J. Antonio Rodriguez stars as Orpheus in the national tour of the Broadway mega-hit musical Hades town, where he plays the hopeful lover who descends deep into the Underworld in an impassioned search of his muse, Eurydice. The parallels between Rodriguez’s character’s harrowing journey and his real-life status as a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Dreamer are both inspiring and sobering. I caught the young man between rehearsals for his upcoming run from October 3 through 15 at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. He expressed his thoughts on the immigrant experience, asking for what you deserve and the artistic benefits of knowing who you are. Antonio talks to Chris Franco in an in-depth interview.
Chris Franco (CF): Antonio, congratulations on landing the lead in Hades town.
J. ANTONIO RODRIGUEZ (JAR): Thank you very much, Chris.
CF: Whereabouts in Mexico were you born? Tell us about your family.
JAR: I was born in Coahuila, Mexico, in a little town called Francisco y Madero. My dad, mom, and I immigrated to the U.S. when I was two years old. Soon after, my mom had my two younger sisters, and we settled in Ardmore, Oklahoma. And that’s where I lived for a very long time.
CF: How has your family reacted to you being an actor?
JAR: My mom was always very supportive. But my dad really wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer for financial stability. He didn’t understand a man seeking a career in musical theater. It took him a little while to come around, but as I got older and went to college and started booking professional jobs, he understood that I could make a good living. And now, he’s my biggest supporter. He goes to every show I do. He may fall asleep at the performance – but he’s there!
CF: What did your dad do for a living?
JAR: He was a factory worker for a long time until he was laid off during the financial crisis of 2008. And then, he started his own landscaping business. He’d do all the yards in our town.
CF: Well, someone’s got to keep the place looking beautiful, right?
CF: Is your family musical?
JAR: My dad would never acknowledge it, but sometimes when I overhear him singing, I think to myself – that’s where I get it from. My dad’s story is very inspiring. He was making bricks at the age of seven in Mexico. He didn’t have much schooling, so he has lots of hidden talents that I believe he doesn’t even know he has. If I tell him he’s got a good singing voice, he says, no-no-no.
CF: Your role in Hades town requires strong acting and exquisite singing. When did you realize you could sing?
JAR: In first grade, we had a little choir class with our elementary school music teacher. One day she heard me singing – I don’t recall what I was singing – but after class, she asked me if I wanted to play Tiny Tim in a community theater production of A Christmas Carol. I said, sure – even though I didn’t know what a “Tiny Tim” was.
CF: What other roles have you played?
JAR: Professionally, I’ve played Brad in The Rocky Horror Show at Oklahoma’s Lyric Theater and lots of roles regionally. In 2019, I was in Footloose at the Muni Theater in St. Louis, Missouri.
CF: Footloose? So you dance as well. How did you get started dancing?
JAR: Well, at first, I didn’t dance. I would be goofing off – but I had fun moving. I started taking dance seriously in college. But being Latino, I like to dance, and I’ve been told I have a kind of swagger that’s my own style.
CF: Let’s talk about you being a DREAMer. When did you find out about your status?
JAR: I learned when I was around 11 or 12. I say learned because before then, I knew – but I really didn’t understand what it meant.
CF: Is there a path to you getting a legal status?
JAR: No. Not right now. I’m fortunate to be on DACA. But, presently, there’s no pathway to citizenship for me. So, I just have to keep renewing every two years to keep getting granted the status. I’ve got all my immigration lawyers, and I just do whatever they tell me. I’m hopeful.
CF: I’m glad you’re hopeful. What do you think of the immigrant crisis now facing the U.S. and Europe?
JAR: You know, it’s very hard for me to comment because even in my situation, I still feel privileged because I get DACA. The immigrant crisis ignites something within me that is just so powerful. It makes me angry because I truly cannot understand how some people think the way they do. I guess they’re unable to imagine how they would feel if the tables were turned.
CF: The irony is that the U.S. is 2.5 million workers short. Politics is squandering the valuable resource immigrants can offer. But I’ll get off my soapbox and get back to your job. In Hadestown, Orpheus descends into the underworld and searches for Eurydice – his soulmate. Do you see any parallels between Orpheus’s journey and your real-life journey?
