Chris Columbus’ big screen version of Rent keeps most of the original Broadway cast members – which meant that I had a chance to interview Detective Green from Law & Order. Many fans don’t know that he originated the role of Tom Collins, an HIV+ professor whose lover is the cross-dressing Angel. Wilison Jermaine Heredia is a little more well known for his work in Rent - he did win a Tony for it, after all.
Sony paired the talent up in terms of their character’s relationships, so we got these two together – and they came across like a fine duo in real life as well. The assembled press was a little more interested in Martin, since he’s the best known of the two, but I have still rarely seen a dual interview like this (and in a press conference setting) where things were fairly equal.
Q: Can you compare playing these roles in the theater and on film?
Martin: Well, obviously we don’t have that incredible audience that we had every night, but the truth of matter is we did have a little cheering section in the Larson family. We were able to turn to them, and we had our crew who I guess uncharacteristically were very, very into the movie and the story. I mean when we started filming, there was dead silence because they were pretty much wrapped in the story. Am I wrong?
Heredia: No, you’re absolutely right.
Martin: Oh God, yeah. You’d see them cheer up and get really excited. I remember when you were doing Today For You, they were just blown away that he could run around all over that room with those heels on. They just couldn’t believe it. They were like, ‘Wow!’
Heredia: My cheering section.
Q: Was it harder to get into because you don’t have the big audience?
Martin: No, it wasn’t, because we were so excited to be there. I can’t even tell you — I mean we went to work when we weren’t working, and if you know a lot of actors, you know that people don’t do that.
Heredia: No, they stay in their own places.
Martin: We would go to work every day, and I certainly didn’t work every day. But I wanted to see what was going on.
Q: Did you shoot this while doing Law & Order?
Martin: Actually, I didn’t do both. I got out of work on Law & Order a little early. I got shot. Thank God I got shot!
Q: You must have been happy Chris went with the original cast.
Heredia: Of course. We were thrilled. On top of that, the first question we had when we knew it was going to be turned into a film, we thought — I hope that we get hired for this. But I didn’t cross my fingers. I just waited until I got the call.
Martin: I was absolutely sure we weren’t going to be involved. Because it is 10 years later and for whatever reasons people were sort of saying we were too old to play the parts.
Q: And they were tossing around names like Justin Timberlake.
Martin: Yeah, and of course they’ve sold millions and millions of albums so it only made sense that Hollywood would put those people in the film as opposed to us. And, you know, statistically, when there’s a Broadway cast and they make a film, [people] don’t go. Know what I mean?
Heredia: Statistically it doesn’t happen
Q: Did Chris promise you the roles when he first got on the project?
Heredia: We were never really promised anything, but I know that when we had initial meetings with him, it seemed that he was really considering it and wanted to know whether I was still up to it and whether I would be in that position again, to be that character again. Are you ready for the heels? Are you ready for the makeup? You know what? Hire me and I’ll let you know. [laughs]
Q: It must have been pretty emotional returning to this story and these characters after a bunch of years.
Martin: Sure. Obviously, when we were doing the show initially, we were dealing with a whole lot of heaven and a whole lot of hell. I mean we lost Jonathan Larson before the show even got on its feet. I mean he’d only seen the production once, like one full run-through, when he passed away. And that took us all for a loop. We weren’t sure what was happening with the production. We were doing a workshop production of Rent, which means it wasn’t done, with plenty more moments to work out. Jonathan probably had a million more songs in his head because the guy came up with a new song every single day. So we weren’t sure how the whole thing was going to play out. And when talked to his father the day after he passed, he said, ‘Look, Jonathan would like you guys to continue doing the show.’ And that literally galvanized everybody and it became the most important story to tell. And we took it from there, and I am so glad we got to put this on film because somewhere Jonathan — those big ears are just flapping… and yea, the world gets to see it.
Heredia: It was a celebration and now the film will be an eternal celebration of his work and his life and the life of everyone represented in the movie, with all the issues.
Q: Are your Law & Order fans going to be shocked to see you in this, singing?
Martin: Yeah, they’re already letting me know how shocked they are, that I can sing. I mean, we film on the streets and people come up and they say — detective green, I had no idea that you can sing. And the funny thing is that they used to say the very same thing to Jerry Orbach. You know, Jerry was the prince of New York theatre, and people didn’t know Lennie Briscoe could sing. Of course, I did, because I had seen his work, and also I got to sing with him on set every single day, so it’s funny that people come up and they’re shocked. They’re absolutely shocked that I can sing.
Q: Do you think that people will also be shocked about your character’s sexuality?
Martin: I think it will be a great combination of both. You know what I mean? It’s certainly different than anything they’ve seen me do on Law & Order so — I’m excited about it. I’m very proud of it. So they’ll have to get ready for it because it’s as big as life.
Q: Had Jerry seen you in Rent?
