Isaac Cole Powell On Reflecting His Own Sense of Truth
The actor, model and singer starring in 2020 Broadway revival of West Side Story.
The actor, model and singer starring in 2020 Broadway revival of West Side Story.
Growing up in North Carolina and having his dad be a three-time CrossFit champion, little Isaac Cole Powell could never imagine that one day, he will be living in New York and have the Broadway stage as his 'office.' The actor’s career when he was cast to play Daniel in a 2017 Broadway revival of Once on This Island, and even though he’s very keen on moving his theater career forward, he also enjoys expressing himself through other mediums (such as floral design) when he has some free time on his hands. As a performer, his goal is to present a touching, moving story while reflecting his own sense of truth: “I think that my responsibility as a performer is to take my own personal truth and put that on display for others who identify with it. And hopefully, my truth means something to someone and reflects something about humanity that makes people think, or reconsider, or ask questions of themselves, or reveal the part of themselves that they didn't know they possessed.”
As the actor was doing last preparations and rehearsals for this year’s West Side Story revival, VMAN sat down with Isaac to talk about his idols and inspirations, living and New York and his acting future in theater and beyond.
VMAN Where in the world are you right now?
Isaac Cole Powell Right now I am in my apartment in Harlem.
VMAN Amazing! Did you have a nice weekend?
IP Yeah, I did. I performed on Saturday and on Sunday as well, and now I'm taking it easy on my day off.
VMAN Amazing, fantastic. Well, let's get right to it. How did you react when you first heard that you were going to be playing Tony in West Side Story, on Broadway?
IP Absolute disbelief and shock. My body went hot and numb; it was one of those out-of-body experience moments where I just couldn't even believe what my agent and my manager were telling me on the phone. It was just so thrilled and relieved and excited. And I cried — a lot.
VMAN I can't imagine. It's a major, iconic role. How did you prepare to put your name in the running for it? What are some things that you maybe had to push yourself to do to get there?
IP They announced that they were going to be doing this revival back in the summer of 2018. I've been a huge fan of Ivo and of Anne Teresa for a while, and so when I saw that the two of them were going to collaborate on this revival, I freaked out. Just like, the fan inside of me...it was so surreal that they were doing the thing. It didn't even really cross my mind too much. I wasn't even thinking about a role I wanted to play in it. I was just so, so excited that it was happening, and I didn't really think there was a role for me. I was with a friend and I said I would, I would love to just be in the room with these people while they're making this thing. So I think the journey started out with that sort of excitement of wanting to be a part of it. That sort of intention was vibrating somewhere above me, just wanting to be involved in some way.
Fast forward to December of that year, I got my first audition for it and they wanted to see me for Tony. I don't know if it was surprising to me; I think if there was any role I was going to play in this show, it would be Tony. But it's not necessarily a character that I've ever really identified with, or that's ever been like a blitz role. I just wanted so badly to be part of this production. I was like, 'How many more times in my career am I going to be auditioning for Ivo van Hove?' Not really expecting too much to come out of it, but I went in and I did my best, and that was good enough to get me a callback. And again, I went in wanting to do my best for this director, [thinking] it might lead to something in the future, who knows if I get that job, but I still want to do a good job for these people. And that led to another call! I was like, "Okay, maybe they really are considering me for this part, and that's when I started to get invested in it, and that's when Ivo started really working with me one-on-one on my audition and really working with me in the room. And then after that third callback, I had a final callback when it was just down to me and two other boys. Even up until then, I really didn't think it was going my way. I was so honored to have made it that far in the process, but I really didn't feel like it was going to be mine.
Two days later (it was three days before Christmas), my manager called me and told me that I was getting the offer to play the part. I was just so thrilled and excited. And again, that in itself is its own process of finally wrapping my head around getting to do this role. One thing that I found throughout the whole audition process was that I knew from the beginning that this was going to be done in a new way, a way that had never been done before. And something that Ivo kept pressing upon me throughout the entire audition process was to relieve myself of any preconceived notions about West Side Story, or about Tony, or what I thought it should be. He really liberated me to be myself. He just wanted to see my essence and he wanted to see my version of what this character is, and so I knew that it was going to be really different. And because of that, I very strategically didn't do a ton of prep work going into it. I had about nine months from the time that I got the job to the first day. With all of that time, the only thing that I really knew that I needed to be able to do was go into that rehearsal room and do a good job. I just knew I needed to fill my creative well. So I did a lot of traveling in that time, and I learned the music because I knew the music wasn't going to change. So I was like, 'Let me go ahead and learn all the music, let me learn all the words that are on the page so that I go in prepared and I can start from the ground, start on the right foot, knowing the material. And then I can look, bring myself through it in the room so that Ivo and I can find it together, without me coming in with all of these decisions made about what I'm gonna do.
