Interview: Anand Nagraj on Playing Jafar in Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ and His Role as Tony the Tiger

"It's one of those things where you open up the audition and you're like, 'Sure, I'll tape something but who knows...' And then I just kind of kept going up the chain, I couldn't believe it. It felt kind of pie in the sky of a national tour," Nagraj said.


Playing a Disney villain as iconic as Jafar in Disney’s National Tour of Aladdin has got to be one of the most fun roles out there and actor Anand Nagraj agrees. “I know I’ve done it right if I hear a couple of boo’s sprinkled in at the curtain call,” he said recently. He’s “the most fun to play.”

In this interview, Nagraj, currently delighting audiences in San Diego, talks about playing Jafar, the long makeup process and his audition for the role. He also goes into his role as another iconic character, Tony the Tiger. It’s all pretty…. Ggrrrrreat! (Yeah, I went there.)

For tickets and more information on the National Tour of Disney’s Aladdin: Broadway San Diego

How much fun is it playing a Disney villain? I feel like it’s got to be the coolest thing.

Anand Nagraj: It really is, yeah. The original film of Aladdin came out in ’92, so I was either like 8 or 9-years-old and that for me was like my peak Disney movie of my childhood and it was populated by people who looked like me and it was a very cool experience. Then inside of that, you have this villain who is so, so interesting and fun and charming, but also just an evil, evil dude. And it’s the most fun to play.

You’ve got a lot of makeup to apply for the role. How long does that take to put on?

Anand Nagraj: Yeah, it’s a process. This is the design that they employ in the Broadway production, which they taught to me during the tech process. And as somebody who hadn’t been super used to doing a lot of makeup, that was probably like the most stressful part of learning the role, making sure that I could execute it every night on time. I try to get there about 90 minutes before curtain. If I’m not working 90 minutes before curtain, I feel a little bit panicky and rushed.

But yeah, it’s a very big transformation. And it has become honestly, one of my favorite parts of doing the show is that time to myself. It is a lot of time by myself, to really focus on the job at hand and I appreciate that. I didn’t go into it thinking that that was what it was going to be, but it really is a lot of time to center on the character and the work of that evening. And you literally watch the character appear before your eyes. The part where I know I’m at the point of no return every night is when the facial recognition on my phone no longer works. That’s when it’s like, “Okay, we’re in it. We’re doing it.”

Putting on that makeup and the costumes that you have, it’s so much easier just to slip right into that character.

Anand Nagraj: It really is. The costume too informs the way I move. I’m walking around with a big Cobra staff that’s as tall as I am and that really informs the way I have to hold myself and if for no other reason than that the thing doesn’t upstage me, steal my light. It makes finding the character very easy every night.

I know you want to make the part your own, but you don’t want to make it too off to where the kids and audiences don’t recognize it. How did you go about that?  

Anand Nagraj: Fortunately, I’m terrible at doing impressions so even if I try to mimic it perfectly it’s going to be my own thing. I do think that just by virtue of me or whatever actor doing it, it makes it your own. You can try to replicate as best you can but you’re going to put your own touches on it. And so, I didn’t worry too much about that throughout.

I came into it with not really any knowledge at all about the stage production of it. I hadn’t seen it before we started rehearsals. I didn’t know much about the stage adaptation. So, I didn’t have a memory of that. I found it to be much more of a helpful thing than like a hindering or feeling too bound by that.

How’s the reaction from the kids in the audience? Do they just love to hate you?

Anand Nagraj: The kids, adults everybody. I know I’ve done it right if I hear a couple of boo’s sprinkled in at the curtain call. The interaction with the kids has been delightful.

You were working pretty steadily in regional theater before this. How did you get the part?

Anand Nagraj: I live in Chicago, so this world of like commercial Broadway touring theater was… I wasn’t auditioning for it. It wasn’t on my radar at all. It came through my agents, so I don’t know who thought to put me up for it, but it was one of those things where as soon as I looked into it, I was like, how did I not know that this existed? It felt like a part that was kind of tailor made to what I do, to how I sound, how I look, what roles that I play.

It’s also one of those things that you open up the audition and you’re like, “Sure, I’ll tape something but who knows… Sure, I’m not going to get this.” And then I just kind of kept going up the chain, I couldn’t believe it. It felt kind of pie in the sky of a national tour.

And then that all culminated in self-tapes and zoom. So, I went through those rounds and then it culminated in the final audition in New York.

What was that call like when you found out you got it?

Anand Nagraj: It was amazing. It was really, really, really amazing. One corner of my brain is just in disbelief that I’m doing this and that that I’m lucky enough to be doing this, and that was definitely present on that on that call. It’s been a lot of fun.

You’re also the voice of Tony the Tiger. That’s so cool. What does that all encompass and how did that come to you?

Anand Nagraj: It was absolutely another one of those like, “oh yeah, one in a million chance that this would ever happen.” The audition came in and I was like, “Oh wow they’re looking for a new Tony.” I had never played around with that voice; I obviously grew up watching a lot of the commercials and then as I was messing around with it I was like, “I do a pretty good Tony the Tiger. Okay.”

I got a call back and it was like, it’s one of those things where it was the most mundane of audition processes of voiceover auditions, but it was for something so incredible, and it just happened to work out.

And then you got to actually play him on Stephen Colbert’s show?  

Anand Nagraj: Yeah. So, the other really cool part about when I joined this new campaign, starting in 2019, they started incorporating the actors not only be the voice but also be the motion capture and facial capture for him, so the launch of that experiment was with Stephen Colbert live in front of an audience, which is very cool. The audience would look on stage and see Stephen talking to me in the mocap suit but when they looked at the monitor, they were seeing Tony the Tiger. It was very cool.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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