This week, Playbill's new weekly feature, How Did I Get Here—featuring not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—spotlights Paolo Montalban, who recently returned to Broadway as Florenz Ziegfeld in the hit revival of Funny Girl at the August Wilson Theatre.
Filipino native Montalban, who subsequently grew up in New York and New Jersey, has also been seen on Broadway in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Pacific Overtures, and The King & I. He gained national attention, however, in 1997 in the barrier-breaking TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, playing Prince Christopher opposite Brandy's Cinderella. The TV special, initially watched by over 60 million people and also featuring Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg, Bernadette Peters, and Victor Garber, was celebrated for its colorblind casting and multi-cultural representation. The actor is set to once again step into royal shoes, again opposite Brandy, in the latest Descendants film from Disney, The Rise of Red. He will reprise his role as Christopher, now a King struggling, alongside Queen Cinderella, as a parent.
Montalban's other theatrical credits include The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a Lucille Lortel-nominated turn in Bella: An American Tall Tale, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Sound of Music, and A Little Night Music. TV watchers have also seen the actor in Mortal Kombat: Conquest, Madam Secretary, The Blacklist, and Law & Order: SVU. His film credits include The Girl Who Left Home, Just Wright, The Great Raid, and the forthcoming Asian Persuasion.
In the interview below Montalban shares behind-the-scenes stories from Cinderella, including how the glass slipper didn't actually fit Brandy, and his side career as a massage therapist.
What made you decide to become an actor? Was there a particular production or performance that influenced your decision?
My final show at Rutgers University was the Maltby and Shire musical revue Closer Than Ever at the Cabaret Theater. I was graduating with a pre-med psych degree in two months, had no post-grad career plans in focus, and was singing the part of Man #2. A talent agent, Lewis “Louie” Chambers of the Bethel Agency, was at Rutgers surveying the acting talent pool at Mason Gross (I was at Rutgers College). He came to see my show anyway on the recommendation of his intern and my student director friend, Dana Rakvica.
After the show, Louie introduced himself and asked if I ever considered pursuing an acting career. I had not. But my parents happened to be in attendance that night. And afterwards the four of us went to the student center cafeteria to chat. Over dessert and coffee, we discussed the pros, pitfalls, and expectations that a professional acting career might entail. By the end of the night—with quite a bit of me having to coax my parents—I signed on with a franchised New York City agent. (It was the early 90’s, he carried around contracts in his briefcase.) Two months after graduation, my first audition was a non-Equity bus-and-truck national tour of Man of La Mancha, and thankfully I booked it.
This was to be my first two lessons about the entertainment business. 1: It really is an industry of relationships. 2: Follow the signs and your angels.
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
9/11 happened. The TV and film industry retreated to safe casting. Diversity was not a priority on many people’s lists in Hollywood for about a decade. I pivoted for a year and a half and attended an accredited massage therapy school full time. It satisfied my desire to help people, as well as my fascination with how the human body works. It’s a point of pride that I will always be a certified massage therapist in the great state of California.
Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
I made it to final callbacks to be a replacement for the Duke in Moulin Rouge! He’s like, if the Prince went rogue. It didn’t go my way, but I got over the disappointment by thinking, “Paolo, you got to do a work session with the director, Alex Timbers. And for that moment in time, you got to inhabit the Duke’s essence and blood memory full out for a room full of Broadway creatives and producers at the top of their game. How lucky you are!” I was also working on The Unsinkable Molly Brown Off-Broadway at the time, and that helped me move on, as well.
What impact do you think the TV Cinderella had on your career?
The impact the TV Cinderella has on my career is what I call “the gift that keeps on giving.” Not only have I gotten to play the role of the Prince more times than any actor—factoring in the TV movie, the 2000-2001 national tour, and various regional productions afterwards. But this year, I also graduated to the role of King Charming in the upcoming Disney+ movie Descendants: The Rise of Red.
Most importantly to me, however, is finding out over the years and still to this day, the impact the movie has had on so many young people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, to believe in the impossible. And, make their dreams come true.
Can you share one memorable experience from being on set for the production?
The prop glass slipper was either a size 5.5 or 6. Tiny enough to look good on the velvet pillow and not fit anyone except Cinderella. Full disclosure, it didn’t even fit Brandy. But when we rehearsed the climactic glass slipper scene at the Stepmother’s house, to everyone’s surprise, the shoe fit Bernadette Peters’ petite foot perfectly. She screamed, “It fits, it fits!” And, instead of continuing with “…and it’s cutting off my circulation!,” she simply grabbed my arm and started walking out the door with me. The crew was cackling.
What is your proudest achievement in your profession?
My proudest professional achievement is participating in stories that have promoted diversity (consciously or subconsciously) and helped underrepresented communities feel seen. Whenever someone tells me that something I acted in changed their life and encouraged them to shoot their shot, I just light up inside. On occasion, I’ve had performers of various cultural backgrounds tell me that when they saw an Asian prince and an African American princess cast in traditionally Caucasian fairytale roles, it gave them the courage to pursue their dreams as well. The beautiful cycle is that I am now inspired by them in turn.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And if you persist and work on anything long enough, opportunity will eventually find you. So you see, luck is created for you and by you. And remember to be true to yourself, you’ll enjoy the ride a lot more that way.
What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
I wish I knew more about the power of journaling when I started out. A really cool wrap present that Whoopi Goldberg gave me was a hand-held hardcover book with blank pages inside. I never knew what it was for. Years later, I realized she might have been suggesting that I take up journaling. It’s a fantastic way to track the progress of your personal growth, manifest your future, and calm your mind.