Interview: Priscilla Queen of the Desert’s J. Elaine Marcos: “People say, “How did you prepare for this?” And I really just played my mom. My mom turned up 10,000 degrees.”

The role of ‘Cynthia’ in the hit Broadway musical, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, called for someone who was a feisty Filipino, over the top funny and shoots ping pong balls out of her hoo-haw. When J. Elaine Marcos read the breakdown, her first thought was, ““Oh, I am right there. That is perfect.”

After her audition, the casting directors thought as well and she was hired.

J. Elaine is a veteran of Broadway shows like Miss Saigon, Sweet Charity, The Wedding Singer and A Chorus Line. After tearing her ACL (ouch) and she wasn’t able to dance, that’s when her TV and film career kicked into gear, appearing on shows 30 Rock, Rescue Me and the film Morning Glory. Add that to her accomplished sketch and improv work, regularly appearing with NYC’s Upright Citizens Brigade, well, I’m surprised she had time to talk to me at all.

Thankfully, she did and we had a great conversation. We talked about how she was cast in Priscilla, weird commercial auditions and how you really don’t need an agent when you’re looking for work on Broadway.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

How did you get involved in Priscilla?

J. Elaine Marcos: Just a regular audition process. The audition breakdown was for the role of Cynthia, the feisty, mail-order bride, who is over the top, funny, needs to be Filipino. She sings in a Filipino accent, and kinda goes off in Filipino, and the one thing I have going for myself – I am a feisty, Filipino actress singer dancer. And I went in to audition and pretty much knew that the character, knowing that she has to… shoot Ping-Pong balls as her talent, I was like, “Oh, I am right there. That is perfect.” I love it. And also the casting directors thankfully, dare I say they know me too well, that it’s right up my alley, literally. So I auditioned and met the creative team, then it went off really well. When I went in to audition, I pretty much brought the role of Cynthia into that room, already singing in the Filipino style, and kind of just played in that room.

So you pretty much had a handle on her right away?

J. Elaine Marcos: Yeah, well I knew how I would play her initially. People say, “How did you prepare for this?” And I really just played my mom. My mom turned up 10,000 degrees. And in addition, I’ve been to enough karaoke bars, where the character is kinda based on that person who really believes, oh, it’s so sad, that she can make it. And I think we’ve all seen that, we’ve seen American Idol, we’ve seen everything of just, that person believing so much that they are it, when they’re not. So, I pretty much just played that and, honestly, speaking in a Filipino dialect is fun. It’s like you’re making fun of all your relatives and doing that in front of people that’s one thing I have grown up to do very well. Like one thing that I do know how to do is make fun of the Filipino accent, so I just had fun with that.

When you audition for a big Broadway show, is it like a film or a television audition? Meaning, do they give you the script beforehand?

J. Elaine Marcos: Yeah, they give you, they, actually on this audition, they gave me so much. They gave me the scenes for Cynthia, which is normal, but they also give you just some songs in the show. Because not only does she have to sing her own songs, they were mainly concerned about how I would be able to sing the rest of the score, which is actually even harder because I have to make sure I get all the harmonies for all the pop songs that they’re singing in the show because there’s only like 6 female voices, and like 20 guys. So they wanted to make sure that the female voices were really prominent, so that it wouldn’t just be male heavy, so they really want to make sure I have the vocal chops. Which was nerve-wracking to me because I was like, I can sing, but I’m not one of those people who (scream) do the riffing thing. I sing Broadway (sings), I have the vibrato. I mean, I’m not gonna record an album, but that was the harder part of it because they would give you a whole bunch of songs, and they said, “Ok, you’re coming in next week.” I had no problem with the sides but it’s the songs where I was like, “I have to prepare.” To prepare for different harmonies potentially and that kind of stuff is a little harder because you just, I’m trained to more be a ham and fun and I get to sing but I just need a little bit more time when it comes to that. But also what’s different from the film and television world is, I could play the whole room and keep on using the whole stage, I didn’t feel like I had to constrict myself in front of like where’s camera shot. I would lean on the piano, I would use the windows that are there, I could move up and down. So I really felt like I could use the whole body. So it frees me up a lot more.

How did you get your first agent?

