Jai Rodriguez had already starred on Broadway in Jonathan Larson’s Rent when he leapt to national fame in his early twenties as the “Culture Vulture” on Bravo’s Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, and since then he has divided his time between stage and screen to continued acclaim. Next up for Jai is the starring role at the Falcon Theatre in Jonathan Tollins’ one-man play Buyer & Cellar, playing an aspiring young actor whose day job has him toiling for none other that Miss Barbra Streisand. We got to chat with Jai recently about everything from his high school days in New York “working for Barbra” at the Falcon in Toluca Lake.
Danny Blanco and Jai in Rent
Jai, before Queer Eye hit the airwaves, you’d already starred on Broadway as Angel in Rent for several years.
That’s true. The world got to meet me as the guy from Queer Eye but by that point I’d already opened the first international company of Rent at eighteen, then did four years on Broadway in that show.
Jai as Zanna in Zanna, Don’t!
You then originated the role of Zanna in the off-Broadway musical Zanna, Don’t!
I took a six-month leave from Rent to do Zanna, Don’t! and to keep doing Twisted Cabaret, my long-running weekly cabaret. I’d taken a break once before to star in the provocative play Spinning Into Butter, which opened at Lincoln Center when I was turning twenty-one.
Jai and Hope Davis in Spinning Into Butter
Did attending an arts high school help you in attaining success when you were still a teen?
All these things wouldn’t have happened so quickly after high school graduation had I not attended the Long Island Center For Performing Arts. That school took my passion for performing and helped me believe a career was totally possible. That not only gave me the confidence I needed to perform, it gave me the skills I needed to start working alongside Broadway veterans at such a young age.
Jai and the Queer Eye gang
I’ve always been curious about how a musical theater performer suddenly found himself a national expert on popular culture, relationships and social interaction. How much “homework” did you have to do for Queer Eye?
At twenty-three years old, it was certainly not easy giving grown men advice about their lives except that so many of our guys needed basic stuff that being a well-informed gay-guy-about-town I already knew. After a while I did do a lot of research to give them the best of the best.
Since Queer Eye went off the air in 2007, you’ve spent most of your time performing on stage and screen but you’ve also had quite a number of TV hosting gigs as yourself. Do you enjoy being able to do both?
Since Queer Eye, I’ve really spent the bulk of my time acting on camera playing everything from playing a murderer on Bones to a trans woman on Harry’s Law. I’ve managed to steer clear of any kind of docu-reality outside of hosting on camera. I’ve never seen my career as just one thing. I’m an entertainer. I entertain on different platforms, and I like it that way. Keeps things exciting.
You’ve been quite a groundbreaker from early on in your career. Openly gay. Proudly Hispanic. A role model for LGBT Latino youth.
Well being Nuyorican has definitely shaped parts of my career. There are roles where they specifically want an out gay Latino actor. In those moments you feel like you’re part of an elite club. But most auditions now are so diverse in content that I’m always happy when casting steps outside the box and hire actors based on skill not appearance.
And how about the role model part?
It’s an honor to be a role model to anyone. I’m thankful to be out and working. It sends a strong message to today’s youth that they can have a career while being their authentic selves.
I’ve gotten to see you play Angel in Rent for Musical Theatre West and Usnavi in In The Heights, both of them roles specifically written for Latino actors, and before that you were the only person of color on Queer Eye. Buyer & Cellar’s Alex More, on the other hand, is not a “Latino role.” How hard have you found it to get casting people to think outside the box when considering you for a role that’s not specifically written as Latino?
Well I’m thankful that Garry and Kathleen Marshall, Dimitri Toscas, Sherry Greczmiel and casting director Sandi Logan knew that Alex could be any ethnicity since there is no reference to his ethnicity in the show.
But not everyone is as open-minded in casting a project, right?
Sometimes people get married to the idea of casting the same type visually as the person who played the role before as opposed to casting the right actor for the job.
Nate Corddry and Jai on Harry’s Law
Still, you’ve managed to play a particularly wide variety of characters.
In terms of convincing casting to see me for things, I’m blessed to have a really diverse reel. I’ve played straight dad, trans woman, murderer, etc. My management team Michael Einfeld and Jason Kashiwagi have always read breakdowns and ignored what casting wanted visually if it was a role I could play. They’ve booked me tons of roles that I wouldn’t have been “right for” based on the original description on a break down.
Buyer & Cellar’s actor hero Alex suddenly finds himself working for none other than Barbra herself, not only that but interacting with her outside the showbiz spotlight, which I’m guessing would be more than one starving actor’s dream job (or maybe nightmare). How would you have felt about a job with Babs back in those pre-fame days?
Ha! Well from eighteen to twenty-three I was staring on Broadway so I don’t think I would have been okay with working for a celeb in a pseudo assistant type scenario after that and pre-Queer Eye. I would have failed miserably.
Part of playing Alex involves recounting Conversations With Barbra in both his voice and hers. How does an actor go about becoming Barbra Streisand?
One of the best moments in the show is where my character Alex tells the audience that during the show he doesn’t “do” Barbra, which takes the pressure off trying to impersonate her.
Are you excited about getting into rehearsal?
Following Tollins’ script is an absolute joy as he creates such rich moments that I can’t wait to dive into when we start rehearsal in September! Right now as I read the script on my own I’m trying to figure out what my opinions are of Barbra are as opposed to what the text leads us to believe Alex feels about her. (Personally I’m a fan.)
What do you think has made Buyer & Cellar such a favorite with audiences across the country?
My best guess would be how the show moves with only one actor playing all the roles. It really does feel like a conversation one would have with an outgoing friend at a cocktail party.
As a singer, you’ve often got the stage pretty much to yourself, and in Buyer & Cellar, too, it’s just you and your audience. How do you feel about being alone in the spotlight? Do you prefer that to having acting or singing partners to perform opposite or react to?
This show feels a lot like the many one-man shows I grew up watching, admiring, and eventually modeling my cabaret acts after. John Leguizamo, Whoopie Goldberg, and Lily Tomlin are my favorites. One-man shows have been what I have been touring with for the past ten years. My Truth, Dirty Little Secrets, And Tales From An Aging Twink are the titles of my shows. Buyer and Cellar fits me like a glove and I can’t wait for audiences to meet my Alex.
You do a lot of charity work, right?
I feel like a good solid sixty percent of my time is actually working for charities. Since playing an HIV-positive character in Rent I’ve worked for many HIV/AIDS organizations. Currently I am super active with the Richmond Ermet Aid Foundation, R.E.A.F. They have been doing incredible work for decades. I’m thrilled I can help them help others.
How important is it for you to use your celebrity to effect social change?
I always joke “Is it too late for me to be a homemaker?” Stability in entertainment is rare and something we all want. I love working as a singer, actor, host and producer. I currently have several TV projects I’m producing and look forward to having them reach audiences around the world.
One last thing, how can your fans reach you?
I’m super active on social media so that’s probably the best way for your readers to stay connected with me.*
Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit down and answer all these questions. I can’t wait to see you on stage for the third time in Buyer & Cellar.
Buyer & Cellar
written by Jonathan Tolins
directed by Dimitri Toscas
starring Jai Rodriguez
Oct 5- Nov 6, 2016
Wed-Sat at 8pm
Sun at 4pm
Recommended for ages 13 & up.
Ticket on Sale September 7 or Now as part of the Season Subscription