In 2018, Roman Banks attended the first open casting call for the title role of Dear Evan Hansen. He subsequently made history as the first BIPOC actor to portray Evan in the Broadway production of the Tony-winning musical.
Banks, who went on to guest star as Howie in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+, is now starring in the title role of the national tour of MJ the Musical, which is about to play a week-long engagement at the Fox Theatre in Banks' hometown of Atlanta. Performances begin at the Georgia venue October 24.
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Banks shares the life lessons gleaned from his teachers and mentors, how his casting as Evan Hansen changed his life, and why High School Musical was actually a disappointing experience.
Where did you train/study?
Roman Banks: I consider my training ongoing, but I officially trained for a year at Shenandoah Conservatory as a musical theatre major! However, high school programs like YoungArts and the Georgia Governor's Honors Program taught me key lessons about ethics and my craft that I still utilize today.
Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
A few! Jennifer Schottstaedt (Georgia Governor's Honors Program) taught me the beauty of putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, the growth that comes from diving in headfirst to something you've never done before, how to tell a story with just your body language when there is dialogue, the joy of the clown, letting something in your circumstance lead you rather than you leading your circumstance, and, above all, the value of our health as artists cannot be compromised upon. I love everything she gave me and miss her dearly at times.
Sharon Morrow (Parkview High School) taught me to believe in myself. She taught me the power of leading by example, and not settling due to your environment or any status quo. She taught me to go boldly after what I want. That mindset still guides me today. We still speak to this very day!
Michael McElroy (YoungArts) taught me just as many life lessons as he did professional ones. It meant a lot to be taught by a successful Black actor about what it means to do this. He was the first teacher of mine to really demand excellence from me. He knew that the lesson was bigger than the temporary embarrassment or misunderstanding. And I could respect it so much because it was so evident how excellent he was, is, and always has been. But what I mainly learned from him is that you must first take yourself very seriously if you expect anyone else to. You must see yourself as the primary investment. And you must show up prepared. Otherwise, you're not only wasting your own time but all of those around you. Do the work so that you can show up and do the work. That man is a true gem and deserves every flower we can give him. I wish we spoke more because his wisdom is simple, yet overflowing. He has something for everybody.
What did it mean to you to be the first BIPOC actor to play the title role of Broadway's Dear Evan Hansen?
I don't know if I'll ever be able to put it into words. It still shocks me, when I look back, that it really did work out that way. It continues to inspire me to this day. It reflects to me the power of intentionally pursuing a dream. I had every reason to never believe that could happen to me. I was a college freshman who A: Didn't go to a top 10 school, B: Was aiming for a role not written with me in mind whatsoever, C: Had never professionally acted before, and D: Was auditioning at an open call with 500 other boys (about five of them Black). How easy would it have been to quit before I even started, right?
But what stays with me is I knew I had a connection to that character, and I didn't care who did or didn't see it. I knew it in my soul. I just needed to show it to the people who could help me show it to the world. That day meant, and still means, everything to me. It taught me that you can be the change you want to see in the world. That you can be the shifter. That you can pave the way for others. I never took it lightly from the moment I was offered that job. And the messages, the art, the viewers, and everyone who ever told me how much that moment meant to them will always stay with me. It was history in my dream role in my dream show as a Broadway debut. I thank God for such a storybook beginning. And I'm grateful for every door it's opened since. Simply put, it taught me I can do anything I put my mind to.
Can you share a memory of your first night performing on a Broadway stage?
I remember when I saw Ben Platt as Evan Hansen. It was during his last month in the role, and when he went on stage to begin the show, he was welcomed with incredulous applause. I always thought that moment was so beautiful because I felt like he was able to see the fruits of all of his labor spent playing the role. He'd won the Tony! He deserved it.
