AT JUST 29 years old, Georgia Thespian alum Grey Henson has already accomplished milestones usually achieved by more established performers. As Elder McKinley, he launched the first national tour of The Book of Mormon in 2012 before joining the Broadway cast two years later. In 2018, he originated the scene-stealing role of Damian Hubbard in Mean Girls on Broadway, earning Tony, Drama Desk, and Helen Hayes award nominations for the role.

On the one-year anniversary of his Tony nod, Dramatics caught up with Henson to discuss memories of Thespian one-act competitions, the act of kindness that began his career, and why preparation is half the battle.

Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Henson in Mean Girls.

Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Henson in Mean Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What sparked your interest in performing?
I don’t quite remember, because I was so young — but I do remember having a very encouraging mother. She was involved in community theatre, and it was something that naturally happened.

She claims I was dancing all over the house when I was 3 years old … so she took me to a dance studio, which turned her away, saying I was too young and boys shouldn’t dance that young. So, she took me to a different studio, the Madison Studio, where I ended up dancing until I graduated high school.

It started for me with dance, then I auditioned for a play one summer. I think it was Peter Pan, and I was a Lost Boy. It was my hobby — it was the thing I did instead of sports. I went to dance class, I went to play practice, I did a couple of shows a year, then it turned into my profession.

Do you have favorite memories of performing as a member of Thespian Troupe 2716 at Stratford Academy in Macon, Ga.?
I have a couple. My favorite was playing Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum my junior year. Before that, we competed at one-act competitions in Georgia with the play Charley’s Aunt. That was my second year at that school — I transferred from a different school. And I went to Stratford, because they had a good theatre program. I went mainly because of the Thespian Society.

Charley’s Aunt is a very funny farce that we won state one-acts with. The year after, we did another farce called The Imaginary Invalid, then my senior year we did The Pirates of Penzance. So I was active in community theatre, and my last two years in high school I was super active in theatre there, because at that point I knew it was what I wanted to pursue. It was important to me to have good theatre education in and outside of school.

In high school, you attended a summer program at Carnegie Mellon University, where you later earned your B.F.A. Did that experience convince you this could be your career?
That absolutely was the catalyst. I had in my mind it was what I would do, because I knew it was what I was good at. But it wasn’t until I went away to the Carnegie Mellon Pre-College Program after my junior year that I realized I could and should do this. A lot of schools host programs like that, where they take high school students in the summer on campus, and it mimics what it would be like to study at the school.

The summer before, I went to North Carolina School of the Arts and studied ballet. Until my freshman or sophomore year of high school, I thought I wanted to be a ballet dancer, which was so not my journey. I’m super tall and I’m built like a linebacker, so it’s not something I think I could do. I loved it, and it was my calling card over acting and singing. But that summer I realized ballet wasn’t for me — I was so jealous of the theatre kids that whole summer.

So, Carnegie happened for me. At the end of the summer, we did a mock audition, which was basically preparing for our college auditions. At the end of my mock audition, they called me back, and one of the professors said, “If you come back, you’ll have a good chance of getting into the program.”

Grey Henson (fourth from right) made his Broadway debut as Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon.
Grey Henson (fifth from right) made his Broadway debut as Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

You auditioned for the touring production of The Book of Mormon while in college. Rory O’Malley, who originated the character of Elder McKinley on Broadway, played a role in your landing the part in the tour.
I had never met Rory. The same teacher who called me back that summer in high school directed our showcase my senior year of college. His name is Don Wadsworth. He said I was similar to this guy Rory, who had been at school a few years before. Rory was playing Elder McKinley, and the show had just won all these Tony Awards.

That was the beginning of the first semester my senior year, and Mr. Wadsworth said he would email Rory to see if they were casting for the tour or his replacement. Based on that email, Rory said, “Sure, give me his headshot and résumé, and I’ll send it in to Carrie Gardner,” who cast Book of Mormon. Solely on his recommendation, I got a call saying, “Will you come to New York and audition?”

I had never done a Broadway audition before. I didn’t have an agent. It was crazy. They sent me the wrong sides, so I didn’t even have the right material prepared. But I learned it quickly, because I was in school-brain mode. I came in off-book, and she was impressed. I also had prepared the song “Turn It Off,” even though they didn’t ask for it, and I said, “I can sing this for you.”

