"I haven't done a whole lot. This is my first huge thing," Lea begins. "This is my first bite. I was waiting it out and then I caught a really, really big fish."
"Waiting it out" is something that most actors are familiar with. Countless talented performers move to New York City with the hopes of performing on Broadway, though not all are able to make it. For Lea, a graduate from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, he achieved his dream in just a few years. Lea moved to the city in 2011 immediately after graduating, where he worked a series of odd jobs to support his acting: in a hotel, at a Steak 'n Shake ("a really rough patch") and as a cater waiter.
His first professional job was in the Cygnet Theatre Company's 2013 production of Shakespeare's R&J in San Diego, after which he returned to New York and "the grind." After three auditions for The Curious Incident, culminating in a movement session with the play's Tony-winning director Marianne Elliott, Lea hoped the role would be his big break. The play follows young Christopher, who is exceptionally intelligent but ill-equipped to interpret everyday life, and his attempts to find the person who killed the neighborhood dog.
"I was waiting [for the call]," he recalls. "I didn't know when it was going to happen."
The day he received the news, Lea was in North Carolina shopping with his father. "Where I'm from, it's a big pottery town and there's a lot of pottery shops. So we were just shopping around looking at all those things. Actually, that same day I bought this little pottery dog," he recalls.
"I didn't have any reception on my phone where we were shopping," he says. "I get the phone call and absolutely zero reception. Zero. Like, 'I can't hear you. I can't hear you..' Finally, I'm walking around and hearing bits and pieces and going, 'Can you say it again?'"
Following his excitement at landing the role, Lea was faced with the pressures of succeeding Alex Sharp, who has garnered widespread critical acclaim as well as a Tony Award for his performance. "I definitely felt the pressure: the pressure of living up to his performance," he says. "And then to be able to come in to step into this play that's a really good play. I definitely wanted to do the best I could do."
"But eventually I got over the pressure with Alex," Lea continues. "One of the things that I realized was that I started to own the part myself. Once I started to learn it and it was mine, I thought, 'I don't have to live up to what Alex did.'
"Everyone is going to bring something different to Christopher," he says. "You can't do what someone else does. You can only draw on your own experiences. I guess once I started to realize that, I started to think more about what I was doing with Christopher... bringing truth to that instead of worrying about pressure."
Just as Sharp has spoken to Playbill.com previously about his deep attachment to the role of Christopher, Lea admits that he, too, has come to consider the leading character as a "best friend." "It becomes an obsession," he says. "You're constantly thinking about him.
"I think it's heart, really," explains Lea. "Needing and knowing that he's loved by so many people. When people see it, they love Christopher, not really the actor." When asked what makes Christopher so endearing, Lea says it is because "he gives people hope."
"I think it's because he doesn't give up, against his differences," he says. "Everybody has things that hold them back, that they're told that they can't do and then they start to believe it... For Christopher, he's so confident, He just does it and doesn't let that take him down. He forges ahead, and I think that's how he inspires hope."
In the last month, Lea has been greeted by fans at the stage door telling him how much his performance has meant to them. He is especially touched by audience members who have experience with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Though it doesn't explicitly state in the script that Christopher is on the autism spectrum, many consider him to be.
"The people who tell me that they have a family member, or when they say that they're on the spectrum…that's special to me," he says with emotion. "That means a lot to me...to be able to bring as much truth and heart to it."
In preparation for the role, Lea did a great deal of research, including paying a visit to QSAC, a nonprofit that supports children and adults with ASD, where he participated in a life skills class and spoke with many of the students. Lea admits that getting into that mindset was challenging. "His [Christopher's] thought process is so much faster than mine," says Lea. "Really knowing and having those thoughts, and making them fast: it is a challenge."
Lea appears to be taking all of the challenges and pressure in his stride, and with maturity for such a young actor. One thing he can't contain however, is his excitement at making his Broadway debut.
"You look at Broadway forever and it's like, 'Man, I just want to be in that world. I just want to do it so bad. I want to be acting on that stage,'" he says excitedly. "And then when it actually happens, it's like, 'Wow. Is it real? It doesn't feel real.' I don't really know how to describe it, when you're finally in it. It's awesome."