Reaching New Heights in Children of a Lesser God
By Jay S. Jacobs
Broadway is the dream, and Julee Cerda has finally reached it.
The role which has made this dream a reality is in the much-anticipated revival of Mark Medoff’s Tony Award-winning play Children of a Lesser God, which became a smash when it originally played on Broadway in 1980. It was made into a film with William Hurt and Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for her role.
Children of a Lesser God takes place in the world of the deaf, telling the story of a hearing teacher who falls in love with one of his students. Cerda is not the only first-timer in the cast of the play, which also includes such established actors as Joshua Jackson, Lauren Ridloff and Anthony Edwards, all of whom were Broadway virgins. The play started previews on March 22 at Studio 54, and officially opens on April 11.
Not a bad place to be for a woman who never even thought of being an actress until she was well into her 20s. However, once she took the leap, she has thrown herself into show business. She has done guest roles on TV series like House of Cards, Kevin Can Wait and Orange is the New Black, appearing in the films Passengers and The Intern. She has done many commercials – a couple of AT&T mobile ads she did were on saturation mode in the past year. She was even a founding member of the acclaimed New York sketch comedy troupe Tangana!
However, she has found the most success on the stage, and Children of a Lesser God is the icing on a very sweet cake. A few weeks before Children of a Lesser God started previews for its run, we caught up with Cerda to discuss her career and how it feels to be one of the neon lights on Broadway.
Were you familiar with the play (or even movie) of Children of a Lesser God before getting involved with this project?
Yes. As a kid I had seen the movie. I didn’t at the time [that I was casted] remember it much, but it was definitely familiar. Also, having seen scenes in study class. That’s considered one of those classic plays from the 1980s, when it came out. So, I guess you could say I was a little familiar with it. (chuckles)
Why do you feel the show is being resurrected now, and what do you think it has to say to today’s culture?
I think for a lot of reasons. We’re in a time where the political climate is a bit touchy. There are tons of movements that are happening now, particularly minority cultures speaking up. Whether it be ethnic, or it be women, it’s the perfect timing to bring to light a topic that everyone can probably relate to in some way. Whether you are on one side of the spectrum or not, I just think it’s something that people are constantly talking about and people are interested in. The play, you’re probably familiar with it, I’m guessing…
Yes, I’m like you. I saw the movie years ago, and I did read the play back then, too.
Oh, you did?
Yes, but I have never seen it performed…
Yeah. It’s funny because the movie is different for me. The play is a completely different experience. I think the play is a lot nicer, actually. But, it’s certainly relevant, when you’re talking about a deaf woman and a hearing teacher who fall in love. It immerses you into the world of the deaf and the hard of hearing. The way in which they communicate and the barriers that they experience. It brings to life a whole different meaning. Also, it makes us aware of how much we have people conform to our way, the hearing way. That’s what the play is about. It’s about conforming to the norm and rebelling against it.
What was it about your character that spoke to you? What parts of the role are most like you, and which ones are more difficult to relate to as an actress?
I will be playing the role of Edna Klein, who is this civil rights activist lawyer who steps in to defend the rights of the deaf and the hard of hearing. I’m the only character in the play who has no previous relationship with the deaf community at all. Therefore, my character tends to make a lot of common and naïve assumptions about the deaf and the hard of hearing, in probably a slightly comedic way. What’s relatable for me is that I have never been around someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. My castmates were the first people who I really formed an intimate relationship with, a friendship with. There are a lot of assumptions that one makes, especially when you have no insight into it. It is completely naïve. It might even come off as prejudiced, in a way. So, there was a lot of learning in that. I guess the other thing that’s interesting about this play, that being that it was written in the late ‘70s, it takes place during that era. From a casting perspective, it’s interesting for me to portray a minority female lawyer who is defending another group of minorities during a time when these groups were experiencing a lot more inequality than we are today. I can absolutely relate to Edna, my character, because she faces a lot of the issues that are still happening today. That we’re facing today, as a woman who is trying to exert power, and as a minority woman. Kenny [Leon, the director]’s choice for diverse casting in this production, that has typically been portrayed by an all-white cast, has made it very relevant and a lot more relatable today.
This is your Broadway debut. How does it feel to reach that special milestone?
(laughs) It’s fantastic. It’s almost surreal, I would say. I did have a chance to work on the play with the entire cast this past summer at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (in Stockbridge, Massachusetts).
What was the reaction like up there?
Oh, it was so well received. It’s a beautiful play. Lauren [Ridloff], who plays the lead female role, she’s just a wonder. I’m awestruck by her talent, by her ability to carry an entire play and communicate without ever uttering a single word onstage. Just everything. Joshua Jackson worked so hard in learning sign language, ASL. Also, having to not only act his role out but having to communicate and sign all the lead female’s lines. Just having to learn a lot of the sign language himself, because anything can happen in a moment. It’s not like just learning lines, because lines can drop during a play. He had to work hard to be really on top of that. Everybody else in the play has worked really hard, and the director is fantastic. Just to see the creative team bring to life the play in the way that it’s portrayed. You know when you read a play, you have an idea of what it looks like, then when you see it come to life it just changes everything about it? I just thought everything was wonderful about it.
