MJ Rodriguez has arrived.
Years of vocal study and performing in stage productions like Rent or in indie films like Saturday Church have paid off: the beautiful young actress has become an international superstar courtesy of her role as Blanca on the FX series Pose. After two seasons on the show, the actress became one of the most famous transgender people alive and a bonafide star.
Now Rodriguez will take one of the biggest risks of her career. This month, she steps into the iconic role of Audrey in a new production of Little Shop of Horrors staged at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse. As directed by Mike Donahue, the production reimagines the classic stage version as a darker, more urban story and also stars George Salazar (Spring Awakening), Amber Riley (Glee) as the sinister plant Audrey II and Matt Wilkas as the deranged dentist Orin Scrivello.
Queerty caught up with Rodriguez in the midst of rehearsals for the new show to talk about her return to the stage, representation in theatre and how to cope with the weight of fame. Little Shop Horrors opens September 17-October 20 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
So how familiar with Little Shop were you going into this?
I knew the show like the back of my hand. Me and my mom would watch it a lot when I was younger. Then when I got older, I went on a Little Shop of Horrors spree, watching it a hundred times a day.
Tichina Arnold, Tisha Campbell, Ellen Greene…the list goes on. I was watching that movie like nobody’s business. Then I remember at one point in my life when I was younger, my mom tried to get us 2003 revival tickets. They were sold out, and it was the last day. They were about to close and I was so sad. I had been waiting my whole life to see it live. So it’s definitely integrated into my life. It’s kind of branded into my life now.
That’s so exciting. This is also a return to the stage for you, your first part since Pose. Is it an adjustment for you?
Yeah, it’s a small adjustment. It’s definitely a different type of role that you take when you’re doing theatre. I mean, once you’ve done theatre, you know the hustle and bustle of it all: the rehearsal space, the type of rehearsals, and all the wonderful little things that come along with it. I was a little skeptical because, like you said, it’s been a long time. TV has been the biggest thing in my life, which I love. Television is where I’m at. But it’s always good to go back to the place where you feel like you first started. I’m a little nervous. I’m kind of jumping out of my comfort zone a little bit, but I’m excited.
So how did the role come to you? Did you have to audition?
Me and the director actually had a meeting in New York City. This was a while back. Everything was going well with Pose. It was almost a year ago we talked. He came to me and said “MJ, I think I want you to play Audrey.” And I was like what!? I thought he was going to ask me to play the plant, know what I mean?
That’s not a bad part either.
No, it’s not a bad part. But the person who’s playing it now is the person that needs to play it. Amber is beyond amazing. I was listening to her at rehearsal last night, and she’s…my God. She’s absolutely stellar.
Anyways, when I found out it was Audrey, I was so in awe. I mean, there aren’t a lot of women like myself that play the role of Audrey. I’m of color. I’m part of the LGBTQ community. There are so many things that make you think they’d never offer it. But Mike, the director, he’s been so wonderful and was just amazing at opening up the space to try something different. When I heard that, I was ecstatic. So I said yes.
That’s so exciting. You’re right when you say that you’re not the typical Audrey, who’s usually played by a tall, blond white woman.
I know Mike has his whole concept that he’s reimaging the show. What’s your take on Audrey? How are you preparing for the role?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading the script. When I was younger I wasn’t necessarily looking at the script, I was looking at the aesthetic of Little Shop. I was looking at the colors. I was looking at the plant. I was looking at the embellished characteristics of these characters. When I got into it now, I started reading it over and over and over. I was like my God, not only is it the show with beautiful aesthetics, but there are deep-rooted realistic aspects of these characters. Seymour is an orphan. Mr. Muchnick is somewhat of a con artist down the line. Audrey is somewhat of a broken woman. I think she’s very, very strong, but I think there are pieces—just like there are pieces with any person—not just women, not just men.
There are many facets to a human being, and reading about her, I noticed that she was someone who went through a lot. One of the first things she says: “Daddy left early. Mamma was poor.” If you’re looking at the movie or the show, sometimes people will overlook those lyrics. Given that Mike has this different take on Little Shop, it might be a little bit darker, and obviously, it will have a different look to it. We can actually dive down and stress what these characters have gone through. So being Audrey, she’s actually someone very real outside of all the make-up and hair. She’s someone who is hurt and trying to find someone to love. That’s why she’s looking for “Somewhere that’s Green.”
