Spotlight On

by Ed Feldman   

Jose LlanaFilipino actor Jose Llana has finally made it. He is a leading man. From fat kid with glasses to strapping young actor to a star in Flower Drum Song, Jose has been through some remarkable changes. He praises Lou Diamond Phillips among others for providing valuable guidance and information in the lessons of Broadway Performer 101.

Jose's life experience as an Asian American has intertwined itself in his stage portrayals and pursuits. The culture clash apparent as a theme in Flower Drum Song is to some extent parallel to Jose's past. Talent not withstanding, Jose uses his diverse cultural background to his benefit by providing that "edge" necessary to sustain a career in the theatre world. As I talked with Jose, the inflection in his voice reflected that edge as he spoke about the determination, confidence and humility that led to his success to date as an actor.

Jose's versatility as an actor is evident when you review his theatre portfolio. Some of his credits include Angel in Broadway's Rent, Jessie-Lee in Streetcorner Symphony, Lun Tha in The King and I and Guillaume in Cameron Mackintosh's tour of Martin Guerre. Jose's voice soars as Ta in Flower Drum Song, which has become a star vehicle for him. He can also be heard on the recording of The King and I, Adam Guettel's Myths and Hymns, Broadway Sings Paul Simon and Broadway Romances Manhattan.

I had the opportunity to speak with Jose in his dressing room recently between performances of Flower Drum Song.

With Sandra Allen
With Sandra Allen in the
Mark Taper production of
Flower Drum Song

Photo by Craig Schwartz
Ed Feldman:  Here you are now in a fantastic show, opposite a well-known actress. You are getting established in the Broadway community after runs in some successful shows. Looking back, reflect for a moment. How does it make you feel?

Jose Llana:  I think I'm very lucky and fortunate. I came to New York City about seven years ago with the intent of doing what I'm doing right now. Being Asian American, I'm lucky there were shows that gave me my first break, like The King and I. Now, having this opportunity to be in a leading role opposite a great leading lady is fantastic. These two shows have bookended my career. I've had the opportunity to work with some amazing casting directors who pushed to have me play roles that were not meant to be Asian American, like Martin Guerre and Rent. I'm happy that the casting directors in NY are secure in auditioning me for a variety of roles, not just Asian American types.

EF:  Do you think there is typecasting or stereotyping when it comes to casting in the theater world? I do remember with Miss Saigon, they had cast Ellen as Asian American (Margaret Gates). That provided some interesting discussions on the Internet. Are casting directors colorblind?

JL:  I think more so in theater than in TV and film. You are asking an audience to come in and suspend their beliefs. They know they are coming in to see actors portray characters on stage. There is no mystery. It is about the piece and casting actors that you think will portray the characters appropriately.

EF:  There has been a lot of talk of how producers are injecting movie and TV celebrities into various shows. Where do you draw the line and how might that affect the quality of the show?

JL:  I think the first thing every actor has to understand is that producers need to sell the show. Even though I wince when I hear certain casting decisions, sometimes I am pleasantly surprised when I see a show. There has to be a balance. There have been some great pieces out there that nobody saw and, had they gotten celebrities to come in and star in the show, the show might have been a smash. I am thankful we have Lea in our show. Lea is not Catherine Zeta Jones, but she is somebody who is recognizable and people are drawn to her name. In turn, we have full houses. She is an amazing talent.

I remember talking to Faith Prince when we were part of a benefit show and she was being considered for the Broadway run of Bells are Ringing. I thought it was crazy they were considering not casting her since she is amazingly talented. She was the heart of the piece in DC. We were sitting there with our fingers crossed, but we knew if they got a big name, it was bye-bye Faith. It was satisfying to know she was offered the part. It did seem like a triumph that the producers trusted her with the piece and opted not to go with a big name. I am comfortable with the realization that beyond Asian shows, I'm a character actor and not a leading man.

EF:  We've talked about your success with theater. I'm sure you probably know that only a small percent of actors in NYC are actually working as actors. I read somewhere it is like 3-4%. What gave you the edge?

