This interview feels very timely. Rory O’Malley plays King George III in Hamilton, the sassy and stoic comic relief who sings the break-up song of the century: “You’ll Be Back.” The joke, of course, is that Americans would miss their British ruler when they realized the mistake they made by becoming independent. It’s funny because, like, no. Our independace was our greatest victory–we have always cherished it and will always. Well, this week, I don’t think I was alone in longingly looking across the pond towards America’s former motherland. For real, though, “What Comes Next?” We don’t know. And for a lot of us, the prospects feel pretty bleak. In the midst of the unknown, we look to art. We find refuge in the Lin-Manuel Mirandas of the world who can help us understand just what the hell is going on and how we can get through this. Hamilton encapsulates many of our American ideals that we pray will be maintained into the next administration. I feel lucky to share this interview with Rory O’Malley who reflects so many of them. He worked hard and achieved his goal of becoming a Broadway star. He co-founded Broadway Impact, a grassroots organization that fought for marriage equality. As an actor, he commands the stage whenever he’s on it. When he’s not, the audiance wants more. O’Malley is living the dream and wants to help you achieve yours.
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
RO: I was in second grade in the Christmas pageant at my school playing Saint Joseph. My aunt was the director, so it was nepotism from the beginning! After I was in the play, I sat my mom down and said to her, “I know what I want to do for the rest of my life. Don’t laugh at me but I want to be an actor.” And I’ve pretty much been pursuing it ever since age eight. I just love being on a stage.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career as an actor?
Many people. I would say I had two of three teachers who were instrumental in fostering my love for theater. They encouraged me to hone the craft and not just make it a hobby, but something I could pursue professionally. Growing up in Cleveland pretty far away from Broadway, that was really important because [those teachers] helped me realize my dream.
What was your idea of what Broadway was when you were a kid in Cleveland? How does you actual experience compare to your childhood conception of it?
When you are thinking about Broadway when you are in Cleveland you think about the Tony Awards or the things you see on TV that are really high energy, thrilling, and exciting. You don’t think about the auditions. You don’t think about the rehearsal process. You don’t think about the grind and extreme amount of work it’s going to take not just to put on a Broadway show, but also to get in one and be a part of it. I always knew it was going to be difficult. But nothing can prepare you for how difficult this business is other than just doing it: the commitment it takes, the side jobs you have to take, and the passion and drive it takes. You just have to throw yourself into it. It’s not something you can imagine until you are a part of this world.
You studied at Carnegie Mellon University. What training did the program provide you with to help set you up for success?
It provided me with such great tools in so many different areas. Not just in the ins and outs of the craft—how to be an actor, how to break down a scene, how to be in character—but also how to enter the business. The business side of things isn’t much fun and wasn’t something that I wanted to deal with, but you have to if you want to practice your art. You have to be able to operate on the business side of things. I think [CMU] was wonderful in giving both aspects of the art and business.
Also, being surrounded by so many talented people, peers, and professors, just by osmosis you absorb so many wonderful tools.
So how is it that you’ve managed to be in the most successful musicals on Broadway?
I’m still having a hard time comprehending that I’m in Hamilton. It wasn’t hard to comprehend I was in The Book of Mormon because I worked on it for years before we opened. It was a real slow burn. It was amazing to me how many people responded to it and that it was such a hit. But for [Hamilton], I saw it at The Public and thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I’m still trying to figure out how I’m in this cast and a part of the show. It’s such a wonderful moment. I think it’s going to take a lifetime in trying to understand how I could have been a part of such amazing shows.
Book of Mormon and Hamilton have similar effects on their audiences, I think. The quality of the shows in conjunction with their innovative narratives create an electricity in the theater that I haven’t experienced with any other musical. In the case of Hamilton, how does it feel for you doing it night after night?
It’s still unbelievable. I think I feel like that more and more every performance because I’m not as worried about my particular performance. I don’t have the nerves that I had early on. I’m able to absorb the audience’s energy. Since my only scene partner in the show is the audience, I’m communicating with them in a very cool and unique way every performance. They feed me their enthusiasm, excitement, and feelings about it. It certainly makes every single performance thrilling.
The characterization of King George has stayed consistent across everyone who has played him. Did it feel at all like you were stepping into a box or doing a caricature?
You don’t have to worry about making your performance your own. You are your own person and you are going to have a different performance. Not only are you going to have a different performance, but you’re also going to have a different performance every night. I think people are sometimes too worried about making something their own when in fact you are a completely different. It’s impossible for you to recreate the same performance. You bring your own different experiences, persona, and vibe to the part. You have your own take and that’s going to show through regardless of whatever choreography you have and whatever costume you happen to wear that’s the same.
I also think it was a wonderful advantage to have Brian Darcy James, Jonathan Groff, and Andrew Rannells in this part. They gave so much to it. It’s like they created a great clown character or stock character and I’m able to put it on.
There were so many great characters created in this show that will be passed on for years, and years, and years. All the actors who get to play these parts are going to put a little bit of themselves into it, and that will be passed on to the next actor. That will be beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful part of getting to be in a long running show.
There are plenty of larger than life characters in the real world. I see them walking to work… When someone’s in character and not believable, they’re not being honest to the text or trying to tell the story. They’re trying to make somebody laugh. The audience is smart and they don’t laugh unless they believe it—that it’s honestly a part of the story coming from a real place. [Believable acting is] about making a real character based in truth. It doesn’t matter how absurd that character is…You have an audience that will go on a journey with you if they believe you.
You’ve worked on a lot of new musicals and originated many characters. What are some best practices for successful collaboration a new theater project?
It’s about being open to what other artists have to offer and realizing that when you bring in great people—whether it’s an actor, or writer, or director—you have to trust the fact that they are being brought to the process because they have something to offer. You let that guide where the story goes. I’ve been so honored when I’ve been in a group a creating musical and people see how trying a song or trying a scene fits on me: seeing what my input is on the character at that moment. Even though it’s a very difficult process, it’s the most rewarding part of the business by far: being in a room where amazing thinkers are coming together to try to tell a story. It’s what makes our art form the most collaborative art form in the world.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
To chill. Stay calm and enjoy yourself. You have to find ways to enjoy being in this business when you’re dancing on a Broadway stage and when you’re waiting on tables at a restaurant. It’s all part of being in this business. If you can’t figure out a way to enjoy that time when you’re waiting on tables, then you’re not going to find your way to enjoy it when you’re at the Tony Awards. I know that sounds hard to believe, but it really is about being grateful for every part of this business. Your happiness won’t come from getting a job, or having somebody give you something in this business. It’s going to come from inside of you being grateful that you get to be an artist.
It’s a crazy path and I think everyone who decides to go down it is very determined and wants it badly. They keep showing up everyday. Clearly they want it. I think that what’s most important is to figure out how to be happy today as an actor. That’s something you’re going to have to figure out every day no matter what happens. ♦