No musical in the 1990s was more acclaimed than Rent, and the cast member who received the most critical praise—and took home a Tony Award—was a soft-spoken newcomer with a beautiful smile and a heartbreaking storyline. Wilson Jermaine Heredia gave a transformational performance as doomed drag queen Angel Schunard, strutting through “Today 4 U” and declaring “I’ll Cover You” in a moving duet with his lover, Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin). In real life, Heredia became one of the most elusive Rent vets, disappearing for stretches between small roles in film and TV. The good news is that Heredia is back in New York, feeling re-energized about sharing his musical gifts onstage. On February 15, he joins Harvey Fierstein and Jeffrey Tambor in the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles in a drag role he says is very different from Angel, the wisecracking “maid” Jacob. After a recent rehearsal, the actor gave Broadway.com a frank and friendly interview about his life and career.
The role of Jacob in La Cage seems like a natural for you.
It does seem like something people would offer me, yes! [Laughs]. When people say “drag queens in a musical,” they think of me, and it’s not the worst thing in the world.
You had expressed reservations in the past about doing drag again.
This role is different. One, I’m older. And I see Jacob as much grittier and much more comedic than Angel. It’s more what a sitcom would feel like, and that’s really what drew me. The drag is sort of secondary. I don’t see this as another gay role; it’s not that at all. I can tell, even in the first two weeks of rehearsal, that it’s completely different from what I did in Rent.
So, fill us in on what you’ve been up to for the past few years.
I moved to Los Angeles and did a couple of TV stints. After the writers’ strike [in 2007], I didn’t have enough of a security net to keep me there, so I came back to New York. I was homesick the whole time I was there, anyway. I’m a hard-core New Yorker, and if you’re motivated and focused, you can get film and TV work on either coast. For the two years after that, I was re-acclimating myself and letting the theater community know that I was living here again.
Was it a double-edged sword to have gotten so much acclaim in Rent in a role that was really distinctive?
Yeah, you know, sometimes the industry can be very myopic. And I get it! The way to work around that is patience—and proving to people time and time again that you do have range.
You were so believable in Rent, I’ll bet some people don’t know what you look like in real life.
Actually, a lot of people recognize me out of drag. Over the summer, I was doing the play Tales from the Tunnel downtown. I had a goatee, which I normally wear, and people who know theater would recognize me.
Do you mind being so identified with the show?
Well, think about it this way: Someone had to be identified with the character of Angel. Someone had to be that icon who represents the love, the tolerance, that’s the mantle of this show. When I was younger, it frustrated me because I wanted to do everything, but there’s variety in every single character I play.
There’s a notion that you were the most difficult cast member to track down for the  Rent movie.
The reason I was off the Rent grid is that I took a hiatus for a year for my own personal reasons. I feel that that’s something people don’t do enough in their lives. It’s like hitting a brick wall over and over, and you have to stop and say, “Wait a second, let me step back.” When the whirlwind of the show stopped, there’s that feeling of “What do I do now?” So I designated a year to re-collect myself, and it was one of the best things I have ever done.
What did you do during that year?
I was just a regular joe. That’s the reason I didn’t know what was going on with the movie. I wasn’t even living in New York City, I was living in Westchester. I went into my man cave, as it were [laughs]. Also, my dog died that year, and I was very attached to her. I shaved my head and decided to keep shaving it for a year from the day of her death; after that, I would let my hair grow and start to work again. It was actually a year later, to the date, when I got the call and was offered the role [in the Rent movie].
It sounds as if the movie helped everyone in the original cast feel good about Rent again.
I never saw Rent as a burden. All I can say is that the film was more fun than the Broadway show because the pressure was off. We were a runaway train [onstage] and we just latched onto each other, which is why I’m still in contact with everyone. It always felt like we had a foundation within ourselves and whatever happened…I trusted everyone on that stage with my life. Just trusted them absolutely, and that’s a rare, rare feeling.
There’s an air of mystery around you, even about the most basic facts. Are you married?
I’m divorced. That’s actually been out there. I married in 1999 to a Brit, and we were married for three years.
No. I’m still working on that! [Laughs.]
What was your childhood like in Brooklyn? Did you live in the building your dad worked in [as a superintendent]?
Yeah, and by the time I was of age, I was helping him. When he would go to the Dominican Republic for a week to visit family, he would leave me in charge of the building and give me his salary. I did everything he had to do: cleaning, taking out the garbage, maintenance, all that stuff. My dad also worked at night in a stationery factory, and my mom was a seamstress. They were immigrants; hard working, blue-collar people. They taught me the value of work.
Sounds like you’d be a handy guy to have around the house.
I’m pretty good, yes! I’m no slouch with a hammer or any sort of tool.
How did you decide to become an actor?
Our family is very musical. My father taught me to play the guitar, and my parents are very good dancers. They were always the center of attention at parties when I was a child, and I remember thinking, “They’re so fantastic. I want that!” But I was very shy, which was compounded by the fact that we moved a lot. I’m meticulous and I love detail and loved science, so they put the idea of medicine into my head. As a child, I would say, “I’m going to be a scientific doctor,” and my parents held me to it! It was really disappointing to them—like, really really really disappointing—when I said I wanted to study acting [at Hunter College, where Heredia earned a degree in theater and film]. It took my dad a couple of years, but he said, “If you’re going to do it, you’d better be the best at it.” And I said, “All right. I will.”
Did you take them to the Tony Awards?
No, I took my girlfriend at the time. But I heard from my mom that my dad cried that night. So, they’re proud—but years later, I would go see my parents, and my mom would say [he assumes a Spanish accent] “You can still be a doctor, you know. You can still go back to school.” See, my dad is a black Dominican and my mom is a white Dominican, so the 70s were very rough for them here. Their attitude was [acting] should be a hobby, because they didn’t come to this country so that their kids would have to struggle the way they did.
It’s a bit of shock to realize that the Rent cast is now hitting 40. Does that feel like a milestone?
Yeah, it does. The thing is, I don’t look that much older! I sort of have that Ralph Macchio gene [laughs]. I don’t get roles for 30-year-olds. I tried in Los Angeles, I really did. But TV is a whole other world. This is what I’m meant to do.
Seriously, don’t you feel that Broadway is where you belong?
Absolutely. The stage feels like one of the safest places on earth. Every time we get up there to rehearse, I sponge it up as much as I can. There is nothing like the soul of the theater. I really feel like I’m home.
See Wilson Jermaine Heredia in La Cage aux Folles at the Longacre Theatre.