JL:  My edge is that I'm ethnic. I came into Broadway at a good time. I was able to break the ice with The King and I, and Rent happened later in the same year. This show helped me embrace who I am. I love walking into an audition room with ten white guys. I'm different than those other ten guys. In fact, sometimes I hate commercial auditions because there will be 20 Asian guys but even in the Asian spectrum I'm different looking. I'm taller and Filipinos tend to be a little more Spanish looking so I can go to Latin calls. I have sort of the "mutt" quality and that can be helpful. This business is also about relationships and cultivating relationships. I want to be able to bring more to the table than they expect me to.

EF:  You've talked a lot about your ethnicity and how that has affected you. Where are you from and what motivated you to be an actor?

JL:  I was born in the Philippines, moved to New York when I was 3 and to Virginia when I was 4. My mom and dad were both performers in college. They both played guitar. Singing came inherently easy to my sister and me. When it came to school, my sister was in the choir and I had to copy her, so I joined the choir, too. It became clear that this was something I was good at. My sister switched to dancing. She became the dancer and I became the singer. I didn't try to dance and she didn't try to sing. In high school, I got involved in drama. It was all natural. I tell kids now when I talk to them, there is never a moment when you choose to be an actor. You just get into it.

EF:  Was there ever a time when you said to yourself that this is it, this is exactly what I want to do?

JL:  I think there are a lot of little moments. I was an awkward kid. I was fat with big glasses. Every time I had a solo, I felt special. I went to see the touring productions when I was a kid. I remember after Les Miserables came, I bought the souvenir book and cassette tape. That stayed in my walkman 24/7. My walkman ran out of batteries, I listened to it so much. I was a freshman in high school at the time. This was when I said to myself that I liked it and could do it. It was something palpable that I thought I could achieve. I came to New York with that in mind. When Miss Saigon was a hit and Lea Salonga won the Best Actress Tony, it became more of a possibility.

EF:  You have demonstrated a lot of versatility in your acting. Your portrayal of Angel in Rent couldn't be more different than Ta in Flower Drum Song. I never would have known about your vocal capabilities had it not been for your powerful singing in this show.

Martin Guerre
Jose Llana as Guillaume and Erin Dilly as Bertrande in Martin Guerre
Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench

JL:  I'm very lucky. I'm thankful I went to the Manhattan School of Music. I really appreciate the stamina as well as the mental, vocal, and intellectual preparation it takes to do a legit piece like this show. There is no pop singing in the show. You need to respect what the composer had in mind. There are a lot of great singers I know on Broadway who could never sing Rodgers and Hammerstein. They are stars and great singers, but they are not inherently classical singers.

I'm glad I started in that realm with The King and I. You sing it legit. What I do naturally though is pop music. I think a lot of cast directors know I can sing both. Martin Guerre was a hard piece. I had to be a maniacal murderer (Guillaume) who is hateful and jealous. I tried for two weeks to get into this character. When I tried to relate to the character by reflecting on me, my performance improved ten times. The key to any actor is to find that character. At the same time, I'm like Angel [in Rent] who is an inherently sweet guy who wants everyone to be happy.

EF:  Do you find yourself working differently or harder depending on who you are playing opposite on stage? It sort of reminds me of a sporting race when you are running against someone on a track, it makes you work harder than if you were doing it solo.

JL:  Any actor worth their weight will tell you they work their hardest in every job. You walk into the theater and you take responsibility for yourself. When more is expected out of you, that is the true test. Thankfully, I give a really good audition because when I'm nervous and anxious, I perform really well. When I'm more relaxed, I don't do well. When I'm opposite someone like Lea, I know people are watching her and me next to her. I know I have to step up to the plate.

With Lea Salonga
Lea Salonga and Jose in the
Mark Taper production of
Flower Drum Song

Photo by Craig Schwartz
EF:  So, how is it working opposite Lea? Was she involved in the casting?

