Polarizing media mogul Perez Hilton has made a name for himself by mocking pop culture and current events on his eponymous website, but now he'll do it in song as a new star of NEWSical the Musical, Off-Broadway's ever-morphing headline-ripping Drama Desk-nominated revue. Joining the NEWSical cast for four weeks beginning Sept. 8, Hilton — né Mario Lavandeira — explains why his eyebrow-raising professional stage debut is more of a dream deferred than a publicity stunt, even if his vocal inspiration is Rosie O'Donnell.
How did NEWSical come about for you?
Perez Hilton: I manifested it. That's the cheesy answer, but I do believe in that. I put the energy out there. Every opportunity I had, I shamelessly said that I wanted to do a musical. Then Tom D'Angora, the producer of NEWSical, reached out to me and asked me if I was interested in being in the show. I'd never seen NEWSical before, but I checked out some video clips online. I totally got it and understood why he reached out to me, because it's the perfect marriage between their brand and mine. It makes sense for me to be in this show. The show's so much fun, and I've been having so much fun in rehearsals. If people check me out, hopefully they'll be surprised that I don't suck.
You've had to leave your life in L.A. behind for a while for this Off-Broadway commitment. Why was now the perfect time?
PH: It's never the perfect time. I had to move things around and cancel some things. But after putting it out there for so long, this was like the universe talking to me, so it was an opportunity I couldn't resist.
Some people might say, "Perez Hilton isn't an actor, so he has no business being in an Off-Broadway show." What's your response to that?
PH: People have already been saying that. Some New York actor on Twitter — I forget the exact Twitter handle — was complaining, saying something like, "There are so many actors who have trained so hard for years, blah blah blah," and my response was basically that yeah, I was one of them. I trained at NYU for four years and received a BFA in Drama from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. In many ways, I feel like I'm a freshman in college again. I feel like I'm going back to my roots, and I'm rediscovering New York in a new and exciting way. Thankfully, I'm older and wiser now.
|Photo by Hannah Ross|
Was acting truly the career path you saw for yourself while at NYU?
PH: Absolutely. I always saw my future in acting. And I was always very aware of my type, how I would get cast, what I was good at, what I wasn't good at. In fact, one of the reasons I moved to L.A. is because I thought I'd have a better chance making it in film and television than being in New York doing Broadway or soap operas. But acting didn't pan out, and I got sidetracked doing the website and other things. Now I have this opportunity, and I'm not going to say no to it. I'm just trying to entertain people, whether I entertain them online, on my radio show, with my books, or now onstage with NEWSical. I'm an entertainer, and I always have been.
NEWSical is your professional theatre debut, but this isn't your first time performing onstage, is it?
PH: I did a couple of shows in high school. I played an old woman in some Edward Albee play, I did The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), I did a Spanish-language play where I played a monkey — a lot of weird stuff. I was also in the International Thespian Society, and I did forensics. I didn't really do any plays at NYU; I mainly focused on doing student films. My dream when I was in high school and in college was to be Sean Hayes in "Will & Grace." I always saw myself in a sitcom, playing the wacky next-door neighbor, the gay best friend, or the crazy cousin. I didn't want or need or think I could be the star of the show, but I would've loved to be in an ensemble or a great supporting cast member.
What was your earliest exposure to live theatre?
PH: I definitely wasn't a musical theatre addict when I was young, because that wasn't really part of my upbringing in Miami. My parents didn't really take me to see shows, so I was never exposed to it that much. But after I moved to New York City to study acting, and I was able to go see shows for cheap or for free, I fell madly in love with theatre. Now I'm so passionate about musical theatre. I've probably seen every major show that's playing. I know a lot about musicals, but I've also been learning so much from my NEWSical castmates like Christine Pedi, who's so knowledgeable about musicals and knows so many people, so it's been fascinating to hear her stories. I'm just so excited to be around people who love theatre as much as I do.
|Photo by Rhoel Paghunasan|
What were some of the first musicals to make an impact on you?
