By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor
When Oasis last talked to Wilson Cruz two years ago, he mentioned that My So-Called Life wouldn't be the last we'd see of him.
And, in passing, he mentioned how much he would like to perform in a Broadway play, among his list of other career goals.
Well, audiences are about to see a whole new side of Cruz as the HIV-positive drag queen Angel in the La Jolla, Calif. cast of Rent (which will tour, starting in Los Angeles). He dropped the weight My So-Called Life made him gain to look younger for the show, shaved the goatee you may have seen and, in his own words, is "pretty damned beautiful" in women's clothes. (The cast hasn't taken publicity photos yet, so we can't show you the results).
Cruz, 23, recently talked to Oasis the morning after the show's opening night in La Jolla, and seemed totally excited about the new role, which he's signed on to play until next September.
But his recent turn as Angel almost didn't happen, he says.
"The first time I auditioned for Rent was in August of last year, and I hadn't even heard the music, but I was excited about the themes of the play and the fact that there were so many people of color in the play. Yet, it wasn't about being a person of color. It was just 'these are the people in this community and this is what our lives are like.' And I was also excited that it was tackling the issue of AIDS and sexuality in the 90s and what it's like for us to live in these times. So, that's why I wanted to do it," he says. "But I didn't get past the first audition in August, because I wasn't ready for it. I hadn't gotten the music until the night before. In November, I had a plane ticket that I needed to use before the year was up, because it would have been invalid. So, I used the ticket to go to New York and try and get another audition. I begged my agent to get me one, and I finally got one, and I went back three times, auditioned again in Los Angeles ... It was a long road, trust me."
Angel is a, if not the, crucial role in the play. Angel dies in the second act of the play, and his love for Collins pulls together many of the powerful themes in Rent.
"I think it's important that whoever play Angel understands that if he is doesn't communicate unconditional love and joy, the rest of the play doesn't work. Because no one's going to mourn someone they didn't like. The whole second act is about how we've lost amazing people to this plague and how it's just such a loss for us to lose them," Cruz says. "Angel, in my mind, represents anyone who's ever been lost to this disease. There's so many of us who have lost friends and lovers and brothers and sisters, who have changed our lives in a lot of ways. And, to me, Angel represents all of them. He is in the play to represent them. So, in a way, he is the heart of the play because he represents people who are the heart of our lives."
Cruz faces his own fears onstage every night as he has to experience his body being infected by HIV and his eventual death.
"The hardest part, honestly, is dealing with the fact that I die every night, and I die of something that I feared for a long time when I was very young. I grew up at a time when AIDS was just coming into the public view and it was something to be feared," he says. "And even though I have an immense amount of knowledge, and I have taught AIDS prevention, there's still that little 14-year-old boy inside of me who fears ever having to deal with that on a personal level, in my own body. So, every night, I have to imagine what that would be like and what it would be like to have to leave my friends and family because of that. That's the hardest part.
"And as of lately, in the last few months, it's affected me a lot. I'm done with the play in the middle of the second act and usually, I'm not together until three songs later. I've taken it to another place for myself. And I'm not saying that it's better or worse than what anybody else has done, but I felt like I needed to go somewhere in the scene in "Without You," when he's in the hospital. I needed to make it real for myself and to feel what it's like to be in a hospital by myself dying," Cruz says. "So, I take it there in the play, and other people have chosen not to take it there for whatever reason. I respect that, but I feel I needed to go there. So, I go to that place every night, and it takes a toll on me after a while. It definitely took a toll on me last night. It was very difficult last night."
Cruz says he will go to and live in that fear every night he portrays Angel, because that is what he committed to when he took the role.
"I'm not going to cheat an audience just because they're not there on opening night," he says.
But Cruz says Angel is definitely not a character people should pity.
"He was a very lucky person, because so many people will never know true love, and regardless of the fact that he died so young, he got to experience real, true love. People can live 80 years and never know what that is, and he did. So, in many ways, he was very lucky," Cruz says.
And people who have seen other versions of Rent will get to see some new surprises.
