While in his dressing room during the 2013 off-Broadway production of Here Lies Love, actor Vincent Rodriguez III received a voicemail from Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, co-creators of CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which would change his life forever.
"If you get a chance, I want to talk to you about your audition for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," McKenna said. Minutes before the actor had to go on stage for the theater production's finale, he contemplated whether to call them back or wait until later. He chose to call.
"Hey Vince," Rodriguez recalls McKenna saying, like it was yesterday. "'We just wanted to call and tell you that you got it. You're Josh Chen. You're going to be a TV star.' I just started to cry. I ugly cried. I clutched my pearls kind of cry."
Rodriguez's desire for that kind of role began while on a six-month tour of Anything Goes, when he was watching TV and films with a new eye for possibilities.
"I started to see myself on them and have the yearning to be there... to represent my community as a Filipino man, as a young leading man, a gay man, and [asking] what if I could be up there and be myself?" the actor recalls. "[To] tell stories and show the world that Filipinos can be leading men too. When I started thinking that, that's when my gears shifted. I called my agent, and I was like, 'I want to focus on TV and film. I want to start auditioning now.' I auditioned for all these projects while I was on that tour. I did self-tape auditions with a buddy of mine."
So while his fellow castmates were taking naps between shows and going out at night, Rodriguez was working out, focusing on TV roles, learning sides, producing a little webseries and editing it just to know what his abilities were.
"Then when I came back, that's when I got my first guest star on Hostages," he recalls. That's where everything started to kind of move, but really... I'd been preparing for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend since that moment of that tour... where I really started to think about it and carry it with me and develop myself."
Getting cast was a great moment for the Filipino-American actor, but the process of getting Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on network TV proved to be an entirely different hurdle. During its early stages, after the show was dropped by Showtime, Rodriguez says Bloom and McKenna were determined to "shop the crap out of it," even pitching the show seven times in a single day (and getting seven "No"s). Eventually Mark Pedowitz, the president of The CW, gave them a green light.
Vincent Rodriguez, Nico Santos, and Jake Choi photographed by Luke Fontana
It's a testament to "you never know what can happen," says Rodriguez. "It only takes one meeting." One good pitch can overshadow seven bad ones.
Despite the show's sometimes low ratings, the critically-adored Crazy Ex-Girlfriend blazed a trail on many fronts, but most notably by offering the first out gay Asian-American actor playing a romantic straight lead on a TV series that isn't framed solely on the Asian-American experience.
Straight Korean-American actor John Cho (famous for his role as Sulu on Star Trek) was romantic lead in the short-lived 2014 series, Selfie. "But I can't think of a Filipino romantic lead on a network television show who was played by a gay actor," Rodriguez admits. "That's something that I didn't know was possible until Crazy Ex-Girlfriend happened."
Now the actor passes it along by teaching acting classes once a year, where he sees more and more Asian-American students turning up. Rodriguez is convinced the long-awaited Asian-American tipping point in Hollywood is not a passing fancy.
"This idea of Asian or LGBTQ representation, this is all stuff that's been percolating and building momentum behind the scenes," he says of the recent surge of visibility. "All the sudden we're seeing a surge [in visibility for people of color]... whether it's the political aspect of it or [as] with the #MeToo movement, certain grievances are coming to the surface... and enough is enough. I think people are fed up -- and I think what we're seeing right now is a byproduct of that. [Our] voices are getting louder, and the momentum is undeniable, and now we see Crazy Rich Asians and Nico Santos in Superstore, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is on its fourth and final season with a Filipino romantic love interest on network television, who happens to be gay in real life. That's its own thing."
In every way, Rodriguez is leading man material set for a future in film (or more TV) when his show winds down. His lean muscular physique and sexy gaze (which seriously could win its own awards) would arouse even the most modest of comic illustrators. And that's intentional, he says. He's ready to become a cinematic superhero.