JAR: One thousand percent. In the show, there’s a song titled “Papers” – it’s about not having documentation. Hades confronts Orpheus saying, “You’re not from around here, are you, son? Go back to where you came from”, and then Hades’ laborers beat him up. My whole life has been a lot of that. Leading me to ask myself, “What can I do? What can’t I do? What if the big man tells me I have to stop? That I can’t go to college? Or get healthcare?” Orpheus has so many obstacles placed in front of him, yet he continues to move forward. When I was younger, I was a lot like Orpheus. Even when I found out that I was undocumented, I thought positively – telling myself that the world is great and good can come from bad. But as I’ve gotten older, I’m 26 now, and I see the world more from Persephone’s more realistic, cynical perspective. Still, I strive to be considerate of all minorities, immigrants, and our LGBTQ+ community. Thank goodness that I get to perform Orpheus every night. It reminds me to be hopeful. To believe things will get better.
CF: That’s a beautiful answer. Do you think being Latinx has impacted your artistic journey?
JAR: Yes. One-hundred percent. In both positive and negative ways. Sometimes people want to hire us Latinos for the ensemble, secondary roles. Not leading roles. Especially actors with more indigenous features like I’ve got. They want us – but they want to keep us in a box. And I hate that because I’d like to add some of me, Antonio, into a principal character in a play. I think it would make the story better. To see a role portrayed from a slightly different perspective. I’d love to play Judas or Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. Mostly Jesus.
CF: Wow. Can you sing rock opera like that?
JAR: Yes, I can. That’s the mariachi in me. That’s the influence of my dad’s music coming in. And I’d like to do new roles. Non-Latino roles. I’d like to originate parts in new plays and musicals. Shows about the Latinx experience or just about life with characters who just happen to be hispanos. So we can be normalized and seen as what we are – just regular people.
CF: Good term, normalized; yes, that’s our next step. So we aren’t always the other culture. What advice do you have for young actors looking to work in musical theater?
JAR: Find yourself, find your own voice. Find out who you truly are. I really found out who I was when I went to college for musical theater. I’d advise young actors to get as much training as they can. But realize that performing arts schools are factories that can only do so much. They’re churning out alumni with a certain set of standard skills. It’s up to you to bring your unique persona into that audition. When people ask me for audition advice. I tell them to find out what they do the best and do that. I didn’t use my guitar in any auditions until I graduated and signed with my agency which advised me to show the casting agents who I am. Antonio isn’t going to sing “On the Street Where You Live” because I’m never going to book that part. But Antonio can sing my own version of “Remember Me” from Coco and throw in some Spanish while playing my guitar. By me presenting my authentic self, I’ll stand out more than all the other actor-robots.
CF: Hades town is about so many aspects of our humanity. How would you describe it?
JAR: It’s a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice. It incorporates lots of contemporary themes, including today’s political climate. And universal themes of the established love between Hades and Persephone versus the young love of Orpheus and Eurydice. The score is New Orleans and Folk. I think audiences connect because Greek myths are classic stories that still speak to us to this day. The music is cool – unlike any other Broadway show. It’s just a really, really great night of theater.
CF: What do you hope the audience will take away from your performance?
JAR: I’d like them to take away a little piece of Orpheus’s attitude. That no matter what happens, no matter how hard life gets, get up and keep trying. Because eventually, things will turn out. They might not turn out exactly as you thought they would, but just your trying makes the world a better place.
CF: Speaking of making things better, what do you think of the current labor movement — the strikes by the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, hotel workers, and the UAW?
JAR: Actors Equity stands with all the strikers. You have to honor people’s efforts by paying them a living wage. Those of us living in America work so hard. I watched my dad mow lawns for 18 hours a day just so we could live. We didn’t take out any student loans. And like so many people, we’re only asking for what we know we deserve.
Produced in association with Latin Heat
Edited by Debrah and Newsdesk Manager
“What’s the latest with Florida Man?”
Get news, handpicked just for you, in your box.