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Austin P. McKenzie on Playing a Young Cleve Jones in When We Rise

Austin P. McKenzie

YOU KNOW HIM FROM:

His role as Melchior Gabor in Deaf West Theatre’s 2015 Broadway revival of Spring Awakening

WHAT’S NEXT:

A star turn in ABC’s When We Rise, premiering tonight. Written by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black, the seven-part miniseries traces the American LGBT rights movement from the years just after Stonewall through the height of the AIDS epidemic to the present; Guy Pearce plays the activist Cleve Jones, and McKenzie portrays him in his younger years. Later this year, McKenzie will appear in Speech and Debate, the film version of Stephen Karam’s off-Broadway comedy about three high school misfits who unite to form a debate team. 

SIGNS POINT TO BROADWAY:

“Before I started in this business, I was studying to be a special-education teacher,” says the 23-year-old Arizona native. “Then I applied to be a sign-language interpreter for Spring Awakening. When I showed up, they offered me one of the lead roles, which I almost turned down. I didn’t train to be an actor — I just became one. But there will always be a part of me that serves the special-needs population, whether that’s donating money or volunteering my time.” 

FATHERS AND SONS:

“I grew up without a father. To be frank, it’s still painful and a lot of what I’ve been dealing with my whole life. One of my favorite things about Cleve’s story is his relationship to [assassinated gay politician] Harvey Milk. I could connect to Cleve’s lifelong search for a father figure. While researching the role one day, I couldn’t stop crying, and I called Cleve and told him. I think it’s because I had created an imaginary father in Harvey. If I feel that much just from portraying Cleve, I can only imagine what the real Cleve feels.”  

ON HIS INNER DEMONS:

“I love witches and demons. My dreams are filled with them — which sounds like a nightmare, but it’s paradise for me. It’s a goal of mine to collect haunted things, but my roommate prohibits me from doing that. It’s all very strange. I try to be poised and nice, but really, on the inside, I wish I could be possessed by a demon.”

02 Austin

Photography: Miranda Penn Turin

Styling: Phillip Morrison

All Clothing: Dior Homme

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