Will Roland (BMUS ’11) is a Brooklyn-based actor who has appeared on Billions, Red Oaks, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and the film, One Penny. On Broadway, Will originated the role of Jared Kleinman in Dear Evan Hansen, for which he won a Broadway.com Audience Choice Award for favorite funny performance and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Will currently has the leading role as Jeremy Heere in Be More Chill, playing at the Lyceum Theatre. Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini, with a score by Joe Iconis (Steinhardt BMUS ’03; Tisch MFA ’05) and book by Joe Tracz (Tisch ’09), the coming-of-age musical tells the story of Jeremy, an average teenager who tries to boost his popularity by swallowing a pill-sized supercomputer that promises to make him cool. We spoke to Will about his musical theatre career.
How did you get from NYU to Broadway?
It was a very direct line. I was in the vocal performance program, and I was about three or four weeks into my freshman year, when John Simpkins (who was teaching in the program at that time), brought his friend, Joe Iconis, the composer of Be More Chill, to talk to us about the landscape of new musical theatre. Joe played two songs for us that day, and I was truly, instantly, immediately smitten with him and his music. I went home that night and I wrote him an email asking for the sheet music for the songs he played, and when his concerts were. A few weeks later, I was in attendance at my first Joe Iconis show.
The first time Joe and I collaborated was when I was a senior at NYU. I did his Christmas show for the first time, which I have continued to do every year since. I was doing a play that Joe had written called The Black Suits, back in 2012, and it was at that show that a manager came to see me in, and it was she who got me the audition for Dear Evan Hanson. I can basically trace everyone I have ever met, including my fiancé, back to Joe Iconis. A very large portion of my career and my community I owe to Joe.
In Dear Evan Hanson, you played Jared Kleinman; in Be More Chill, you play Jeremy Heere; both are high school students. What kind of high school experience did you have?
I am happy to report that I had a much better time in high school than poor Jeremy does every night. I was very lucky to have found a community and people who helped me very quickly recognize the good things in myself, and not be a total jerk to everyone. There was a period in middle school and high school when I discovered that I was kind of clever and kind of funny. So I would say things to my classmates and friends that were funny, but were also mean, not realizing that I was being mean. You could say that I was a bit of a bully.
Luckily, I had an interaction with one of my high school teachers, who was a friend and mentor. She sat me down and outlined the ways in which I was being cruel to people around me. It was a huge wake up call to me; a “rock-bottom moment,” and I began to understand that I was not being kind to people because I was not being empathetic.
With both Jared and Jeremy, one of the lessons that I have them try to learn over the course of the evening is empathy. In Dear Even Hanson, Jared didn’t quite learn empathy in the course of our story, but if he was the star of our show, maybe he would have.
In Be More Chill, one of the things that Jeremy is thinking at the beginning of the show is, “OMG, the whole world is out to get me.” I think that part of what Jeremy learns is that everyone is dealing with the same struggles that he is dealing with.
So, to find Jeremy — this anxious bottled-up boy — I use my imagination and my observations, and I pull a lot of stuff from my own life and experiences.
What draws you to the struggles of high school students? Is it fair to say that you really like playing high school students?
I love playing high school students and I love playing adults, too. One of the things I find very exciting about playing young people is they are encountering so many experiences for the very first time, and that inherently raises the stakes and widens the possibilities of what you can do as an actor. How a young person greets a brand new situation is different than the way an adult who has encountered a situation many times before will handle it. So, as an actor, this allows me to make different, more varied, and more exciting choices that are “life and death” for Jeremy simply because he has never encountered these situations before and doesn’t know how to deal with them.
What is your routine before a performance? Do you have a ritual before going onstage? Do you practice mediation?
I usually get to the theatre 90 minutes to two hours before the show begins. When I get there, I’ll do my phone calls and answer some emails. I’ll also do some yoga and stretching, a general physical warm up, and I’ll warm up vocally. For a seven o’clock show, the first time we are all formally called is 6:15. At that time, the cast gathers on stage, and we run all our fight choreography and any dancing where someone gets lifted.
In terms of prepping my mind every evening, I make sure that I’ve seen everyone that I am going to encounter that evening before I encounter them on stage. This includes my fellow actors, crew members and designers, stage management, and members of our creative team who are in the building. I will make sure I’ve seen everyone and I’ve had, at least, a brief interaction with them. Because my role is to serve as a crucible for so many elements in the show, a lot of what I do is react to other people. So it’s helpful for me to make sure I’ve connected with all those people who are going to come after me in the three hours I am one stage.
The time that I meditate is between shows. On Wednesdays and Saturdays to get myself back to a centered clear space before we begin our second show, I will meditate shortly following our matinee and then have dinner.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists and performers?
My advice is aimed at performers – but it can be applied to anyone who is going have a career in any business: work very hard and be nice to everyone.
Work hard because the more that you can prep and arm yourself with knowledge and know your lines, the better prepared you will be when opportunities present themselves. And be nice to everyone because you never know who you will encounter and when you will encounter them next. People you know might become agents, writers, or casting directors, so there’s a very pragmatic benefit to being nice to everyone. Also, it doesn’t cost anything to be nice and it makes everyone feel better.
* * *
Visit our website to earn more about NYU Steinhardt’s Program in Vocal Performance