I don’t believe Anthony Edwards was part of the Berkshire cast.
How is he fitting in?
We haven’t started rehearsals on Broadway, yet. We will be starting in late February. (laughs) I’m excited to meet him and work with him. Everyone knows his talent, so I think that’s exciting. There’s nothing I’m expecting there. We will miss Stephen Spinella [the Tony Award winner for Angels in America], he was just wonderful. To be part of that play, it literally felt like a family. So, there is a little bit of that sadness there, but I think we’re all looking forward to getting this on its feet on Broadway, which is the dream for this whole cast. I think it’s going to be great.
The play is going to be at such a legendary venue – Studio 54.
I know! (laughs)
The place had a long, storied history even before it became a theater. Have you been there yet? Do you ever just feel all the history of everything that has happened in that building?
No [I haven’t been there yet]. But I’m one of those people that loves researching the history of a venue, especially because there are so many wonderful theaters in New York. The deep history in it. Whenever I am in a house, I tend to look it up. I haven’t personally been at Studio 54, but I have done a little research and I’ve looked at the pictures online. I wanted to get a sense of what it would feel like, and I’m amazed that it’s even in there.
Yeah, you’ll probably find some old coke hidden in a corner.
Yeah! (laughs) Exactly. Scratchings on the bathroom door.
I know you just said you haven’t started rehearsals yet, but the previews start in March and the run starts in April. What is it like now – preparing for the opening, getting the play up and running, waiting for the actual performances to start?
Again, we’ve all worked on this already, so we’ve put in a lot of work. What’s happening now, and I can’t speak for everyone else, but for me, when we return I think it’s going to be about diving deeper. Seeing what else we can find. That’s the beauty of theater, I think. It’s not just repeating it every single night. Every performance you find something new. It amazes me. We did the one-month run up in the Berkshires, and it amazed me, at the final performance we were all still finding something new to work with. It’s really exciting for me personally. I keep constantly returning to it. Think: what else? What’s different? What else can you find within this? I can bring to light something completely different and make it work. It’s just preparing for all the possibilities that you can bring to rehearsals, and then play with it.
How did you first realize that you wanted to be an actress?
Oh, it’s a long story. (Laughs) I started acting in my late 20s, which is a lot later than most actors. I’ll tell you why, mainly because pursuing the arts was just something that my parents did not encourage when I was younger. Mainly because they were first-generation immigrants with absolutely no college degrees, so to them it was super important that I graduated college and got a proper, paying job. Whatever proper meant to them. At the time, I respected their wish, because I saw how hard it was for them, especially as minorities trying to make it in America. After I graduated college, I went to work for an advertising agency in New York. I just started acting on the side while I was working. I was always drawn to the creative side of me. While I was working, I started looking into a lot of creative classes. I enrolled in so many different types of classes. Acting was one of them, and it just became something that really stuck. I first started doing it as a hobby, mainly because I wasn’t programmed to accept acting as a career choice. Later on, it probably wasn’t until I really realized I just hated my 9 to 5 job (chuckles), and that no matter how much money I made, I was going to be miserable, that’s when I quit my job and decided to become an actress full-time.
You were born in Korea, but you grew up in New York, and also spent time in your father’s home, the Dominican Republic. With immigration such an important, divisive subject right now, how do you feel about all that is going on with immigration and DACA?
Oh, it’s just disheartening, really. Every time I read something about it, it upsets me. I just don’t understand, because the foundation of America is rooted in immigration. It’s mind-boggling to me that can’t just be accepted. I understand why, you know? There are complaints that immigrants are stealing jobs, that they’re a threat to our society, but the reality is, it’s just not. Immigration has brought on so many more advantages to me. It’s brought on so many positive aspects. It’s sad to me to see people focus on the one or two negative points that have happened. It’s one of those conversations that when it comes up, I’ll absolutely defend. It’s something I feel strongly about. It’s so funny. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with 23 & Me, the DNA company…
Yes, I’ve seen their ads.
I’ve done it. When I looked at my DNA map, it is amazing, my history. I’m literally from practically every place in the world, except for two continents, probably. I have roots in Africa. I have roots in Asia. I have roots in South America. I have roots everywhere. I just wonder, if everyone had that done, and just understood where their lineage came from, it just might change their views. There was this article that I read that had done this on videos. They had documented the people who they revealed [their ancestry] to. Like there was a white skinhead who was strongly against a culture, and then he realized he had ancestry in that culture. He broke down in tears. It was very powerful to me. I’m not up for fighting views, but I just feel like we need to be more educated on the topic.