That’s awesome. The other thing about the role of Audrey is that it’s quite vocally demanding. I’m not sure how many fans of the show realize how hard some of those songs are. What are you doing to prepare vocally?
I’m just doing as much as I can. It’s actually not that hard for me, and I’m really happy about that.
I was a little nervous. I was a little reserved. My voice is very different from a conventional Audrey. I mean, a lot of the girls love belting. But I’ve noticed in some of these songs, she’s speaking and she is actually trying to get a message across. Sometimes it’s a matter of singing so people really just hear the message. I’m doing a different take on it. There might be people who are a little thrown by it, but it’s a different take. I actually think it’s quite beautiful. It’s one thing they’re letting all of us do in this show. So it’s not vocally demanding. I warm up every single day. We have to do that. It’s important. But I’m just having fun with it, and hopefully, it’s a good product.
You mention that the show will be darker. What else can you tell us about Mike’s concept?
Well it’s still going to have those iconic songs. We’re not changing it completely. The songs will be the same. The plant will still be very seductive. It will have a wonderful voice from Amber Riley. But she’s very different as well. We haven’t seen a woman of color actually be the voice of the plant. That’s beautiful unto itself. The cast is so dynamic. But nothing’s really changed. I think the mindset, maybe the look of the plant, and the look of the characters. They’re not going to look like the 60s characters. I don’t think they’re going to look modern either. I think they’re going to have a different kind of aesthetic appeal to fit what the stage looks like. It’s going to have a totally different feel. It’s going to be a little bit more realistic versus just coming to the show and being like oh my God, it’s ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ We want people to love not just the music, but also love the story and dive deep into the lives of these characters.
Absolutely. So you mention you’re nervous. Given the pedigree of the Pasadena Playhouse—some major heavy hitters mount productions there—how intimidated were you going into this? Al Pacino was just there. Nia Vardalos was there earlier this year. Alfred Molina hits the stage there closing out the season.
It’s a lot. Like I said, I’m not the conventional Audrey. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman of color play Audrey before. That’s another thing unto itself: different individuals from different races, we have a different timbre to our voices. We have different tones. That was one thing I was worried about, and not to mention: I’m a trans woman. I mean, there are so many things that go along with the nerves. There are different registers I will be singing in. I just hope that people will be open to seeing something new, a different Audrey, an Audrey that is not the stereotypical blond, sexy Audrey. I want them to see her as a real person. So I was real nervous. I’m still nervous. I want to make everyone happy. I like making people joyous and hoping that they leave with a filled heart. I know I can’t please everyone, and I am nervous. There are a lot of reservations. But at this point, I just want to do a good job. I have huge shoes to fill. It’s going to be fun though. I’m not scared. I know it’s going to be fun. There’s no fear.
It’s great to hear you’re having so much fun doing it.
And it is groundbreaking to have, not just a woman of color, but a trans woman of color playing a role like this. I talked recently to the director Rhys Ernst, who directed you in Adam.
We talked a lot about representation in the media, and how we’re at this beautiful tipping point for trans representation right now. We talked about casting trans characters. Obviously, there’s been a lot you’ve talked about already with the issue of if it’s ever in good taste to have a cis actor play a trans character, or if it’s in good taste to have a trans actor play a cis character. What’s interesting about that conversation is that it’s confined almost exclusively to film and TV. Theatre isn’t quite as literal. So my question is how do you feel about casting trans performers in theatre? Should they be allowed to play any role?
My view is that we should release titles when it comes to talent. I don’t think it should be a trans issue. I don’t think it should be a gay, bi, lesbian or straight issue. Actors are actors. We do our job to simply be things that are different. We don’t think about gender. What’s important, obviously, is if there is a trans role, there needs to be auditions for trans individuals.
