Despite the name of his show, I don’t think it’s possible for Will Roland to be more chill. A New York City native and graduate of NYU, Roland is two for two when it comes to scoring roles in hit Broadway musicals set in high school. He made his Broadway debut in 2016 as Jared Kleinman in the Tony-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen. Now, Roland leads the cast of Joe Iconis’s new musical comedy Be More Chill as Jeremy Heere, another “loser” high school student who is willing to go to great lengths to gain popularity — even if that means swallowing a mysterious pill.
Roland answered five questions (and a few necessary follow-ups) for Broadway Direct, where we discussed his admiration for character actors, a production of Faust that changed his life, and YouTube documentaries about airlines routes.
1. What inspired you to become an actor?
I have always been sort of a natural performer. You know, when I was little, I used to do impressions of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life and sort of crack my family up. It wasn’t really until I was in high school and college that I considered being an actor professionally. There was a long time when I was like, “Oh, well, maybe I would rather pursue an opera career,” or I’ve often thought about being a programmer. Those have all been things that have crossed my mind as possible career paths.
What was it in high school and college that changed your mind? What was the turning point?
When I was a high school senior, I went on a school trip to London and we saw the Punchdrunk production of Faust — you know, the company that does Sleep No More. We saw their adaptation of Faust in the spring of 2007, and I spent three hours that evening just totally excited and confused and aroused and scared and disoriented and really sort of overjoyed with the ways the theater was working on me. And that was a moment when I said I think I would like to devote my life to creating these kinds of experiences. And I think the best way that I can do that is as an actor.
2. Who in your field inspires you?
I’m really inspired by character actors who do really human work. I talk a lot about the late great Jerry Orbach as one of my greatest inspirations ever. I also love Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi. I love Donald Glover. I think that these guys all spend a lot of time creating really interesting, strange human beings in their work who never veer into parody or caricature and remain these sort of very relatable weirdos. I’m also very inspired by the writers and directors who those folks collaborate with. I think Adam McKay and Mike Scherer are some of the greatest creators of film and TV. I love like the work of Wes Anderson. It would be like a dream to be in a Wes Anderson movie.
3. What is it about Be More Chill that audiences love so much?
I think that, first and foremost, there is a craft and a subversiveness to the lyric that really appeals to people. I mean, first and foremost, people fell in love with this album before they could see the show. And I think that all of the songs are littered with really sort of regular, everyday language that is just carrying huge pathos. And I think that is like the whole show in a nutshell. The whole show is really like, you know it is at its core this exploration of human nature through a sci-fi lens. Like, if we could do this, what would we do and what could happen? And the fact that we sort of filter it through teen comedy and musical comedy is this sort of thing that really throws you off the scent in terms of how much this show is exploring emotionally and intellectually. I think that people are really into the fact that it’s a very deeply human story, but it’s not sort of overly poetic or overly formal. You know, these characters walk and talk like us.
Right. Like a high schooler.
Exactly. Or, you know, in some cases I mean like an adult — you know what I mean. I think that’s very believable: honest characters who just happen to be living in this, like, crazy-ass world.
With such passionate fans, what is the stage door like?
The stage door is very overwhelming … but it’s also very wonderful. It is truly flooring every night to see so many enthusiastic people, mostly young people, who are so excited about a) the theater, and b) specifically our theater, the theater that we are making. It is … The amount of love and gratitude that gets piled on us at the stage door is unlike anything that any human being could ever experience in any other setting, and it’s really, it’s incredible. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my whole life.
4. If you didn’t need to sleep at night, what would you spend your time doing?
Oh, I would be playing video games and watching short-form documentaries on YouTube. Like five- to 15-minute deep dives about how airlines choose routes for their planes. It is a really weird, esoteric topic.
Wait, so what is the best short-form documentary you’ve seen? Is it the airline path one? Because you had that answer ready.
I mean, that was just one that I watched very recently. I love ones that are like “What is the most isolated city in the world?” You know, weird little trivia stuff. I’m especially fascinated, I’ve always been fascinated by people’s jobs. Like, people say, “I work in marketing,” but what do you do in marketing? And what do you do when you do that? You know, I am very keenly interested in how many things people do, and so I particularly love really deep dives into topics that are seemingly of interest to no one because they are very much of interest to me.
Just so you know, this is what I will be doing when I get home.
You should look up, there’s this channel called Wendover Productions, they’re my favorite. They are all like six, seven minutes long and … you will learn everything about something you didn’t know existed. Listen, this is what I do for most of my meals. This is like my favorite thing: I find a 15-minute one and sit down and eat my lunch.
5. What is your favorite part about living in NYC?
My favorite thing about New York City is the absolute crush of humanity that we experience all the time. I moved out to Long Island when I was 8 and moved back when I went to college. So I spent like 10 years on Long Island, and I just remember when I started third grade out there, noting immediately the way that the diversity had decreased in my life. I came home from school and on my first day asked my mother why all of my classmates were white. It was a thing that had never occurred to me before when I went to a New York City public school. And so the diversity of the city is one thing that I really love. But also, I was out in L.A. a couple of years ago doing another Joe Iconis musical, and I felt so isolated in that city because you sort of walk out your door, you get in your car, you drive to where you’re going, you do whatever you’re doing there, and then you get back in your car and you go somewhere else. I found that I really, as an adult, missed walking down the street next to people, riding on the subway with people. I missed just having so many human bodies in close proximity to my own. It was a thing that I didn’t know that I loved until I was missing it.