"My death scene in "Contact," when Angel is singing, all of that is different for me. It's all been rewritten, the words and the music. They've given me a lot of freedom. And I'm thankful for it, because I would have felt a little stale trying to duplicate what Wilson [who played Angel on Broadway] did, because I'm not him and I can't do what he does better than what he does. But I can do what I can do, and we can both be great at the same time."
Cruz says he doesn't expect the La Jolla cast to record a cast album, because the connection the original cast had to the music is so evident on the original cast recording, there would be no reason to mess with it.
Cruz said he didn't feel comfortable as Angel until the first audience dress rehearsal.
"I was a nervous wreck. I didn't think I could do it, and I was beside myself with fear... which is not like me," Cruz says. "And then we got an audience and I had to pull it together and make it work. It was pretty intense. At one point, you just have to let the spirit of the piece, and whatever spirituality you have in your life, take over and just do it. And let the fear go. When your ass is on the line, you just do it."
Cruz does say that the chemistry between him and Collins works onstage, and they play off of one another beautifully.
"The casting people did an amazing job with this cast. On our days off, we're seeing each other. It's a really tight-knit group. It's really amazing and life-altering and kind of frightening," Cruz says. "We had a repoire and a chemistry from the very beginning. And he's straight, and married. So, the fact that he's open to his emotions and willing to let himself go there is a really beautiful thing."
And what is it like knowing people are coming to a show to see him just because they are familiar with his TV work?
"You think so? I think a lot of people are coming to see Rent. I think the most frustrating thing is that a lot of people are coming to see the show that have seen it in New York, and we know they're coming to compare. I'm not going to feed into that, but I know it's happening. It's inevitable. I'm going to take the position that we're both amazing and one shouldn't be diminished," he says. "I don't know that I'm frustrated that people are going to come see Riki. I'd like to think that people had respect for me for the work that I did in the show, and that they're excited about seeing me in this show. And I'm excited about people coming to see me. It's not a bad thing to have fans. It's flattering."
And through being out, Cruz says the feedback he gets from queer youth has been incredible for him.
"I can't even put it into words how it's affected me. My youngest brother is 15 years old and also openly gay, and it's really helped me understand and remember what it's like to be where he is right now," he says. "And if I didn't have my relationship with the gay and lesbian youth community, then my work on My So-Called Life wouldn't have been anywhere near as valuable as I hope it has been. I was 20 when I did that series, so I had to remember what it was like to be 15 and 16 and deal with the emotions you deal with as a gay and lesbian youth.
"I receive a lot more than I think I've given to gay youth. Because, they've given me so much hope. When I think about what the gay and lesbian community is going to be like in 10 to 15 years, it brightens my day. Because I'm amazed by these young people. I'm amazed at their capacity for understanding the way things work," Cruz says. "And for understanding that they can make a difference in the way things work. And they really have taken the initiative necessary to make significant changes in the way we deal with gays and lesbians in this country. Kelli Peterson is one of my idols. She's amazing to me.
"I can sit here and name a million of them, and I pale in comparison to them, honestly."
Cruz has also been seeing someone pretty seriously since Oasis has last talked to him. He doesn't discuss much about him, aside from the fact that his name is Stephen and they've been together for four month.
"He's the light in my eyes. He's incredible. And to put up with the last three months of my life takes an incredible person," Cruz says.
And... how does Cruz thinks he looks in drag?
"I think I'm beautiful. I'm pretty damned beautiful and it's a bit frightening. You know?" he says, laughing. "This is my first drag experience. Honestly, it was. I was petrified, because I was like 'If I'm ugly, I'm going to die.' The shaving thing is a bit much. I have to shave my face every day. I'm amazed as to how well I look as a woman."
Will he continue to do drag after Rent?
"No, honey. It's just a stage thing," he says.
And although he didn't sing on My So-Called Life, he said none of his friends was surprised he wanted the singing role.
"If you knew me, you'd know I'm singing all the time. My friends are always like, 'Shut up.' I've been singing since junior high school. It was always something I wanted to do at some point, it's just that the acting thing came first. It made itself available to me first," Cruz says.
"Don't worry. I'll continue to surprise you guys throughout the years, keep it fresh."
Oasis editor Jeff Walsh would love to hear your feedback at email@example.com