Garrett Clayton scored the hunkiest musical theatre role to hit television screens this winter. He’ll play teenage heartthrob Link Larkin in NBC’s December 7 live broadcast of Hairspray Live! But, he was the complete opposite growing up.
“Do you remember the movie Jerry Maguire?” he asks, before describing himself as a young Jonathan Lipnicki, the actor who played Renée Zellweger’s young son on screen. “I was a kid who had asthma, and bifocals, and wore sweater vests.”
His parents were divorced, and he switched school districts between fifth and sixth grade. “I told my mom I didn’t want to be a nerd anymore,” he says, “so she let me convince my eye doctor to give me contacts, and I cut my hair, and tried to not be as much of a nerd as I am today.”
The transformation did Clayton good, and he started working as a commercial model in Chicago and Detroit at age 13, but he always wanted something more in the world of showbiz. His mother, however, was cautious—not wanting Clayton to get his heart broken. “My mom used to work extra hours [to] save up money [to travel for the modeling work], and we’d Greyhound the four to six hours to get to Chicago that way,” says Clayton. “The first thing my mom told me [was], ‘Nothing is going to happen for ten years. … I just don’t want you to get discouraged. I want you to know the reality because it’s going to be really hard if this is what you want to do.’ I said, ‘I get it. Anything worth having is worth working for.’”
Determined, Clayton moved to Los Angeles, and two years later he was cast in Disney Channel’s Teen Beach Movie, flying out to Puerto Rico to play Tanner, a California surfer.
“It kind of propelled me in getting to do what I love every day,” he says. Since then, he’s done television series such as The Real O’Neals and The Fosters, and starred alongside James Franco, Molly Ringwald, Christian Slater, and Alicia Silverstone in King Cobra, in which he played a gay pornographic film actor based on the life of Brent Corrigan.
“I was a little weary at first,” he admits, “but I think we’re in a really cool, accepting, more free-thinking time, whereas in the past, maybe people would have been more angry about it. I’ve gotten a really good response.”
And, now, he looks ahead to Hairspray, a 180-degree spin from his last role and one of his most exciting projects to date. After seeing the 2007 musical film, he became a self-proclaimed “crazy” fan. “‘It Takes Two’ turned into one of my audition songs,” he adds. “I’ve been singing it for probably about eight or nine years at this point. I choreographed a production of [Hairspray], I’ve given vocal lessons for it… I’ve been very aware of this show for a very long time.”
He even has an Ultra Clutch can of hairspray from the 2007 film signed by Zac Efron. “He put in quotations ‘Link,’ so now I have [to get] all the originating Links [to] sign the can,” he says. “That’s my theatre nerd dream!”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.