In his Tony-nominated performance in Hair, Will Swenson may have shown plenty of skin, but now the handsome actor spends his days in the disco musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert fully clothed...in colorfully eye-popping outfits as a drag queen. Broadway.com recently caught up with Swenson to talk about slipping into Tick’s elaborate costumes, directing an upcoming film and a recent wizard-influenced vacation with his young sons.
Are you still enjoying Priscilla? Six months of hearing disco music every night hasn’t made you crazy?
I’m having a great time. Those songs became iconic for a reason—they don’t get old! I get a little tired of the 15-pound headdresses sometimes because of the occasional neck aches. With a show like this, the trick is figuring out how to maintain the energy every night, but it’s going well. Audiences are still going crazy for it.
So, you have the lineup of your elaborate, Tony-winning costumes mastered?
It’s a little scary how much of a pattern it’s gotten down to. It seems so easy now, but I remember thinking when we were learning the show, “This is never going to work.” The costume changes are so choreographed.
Do you have a favorite outfit?
The flip flop dress is pretty fun because it’s so iconic. The Sydney Opera House outfit at end of the show is pretty amazing too. I’m like over nine feet tall in that thing.
Do audience members ever show up in their own wild outfits?
Oh my gosh, yeah! We get a lot of drag queens or folks who just pulled out their disco clothes and feathered boas. Some people go crazy when they come, which is fun to watch. Once in a while they’ll stick around at the stage door and we’ll talk to them. It’s always a huge compliment when a drag queen likes the show and is complimentary about me trying to be one.
Do you feel comfortable enough at this point to give them any drag tips?
I would never [laughs]!
This is a show that caters to audiences seeking a fun time. Do you have any humorous stories of people’s behavior in the theater?
They can get a little carried away. It’s not uninvited so much, because of the energy of the show, but they certainly like to sing along, and people have been known to stand up and dance. You think, “Oh, she’s had too much to drink tonight.” I don’t know if the same thing is happening across Broadway in general, or if it’s just our show, but I’ve never seen that many cameras in the audience. People are feeling so free to take pictures, it has gotten crazy! The ushers can only do so much when there are almost 2,000 people in the audience.
Here’s your chance to address theatergoers! Is taking pictures really that agitating to performers?
It’s pretty distracting. You work really hard to create a closed-off universe that you can be in emotionally, but a flash in your peripheral vision is going to throw you back into the fact that you’re performing in front of an audience. There’s just no way around it.
What do you love most about your character, Tick?
He’s complex and lot of fun to play because he’s so diverse. He’s tortured. On one side of his personality he’s this fabulous, sassy, out there drag queen who expresses himself completely, but on the other he’s this tortured absentee father who really struggles with himself. He hasn’t really been a big part of his son’s life and isn’t sure if his son will accept him. Reconciling those two parts of him has been fun because you need to make it believable that those very different traits could come out of the same person. Plus, I have some great and sassy co-stars to play off every night.
You’ve also made some pretty campy TV performances in support of the show. Were those fun as well?
I’m not going to lie: It’s pretty exhausting. America’s Got Talent was a bit of a challenge for me. It was a fast and furious trip, and the end product wasn’t completely representative of the show. I’m sure it sold a lot of tickets, but I would have had some different ideas of what to do. I don’t know why they don’t put me in charge [laughs].
It must have been a big night at the theater when the New York marriage equality bill passed.
It was pretty cool. We were getting text messages throughout the show that night to see how the voting was going. We found out we got the votes and everyone was so jazzed in the wings. Then at curtain call Nick Adams announced it onstage and the audience just went nuts. It’s nice that our show has been a bit of the centerpiece in the Broadway community for that movement. I’ve been involved with Broadway Impact over the last few years…so to be involved with the Hair cast marching on Washington, and to now be involved with Priscilla, where the story line is about equality, is really neat. At the end of the show, when we sing “We Belong,” to think [the gay community] now does belong so much more in the state of New York, is great. Obviously it’s still going to be a struggle until it’s a national policy, but it’s certainly a work in progress.
What's your summer been like outside of the theater?
I got to take a vacation a few weeks ago. I took my kids [sons Sawyer and Bridger] down to Disney World and the Harry Potter world. My kids went nuts for it. I read the books with my boys and have enjoyed watching the movies so I enjoyed myself just as much as they did. It’s really well done.
Have you had a chance to see Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed?
I took the boys to see it. They love Broadway shows as is, but to see him up onstage was great and we were lucky enough to meet him backstage. He was so gracious and lovely. My kids made him a little Lego figurine of J. Pierrepont Finch washing windows with the head from a little Harry Potter Lego guy. He put it on his dressing spot and was so nice to them.
You’re also directing the upcoming film adaptation of the Mormon-themed play Facing East. How is the project progressing?
We’re still tweaking the script and have brought on a script doctor to get it in better shape. We’re in the middle of casting and getting everything together, so that will sort of affect the timeline. It’s looking really good.
Are you enjoying being in the director’s chair?
I love it. As an actor, whenever I’m working on something I kind of have to bite my lip instead of saying “Well, what about this?” So it dawned on me I should probably direct a little more. I have a hard time shutting up about my ideas for everyone.
Who are some of the directors that inspire you?
I love avant-garde guys like Spike Jonze. I just sat down and watched [Francis Ford Coppola’s] The Godfather series. Martin Scorsese blows my mind…the way he lets his actors talk over one another. Quentin Tarantino too.
Speaking of Mormons, you recently told Broadway.com how (as someone from a Mormon background) upset you were that you weren’t able to be a part of The Book of Mormon. Have you finally seen the musical?
I have, and it’s fantastic. It blew my mind on so many levels. Andrew Rannells could not be more perfectly cast as the perfect cocky Mormon missionary. It was such a bizarre experience for me. I was laughing one second then absolutely crying the next. They do it with such thoughtfulness and tenderness.
Hair is also back on Broadway this summer. Did you feel at home revisiting the Tribe on their opening night?
It was so good to see them. I’m thrilled for my pals that are still doing the show, and it’s neat that they’re able to come back to New York again. It feels like there’s a little more love on Broadway when Hair is in town.
What was the highlight of your Hair experience?
The Tony Awards were pretty amazing. I took my son as my date. During the opening number, where we were singing “Let the Sun Shine In” and bringing people onstage, one of the Tribe members grabbed my son and brought him up, so I put him on my shoulders. I was nominated for a Tony, standing center stage at Radio City with my kid on my shoulders, next to Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Sutton Foster and Brian d’Arcy James. It could not have gotten any better.
See Will Swenson in Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Palace Theatre