That’s just a given. It makes sense. But the bigger picture is we are actors. We can do anything we want to. Now when it comes to the trans issues when cis people play us, the reason why there was such an uproar is that there were never any trans women being alotted to play cis roles. It was only cis individuals who are playing trans roles, which made it not make sense. It would have been different if there had been trans women playing cis roles for a long time, and there was an even balance. But there was no balance there. Now we’re trying to create the balance between the trans and the cis, and we just need people to go in for the role. Whoever is doing the best work or is prepared enough deserves the role. Obviously, there has to be some type of uproar though when there isn’t balance.
That makes sense.
It’s important that we have more representation from those of us in the LGBTQ community. We have to constantly keep on the ball and show that we’re here for the work, not that we’re here to push anything down anyone’s throats. We just want to be seen like other individuals. We’re five-dimensional. We’re human. We don’t fall into the category of one kind of character. We have many facets to us. Anyone behind casting should be well educated in that. Once people start doing that, they’ll see it’s not about transness. It’s not about who’s cis, or who’s gay, or who’s playing the straight role or vice versa. It should be simple: they were there to deliver the talent. We’re just trying to level the playing field a little bit, that’s all.
Well said. Now, let the record show, you have come a long long way from growing up in Newark.
You’re an international star, a groundbreaking actress…
That is so crazy to hear.
Oh my God, I don’t really see myself that way. I just walk through the world and see myself as a regular human. I receive that too, don’t get me wrong. I receive it and I’m very happy about it…
As you should. You’re one of the biggest celebrities in the world, and one of the most prominent queer people in the world. Looking at your life now as opposed to four or five years ago, when do you feel the most gratitude?
When I’m back in Jersey, and I’m in Newark, and I’m with my whole family. When we’re all together and can converse on the regular things in life, whether it be my little cousin growing up, whether it be my father getting a new house. I mean, I don’t think he got a new house, but I’m just saying. My best friend getting a new job, my stepfather doing his thing. It’s the simple things in life that ground me, and it’s never going to leave that place until I feel like I’m ready. That’s what keeps me whole when I’m here in LA by myself and I feel like I can finally say this…I feel like I’m not completely on top of the world, but I feel like I’m in the best place now for me. That’s simply due to the family that I have and the foundation that I have and what I go back to all the time. Those things keep me most humble. Even when—God forbid, when the time comes—they all move out or pass away, I feel like I’ve been given everything I needed. I feel like I’ve been given all the energy, all the wisdom to keep moving forward in life. That’s the best place for me.
That’s beautiful. What are you ambitions for theatre? Do you enjoy it more than television?
I’m definitely a television and music girl. Theatre, I love, but I’ve never really considered or stamped myself as a theatre girl. When I got into Rent, I didn’t even know I was going to get it. I was going to school for music and songwriting and performance. I was going to Berkeley College and I was preparing to be this superstar R&B sensation, know what I mean?
Then there was wonderful, beautiful stepping stone that happened, which was Rent. I actually got to fulfill my dream of singing and implementing R&B acts through the character Angel. It opened up the diaspora of television and film and more musicals. But musicals were not my go to. My first passion was music, and my other was acting. So that’s where I live and I want to stay. It’s always been a dream of mine. I don’t have any problem with musical theatre either. If there’s a wonderful original musical that comes out, you better believe, honey, that I will be diving down there to get an audition.
Ok, last question. This is the one if I don’t ask it, someone hit me with a chair. What can you tell us about Pose Season 3?
I mean, lord knows what’s going to happen. I usually have some information, but this time around I don’t have anything. The writers are working their hardest to make sure they get Season 3 together. I don’t have any information. I just know that it’s probably going to be making another time jump.
Anything else you want to add?
Yes. I always have a message to kids who are young and queer or even not queer. When they’re younger, they don’t have titles to them. I just want them to know that they’re enough, and if they have anything they want to strive for, to go for it. Whether they want to be a doctor, or an actor, or someone living their life producing, just really stay focused. Keep your eyes on the prize. The sky is the limit. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not worth it.
And you’re living proof of that.
All photos by Jeff Lorch, courtesy of the Pasadena Playhouse.
Little Shop Horrors opens September 17-October 20 at the Pasadena Playhouse.