Fourteen years after he inaugurated the starring role in the original Broadway production of Rent, Anthony Rapp is still a sought after talent in the theater community. He recently directed a workshop of Born Blue and his musical, Without You, based on his own life experiences, specifically the death of his mother, made its New York premiere this fall. In the meantime, he's patiently waiting for the feature film he acts in, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, which costars Natalie Portman and Lisa Kudrow, to hit cineplexes after playing to good reviews at film festivals earlier this year.
Out caught up with Rapp to chat about how his new musical has made him stronger, his childhood, and his thoughts on Rent today.
Out: In 1996 you were honored on the Out 100 list. How is the Anthony Rapp from that time different from the Anthony Rapp of today?
Anthony Rapp: Wow. My goodness. I guess I'm a lot more established in my life in every respect. Work is sort of taking care of itself to enough of the level that I can finally come from a place of being very wonderfully picky and choosy about when and where I do what I want to do. I'm not as much at the mercy of the fickle finger of fate. That all began with Rent. Then my mother was ill in '96 and then she died in '97. So, I lived through that experience. I don't mean to be dramatic, but being motherless is transformative.
This brings us to your current musical Without You, which is based on your memoir, Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical 'Rent.' Tell us about it.
It's something I never thought about doing. The book itself was such an intense experience to write and was very fulfilling. Somebody I didn't even know that well, who is in the business, said, 'Have you thought about adapting it?' I really hadn't. But when I began talking with my friend Steve Maler, who became my director, he thought it did have potential. What we've discovered in the process is the fact that I can be on stage telling the story is proof that one can make it through these experiences and become stronger, wiser and more fully human because of them -- I did. There's a phrase in the show that says, 'The only way out is through,' and I believe that to be true. In a way my show has become proof of that.
Is it difficult going through the painful experiences night after night?
It's actually proven to be very cathartic and also very comforting. I'm literally talking to my mom every night. I mean, I'm having conversations that we've had. Relationships continue past the death of someone, in a certain sense, but at the same time she is gone. Ultimately, I feel very uplifted by it. I don't feel ripped apart by it. The audiences have been responding with enormous support and people are sharing their stories with me. That was part of the intention of doing the book in the first place. By telling one's story, you can help others who may be in similar situations.
The show also addresses your audition for Rent. You sang "Losing My Religion" by R.E.M. What else do you remember from that audition?
I was late to my audition because I was coming from the memorial service for a friend, which I always thought in retrospect was this wild coincidence. I just went in and sang that song. I messed up. I jumped a verse, but I got called back on the spot. That does not always happen, believe me.
The music from Rent was written and composed by Jonathan Larson, who died at 35. What is your favorite memory of him?
It was at the middle of rehearsal and he had met an actress friend of mine, and they had become friends. He was really developing a crush on her. He had been a little unlucky in love, and she had had a very famous ex-boyfriend, so that was kind of intimidating to him. He was just asking me for advice in this kind of junior high school way -- like how he should approach her and if I thought she had felt the same way. It's a very sweet memory for me. It's a private moment that we shared.
Where does Rent sit in your heart today?
It's made every difference in my life in every respect. So where it sits in my heart is with the most profound gratitude and place of honor.
What was it like growing up gay in Joliet, Ill.?
Honestly, because I grew up in theater, I was around gay people from a young age. The weird thing for me looking back is that I have no memory of when the labels or the words "gay" or "lesbian," etc., entered my vocabulary. People were who we were. I was 14, and I started fooling around with a 17-year-old kid from my high school at a friend's house. I was discovered under the covers by my friend's father. He told his wife. His wife called my mom, and she confronted me. So, from when she confronted me and was a little disturbed by what had happened -- and she wasn't disturbed from a moral point of view, but because she felt like he had taken advantage of me because he was a little older -- it was clear it wasn't all right.
But then you came out to your mother over the phone when you were 18.
Yes, but in the meantime I was like, This isn't cool. I probably shouldn't bother with this anymore. Although, I still kind of did. Other than that, there was no sense of persecution.
I ask because of the recent teens suicides related to bullying about being gay or different.
No, never. I was lucky.
What would you say to people who are going through difficult times with bullies?
I mean it's easier said than done, but try to have some faith and courage to weather the storm. Do whatever you can to take care of yourself and do whatever you can to find safety. There are resources, so reach out if you need help. You don't have to go through it alone. You are not alone.
When you did come out, you said you were a bisexual. However, you do prefer the term 'queer.' Why is that?
The only reason I didn't entirely love "gay" is because it would make seem false any romantic or sexual relationships I ever had with women, but I'm absolutely primarily gay, no question. I did not feel like when I was having any relationships with women that it was running away from my true nature. I think there is an ultimate preference. I do know some gay men who absolutely never want to touch a woman ever. I also like the umbrella term of "queer." There's a part of me that likes that queer also means unusual or strange. I do think it's unusual and strange, and I don't think that's a bad thing. It's OK that it's unusual and strange.
During the election in 2008 you were a supporter of Barack Obama. How do you think he's faring on LGBT rights?
I think people can argue against and for these tactics, but I think he took the Abraham Lincoln approach to "don't ask, don't tell," for instance. When Abraham Lincoln took office, people were wanting him to immediately abolish slavery. He took the longer view of wanting things to take root so the country would support such a bold move. I do believe that's why [Obama] didn't immediately come into office and abolish "don't ask, don't tell." He wanted to go through a process. I think he's also been completely sandbagged by the level of opposition. It's not been a slam dunk, but I also don't doubt that there's a strategy and a long view.
So, are you still a supporter?
If there was a revival of Rent on Broadway tomorrow, who would you like to see play Mark?
I saw a production in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and that young man who played Mark was fantastic. His name is Steve Goedken. I think he's really talented and deserves to be seen by all kinds of people.
Through all of your ups and downs, is there a song or a quote that keeps you going?
The only way out is through. That is something that is forever there for me.
For more on Anthony Rapp, follow him on Twitter.
Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, the original stars of the smash Broadway musical Rent in a special one-night only event at New York 's The Town Hall on Monday, January 10, 2011. Tickets prices range from $25.00 and $95.00 and can be purchased on Ticketmaster.com or by calling (212) 840-2824.