J. Elaine Marcos: Well, I did have representation in school but I remember just sending mailings out and there’s sometimes. I think there were certain classes here, either like the Actor’s Connection where you take a class, it’s more like a workshop, a quick one-day to meet one-on-one with different agents and stuff and I remember meeting an agent there. But I will say that most of my work has been on Broadway, you can pretty much have as an actor, let’s just say, get your own work on Broadway because there’s so many open calls. Actor’s Equity is very good about having open calls for different musicals even if their not currently looking to replace anybody. So a lot of times I would audition anyway and it would be an opportunity to meet the casting director. I would probably not be right for the show or anything but I would be in a certain file which I’m sure would be like Asian file, like, “In case we need anything, we know her type.” And so I kind of consistently work mainly because of the open call. I would just go to those calls and then eventually when things got more specific I would be able to say to my agent, “Ok I think there’s this new show coming up.” or “I know so and so is leaving this show and I know that, that will be a track, can you look into that?” But mainly it was all on my own.

I actually remember you in ‘Morning Glory’, how was that?

J. Elaine Marcos: Oh my gosh, I loved it. Right before that I had just finish doing A Corus Line and I had torn my ACL, and it was a wonderful. It was awesome, it was an awesome blessing because I knew that I really wanted to tap into the comedy world and not focus so much on a dance show because, like I’d get a call and for a dance show and I just thought, “Uhm, I don’t wanna get…” not stuck but I knew I wanted to do more comedy, so once I tore my ACL the first thing I called my agent-manager and like, “Ok, that’s it no more dancing for a while, let’s really focus on this film and television thing.” And so since we did that, I was able to really focus on that and thankfully I went in for this role and I couldn’t believe we filmed it in New York. It was close to me in Harlem. It was so much fun and it was very easy and physically easy. I couldn’t believe how my body was just so happy to just be silly from the waste up. And it was definitely a lot of fun, yeah.

You’re working at night, what are your days like? Are you still pursuing work or just running errands and enjoying life?

J. Elaine Marcos: Yeah, oh, it’s funny it’s, now that we’re open immediately my agents, managers; we’re just like, “Ok, that’s it. Let’s go, let’s move on to the…”, not move on to the next thing but my days are free which means ‘ we gotta fill them up’. So, it’s even right after this, just going to another audition for this, for that. But it’s nice that we can be a little more specific in terms of what I do wanna do. So, if anything it’s busier now than it was during rehearsal. Cause rehearsal, we’re just kind of waiting around sometimes in the theater, but now, everyday kind of changes. It changes a little bit ‘cause you never know, like a normal actor’s life, you never know. It’s busier now when I’m in a show then it was in rehearsal.

Have you had any nightmare auditions?

J. Elaine Marcos: Normally, it’s mainly the commercial auditions are just so raw and weird. Like you go in for the irritable bowel syndrome commercial, you walk in and you lift up your shirt and they don’t even see your face. They just wanna check if your stomach would be the one that they’re gonna draw on. And you walk out just feeling so vulnerable and weird and thinking, like I don’t have that much training, I’m not from Julliard, but the person next to me probably had real training and we did the same thing. It’s so vulnerable in commercial auditions because as an actor you just want to get everything right, but how do you get it right when all you have to do is lift up your shirt or hold a credit card? So, it’s mainly those kind of things you just feel so weird.

Yeah, I’ve had commercial auditions before where they’ve actually yelled at me, “You’re doing it wrong!”

J. Elaine Marcos: [laughs] Yeah, that’s what I say, so it ends up being, it’s really nothing, but you start thinking when I chew, and I chew for McDonalds, should I chew with my mouth open? Do I enjoy it? Do I close my eyes? I should still have my eyes to the camera right? Should I chew with my mouth closed? It’s just like, how do I enjoy my food? It’s the weirdest thing. The mind games that we play for the simplest little things. “I should have chewed with my mouth closed,” like it just the silliest things. I know, what are we doing?

What’s your advice to actors?

J. Elaine Marcos: I feel improv is so important because I feel like auditions are like improv. Improv is like auditions, you’re so scared. Every improv scene I do, I get so scared, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. So I always feel like the more you do improv, because people, a lot of people don’t wanna do it ‘cause they’re so scared, but that’s kid of that same feeling you get when you go into an audition, you’re scared. At least in an audition you’re more prepared. So, I think the more times you’re in a horrible situation, like improv scenes, the more you have that buildup of “Ok, whatever happens, I’m just gonna do it.” And so you have that slight confidence, you’re still scared, but I feel like doing improv is so invaluable. It’s so important because it really helps you become less scared, and I think everybody should do it because you live in a moment and as an actor you need to be in that moment, and listen and see what happens. Let’s live it immediately and that’s what improv is, not thinking ahead and just being in that moment.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert is playing at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. For tickets, click here

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