It’s hard to believe that it has only been two years since Broadway’s new favorite leading man, Derek Klena, traded in UCLA’s stadium lights for a spotlight on Broadway. In the last couple years, Derek has distinguished himself as one of NYC’s most capable young actors, starring in both Broadway and Off-Broadway hits like: Carrie The Musical, Dogfight, and the blockbuster Wicked. Now, Derek can be seen in The Bridges of Madison County at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre as Michael, the ambitious and angsty adolescent son of Francesca (Kelli O’Hara) and Bud (Hunter Foster). In this interview, Derek shows you the importance of making strong connections with everyone you meet and how being Mr. Nice Guy can pay off big-time.
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
DK: It actually didn’t happen until late. I played a lot of sports growing up and kind of did both. I did children’s theater when I was like six years old and took singing lessons, things like that. Going through high school I was pretty heavily into baseball and I did some theater outside of school. My senior year of high school, it was either going into sports in college or theater and I decided to audition for UCLA—the theater department. I got into the school for theater…
But when I got to school, I got a call from the UCLA baseball coach asking if I wanted to be a walk-on for the team—this is like a week into school. I wasn’t planning on playing baseball. I guess my high school coach knew the coach at UCLA and gave him a call and told him that I was already going to the school. So, I ended up trying out for the baseball team on a whim and making it; they wanted to keep me on the team as a pitcher. I decided to switch out of theater into “undeclared” and eventually physiology. I played baseball my whole freshman year of school and so I was still kind of in limbo about what I wanted to do…I did a singing competition outside of the school my freshman year, outside of baseball that lead me to get an agent. That’s when I knew that I could do this; I could pursue this as a career. I could picture my life acting…
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career in theater?
There was one audition. My freshman year of school, I sent in a tape of the non-equity tour of Spring Awakening. I made it down to the last couple guys for Melchior and didn’t end up getting it. But I flew out to New York for callbacks and that was the first spark where I realized I could actually do this….
What would you say was the most informative training you received that you feel helped set you up for tremendous success?
I grew up doing two different children’s theaters and that exposed me to so many different roles. One of them was called MET2 and the other was called Center Stage; there’re both in Southern California. They gave me the opportunity to take on big roles that I usually wouldn’t be able to in professional theater…I also did a couple dinner-theater shows and a couple regional shows growing up. Being around that caliber of acting really influenced me—seeing how other people acted.
I feel like experience trumps any class or any school you go to, just being a part of a group of people and working with really great actors I feel like is the most informative thing. You learn so much just by watching them. I feel like having the opportunities to play the big roles and to be in those regional productions with such great actors, I learned a lot growing up.
What’s it like growing up in LA, as a LA kid, growing up surrounded by the world of acting and then deciding to go to New York?
I think that LA is just totally different from New York. Now that I’m older, I realize that. Musical Theater has always been my first passion and then recently I’ve started to audition and do more film and TV. It’s always been my dream to come out here [NYC]. We’d take family trips out here to see all the new shows, so I knew that I wanted to move out here eventually. Then, when I came out to audition a couple times, that solidified my decision to come [to NYC].
New York, there’s just something about it. Everything is just so close and everyone that you meet is just so artistic, brilliant, and amazingly talented. It’s crazy the amount of talent in the city—it’s infectious. There’s nothing you can compare to that. You don’t get that sort of thing in LA because everything is just so spread out. It’s more film and TV, more superficial; you know it’s just a different feel. I mean it’s great because the weather’s beautiful, and I miss the beach, and I miss my family that’s out there. But for what I’m doing now and for where I want my career to go this is the place that’s for me right now.
You’ve already been able to originate roles and also play one of the most iconic leading man roles today, Fiyero. Do you prefer one to the other?
Fiyero was always one of my dream roles because [Wicked] was the first Broadway show I ever saw. I’ve seen it multiple times in LA and then here. It was very cool to do that but I definitely do prefer originating a role. Just because of the stress of going into a show that’s already running and everyone’s already developed relationships and [you’re going into a role] that 10 other people have played before you on Broadway. The stress of that and living up to that expectation of the audience members who will come to see it, who have seen it before, is beyond anything that you can experience when you originate a role…
Luckily, I went into Wicked with Lindsay [Mendez], who I’m really good friends with. I was lucky to have someone by my side who was going into the show who was new as well. That kind of relieved some of the stress.
