The actor discusses his breakout role as Aaron Burr in the touring company of Hamilton: An American Musical.
Actor Joshua Henry
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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
So pleased to welcome two-time Tony nominee, Joshua Henry, to this program. He currently stars as Aaron Burr in the national tour of “Hamilton”, a role he originated in the Chicago engagement of the hit musical. Joshua, good to have you on this program, sir.
Joshua Henry: Good to be here.
Tavis: Are we having fun yet?
Henry: We’re having a blast out here in L.A. Yeah, it’s nice. Just got out here about three weeks ago, and the audiences have been electric. I guess they’ve gone the longest without having it [laugh].
Tavis: That’s what it is. We’re always the last to get everything.
Henry: Last to know.
Tavis: On the west coast, yeah, last to know. How cool is it not just playing a villain, but playing an historical villain at that?
Henry: It’s great. You know, when I just got the role, of course, the main thing we know about Burr is that he shot Hamilton. So the challenge was to not just think about him like that. You know, how did he get there?
I don’t think anyone goes from — you’re not just born thinking you want to do something like he did. So finding out what brought him to that point. You know, he was a guy that was really successful. Graduated from college in two years and was serving his country for a while, was a genius.
And he just ran into this guy who walked in the world a lot differently than he did and he didn’t think that that was the way to do it. So a couple of disagreements later and, bam. I think the biggest thing in this role is his last line for me, which says, “The world wasn’t wide enough for Hamilton and me.”
It was a realization that he has where he just thinks all this could have been avoided if I knew that there was room for both of us to thrive. And I think, for me doing this role, that’s the biggest joy, being able to say a line like that in a big spotlight like this because I think it’s important for us right now.
Tavis: Tell me how you connected to the humanity of Aaron Burr. Where did you find that? How did you connect to that?
Henry: Well, I think he’s someone that experienced success pretty early, which can be a damaging thing at times. You know, I was fortunate to come out of college and, even as an actor, experience some success early. That’s a hard thing because when failure comes, how do you deal with that? Or when you come up against opposition, what happens?
Tavis: And it will come [laugh].
Henry: It will come. It will come. I think a lot of folks think they might just look at me and be like, “Oh, you jump from show to show to show.” But, no, there’ve been times that have been pretty hard, you know. “In the Heights” was my first show. Right after that, I tried to leave that show to do another show. That was in 2008 and the funding just dropped out.
There have been stretches and months where you’re just not working. So what happens when you come up against opposition or when you come up against just a thought process in Aaron Burr’s case where that’s not the way you’ve seen the world, that can start to play with you a little bit and it tests your foundation a little bit.
Tavis: How have you navigated those downturns?
Henry: I think the biggest thing is having a group of people around you that have known you for a long time, having what you call an “A Team”, people who no matter your successes or your failures are just going to be there to support you.
And I’ve been really fortunate and I’ll use the word blessed to come from a very spiritual family. They’ve instilled within me a belief in God and a belief that says no matter the circumstance that you have a foundation, that things will get better.
So no matter if things are really low or high, there’s a middle ground, an equilibrium that just says you’re where you’re supposed to be on your journey. And I think those things have really helped me navigate a lot of rejection. Because as an actor, that’s part of the gig is accepting rejection.
Tavis: That’s why I’m not an actor.
Henry: What’s that?
Tavis: That’s why I’m not an actor [laugh]. I can’t handle rejection that well.
Henry: Well, that’s my middle name, you know [laugh]. We just have to be okay and accept it with a smile and then also turn around and be vulnerable when you do get a role and learn how to connect emotionally. So that’s part of how I’ve navigated it.
Tavis: You mentioned God a moment ago. When you mentioned that, my mind went immediately to the book that Lin wrote, “Hamilton: The Revolution”, the actual book. There was a picture about halfway through the book that really just made me stop.
It’s a picture of the cast in a big prayer circle backstage in New York before they came out. It moved me to see that Lin and the entire cast was in this prayer circle before they came out onstage.
Henry: You know, that’s something — in Lin’s first show, “In the Heights”, that’s something we did that I was involved in. That was my first Broadway show. We did that prayer circle every day for, I think, it was three years the show was going.
And I loved that because it brought everyone together and it sort of just unified us. And sometimes we’d pray and sometimes we’d just go around and just say something inspirational. But it was a moment where you get to connect.
Tavis: Spiritual moment.