The bulk of my preparation was really just exploring myself through those nine months that I had — of unemployment, of traveling and exploring and experiencing as much as I could so that when I went into the room in October, I could really do that from a full place.
VMAN 100%! You kind of need that time, especially when you're given that freedom to take ownership of the role, so to speak. I think that's really great that you were able to do that.
How would you verbalize the way you did take ownership of the role because again, it's a very different interpretation of the West Side Story where we're all very familiar with. Is there anything specific that comes to mind, in terms of like how you kind of made the role your own as opposed to what we're used to seeing?
IP Yeah, I think just because I am who I am, I am my own person, my inclinations towards the role are just going to be different than anybody else who's ever played it. What made it even more fun for me was taking it out of that lens of 1957 classic musical, this archetype, this Romeo, this bleeding male character. That's not really what I'm good at, that's not really my wheelhouse. I could do it — but it would just feel false. It doesn't feel right to play in that archetype. I didn't tell myself 'no', and Ivo didn't tell me 'no,' I was just coming in and doing crazy things like running around in circles and yelling, you know — just really throwing paint at the wall and waiting for him to rein me in and see what he was okay with me doing and what he wasn't. I was following my own impulses, my own inclinations towards the role, and letting it be as weird and unique as I am and, and not telling myself 'no' and not holding myself to the standard that was created by Richard Beymer or Larry Kert, the man who originated this role on Broadway and in the movie.
VMAN That's an amazing way to put it. It's not every day an actor gets to have fun with a role like that. I think it also makes what the audience sees more impactful.
IP Yeah, and also in previous iterations of this show, it's been easy for audiences to keep it at arm's length and disassociate from it because it was fed to us through this period lens of it being in the 1950s. It was easy for people to say, "Oh, those are people from the '50s, those are issues from the '50s, that was a miracle in the '50s." It was so easy to brush it off, but now it's so immediate because they're presenting it as a modern musical and people are seeing that it's still relevant because we, as Americans, are still dealing with the same things that we were dealing with then. It's just history repeating itself, and it's so much more immediate and raw because we are presenting it in such an immediate way.
VMAN Tell me also a little bit about how these roles specifically informed your acting style in general. Has it affected the way you started looking at the other roles that you might be offered or up for? Your relationship with acting, has it changed or stayed the same, grown stronger?
IP I think that my work in this show emboldens me as an actor. I've had so much more fun and I've grown in a lot of ways as an actor that I wasn't really expecting to.
I think I trust my instincts and my impulses a lot more than I ever have previously, and I've been able to shed myself of a lot of pressure that I used to put on myself. I've learned through this process that when I'm having fun, my work is good, and I had so much fun in this process. This process has inspired a sense of play in me that wasn't necessarily present in my work before. And that concept that I was mentioning before, about not saying 'no', not shutting down my impulses because I don't think they're appropriate for the show — I realize now that that's not for me to decide, that's for a director to decide. My job as an actor is to bring in my sense of truth and my own unique perspective on these characters, and it's their job to steer that in the right direction. But first and foremost, I have to bring my own truth and my own expression to it. That's something I think I'll carry with me from this process: not saying 'no' to myself, not shutting down my impulses and having as much fun as I can, just throwing paint at the wall and letting someone else rein me in.
VMAN In addition to acting, like what are some other things you're passionate about on your own? Do you have any hobbies or any other creative outlets you like to use to express yourself?
IP I love fashion, I love clothes. That's one way that I like to express myself and definitely take interest in. I love floral design, and in the nine months between my last Broadway show and this one, I worked as a floral designer for a while, and that was a ton of fun for me. Going down to the flower market every morning very early and spending my mornings there with people who didn't care about my life as an actor. It was really liberating and really fun and creatively engaging for me in another way, for another part of my brain. That's something I love and I think I'll probably return to at some point in time, whether it's professionally or just as a hobby.
I love fitness. I grew up in a very fitness-oriented family; my dad is a three-time CrossFit champion, so I grew up taking his fitness classes and playing sports, and I sort of grew up in the gym. I work out six days a week. Just for my brain and my body to feel expressed fully, I have to do something like that. Whether or not I have specific fitness goals in mind, I do go to the gym because it kind of feels like a second home to me, just because it's how I was raised and how I grew up, the environment I grew up in.