Martin: Yes, he’s seen me in Rent.
Q: When you came back, did you decide to play the characters the age you were when you did the show, or did you play them ten years older?
Heredia: I never played it age specific, even back then. I was 24 back then and I really didn’t play it as a 24-year-old. Just played it as a human being who happened to be a drag queen with HIV who was very generous, open and made a conscious decision to live life moment to moment as opposed to lamenting about the past and worrying about the future. Everything that was right there in the present — it was more about that. That was my character choice. It really had nothing to do with age. . . I’m always childish anyway.
Martin: That’s true!
Q: Wilson, why did you leave the theater?
Heredia: I didn’t give up the stage. I just took a break for a year just because I needed to. I think very few people take that opportunity for themselves. They identify themselves with what they do, and I knew I was identifying with what I did, and if I didn’t get what I wanted at that moment, it would really tear me up. I knew I just needed a break, and it was a self-imposed vacation. I just needed that break and to be refreshed. I knew that if I didn’t take that break, I don’t think I would have been ready to do [this]. So I’m glad I took that year break.
Q: And have you been doing any other films?
Heredia: I just finished in Ireland, one of which I produced myself — one is called Johnny Was with Vinnie Jones and Roger Daltrey, and the other film is called Nailed, which is sort of a horror thriller. I play the lead character and it’s still up in the air, still in post production. And of course I’m just auditioning for everything that comes my way. I definitely want to do things that are completely opposite to this character — not because I’m worried about being stereotyped. More it’s just that as an actor I want to be challenged more. I’ve already done this. I did it on stage on and off for four years, and I did it on film, and now I want to experiment with other characters.
Q: Jesse, is this your first film?
Martin: I did an independent film, a very small role.
Q: Will you be doing more? Will you be transitioning to the screen?
Martin: I don’t know. That’s up to the stars. I’m certainly not leaving Law & Order any time soon. That’s a great job and they’d have to kill me for real to get me off the show. It’s true.
Q: You get three months off a year, though.
Martin: I love the time off. I mean it does afford me the opportunity to do other things. Of course, you have to fit them in that three-month window. But I’d be really naïve to say I’m going to leave the show and run off to have a movie career, because the truth of the matter is Denzel’s still looking for a great script to do, and who am I to think that I can just drop all the work that I’ve been so graciously given to pursue a film career. I’m an actor. I want to work on stage, I want to work in television. Of course, I want to do film, so I’m keeping the jobs I have.
Q: What do you do when you’re not working?
Martin: I sleep. I don’t get a whole lot of chances to sleep, and I’ve been lucky. I have a beautiful apartment and I like to sit in it!
Q: Do you miss the theater?
Martin: Of course. I miss it every single day. I wish that my life allowed me to be on stage every single day, but it doesn’t. I’m on a sound stage every single day.
Heredia: There’s no substitute for performing on stage. That live experience — there’s nothing like it.
Q: Jesse, you have a really energetic dance number on the subway during Santa Fe.
Heredia: you have no idea.
Martin: You did Today For You for about three days.
Heredia: It took three days to film.
Martin: And Santa Fe was about the same.
Heredia: Three days as well.
Martin: He had amazing feet trouble after that, and I had amazing hand problems after that — swinging on those bars in the subway, it was hard but it was a whole lot of, fun, one of those things where your adrenaline goes haywire, and you don’t even realize you’re hurting yourself since it’s all said and done —
Heredia: Then you can’t move.
Q: This film is like the worst nightmare for a certain segment of this country. Will middle America be ready for two men in love, singing to each other and kissing?
Martin: You know, if they’re not ready, they’ll have to get ready because the truth of the matter is it’s a reality. If it’s really hard for you to swallow, we’re singing a beautiful song to sort of lull you into it. You just have to accept it. I mean — I don’t know what else to say. It’s unfathomable to me that people even would have a problem with it.
Q: And if the Pat Robertson’s of the world condemn you and the film?
Martin: That’s just plain crazy, I’m sorry. Nobody in this world is in a position to condemn anybody. You know what I mean? Life is way too short for that.
Heredia: He’s going to do it anyway — regardless. So let him. It’s his nature.
Q: Like you said before, Jerry Orbach was a prince of the New York theater. Did he ever give you any advice?
Martin: Stay out of my light. No, that was a joke he used to say all the time. The truth of the matter is it wasn’t that he gave me advice. It was more that I was able to watch him on a daily basis, and how he operated. First of all, he was one of the most generous actors ever. We used to have guest stars come on set who were very, very nervous because they were working with an icon. They’d see me — ‘Oh, I can handle him.’ But they’d see Jerry and automatically get very, very nervous, and with a quick whisper and a wink and a hand on the shoulder, Jerry could calm down the most nervous actor and get them to a place where they can actually do the work that they came there to do. He was pretty amazing — not to mention, the most gracious person. We’d be in the middle of a scene, really long day, raining, cold, and a guy would drive through the middle of the scene — ‘Oh my God, Jerry Orbach from Law & Order!’ — and he would stop, take a picture, sign an autograph. And I would say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ He would say, ‘It’s way easier to sign an autograph and take the picture than explain why you wouldn’t do it.’ Great lesson.
