Wilson Jermaine Heredia goes from Rent to Camelot

When Wilson Jermaine Heredia decided to make a splash in the Broadway world, he dove right in and created giant waves. For his performance as the dazzling drag performer Angel Schunard in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent he won Tony, Drama Desk and Obie awards and was nominated for an Olivier when he reprised the role in London.

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Since that splash, Heredia has worked consistently – his most recent Broadway gig was opposite Harvey Fierstein in the Tony-winning revival of La Cage aux Folles, but for his next chapter, the 41-year-old actor has taken a road that has led him away from his native New York (he was born and bred in Brooklyn) and to a new home and a new life here in San Francisco.

He is making his local debut as Lancelot in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Camelot directed by Bill English, who is putting a decidedly different twist on this classic, albeit eternally troublesome musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe.

From his San Francisco home, Heredia talked about his life change and what it’s like to be a Knight of the Round Table.

Q: Since the whole Rent experience, what have you done that makes you proudest or happiest?
A: Life has been so eventful it’s hard to pick something, but I have to say that after all those years in class and working toward something, I’m getting to work with people I admired. I love that. Another thing is being able to travel and meet the people who have been influenced by Rent. I was just having a conversation with somebody yesterday about the overturning of Proposition 8 here in California. I would like to think Rent had something to do with that – not directly, but in helping to influence a change of the public opinion or perception of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community. I’ve talked to a lot of parents who have told me that if it hadn’t been for the character of Angel, they might not have been able to sympathize with their child’s plight. That is priceless to me. Nothing can top that for me. The fact that I’ve been an instrument in changing people’s minds about just being human, about being more human to each other. I feel absolutely humbled by that.

Q: How did you end up living in San Francisco?
When we made the movie Rent here, the weather, the people, the food, the ambiance, the art, I thought, “This is the place.” When I wasn’t shooting, I’d explore the city and the Peninsula. It’s so beautiful, and socially, culturally, I fell in love with it. Me and the universe have this particular relationship – sort of a call-and-answer thing. I said, “If I had the opportunity, I’d live here” and the universe said, “Check. I’ll prepare that for you.” That was in 2005. Eight years later, the universe said, “Are you ready?” It was definitely time for a move, so I listened diligently and followed. I was initially worried that not being in New York or LA I’d be out of the loop. But on the contrary, more opportunities have opened up for me here. What I love most is that when I meet people here, they don’t necessarily pigeonhole me into something I’ve done before. It’s nice to stretch out and experiment.

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Q: You’re making your San Francisco stage debut in this re-imagined Camelot, which includes songs cut from the original production and a feel that’s more Game of Thrones than the fairy tale-ish Camelot we’ve come to know. What’s your take on director Bill English’s version?
I’ve never seen Camelot, but from my knowledge of how it’s been done before, it seems it was done more superficially. We’re really playing more of what’s in the script. For instance, my song “C’est Moi” is an easy number to perform if you just gloss over it as sort of a celebration of self. But in Bill’s vision, the song is much more about Lancelot’s desire to be the best. He’s worked his whole life toward this particular goal, and he’s there. When he says, “I’m far too humble to lie,” he really means it. His confidence comes less from himself and more from his faith. So much of what he does is about faith and ideals and values. Love definitely comes into that as a belief and a faith because it feels just as real as any belief system, any religion. That’s where the conflict comes for Lancelot. There’s this deification of King Arthur and elevating Camelot to a divine height, then there’s this love he feels for Queen Guinevere. I think part of what Bill is concentrating on here is the naivete of following things without thinking them through. He’s really trying to get to the core of the show and wants us to play it as truthfully as possible, which is really exciting.

Camelot photo above by Jessica Palopoli

Camelot begins previews July 16, opens July 20 and continues through Sept. 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

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