A Queer Broadway Star Is Born
Currently starring in the Pulitzer Prize winning play Fat Ham, Calvin Leon Smith makes his Broadway debut playing a character carrying a secret about who he really is. His character, Larry–very similar to his own real life story–gives Smith a chance to speak to the audience in a completely different way, as one of the only LGBTQ actors in the play. The play is a modern twist on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, set at a family BBQ. When Larry’s secret unfolds, it makes for a very emotional moment.
Get Out shared some time with Calvin regarding his role as Larry and his own personal experiences…..
Hello, Calvin. How is your character similar to your real self?
Larry and I both are black, queer, Southern, came out and were outed at 21 years old and were raised in a religious home. Many of those intersections are characteristics of so many Black and queer men who have found themselves in NYC and other metropolitan cities.
Do you believe that growing up gay in the South helped you in this role or was it a detriment?
I feel like it was a leg up. Larry carries his queerness in secret for about two-thirds of the play in a way that feels so familiar. His interactions with the character Rev, played by the INCREDIBLE Billy Eugene Jones, actually presents a dynamic that I’ve never really seen on stage or film. It’s the over familiarity and projection of hypermasculinity onto those of us who were trying to pass in our youth for safety. Even in the lightness of their interactions on stage, the dynamic is eerie and very close to my lived experiences with older men back home in Tennessee.
What if any were some of the challenges you faced doing this play?
I had never played a character so close to my own lived experience before, and I wasn’t prepared for what that would mean emotionally and physically. When we were rehearsing at the Public Theater last year, I had a panic attack during the outing scene. The repetition of being outed day after day, oftentimes multiple times a day, was jarring, to say the least.
I think as an actor, when you’re in flow and find yourself living so fully in a character’s circumstances, your body and maybe even your subconscious mind don’t know the difference. The line dividing real life and fiction can get thinned and blurred. I’m not sure if I was trying to play the hero or thought, “Well, that’s just the work,” but the stress of it compiled in such a way that I broke out into hives the morning of our last show downtown. Adding fuel to the fire were a few audience members from time to time who would audibly express, through clapping and laughter, while I was being outed. There would be some shows where I was almost inconsolable as I exited. It’s terrifying that even in this progressive bubble of New York City, there are people who can find joy in the outing of another person. That’s never okay, needless to say.
What are some of your triumphs?
Making my Broadway debut and getting to experience it with my castmates, our writer James Ijames and director Saheem Ali and so many of our other collaborators from downtown, most of whom are also making their debut! And the cherry on top is our five Tony nominations! Not to mention, I found a mentor in Cynthia Erivo. She has been such a champion of my work to an extent that I never would have imagined. She’s paying for my publicist and asked Christian Siriano if he would dress me for my opening, and he did! It’s been a real lesson in receiving help, and I can’t wait until I’m able to do the same for an up and coming artist.
I also no longer internalize those harmful audience reactions like I did downtown. My own growth during the seven months away from the play allows me to put a kind of cathartic space between Larry and myself. I understand that people come into the theater with their own set of given circumstances and those who would dare celebrate the outing of another human is probably the perfect audience member for a play like Fat Ham. I hope our production helps them to expand their capacity to empathize.
What would be your ideal role?
Something opposite of Maggie Gyllenhaal. What that would be specifically, I have no idea. What I do know is that it would be a dream come true. She’s been my favorite actress for a very long time. I have so much respect for the way she talks about acting and directing. I actually joined The Deuce on HBO in its last season, but unfortunately I didn’t have any scenes with her. I think I manifested it slightly wrong.
Can you recall a moment that changed the trajectory of your life?
I was a competitive gymnast in my youth and quit soon after entering high school. I was walking down the hall and saw a poster for an audition for a play, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I auditioned and got a part! I stuck with theater in high school, but majored in PR/Advertising when I got to University, until my Junior year. It always felt weird that I wasn’t acting, so I made the switch and haven’t looked back. I tried to ignore the actor calling because I was terrified, but the pull was too strong. If it wasn’t for that piece of paper taped on the wall, I would probably be a publicist or a creative director of some kind.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give baby Calvin?
It’s not advice, but I would reassure him that he’s going to be just fine…and I am!