Virginia’s own Benjamin Cook has been in two Broadway shows already – Ragtime and Billy Elliot the Musical, and local theatregoers can see Ben perform the role of Billy’s best friend and fashion expert Michael at The Kennedy Center through January 15th. I had a chance to ask Ben about performing at The Kennedy Center and his roles and performing on the road.
Joel: What do you feel when you step onto the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Stage as you begin your performance of Michael?
Benjamin: It is an amazing and magical feeling stepping on stage in front of thousands of people and it’s amazing to be here, back at home, doing what I love.
Who is Michael and how do you relate to him? What is Ben-like about Michael?
Michael is Billy’s best friend. He is a goofball and is always wanting to have fun. At the same time, he is sincere and will do whatever it takes to help his best friend be happy. We both are very outgoing and like to have fun and enjoy ourselves.
You are from the DC area. Where did you grow up and where did you get your musical theatre training?
I grew up in Lorton, VA and got my training locally at Metropolitan Fine Arts Center.
You appeared in The Golden Age at The Kennedy Center, Macbeth at The Folger and A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre. How did these experiences prepare you to play Michael in Billy Elliot the Musical?
Each show is very different, but every experience has taught me something about working in professional theatre. You have to be mature. You have to know how to work well with adults, not just kids.
You were in the cast of the revival of Ragtime also at The Kennedy Center. Who did you play? Who did you understudy and did you get a chance to go on for that actor in that role? When did you find out and where were you when you were told that you were going to make your Broadway debut in Ragtime when it transferred to the Neil Simon Theatre?
I understudied Edgar (‘Little Boy’), but unfortunately did not have the chance to go on at the Kennedy Center. After the show ended, I auditioned again for the Broadway production, and found out three weeks before we had to go to New York that I’d be doing it there. I was the last person from the DC cast to go on, and it was on Broadway!
Tell us about that run of Ragtime in NYC? What were some of the highs and what were some of the lows, and what did you learn from the Ragtime experience as an actor?
Ragtime is one of the best experiences of my life. I learned so much from that show because everyone in the cast and crew is so incredibly talented. I discovered how much I love to sing because of the show. The highs: Appearing on Broadway and going to the Tony Awards. The lows: The fact that the show closed in January and wasn’t given more of a chance. It should still be on Broadway.
When did you audition for Billy Elliot and when did you get the call that you made it into the cast?
My first audition for Billy was when I was doing my first A Christmas Carol in DC in 2007, so it’s been a long process. I went to several callbacks for Billy, and then went for a call as Michael after Ragtime closed. In June 2010, I found out I was cast as Tall Boy/Posh Boy and understudy for Michael on Broadway.
As you said above – you have played several roles in Billy Elliot: Posh Boy, Tall Boy – you were a replacement for both these roles – and you were the understudy for Michael, and then you assumed that role on Broadway, and now you are playing Michael on the road.
Tell us about the journey of playing the first two roles and then playing Michael. What was the process and training they put you through?
Tall Boy/Posh Boy is one of four boys in the show (the other one is Small Boy, who is much younger). In New York, he’s part of the ensemble, which means I was on everyday for 15 months. Michael is a principal character, and so I had to take tap classes, cardio, and acting in addition to being on as Tall Boy.
What do you remember when you first walked onto the Imperial Theatre stage to play Michael? How did that first performance go, and how has your performance evolved and changed from that first performance to now at The Kennedy Center?
I enjoyed being Tall Boy because, after being an understudy in Ragtime, I got to be on stage every night. But I really wanted to play Michael, and I had to wait for nine months for my chance to do it. The first time I did it I was very nervous, but it was great. I had so much fun. Now that I’m doing it regularly, four times a week, I’ve noticed little things. My dancing has gotten better as I’ve done it. You have a different audience every night. You’re always performing with different Billys, so that keeps it interesting. I get so much energy from doing it. The audience really pumps you up.
What do you do about your schooling when you are in a Broadway show and on the road, what do you like the most being on the road, and what’s the most difficult thing about being on the road?
When I was on Broadway, I went to school at the Professional Performing Arts School on 48th Street. It is such a great place, and I really miss my friends there. On the road, we have two teachers who go with the show and tutor all the kids.
I really like being on the road. It’s fun seeing all the different cities and making people across the country happy. The audience is what keeps us going and what keeps us on our feet. Being on tour is also like having another family, and that’s great too, because what I miss the most is not being with my family at home.
You couldn’t have ‘made it’ without the support and sacrifices of your family. Tell us about that.
My family means the world to me. They have sacrificed so much for me to do this, whether it’s getting on plane or a train or a bus, or renting an apartment in New York. I have two sisters and a half brother, and they’ve been very supportive, too. I’m very, very lucky.
What advice can you give a young actor who is starting out in this business?
Make sure it’s something you really want to do and have fun with it. Don’t be pressured into doing a show or a role. It’s really hard work, and you have to be dedicated to it.
Why should DC theatregoers come to see you perform in Billy Elliot?
Billy Elliot the Musical is a great show. It has wonderful dancing, singing and acting. When you see Michael, you get a chance to see someone who is having fun in life, and not afraid to express himself. That’s one of the big themes in the show: “Be who you want to be, no matter what obstacles are in your way.”