VMAN Do you have any favorite workouts or favorite workout classes that you've tried, or something crazy that you've kind of experienced along your fitness journey?
IP I don't know, I don't really get too crazy. I mean, I do some pretty basic weight training; that's where I sort of learned from my dad. If I have some really specific fitness goals in mind, I might approach it differently, but I'm not really trying to do anything crazy with my body. I truly just do it for fun and I do it to stay in shape, so my workouts are really pretty basic. I think if I'm really crazy, I'll hop in the pool and I'll do a couple of laps, but that's if I'm really in a wild mood. My workout there are essentially lifting weights and stretching.
VMAN When did you first move to New York?
IP I moved to New York in August of 2017.
VMAN How have you seen the city change, what is your New York story?
IP I don't know if I've seen it change, I’ve really only seen it in one way. I've lived in the same neighborhood the whole time that I've lived here, and I've been working the same kind of job. So my tip for the city has been pretty uniform for the past 2-2.5ish years. And my relationship to it has been more or less the same as well, just because my routine hasn't really changed a whole lot. I work in Midtown, um, and my life sort of exists between 145th St. And 50th St. I will say that living in New York is very different than it was when I was visiting New York. In college, I used to come up a lot. I used to take this overnight bus that would pick up near my college campus and I would wake up in the city, party for the weekend and then go back home. (laughs) I never even came to Manhattan — I would pretty much get into Chinatown on the bus and then I would go to Brooklyn, and that was my weekend in Brooklyn. My experience living here is very different than it was visiting here when I used to come up and visit a lot. My professional experience and my personal experience, they are two very opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of my experience of the city.
VMAN Now, tell me a little bit more about what you hope to accomplish. Is your goal to maybe stick with Broadway, what are some other roles maybe that you'd like to get or be considered for it?
IP I don't know if there's specific roles that I want to be considered for. I would definitely like to try my hand at some more television and film work. I love doing theater — that's what I'm really passionate about and that's what I know the most. I don't really have a ton of professional experience in film and TV, so that's something I'm interested in trying, but I definitely want to continue working in theater cause I just think it's an unmatched thrill that I've always loved, having that experience of doing something once for an audience of people who will never see it that way again. Hopefully, one day I will get to branch out and try some other mediums, but for right now, I'm really loving doing theater and I hope I can continue to do it in the future.
VMAN Who are some of the people you consider to be the heroes, people that you admire, people that kind of help you persevere and pull through when things get rough?
IP Patti LuPone — one of my biggest inspirations, I've always looked up to her. It's sort of a mainstream of the theater, but I never really knew why we respected Patti, why we loved Patti, like why she was so celebrated. And then I listened to her audiobook of her memoir, and I just became obsessed with this woman and her journey, what she's been through and how she got to where she is now and her resilience. It's absolutely incredible. I listened to her audiobook twice, it really emboldened me in my process with this show — specifically hearing about her experience when she was playing Evita, things like that. Listening to her like New York journey, when she was an up-and-comer in New York, and seeing the ways that our careers are sort of paralleling here in the early chapter of my career is really cool. She's someone I look up to and someone who I would love to be like. I am such a Patti fan.
VMAN Have you had the chance to meet her?
IP I have. I don't think she would remember me, but we met when she came to see the last Broadway show I was in, Once On This Island. She came to see that and I have a picture of the two of us.
VMAN What do you feel is your ultimate responsibility as a performer, and how do you make sure you accomplish that responsibility as a performer?
IP I think that my responsibility as a performer is to take my own personal truth and put that on display for others who identify with it. And hopefully, my truth means something to someone and reflects something about humanity that makes people think, or reconsider, or ask questions of themselves, or reveal the part of themselves that they didn't know they possessed. I feel like that is my job as a performer — just to present truth and to tell a touching, moving story, and to be able to tell those stories and to be able to reflect my own sense of truth. My mind has to be in shape, and my body has to be in shape, and my spirit has to be in shape. I do that by making sure I stay active, making sure I stay mentally healthy and take time for myself to recharge, recalibrate and get in touch with myself. I have to keep my soul and my heart happy, stay engaged creatively and take care of my mind and my body and my heart so that I can go out there eight times a week and inspire people, and uplift people, and entertain people.