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Wilson Cruz in "RENT"

The Dallas Morning News
February 1998

Wilson Cruz in "RENT"

NEW YORK - A matinee performance of Rent has just ended. Wilson Cruz, who plays the seductive transvestite Angel in the Broadway musical retelling of La Boheme, makes slow progress through the autograph- -seekers thronging the corridor from the stage door of the Nederlander Theater to the street.

Programs are thrust at him, shyly and eagerly, by the mostly teenage crowd. Eyes shining, admirers hold out single long-stemmed roses and pieces of candy.

Mr. Cruz poses obligingly with parents and their children, his arm wrapped around them as he smiles into countless camera flashes. "He touched me," a teenage girl murmurs to her friends. "Right here, on the thumb."

Mr. Cruz, who is 24, takes it all calmly, if a little bemusedly. The trip to this moment in his professional life has been quick.

The voyage from his childhood in Brooklyn and Los Angeles - for a time so much an outcast from his family because of his open homosexuality that he was once thrown out of his home on Christmas Eve - is immeasurable in mere years.

Looking back on those years in a recent interview, Mr. Cruz talked of learning to know and accept himself through the roles he played, first as Ricky, the wise, gay teenager in the television series My So-Called Life.

"I kind of fell into acting in high school," Mr. Cruz says. "I played sax in the school band. I sang in the school choir. One day the drama teacher asked me to be in drama. I did a little play and made up my mind.

"As a kid, I knew I wanted to do something in the arts, but I didn' t know what it was. The way I grew up, I liked the escapism. You got to be someone else. In the end, I did it for completely opposite reasons.

"I got to relive and come to terms with a lot of adolescent angst and let go of it finally in My So-Called Life. And I came to the character wanting to bring something out of him. A joy of life. A real commitment to the people around him. Yet the character made me realize I needed to do a lot more of that myself. To let go of the small things, the inane things."

Mr. Cruz, who originated the role of Angel in the West Coast production of Rent and went into the New York production in early December, brings a surprising sweetness and a luminous serenity to a character that could easily be a tour de force of camp.

"It would be easy to do that with this role," Mr. Cruz says. "The lines can allow her to just be jaded. It's funnier. It's what the audience expects. But I can't."

It was important for him, Mr. Cruz says, to let Angel be content and self-accepting. "I like to think I never play a type. Angel has her little bitchy moments. That's real, that's OK. But there is no question that this person is completely comfortable in his body, in who he is in his life. He isn't looking for approval. If anything, I wanted to make it clear that he doesn't care." Mr. Cruz says that Michael Greif, the director of Rent, gave him "the freedom to make that happen."

Angel dies young, like a similar character Mr. Cruz played on television in a recent episode of Ally McBeal. The actor is troubled by that inevitable-seeming outcome for such characters. But he seized upon Angel's death, from AIDS, to desentimentalize the illness.

"I wanted to make it plain that this is a ravenous disease," Mr. Cruz says. "There's nothing pretty about it."

His performance in the West Coast production of Rent followed a stint as a line-singing choir boy in a short-lived television series, Great Scott, a role he landed soon after graduating from high school.

Mr. Cruz approached Angel nervously at first. He had never appeared in drag.

"I was petrified. Wearing high heels was easy. I was afraid I was going to be ugly. Thank God I turned out to be at least pretty."

The thought of his parents' seeing him in the role was similarly unnerving.

"Especially my father seeing me in drag. We have a history. But our relationship has grown. And they were amazing. My father came back afterward in tears. He was moved by the story. That was really lovely for me. And my Mom is coming for Mother's Day."

Mr. Cruz has also appeared in two movies, playing a young prostitute in Johns and a Ricky-like teenager in All Over Me, shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996 and 1997 respectively.

"I'm not exactly Tom Cruise," he says, "but it's nice to know that if I do good work people will appreciate me and find good things for me to do. But my dream is to do something completely different. I can tell you I won't be doing another transvestite after this. What I'd love is to be some girl's boyfriend once, or that jerk in high school."

Still, performing on Broadway in Rent has its unexpected pleasures.

"It's wonderful to look out and see people under 20 in the audience. I love going to the theater. I remember going to see Angels in America, this powerful, moving, funny play, and wondering why my generation wasn't sitting there."

It is likely that he will always be Ricky to the young people filling the Nederlander, many of whom comment on the character as they ask Mr. Cruz for autographs. And Mr. Cruz will always hold the character close.

"Ricky was the one with the best outlook," Mr. Cruz says of the high-school students depicted in My So-Called Life. "He was the moral compass. And yet in the eyes of society he was the most depleted of morals. I knew that we could finally talk about this."

Mr. Cruz was flooded with letters from troubled teenagers drawn to Ricky.

"Most of the time it was about being able to write down that stuff and put it in a mailbox and send it to someone they'd never meet," he says. "They knew it was safe. All they really wanted was someone to listen. It would have been nice to have had that, which is why it touches me so when they turn to me. It's why I can't say no to anybody outside the theater when they ask me for my autograph." PHOTO(S): (New York Times: Sara Krulwich) Wilson Cruz: "I got to relive and come to terms with a lot of adolescent angst and let go of it finally in My So-Called Life."

© 1998 The Dallas Morning News All Rights Reserved

“My dad thinks every person in the world is having more fun than him.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"