"Now that I've been on the show for a while, I've been focusing on stunts and actions for the last two years, and then in the last year I've been focusing on my body and lost 30 pounds. I'm preparing for action roles. I know I'm an Asian dude, but now that I think... we're more likely to see Asian leading men, I think we're going to see new stories being told that are not what we're used to in terms of the action genre."
He says, "it's really, really exciting just to hear that they're rebranding stuff at Marvel and DC. They're thinking about who's going to be the next Wolverine... or who's up next to carry on these franchises. So part of me is thinking ahead in that way."
Since childhood, the martial arts-trained performer has wanted to star in action films. The workouts are worth it, he says, to get him ready for what's to come -- action, rom-com, or otherwise. But his dreams go above and beyond the DC and Marvel universes. One of them is to star in Hamilton on Broadway (ahem, Lin-Manuel Miranda).
"I want to be part of that new normal where I'm seeing Asian leads on Broadway," he says, adding that his own story is quite similar to Alexander Hamilton's. "I just want to do my part in that realm of artistry and of being another person who helps make the world go round in their own authentic and truthful way."
Historically, cultural standards of masculinity and beauty have been shaped by what we see in Hollywood films. But behind the glitz and glamour of Tinsel Town lies an unsettling history of closeting its biggest gay and bi stars like Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and Tab Hunter. People of color have had the added weight of racial bias. Many of them had (and still have) no choice but to play stereotypical roles, mainly written by white men. The intersection of these obstacles has made the journey to the top difficult for queer actors of color. That was a lesson Rodriguez learned early in his career.
Nearly seven years ago, he met with the producers of Broadway's Aladdin. At the audition, he told them he already knew someone in the cast (who is also Asian-American), to which the person (who was white) answered, "You know what, when I saw you I thought you looked just like him." It was an a-ha moment for Rodriguez.
"You think I look like this person?" the actor questioned to himself. "I am not this person. We're not similar. We're actually quite different." While the actor notes there was nothing malicious about the comment, he says the realities of being seen by a casting director who saw two Asian faces as the same "really hit me hard" that day.
"I had to absorb and go, Huh, this is a perception that is shared by others," he reflects now. "It was the moment of, OK, this is a truth and there's no running away from it. It was just a matter of how do I -- as the actor, the performer, the artist -- rise to continue to do my work and function within this world that perceives me this way?"
Rodriguez had the last laugh, though. He and his newly ripped body dressed as Aladdin last Halloween.
"If they only knew," he quips.
There's no bad blood with Disney, though. In fact, Rodriguez says Disney is nurturing towards diversity and in many ways is the reason why he's here. He was so inspired by Filipino-American actor Paolo Montalban's leading role in Cinderella (the version with Brandy and Whitney Houston, which played on his home TV for two solid years) that it encouraged him to pursue his own dreams of performing.
Though Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is in its fourth and final season, Rodriguez has undoubtedly planted a seed in TV culture too deep to forget. Casting directors have already begun calling for a "Josh Chan-Crazy Ex-Girlfriend type." Still, Rodriguez would be lying if he said he didn't feel pressure.
"Absolutely," he confirms, "but the pressure I feel is to be in service to the communities that I belong to. I am a stage actor. I love theater. I love musicals. I am an out and proud man. I represent my LGBTQ community. I represent the Filipino community, the Asian community... I'm very enthusiastic about many aspects of my life, and I think of myself as this kind of source of inspiration for saying, 'It's OK to be different, and it's OK to love what you love, and to be driven by what you love.'"
"I think we're just scraping the surface and we're still getting our stories out there," he adds of continuing visibility. "The world is way more diverse than the media is letting on, but the momentum is so strong right now. I don't take lightly the fact that I'm a part of it."
Photographer Luke Fontana
Stylist Benjamin Holtrop
Hair and makeup Blondie for Exclusive Artists, using Alba 1913 and MAC Cosmetics
Photo assistant Dillon Matthew