Henry: Yeah. And believe in this sharing of a story that you’re going to tell. You know, I think that’s had a lot to do with the success of a piece. Not saying, well, that directly relates to a show running for three years, but into how the message is delivered. You know, how unified a cast is going onstage.
Tavis: Absolutely, yeah.
Henry: Because you have to believe in what you’re doing. And as a cast, collectively, “Hamilton” really does believe in what they’re doing. I definitely — we have moments like that backstage. We don’t circle up every day, but you have moments where you connect, where you just sit with someone and you breath together. That’s important.
Tavis: And what is it — I mean, if I ask every member of the cast this question, I’d get a different answer, but I’m asking you since you’re here. What is it that you think you are doing? What is it that you hope you’re doing every night?
Henry: I hope that I’m spreading a message of love, of inclusion, of the importance of diversity, and the importance in this country that we all have a unique thing to contribute. I think that’s what “Hamilton” and the way that the story is told says so well, that no matter where you’re from, no matter what you look like, you have an importance, you have a unique voice. That’s what I hope to bring forth.
I think some of the most amazing moments with this show have been at the stage doors where, you know, parents will come up to me and they have kids who look like me and they’re like, “It was so important for me to bring my kids to see this so that they could see that they can do something great too. They can see excellence and they can see someone like them shining.” That, to me, is everything.
Tavis: So much has been made, to your point, about the diversity, about the inclusion that we see onstage in this wonderful production, “Hamilton”. And yet, I have been in this business long enough to know that just because a movie in Hollywood comes out, it’s a big hit with a bunch of people of color in it, doesn’t mean that Hollywood gets the message.
You see where I’m going with this, right [laugh]? Yeah, exactly. I’m just wondering whether or not you think that Broadway really gets it now, given what “Hamilton” has been able to do? Are we going to be still having this conversation 20 years from now about the Great White Way?
Henry: Well [laugh], I think “Hamilton” has put the conversation more in the forefront than it ever has been.
Tavis: Mm-hmm. No doubt about that.
Henry: And I think we’ll see. Only time can tell to see, you know. But theaters regionally around the country, you know, are now questioning the way that they cast shows.
Look, it’s an ongoing conversation that probably is not going to be over in 2020, but the fact that we’re having it, I think, is a really good thing. It’s asking of ourselves to ask really hard questions. But the main takeaway for me right now is just what representation means and how it means so much.
I remember, you know, coming to New York, seeing my first couple of Broadway shows, and the first one I saw was “Wicked”. I saw Taye Diggs playing a character, Fiyero, who he was the only principal of color in that cast at the time. You know, I’m here used to singing “Ol’ Man River”, I’m singing “Run and Tell That” from “Hairspray”.
And then I see Taye Diggs in this role just living his life in a way that I hadn’t thought that was possible. So it had me rethink everything in my audition book that I had at the time [laugh]. So seeing him represent me, I was like, “That’s me. I can do something like that and I can be many different things”, but I saw myself in him at that moment and I want to be that for other kids as well.
Tavis: And you are doing that now. I got a minute to go here. If I were you — I’m not your manager, I’m not your agent. I’m not telling you how to do your business — but if I were you, since you’re so hot right now, I would like get to a studio and like record an album of not this stuff because Lin ain’t gonna let you do that anyway. That’s his money [laugh]. But I would go to a studio, if I were you, while you’re hot and like record an album of stuff that you want to do.
Henry: That’s what’s happening right now.
Tavis: So you are doing that?
Henry: That’s happening this fall. I’m glad you brought that up [laugh].
Tavis: That’s what I’d be doing, yeah.
Henry: That’s exactly the plan.
Henry: The plan is to have it released by February of next year right before I head back to Broadway with “Carousel”. But, yeah, it’s gonna be…
Tavis: “Carousel” with Renee Fleming. Yeah, that’s hot.
Henry: Renee Fleming, Jessie Mueller…
Tavis: That’s hot. And what kind of music can we expect from this album coming next year?
Henry: You know, I’m a little bit of Broadway, but I love funk and I love soul. If I had to sort of put it together in 30 seconds, I’d say Stevie Wonder, India Arie, and Prince in a sound.
Tavis: I ain’t mad at you [laugh].
Henry: Come on, Tavis.
Tavis: If you can do a little Stevie, have some Stevie in it, and some India and some Prince, I’m buying it.
Henry: All right! Good, good.
Tavis: You sold me [laugh], if you can pull that off, man. And when you do, come back and see us.
Tavis: Honored to have you on the program. Have a great rest of the run with “Hamilton” here in L.A.
Henry: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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