Definitely originating a role, you get the freedom. No one is comparing you to anything. You get to do whatever you want. It’s a cool experience.
How do you have to adapt the way you approach a character when you’re really building it from the ground versus when the expectations are kind of set in stone?
Well, you basically attack them in the same way. Of course playing Fiyero they have their specific details that they want in the character. But that’s the same with any original role. Most original roles, they have guidelines for how the character should be and how [the character’s] feeling here or there. You basically go through the same process and trying to develop new things and find yourself in the character. Constantly trying to invent little beats here and there and find what works for you. I feel like they both kind of go hand-in-hand. You’re still going into a new character that you haven’t done before. You just have to trust your instincts and try to put a little bit of yourself into the role. Whether you’re originating a role or going into a role you still go through those steps.
The thing about the original role, though, is that you have other people finding it at the same time as you. As they find things, you find new things. That’s fun. You get to feed off them a little more. When you’re going into a show that’s already running, people have their timing down and all their beats down and they’re not going to really change. You have to really adapt to that, whereas if you’re building a show everyone’s finding little things. You may find something that you feel is right, but someone else does something different then all of a sudden you’re beat changes. You have to change and try to adapt and fit the scene. It’s a cool creative process where it never really stops when you’re originating a role because everyone there is originating it with you. So it’s cool.
That’s really cool insight! I’ve never heard that before. Well, now you’re in Bridges of Madison County, which I actually saw a few weeks ago and it was so good—you were great in it.
So how did your role of Michael come about?
I was actually involved with the reading of the show earlier last year and then they took the show to Williamstown. Then, I re-auditioned when they came back from Williamstown and ended up getting the show…
What was it like moving from Wicked, which is such a spectacle, to Bridges, which has a very minimal set and is in a sense more character driven?
Yeah, it’s so great! Especially originating a Jason Robert Brown musical. One of the highlights is getting to be a part of his musicals and singing his music.
Yeah, he was there the night I saw it and I was silently freaking out in my seat.
Oh yeah, he was around during previews and at the beginning of opening. But yeah, being a part of that and knowing that he was going to be there was awesome.
Wicked is amazing and it’s a big show—it’s such a spectacle. Going into a show like Bridges, it’s not so much plot driven as relationship driven. It’s really refreshing…We’re able to treat the scenes with the depth that they should be having. It’s fun to play this range of emotions that Michael, my character, goes through. Fiyero has those emotions too, but there’s just so much going on in Wicked. I was able to find my character better in Bridges than I was in Wicked…It was refreshing going into Bridges because it was a smaller more intimate show with more classical Broadway music. I’m having a lot of fun and we’re all starting to click.
What’s your pre-show routine?
Nothing too special. Everyday before the show we always huddle-up at places, down below, before we go on stage. We do send-off. We all get together and we’re all there with each other connecting before we go out. I feel like that’s special because sometimes you just disperse and you don’t really see people before you’re either on stage with them or off-stage. It’s all nice that we gather and get on the same page and go to our places…It keeps us all together and united.
If you had the opportunity to be miscast in a show what role would you want to play?
I think Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime. I think that’s probably one of my favorite characters in a musical and that’s probably one of my favorite cast albums, too. I love the music and I think that’s a strong, awesome role that I’ll never get to play [Derek laughs]…That was the first one that came to mind.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
Take every opportunity possible and take it seriously. When you meet people, make sure that you keep good relationships because I feel like that’s the most valuable thing you can do. Meet as many people as you can, keep these relationships, and develop them. When you get to a certain point you’ll realize that it’s so much about who you know and what kind of person you are that will make people want to work with you and throw your name in the pot when they’re developing a show or when they’re a part of putting a thing together. That’s the thing that’s most valuable to me, it’s just: making good relationships, working really hard, and taking every opportunity seriously because you never know who’s going to be there and whom you’re going to meet. ♦
Photo Credit: Bruce Glikas, Joan Marcus, Broadway.com