for weeks or months or years down the line. I went in for “Wicked” six times and “The Book of Mormon” six times and—spoiler!—did not get either. You want to be a person that people want to work with, which is [comprised] partially by talent and partially attitude and partially a lot of other things. Don’t be late. Just, don’t be late to things.

That you went in for both “Wicked” and “Mormon” so many times and are now a leading man…

It’s so infuriating to me when people are like, “Oh man, you’re working all the time!” And I have been doing great, but I was doing great before I was particularly employed. The best thing you can do if you feel like you’re not getting the opportunities that you deserve is [to] create those opportunities. Sometimes you have to plant these seeds and wait years for them to grow, as evidenced by who is currently in “Be More Chill.”

READ: How to Become a Musical Theater Actor

Let’s get to “Be More Chill.” Going back a ways, was it an instance where you read the script and the character immediately resonated?

I thought he was a wonderfully complex character to begin with, but I also want to credit Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz and [director] Stephen Brackett for allowing me to have a lot of input in the process, and that’s been true for every actor in the show. All of us got to really put our stink on those characters and really help them become three-dimensional and developed beyond what was just on the page. That’s my favorite way to work. As much as I’d love to be in a revival of some classic show, I love my collaboration with creators. And I would much rather create a dozen musicals that don’t go to Broadway than be in one from 50 years ago, where the words are set, the music is set, and “this is what you’re going to do.”

The show has a ferociously passionate fanbase. Why, in your words, does it resonate so deeply with audiences of all ages?

It’s aimed at people who have distance from that [high school] experience and remember it, and the fact that young people have gravitated toward it, too, just means that it’s honest and they feel represented by it. I compare it a lot to “Into the Spider-Verse” or the new “Lego” movie: media aimed at young people, but it’s got a lot more going on. In the last couple years since the election, and also in the world where we have Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, I have thought about how I as a white male actor can best serve as an ally and supporter of these movements and ideas. One of the things I love about “Be More Chill” is that I think it promotes a new masculinity, [one] that doesn’t need to be big and tough. Jeremy learns empathy over the course of the story, and he learns to see his struggle in the struggle of others and theirs in his own.

Let’s talk about reviews a bit. “Be More Chill” is quite polarizing when it comes to critics. How do you, as an actor inside the show, reconcile that?

What’s tricky about gatekeepers in our industry is that it is hugely undemocratic, and I think at times there are real political motives behind certain things that are written. My favorite thing about the Broadway reviews of “Be More Chill” is that they’re split down the middle between love letters and hate mail, and they are equally passionate. The people who did not like the show hated the show, and the people who loved the show think it’s the best show ever, which to me is a sign of great art. The other thing I find fascinating is that people who did not like it ascribed it to their age, which I think is a huge mistake. I think that they should have ascribed it to their cynicism. “Be More Chill” is not a show [for you] if you are a pessimistic eye-roller who believes nothing good will ever happen again. If you do not have a little bit of optimism in your heart, you will not love this show. If you want to watch a play in a living room about depressed intellectual yuppies arguing about Donald Trump, they’re available. This is a full-blown, honest-to-god, old-school musical comedy that celebrates weirdness and optimism.

You have a show to get to, so let’s end with a clichéd but valuable question: Will Roland, if you could go back and give that kid on Long Island advice, what would it be?

Work hard and be nice to everyone. Also, I’ve never walked into a situation where I thought, I’m overprepared for this. There is no amount of preparation or memorization that you could do that is enough. You will always, when you get to that moment when it’s all on the line, wish that you’d looked at it one more time. And so when it comes to auditions, learn the lines and hold the pages! And “be nice to everyone” is two-pronged: One, you never know who is who and when you’re going to encounter them next. Two, it’s just this idea that you can generally enjoy your day more by being pleasant to people. Days are hard, days are easy, and you decide how you encounter them. There’s always going to be someone as good as you. Once you get a little bit into this, everyone is good—you included.

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Photographed by Kareem Black
Styled by Caitlyn Leary + groomed by Sofiia Strykova