I was home on Christmas break before my last semester when I got the call that I would be playing the role in the first national tour. It was because of Rory and his kindness. He didn’t know who I was. That could have been dangerous for him to recommend someone he had never seen or heard, but it worked out.

Have you met him now?
After I was cast, I reached out to him — and thanked him, of course. When we did our showcase that year, he was my big brother in New York. They always pair a graduate with an alum, and we went out for dinner. He’s so lovely. We still keep in touch.

Casey Nicholaw directed The Book of Mormon, and that connection led to your role in the Nicholaw-directed Mean Girls, yes?
It definitely helped. Casey and I worked together putting up the first national tour. It was lucky he was so hands-on, because sometimes when they put up national tours it becomes a carbon copy of what was on Broadway. They allowed us to make the roles our own, so I got a month to work with this director and creative team.

He got to know me, and when I was doing Book of Mormon on Broadway, he emailed and asked if I would do a reading of Mean Girls. It was early stages. I think it was just a one-act version of the show at that point. We sat around a table, and I got to meet Tina Fey … and I freaked out.

This was three or four years ago. He said, “Ultimately when we do the show on Broadway, we’ll probably cast real teenagers.” So, I thought my chance was over to be in Mean Girls. Luckily, they didn’t end up doing that. My agents got me an appointment, and when I went in, I knew Casey. It’s nice to have those connections, because you’ll work with the same people again.

It’s a very small business, and I don’t think people realize that. The community is very intimate, so it’s important to be good and nice and easy to work with, because your reputation ultimately carries you to the next job. It’s easy to get caught up in other things, and it’s a competitive industry, but if you are a good, honest, kind person, it doesn’t hurt.

Mean Girls offered you the opportunity to create a character.
That was special to me. When I did that first reading, it was early in the process. After that, they did a few workshops I wasn’t involved in. Then I was hired for the lab, which is another form of workshop, where they set up the entire show for producers in a rehearsal room. That technically was the beginning of the show, so I got to create the role of Damian, which has always been a huge item on the checklist for my career. To originate a role on Broadway is a milestone for a lot of people. When I was cast as Elder McKinley, it was Rory’s part. We were lucky we got to make the roles ours, but it wasn’t mine to create. And I owe him for making that role amazing.

With Damian in Mean Girls — Tina is so smart, because she really knows how to write for the people she casts. She was working hands-on with us every day in the rehearsal room. She would change jokes on the spot and adapt them to our rhythms. Little things she would pick up outside of rehearsal would work their way into the script. It felt like she was writing these parts and tailor-making them for us.

I read you were obsessed with the movie in high school.
I think all of us that age were obsessed with the movie. It’s like our generation’s The Breakfast Club. I was in eighth grade, and I remember thinking, “Who is this person who wrote this movie?” The comedy was so accessible. I felt she was speaking in my voice, then I saw this gay character onscreen. He was in high school, and he was confident. I don’t remember watching it for the first time, but I’ve seen it tens of times.

Your version of Damian feels more integral to the story.
I think it’s because it’s a musical, and Damian is a theatre queen. Damian is all of us. Damian would have had a subscription to Dramatics magazine, because he is obsessed with theatre and drama and art and divas. It just makes sense that the role of Damian in the musical version of Mean Girls would be bigger.

They also wanted Janis and Damian to be narrators of the show, because people who come to theatre relate to those characters. I was Damian — a lot of us were Janises and Damians in school. If you love musical theatre and you love Broadway, you’ll relate to those characters more than Regina George, right? That’s why we got a lot of material to work with.

They added the tap number in the second act once we came to Broadway. That number wasn’t in the show during our out-of-town tryout in D.C. They were getting a lot of good feedback, but they wanted more Damian. Casey knew I could tap, because I did “Turn It Off” in Book of Mormon, so they added that extra number for me, which I am so grateful for.

A lot of students relate to Damian. Do you feel pressure about being a role model?
There was pressure when we started. I remember thinking he’s sort of a gay icon. I am not a gay icon, but the role — the gay best friend, that famous character type. And I knew a lot of kids would see the show. I wanted to be funny and loud without being a stereotype. What I was most cautious about was making him one-noted — being the butt of the joke, the gay friend accessory to the women in his life.

