When Wilson Jermaine Heredia auditioned for Jonathan Larson's Rent, 1996's Tony-winning Best Musical, he was a seasoned dancer with parts in two Off-Broadway shows. When he got the role of his lifetime, being a cross- country runner since high school prepared him for the demanding physical exertion. However, nothing prepared him for his Broadway debut in the season's hottest property, or the acclaim he would receive for his portrayal of Angel, the street musician and drag queen dying of AIDS.
"I was riding the wave, accepting everything for what it was," said Heredia, 24, of the overwhelming media spotlight focused on the young cast of Rent. "We were working like dogs, doing appearances, photo shoots, anything to promote the show. After we opened, we began rehearsing for and recording the cast album [available on DreamWorks Records]. Everything was going so fast, there was no time to react."
After a month, he was able to step back and breathe. "One night I broke down crying to a friend, purging emotions I hadn't been able to express. That was my therapy. I said, 'Good. I have it out now.'"
Then came the Tonys, where he caused a stir dressed head to toe in black vinyl. The highlight of the awards, other than his incredulity at winning the award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical, was "being in the presence of actors I admired and never thought I'd ever meet, and their seeing me as an equal. It was especially nice to literally bump into Liza."
In July, when she saw Rent, Minnelli visited backstage. "I was thrilled when we talked. That day my Tony came from being engraved, so I shared it with her. She said, 'In ten years this Tony will fall apart. It's only spit and vinegar. What matters is the work. That's what you're left with.' It was a lot to think about." Heredia comes from Brooklyn and a Dominican family. He was different and from an early age, "I never fit the mold. I wasn't exactly a macho guy. Quite the opposite. I was terrible at sports and treated like an outcast, but I enjoyed running. It was the best thing I could do. Run away."
With his acclaim in Rent, Heredia finds the movies beckoning. "There have been a lot of screen tests because people want to see if this guy who won the Tony can really act. Since they've only seen a drag queen, they want to find out if I can play a tough guy. Tunnel vision makes them believe Angel is who I am really gay and a drag queen. When we meet, they realize I'm playing a role. I can play anything. Just give me time to work on it."
In the end, it's as Minnelli told him. "I love theatre. The greatest blessing of this success is I'm able to perform. It's where the inspiration comes from. It can't get any better. This is what I live for, what makes me feel alive."
-- By Ellis Nassour