Alex Nee is a member of the touring company of the Broadway hit musical, Once. Once is an eight-time Tony award winning musical that turns the classic tale of “guy” meets “girl” on its head. Nee plays the role of Andre and is also an understudy for the male lead, Guy. Contributor Nicole Phillips caught up with him to talk about life on the road, his acting process, and the call to musical theater.
Stanford Arts Review: Tell me about the process of becoming a member of the touring company for Once.
Alex Nee: It started in early 2013. Over two and half years ago is when I first auditioned for this show and that is while I was on tour with another show called American Idiot, Green Day’s punk-opera of sorts. I called in to audition for the National Tour of Once while it was still on Broadway. I took a mega bus overnight (I was still on tour with American Idiot) into New York City, had an audition early that morning. I took a mega bus back and made back in time for the show that night in Baltimore. So it was a bit crazy and ultimately, a pretty quick audition process. I went back one more time and then got cast a couple months later without hearing much in between. I ended up jumping right from American Idiot to this tour and it’s been a fantastic two years of touring since then.
StAR: What was like going from performing in American Idiot—a very large-scale rock opera— to a smaller show like Once?
AN: Once doesn’t focus as much on the technical aspects of theater as American Idiot did. They’re both extremely exciting shows, but the manifestation is quite different. American Idiot was very physically demanding, involving very hard-hitting, fast, almost-combative movement. It really took a toll on my body. I sustained a number of injuries during that tour, so it was nice when they said we’d like you to play some ukulele, guitar, and bass but mostly sit in a recreation of a Dublin pub. It was a nice kind of relief for my mental and physical state.
StAR: The actors in Once are also the musicians. Describe how that changes the on-stage dynamic.
AN: I like to describe this show not as a musical, but as a play about musicians. All of us have been playing instruments since we were little kids which brings a very different sort of energy to the dynamic. It’s very collaborative.
StAR: How did you prepare for this role?
AN: I’ve been playing the guitar for a number of years, but the character I was cast as, Andre, plays bass, ukulele, and some percussion as well. I had touched all those things in my life. I could make noise on them, but I definitely needed to practice. So I just played a lot.
[As far as acting] we had a pretty lengthy rehearsal process. It was about 5 weeks long, which is pretty long for professional theater. We were not only the actors, but also the band and we were doing all the set changes. It was a lot to put together, but the acting really went hand in hand with the playing. The instruments served as an extension of the characters, themselves.
StAR: What about the characters did you really identify with?
AN: With Andre, I think the emotional aftermath of [the rejection he faces] mid-way through the musical really resonated with me.
For Guy, that was al little bit trickier because he’s older than I am age-wise. Which sounds simple, but it informs a lot of the character. He has this weight and this gravitas… and this kind of hopelessness at the beginning of the show. I haven’t really experienced a lot what he had at the beginning of the show in my life. To find that was the most important part and also the furthest away from anything I knew myself.
StAR: How did you tap into that weight?
AN: I tried going through actual emotional experiences I had in my life and none of them seemed to really work. It was just letting go of the idea that I needed to “play older.” That wouldn’t be authentic. I found it in the physicality. I found it in literal weight. So finding it in stillness and in changing my physical core is how I found my way. Instead of putting on fake emotions that I hadn’t experienced.
StAR: Is there a moment for you where the heart of the show is really on display?
AN: I think my [favorite moment happens during] the song “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” Everyone on stage is playing. It’s this big catharsis moment for everyone in the show and it grows and grows. And it just devolves in to silence. There’s no applause and the air has been sucked out of the room. That moment of breathlessness is the magical moment of the show for me.