Age & Hometown: 20, West Covina, CA
Current role: Finding an unlikely path to love as conflicted young Marine Eddie Birdlace in the off-Broadway musical Dogfight.
Golden (State) Boy: From an early age, Klena pursued dual interests in sports and music. “I’d be running from a game to a performance all the time,” he says. “It was crazy.” His mom got Derek and his two younger siblings into performing, while Dad coached his son's baseball teams. When Klena's singing teacher suggested he enter vocal competitions, his two passions formed a natural connection. “I think sports helped me,” he explains about his onstage fearlessness. “Being a pitcher, you have that kind of pressure all the time.” At 13, Klena appeared on TV's America’s Most Talented Kids, and the entire Klena clan came together to become undefeated champs on Family Feud. By senior year, he had added senior class president and sports editor of the newspaper to his resume. “I was an overachiever,” he says with a laugh.
Shaiman Spiral: During his freshman year at UCLA, Klena found himself in a situation that shook his unflappable calm: American Idol. “That whole room was kind of a blur,” he says of meeting the Idol judges during Simon Cowell's final year. “It was definitely one of my most nerve-wracking experiences.” Though he didn't progress past Hollywood Week on Idol, Klena got a career-changing Facebook message from composer Marc Shaiman after singing the Catch Me If You Can ballad “Goodbye” as a finalist in L.A.'s Next Great Stage Star. Hearing about Klena's rendition, Shaiman said, “Next time you sing it, send me an mp3. We’re looking for covers for Aaron [Tveit].” From there, “The whole thing just spiraled,” he says of his theater career. Deemed a little green for Catch Me, he quickly moved on—and put UCLA on hold—to make his off-Broadway debut as the male lead in Carrie.
New New Yorker: Thought he misses his Southern California friends and beaches, “I love it here,” Klena says of New York. “Everyone is so passionate, and they're doing what they love.” In Dogfight, Klena co-stars with Broadway vet Lindsay Mendez as a couple who form an unlikely bond after he lures her into an ugly date contest the night before he ships out to Vietnam. “I thought the role was really interesting and exciting,” he says, adding that his real-life bond with Mendez has helped make the story come to life. “We can share almost anything with each other,” Klen says. All in all, the young actor's cross-country move has exceeded his expectations. “I’ve been lucky enough to move out here and be part of two great productions with great groups of people, so I’ve never really felt homesick or lonely,” he says. “It’s a great job to be in musical theater because you get to go to work with your best friends.”