Damian is so confident and comfortable in his skin. The response I get from kids is, “It’s so amazing to see you onstage in a spotlight owning yourself,” in a way that a lot of people are afraid to — like me. I don’t have the confidence Damian has. I get that from him. It is special and unfortunately rare to see that in a high school student. If anything, I hope the role allows people to be a better version of their more authentic self. It’s empowering. It’s exciting to watch someone unbelievably comfortable in his skin.

You were with The Book of Mormon for nearly four years on tour and then Broadway, and you’ve been with Mean Girls since 2017, counting the D.C. tryout. Both Elder McKinley and Damian are high-energy characters. How do you keep your performance spontaneous?
That is the hardest part. It’s something you can’t learn at school. I wish someone had told me that — or they did and I just didn’t hear it. You can’t learn how to do eight shows a week, week after week, until you do it. It takes a lot of energy.

I will say, though, I genuinely still have fun doing the show. I try to find something new every night. It could be the smallest thing. I entertain myself by giving a line a slightly different reading. Or I look at someone onstage I never saw. I notice a musical variation that’s different. Giving yourself something to play with makes it more fun, so you’re not a robot doing the same show every night.

Of course, some days are easier than others. Every day I wake up and think, “Can I perform tonight? How’s my voice, how’s my body?” It’s a full-time job, so it’s hard to have a life outside of that. You have to really want to do this. It’s athletic and exhausting … but fulfilling.

That’s why I love stage-dooring. That’s such a special thing we get to do. Some nights you’re tired or you’re sick and you don’t want to talk to or touch 40 people after the show. But where else do you get to connect with people watching you for three hours? It reminds me that this was someone’s first Broadway show or they came from Australia to see Mean Girls.

Grey Henson
Grey Henson

You earned a Tony nomination for the role. 
The morning of the nominations was incredible. It’s mind-blowing still to think about it, because it doesn’t seem real. The whole thing happened so fast. The moment you’re nominated, you’re doing press, on top of eight shows a week, and it was right after we opened. It was the craziest time of my life. But to be recognized on that level — there is nothing like it. We all know awards are not the most important thing, but I feel I worked hard and I’m happy that whoever nominates saw that. It was special and an honor … and super appropriate for Damian to be nominated for a Tony Award, because he loves them so much.

The night of the Tonys — well, actually during the day — we had dress rehearsal at Radio City at 8 a.m. Then we went back to our theatre for a matinee, then I got ready in my tux. I sat down for a second before they pulled me out of my seat to do the performance. You wait for your category … and you lose. I remember, right before the performance of “Where Do You Belong?” which is my first number in the show — we were the first musical performance of the night — that adrenaline rush will never be the same. Performing at Radio City felt like performing on a football field. It was overwhelming. I remember grabbing Erika [Henningsen], who plays Cady, and Barrett [Wilbert Weed], who plays Janis, grabbing their hands. And we squeezed each other’s hands and said, “Let’s do this.” Then we walked out.

I can’t even watch it, because it was such a crazy, overwhelming time, but it was exhilarating and awesome that we all got to be onstage. That was my favorite part. Casey Nicholaw wanted the entire company to be in our Tony performance. So the offstage swings — people who weren’t in that number — made a cross or came in at some point, so that we all, as a company, got to perform together.

Do you have a wish list for what you’d like to do after Mean Girls?
I really want to do a play. I’d like to work on television, get in front of the camera. I want to switch it up a bit. I know I’m good at song and dance, musical theatre roles, and I love doing that, but I think I’ll need a break. We’ll see. The hard thing about the industry is you have no idea what your next job will be. It’s about being happy with where you are and being smart about keeping your eyes open for what could come down the line. I’m very open to something new, but I’m still enjoying my time with the show.

What advice do you have for Thespians who’d like to follow your path?
I said it before, but it’s important to be the person you want to work with. I think about that with all my relationships: Be the person you want that person to be for you.

I try to be prepared. Preparing is half the battle. You have to do your homework, then let it go. That’s probably the best advice I got from a teacher in college. Do the homework, then forget it so you can perform, because watching a performance is not watching someone prepared and muscling through something. You want to watch someone existing onstage. You can tell when someone is showing you their work, showing you they’ve memorized these words and thought about how they’re looking and where their hand’s going.

That’s not what it is to be transported. A performance — a really magical performance — is watching someone exist. Do all the work so you can not think about it and, instead, connect with who you’re talking to. At the end of the day, acting is just listening and responding.

This story appeared in the August 2019 print issue of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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