Q: Wilson, how about you?
Heredia: It may be a cliché, but it would have to say Michael Grant and Jonathan Larson. They definitely inspired me and through example, allowed me to learn what this business was about. Also I really have to say Jesse, seriously. He really helps me up my game and never let me drop the ball.
Martin: Same here.
Heredia: I learned so much working with this man — giving much more in the film as well. Again, it was a much more relaxed environment this time around, so we were definitely allowed to work out the subtleties of the scenes and characters and it wasn’t like Jesse and I had to sit and really discuss it — ‘What is my motivation here?’
Heredia: It was very immediate, the rapport, and the synergy that we had. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with.
Martin: He’s an Angel in real life too.
Q: Was this a reunion, or do you all keep in touch?
Martin: We’ve kept in touch. We’ve kept in touch with all the cast members to this day. We’ve always been a family, so we keep an eye on each other, take care of each other.
Q: Were you upset about the original cast members who weren’t in the film?
Martin: Of course, it was devastating. They were devastated by the choice, but there was seemingly there was nothing we could do. I actually felt, when I was cast in the film, and I found out there were two that weren’t, I felt I needed to call them and sort of get their blessing, so to speak. Which I did, and I did get their blessing. But it wasn’t an easy phone call to make.
Q: Why does this show continue to have such resonance?
Heredia: I think it’s because it’s about timeless universal themes encompassing real people. These people in the film were all Jonathan’s friends. He wrote about his life, he wrote about his friends, his environment. Some of these things happened, and I think people identify with — if you don’t identify with the drag queen you’ll identify with Colin’s character, if not with Colin’s character, you’ll identify with Roger. If not Roger, Mimi. There’s something in this film for everyone.
Martin: That’s true. There are so many emotional portals to go through. I mean if you’re not really feeling the AIDS story line, then you can go with the lost love story line or you can go with the disenfranchised artist story line or the poverty-can’t-pay-my rent story line. There’s something in there for everybody. We’ve all been through these issues and — who hasn’t been in love in their life? Who hasn’t been upset because they hadn’t cherished the person that they love before they left you?
Q: What’s next for you, Jesse?
Martin: Well, I’m going to solve some more crimes and —
Q: How is it working with a new partner?
Martin: It’s great. Dennis Farina is a very, very classy actor. He’s a real hoot and he brings 23 years of police experience. He was on the Chicago Police Force, and there are so many times when I can turn to him and say, ‘Would we investigate this this way, and what would be the next step? I don’t really know.’ And he will say ‘Well what we really do is slap the guy. But of course you can’t do that on TV, so you come up with the politically correct answer.’ [laughs]
Q: Would you do Rent on stage again?
Martin: We could, sure. We were asked that question yesterday and they asked that if we had to go to the Nederlander Theatre tonight and be put on stage in our roles, would we be able to do it. Basically, after I got over my nervousness about doing it, I’m pretty sure could.
Heredia: We’d be on. Just as long as it’s with most of the original cast, if not all of the cast. Just easier that way. We just know each other so well. It would have to be very unique conditions.
Q: Like a benefit?
Martin: Definitely do that. That might be in the works.
Heredia: We’re definitely doing a benefit.
Martin: The live version is a really difficult show to do. I mean it’s three hours of full-force singing and moving. So it’s exhilarating, like an incredible workout, but the truth of the matter is by the end of the show, you’re almost dead tired. In doing the film we had plenty of time to relax and pull ourselves together.
Heredia: It would take me a lot of protein shakes to maintain my weight.
Q: Were you happy to rerecord the soundtrack?
Martin: Yes. Initially when we were doing the Broadway recording, we were literally in the middle of the zeitgeist of Rent and we were very tired. Doing the show every day really puts a strain on your voice, and we were basically thrown into the studio, and we had to throw the album down. People loved that album, they really do, but the truth of the matter is we were upset by it because we felt we could give more, that we should have gotten the chance to give more. We were really, really tired when we recorded the Broadway album. The film recording again, was really, really relaxed, and we had plenty of time to do exactly what we wanted to do as far as the vocals. And you’re so keenly aware of the fact that whatever you do in these vocal sessions, you’re going to have to repeat on film. So you start making all these choices so you have choices when you get to filming.
Heredia: And it was dynamic singing. You just have to think of the movement behind the vocals, but it took a month so we were given a whole lot more time. For the Broadway recording vocally we had three days, and we were still doing the show in the evening.