PH: My first trip to New York was in January 1996, when I came here to audition for NYU. My mom and I went to see Victor/Victoria with Julie Andrews and Grease. I don't think Rosie O'Donnell was still in that production in 1996, but Rosie has been a great source of inspiration and motivation for me when it comes to theatre. I don't mean this with any disrespect, but for the last year or so, as I've really been putting it out there that I wanted to do Broadway, I've been telling people, "If Rosie O'Donnell can be on Broadway, then so can I." Because she's definitely not the best singer in the world, and some people would say that she's not a good singer at all, but that's OK, because she's a personality, she's fun, and she brings a lot of great energy to the theatre. I think that's what I do too.
So you don't consider yourself a singer?
PH: I'm definitely not a singer at all, and we mention that and make fun of it all in NEWSical. The show doesn't take itself too seriously and I don't take myself too seriously, but I am taking what I do very seriously. I showed up to the first day of rehearsals completely prepared and off-book, and everybody was shocked. Apparently, a lot of people don't come to the first day off-book and with all their songs memorized, but I feel like I definitely have something to prove here, which is that I don't suck. I want everybody to know that I want to be here, I respect this, and I'm appreciative.
You've played yourself in a number of TV shows and films. Are you playing yourself in NEWSical?
PH: There are parts were I'm playing myself and parts where I'm playing characters — real people. But I want to put this out there through Playbill, because maybe it will happen, but I would love to have a role on "Smash," and it would be great to not play myself. So to anyone involved with "Smash" who's reading this, I'm available and will work for free!
In rehearsals, as your first performance gets closer, what do you see as your biggest challenge?
PH: I like being overly prepared, and I need to be overly prepared, because I'm such a hard worker — it's the Cuban in me. But the way that NEWSical works, because it's going to be a majorly updated new production with new material, there's some material that's still being written. So there are some songs that I don't have yet, and I just wish I had them to start drilling them into my head.
|Photo by Brian Doherty|
What can you share about the new material that's been written specifically for your arrival in NEWSical?
PH: There's a really funny number about the Chick-fil-A controversy, and there's also a number about the Perez Hilton phenomenon. What's great is that Rick Crom, the writer of the show, really incorporated a whole bunch of my ideas. We had a couple of brainstorming calls a few weeks ago, and I told him things that I would love to do and things that I would love to see in the show, and he was so receptive. Everyone's been so welcoming. I know I haven't officially started yet, and I know I'm only supposed to be in the show through Oct. 7, but I already want to be in it longer.
Do you see NEWSical as a stepping-stone to bigger theatre opportunities in New York?
PH: I would love that. If nothing else happens, I'm so happy and thankful for this experience, but I'm definitely open and would love to do more musical theatre. I could definitely see myself in a show like Book of Mormon or Rock of Ages. There's a lot of stuff out there right now that I think I would fit into well.
Although you didn't personally appear onstage, you've actually been the subject of a musical, Perez Hilton Saves the Universe, which was a big hit at the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival.
PH: I know! I loved that show. I've kept in touch with a lot of those people. Some of the creatives behind that went on to do Fat Camp Off-Broadway, which I also saw. Andrew Keenan-Bolger was also in Perez Hilton Saves the Universe, and now he's gone on to do Newsies.
|photo by Rhoel Paghunasan|
Back to the subject of Rosie O'Donnell, you're actually a lot like her in that you've been a vocal supporter of New York theatre over the years; even though you're based out in L.A., you consistently bring Broadway and Off-Broadway shows to mainstream attention on your blog.
PH: Absolutely. I love sharing things that I think are good, whether that's a new show I saw, a new artist I discovered, or anything else I think my readers should be aware of. Sharing is caring.
What show have you seen lately that you've loved?
PH: I was in London last month and I saw Matilda the Musical, which is, of course, coming to Broadway. I didn't really have a lot of expectations, I wasn't familiar with the source material — I actually expected to have a bad time, to be honest — but I was so amazed by the everything that they did with the set, the music, and I just loved the show so much. And even though the theatre was filled with little kids, adults are going to love it too. I think Matilda will do very well in New York City. As long as you're in NEWSical, fans and haters alike will know where to find you most nights. Are you looking forward to that post-show interaction?
PH: Definitely. That also feels like a full-circle moment, because I used to be very accessible to people when I'd work out of the Coffee Bean in West Hollywood. The theatre is now my new Coffee Bean, so every day people will know where to find me. I'm prepared for whatever, but hopefully the people who are there will be there to support me. I don't really think people who strongly dislike me are going to waste their time hanging out at the theatre.