JL:  She was there. I remember at the audition, her boyfriend was auditioning as well. I thought, "this is great," (said with some sarcasm) "Her boyfriend is auditioning to see what kind of chemistry they have." So, he's in there for a while and I'm waiting outside and thinking it isn't mine and I'll just go in and have fun with it. Well, I went in there and completely owned the room. I didn't care. I just wrapped that part up. Lea was great. I always try to find a way to get the casting people to remember I'm there.

EF:  Ta goes through an evolution process in Flower Drum Song. Can you explain that?

JL:  A young boy is raised in America by Chinese parents with conflicting values between the Chinese and the American way. He feels a sense of shame about himself. He wants nothing to do with the Chinese part of him. He has to choose between two women - an Americanized Asian leggy woman, Linda Low, and Mei-Li, who is everything Chinese. He falls in love with Mei-Li but denies it because he thinks he has to do more American things. Mei-Li teaches and shows him how to be proud of who he is and where he is from. The evolution of the character is the self-realization of shame, which leads to an effective coping mechanism that finally results in falling in love.

EF:  The relationship Ta has with his father is interesting in the show.

JL:  His father wants to push Chinese values on Ta. When he discovers success, he becomes a caricature of the American way, which throws Ta for a loop. Friends who have seen the show have said it is hard for them to separate me from my character.

EF:  What do you want the audience to walk away with after they see the show?

JL:  I want them to walk away with a lot of pride. Us falling in love is basically us being proud of who we are. Both characters find a different sense of pride in themselves. Lea's character is ashamed because she is too Chinese and finds out that she is proud of it and in turn that becomes her power. I am ashamed to be Chinese American and I choose to be more American. I find out later what I want is to be more Chinese.

EF:  I'm going to read off a list os shows you were in. Respond with a sentence or two about your experience in the show.

EF:   Martin Guerre

JL:  An amazing and talented cast with Stephen Buntrock, Hugh Panaro and Erin Dilly. Too many chefs though ... they had a piece with great music, but there were just too many people who had their opinion and had to flex their muscle. It needed one guiding hand.

EF:   The King and I

JL:   My first job. A job with Asian Americans who took me under their wings and taught me how to be a Broadway person. Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips set the standard for me. That show was like college for me. I don't really think I was fully an adult yet.

EF:   Rent

JL:   That was a lot of fun. Angel was one of the best characters I've ever played. If you didn't leave the show loving my character, than you didn't see the show. It allowed me to explore the most fun part of myself - jumping around in heals and being in drag. I was in it the third year of the show and it was still big.

EF:   Flower Drum Song

JL:  In relation to Rent, I've grown up a lot. I think Bobby Longbottom (director) and I butted heads a little bit in the beginning of the process. He wanted to make clear to me that I have a responsibility as the lead man in the show. He told me that I wasn't a kid anymore. I no longer feel like I surprise people with my ability. I feel like I can live up to what is expected of me.

EF:  How would you define success in terms of being an actor?

JL:  I think success is when you enjoy doing what you are doing and make a living from it. At the same time, I have a lot of friends who have day jobs and do a lot of non-profit theater and to them they are successful. For my own personal success I need to earn a living from what I do. They pay me for what I love.

Jose Llana
Photo by Joan Marcus
EF:  What is your vision for yourself?

JL:  I hope to take Flower Drum Song to the Philippines, or wherever it goes. I hope to be like Audra McDonald - I'm very drawn to singing rather than portraying a character on stage. I would love to start recording and have a couple of CDs out there. I wouldn't mind getting a break and doing some TV and film work. That way, I could sustain a theater career and still be able to raise a family without worrying about money.

EF:  What was the best advice that was given to you?

JL:   Lou Diamond Phillips was 19 when he had his first job, and I look up to him. He said no matter where you are working, no matter how big or small your part is, always treat people well. People will always remember that, whether it is the leading lady, the doorman or the fans that wait outside. The people I remember in my life are the people I felt were good people. I hope people think that about me.

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