Over the years, you have worked in all aspects of the industry; theater, television, film, even sketch comedy and commercials. Is there anything you feel more comfortable or excited to do?
What excites me is comedy. It’s fun. I just feel like it was always in my nature to be that way. When we did our sketch comedy group at the Nuyorican [a café and club in Greenwich Village], we wrote our sketches and produced brand new ones every month. It was such a fun, creative process for me. Anything goes, really. It was just liberating. I thought it was so fun. I even did a bit of standup comedy at one point. It was so powerful to just be up there and just put yourself in the most vulnerable position ever. To me, that was scarier than probably doing a full-frontal nudity scene in theater. It’s just a totally different experience. It thoroughly excites me to do comedy. It is also really scary. (laughs) I’m probably more comfortable doing more of the dramatic roles, but…. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite. They’re all really exciting. It’s just dependent on what the role is. Then you know what the topic is, or what the story is about.
It seems like in TV guest shots you have often – in things like House of Cards, Kevin Can Wait, Time After Time – been cast as a broadcast or print journalist.
Oh, I know!
Do you have any idea why casting directors see you in this way? Is it a career you’ve ever been interested in?
(laughs) Nope. Have no, zero interest in that. But, I read into that, and I think, “Huh, I wonder what the universe is trying to tell me right now.” It’s definitely a pattern that I’ve seen. A very strong pattern. I’m like, wow, okay. I don’t know what it is. There was a time when I first started acting when I used to go in, and I look more Asian than Spanish, so I went in for more Asian roles. I used to get called in for a lot of more stereotypical Asian roles, like nail salon technician, or dry cleaning, or convenience store owner. I never got those roles, because that’s not me. I’m an American who just happens to look differently. How do you fit me in? I don’t know. I think one way that the industry has seen is that there are mixed races or Asian women on broadcasts a lot, doing journalism. Maybe that’s how they perceive me? I couldn’t tell you. (laughs again) I’m not quite sure. I also think it’s a more authoritative role, so it is me a bit more. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that.
Your performance in Orange is the New Black was greatly done in Spanish. Was that an interesting thing to do as an actress? I know you have that background in your family, but were you fluent in the language?
Oh, yes. Yes. I lived in the Dominican Republic for a long time. I was a little girl and I went to school there for a few years. I grew up around my dad’s family my whole life, so I would say culturally I’m a lot closer to my Dominican side than my Korean side. My mom’s family was in Korea my entire life. I visited Korea once after being born there. I don’t have strong ties to the culture. I just happen to look more Korean than I look Dominican. So, it was interesting to me, because I rarely got called in for any Latina roles, or Spanish-speaking roles. On Orange is the New Black, Jen Euston who casts it, was one of the first few people who called me in for this. I remember going in and thinking there’s no way I’m going to get this, because they don’t see me that way. But, it’s what I knew, so I just did it. I was really surprised, in a good way, that I got cast. I thought: Oh great, finally. This is my world. It can happen. So, why not? I thought it was refreshing. I thought it was fantastic. I was excited to show off that side.
You did a play in Atlanta a couple of years ago called Smart People, about two couples dealing with race, class, intellect and other hot button issues on the eve of the Obama presidency. How do you feel those people will have changed in the early Trump years?
Oh dear. Oh gosh. (laughs) I mean, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the play…
Just what I have read about it, but I’ve never seen or read it.
It’s such an interesting play. Lydia R. Diamond wrote this fantastic play about the relationship of four people: an Asian woman who dates a white man, and then two black people who end up being a couple. It’s about racism in probably the most nuanced forms. Within relationships. At work. How we’re perceived via society. How we put on our own nuanced racism to other people. I thought it was just freaking fascinating. The thing about this play was that it was about four intellects that had ties to Harvard, so it was definitely a heady play in terms of how they argued about divides. So, I think in the Trump era, this play would have just exploded. (laughs) It would have just spontaneously combusted onstage.
If you had total carte blanche to pick absolutely anything, what would be your ideal fantasy role as an actress?
Oh, gosh. I don’t know why I’m thinking about this, maybe because I’ve been reading a ton of scripts about this lately, but a superhero role, where I get to learn martial arts. I think to put myself through some training like that, I would just love it. A villain, especially. The stuff they go through, to validate what made them that way, I just find it so fascinating. I think it would be fun.
If you could go forward in time to look back at your career, how would you like for people to see your work?
I would hope that there is a bit of inspiration behind everything. I’d hope people would see it in a way that inspires them. Certainly, when I look at actors that I hold in high regard… even anyone really… I’m always inspired by the craft and the work that they put into it. So, I would hope that there is a bit of that. And, to be a minority in this industry, it’s difficult. To be inspired by the push and the not-give-up attitude, I would hope that carries on.
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 25, 2018.
Photos © 2018 Mark Doyle. All rights reserved.