Anyway, I remember standing in the wings before walking out onto the stage thinking, "They're not going to clap. No one out there knows who I am. And that's okay. I'll show them!" And with that I went onto the stage. However, to my incredible surprise, as soon as I began the show, the same thing happened. But it was for me! The little Black boy no one even knew! And yet, the audience screamed! Like, really really screamed. It went on for nearly 30 seconds before I cut it off to start the show. I couldn't believe I'd gotten the same welcome as Ben Platt during my very first show on a Broadway stage. Talk about a cherry on top, huh?
What is the biggest challenge and the biggest reward of playing the late Michael Jackson in the tour of MJ?
Whew. I'd say the biggest challenge is certainly the movement because there is such an expectation for it. Everyone knows MJ's move-set. And, of course, I want to deliver! But it's hard on the body and really requires such present focus and energy to not only do it well but to continue to get better and better at it. So...definitely that! But the biggest reward is the feedback from the audience. Hearing how the show resonates with, reminds, impacts, and inspires people who are fans of Michael Jackson (or aren't)! Providing that connection for people and serving as a vessel to bring them back to MJ. I feel like that's all that I could ever ask for.
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t. What do you consider your big break?
I truly feel like I was put on earth to act and tell stories in order to help people. So, although I can't say I've ever felt like giving up, I can say I've certainly felt discouraged. The pandemic was an extremely challenging time as an artist, but also just as a person. And there were definitely times where I wanted to throw in the towel on everything and just disappear. But through God and my community, I was able to persevere and find a reason to keep going. Sometimes we must seek love. Love for ourselves, love for others, or even love from others. But just because we have to seek it doesn't mean it isn't there.
That was a big
lesson I learned during that time. Love for myself and how to seek it
when I don't feel like it. I am the well from which water must flow into
everything else I wish to pursue in life. But in order to feed those
things, I must first feed myself. That's all self-love is. And I'm
grateful that I didn't give up before I found that answer.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
One of my mentors, Leslie Odom, Jr. I so deeply respect his artistry and humanity. He is just as, if not more, excellent off the stage as he is on it. He continues to guide me from a place of firm yet gracious understanding. He's a very non-judgmental mentor who approaches everything I bring him with strong consideration and viewpoint but also welcomes me with the space to make my own decisions regardless of his stance. He's a God-fearing leader with an incredible soul and a studious mindset towards his craft. I learn more from him every day. He still has so much to give to the world, and I'm so thankful that I get to watch from such a close seat.
Tell me about a job/opportunity you really wanted but didn’t get. How did you get over that disappointment?
I really believed (and was also sold on) the belief that my character on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series was created as a guest-starring role that would then be upgraded to a series regular should the show continue beyond my season. So when that not only did not happen, but I was also left in the dark about the entire thing (to this day, might I add), I was very hurt and confused. I wondered if there was something I'd done wrong that I was unaware of, or if my character didn't make the impression they were hoping for, etc.
I kept holding out for some sort of answer or explanation, and when that didn't come, I had to remind myself of my beliefs. My belief in both God and in myself. And that if I truly believed that God had me in His hands and that His plans for me would not pass me, then it ultimately would not matter if something does or doesn't work out the way that I expect it to. That's when a peace came over me about not only the show, but my career in general. I was then able to trust that if that opportunity was not going to be what I'd imagined for myself, then surely God's plans for me must be bigger and better.
And now, here we are.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
I always say the same thing, but if you really want to make a career out of the arts, love it with all that you are. Make sure that you're not in it for the money, fame, or people you'll be around, but for the simple love of it. That's what sustains you. Part of our industry is in complete reform with the strike currently happening. People have no clue when or if they'll return to past projects. Mind you, this is right after a two-three year pandemic that kept artists out of work. That's almost four years of delayed/discontinued work, and that's just today.
The world shows us that our dreams are not always pretty or perfect, but if you love them, they're sure as hell worth fighting for. And if you would go out in 100-degree weather without a job to demand fair wages and rightful pay for weeks on end while stuck in artistic and/or employment limbo, then you're one of us. Then this thing really means something to you that's independent of the weight anyone else puts on it. And if that's the love you have behind it, then by all means, chase it with everything you've got.