If you only know Jai Rodriguez from his time on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, you don’t really know Jai Rodriguez.
Yes, he won us over (and won an Emmy Award) as one of the original stars of the Bravo series, but he’s so much more than that. Jai’s career includes film, television, music and the stage. He started touring with his new cabaret show in January and you’ve also seen him recently in episodes of EastSiders and Dollface.
And somewhere in all of that, he took time out to talk with me about the many sides of his career, the exposure he gained from Queer Eye (plus his thoughts on the new cast), and what he remembers from a little show called Celebrity Duets that he wowed on back in 2006.
Brittany Frederick: You had quite a few projects out recently. Were you working on all of them at the same time, or how busy is your schedule usually?
Jai Rodriguez: It’s so wild because EastSiders, the fourth and final season, I shot that a year ago. Then because of the partnership with Netflix, they were just trying to figure out when the perfect launch was, and I think they decided [on] right after Thanksgiving, make it binge-worthy. So that one happened a year ago.
And then with Dollface, that’s a funny story because I actually worked with Kat Dennings on a pilot for CBS that didn’t go, literally a year from this past spring. So when I got into the hair and makeup trailer I’m like, oh, I guess we’re just doing this every year. And that was really fun because that was a night shoot, so we were shooting literally until five in the morning. And right after that shoot, I drove to Palm Springs and married a couple for their afternoon wedding.
BF: Many actors say they want to have that kind of versatility in their careers. So what’s the secret to your success, per se, of actually having that versatility?
JR: I just began my career that way at 18, joining the cost of Rent. I got to first-hand kind of be almost two characters because Angel, the character I played, is in drag and half the show and then out of drag half the show. You’re kind of switching hats even though you’re the same person.
Then when they brought the original actor [Wilson Jermaine Heredia] back to re-learn the show that he could do the movie, I went to being his understudy but then I also swung the other roles in the show. So suddenly I had to play all these different roles. I had to adjust my voice to sound perhaps older in one scene or perhaps a bit more grit as this character and maybe this character has a little bit more of a rock-pop sound.
It was really kind of learning early on that to have sustainability in this industry, play with all the colors that are in your kit. And that’s what I really have always done. Part of the thrill of being in entertainment for me, and sustainability, was quite simply being able to be that chameleon.
BF: When people see you live, is there something that you particularly want to surprise them with?
JR: The number one thing people say [is] “I had no idea you could sing”…Unless they were watching the show I moved here for, which was on FOX called Celebrity Duets. There’s a bunch of videos of me dueting with these different celebrities – Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Taylor Dayne and Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child. It’s kind of a forgotten-about thing because I’ve worked so much more as an actor than as a singer. And so that kind of is the big takeaway is like, “Oh my God, I had no idea.”
BF: Celebrity Duets was an underrated show. How much do you recall from the actual filming? Was it as fun as it looked?
JR: I actually love doing it. For me, it was the closest I’ll ever get to being on American Idol. We had the same band, we had the same everything really, behind the scenes. So for us, it was like living out that fantasy.
BF: In your acting career, many of your roles have been comedic, like in Dollface. Is there something about comedy that attracts you?
JR: Those are the roles that are just oddly fitting like a glove. And I’ll tell you why I think that is…I think there’s hearkening back to [the] early Queer Eye days where I was 24. Then when I’m in the room as a grown man, they’re like oh, actually we’re like auditioning for her boyfriend. It’s just an interesting vibe, which is great because again, I’m a proponent of being able to showcase all the shades that you can be.
Garry Marshall had this theater in Burbank, now called the Garry Marshall Theatre, it [used to be] called the Falcon. He did this play [Buyer & Cellar], was producing it, right before his passing and they wanted me to go in for it. One-person play and you play seven different characters…so forming how those characters speak and the way that they walk and how they carry themselves was really just all on me and our great director Dmitri Toscas. And it was really, really cool because I had an opportunity to showcase a great deal.
That show, that role, got me with the agency I’m with now, which is Gersh, and it really kind of shifted how people saw me as an actor for better. So that’s why I’m leaning into doing that. Some people may feel like they need to force a brand to happen, force themselves to be one thing or another, and I think that’s really the wrong way to look at things for longevity in this industry. If you can do a bunch of different things and you can do them well, you should!
BF: Do you have a favorite role that you really loved doing, or just wish that more people would have gotten the chance to see?
JR: 100 percent [it] would have to be when I played Usnavi, which is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s role in In The Heights. I did that role for three months at San Diego Repertory Theater. I previously had hosted a benefit for In The Heights where I got to sing with the cast and emcee their show, so I kind of met Lin through that. But for me, the biggest thing was just being able to step into this iconic role. This guy who’s from the Dominican Republic who rapped, who maybe I wouldn’t be first on the list [to play]…and I myself am kind of impressed with of how well the role fit. I happen to be Puerto Rican from New York, and so many of the through-lines of In The Heights were so close to my own experience that it wasn’t a difficult shift. That was a role I wish I could have done on Broadway or in Los Angeles.
I do have my eyes set on hopefully doing Hamilton at some point in my career. That would honestly be a bucket list item for sure, and one that people might not necessarily right off the bat think Jai Rodriguez for it, but it’s definitely something that fits me like a glove.
BF: You mentioned Queer Eye earlier. I’m curious if the popularity of that show helped you establish your own personal career, since people got to know you there as yourself first.
JR: It didn’t open doors for acting. In fact, it was a real hurdle. Queer Eye in some ways has helped in the sense of there’s a recognition…but I think in terms of the way you’re speaking about connecting to a character, [there is] a familiar vibe about me but they can’t pinpoint. They have no idea. I remember doing Bones and having Emily Deschanel say to me, are you familiar? I was like oh, I was in Queer Eye, and suddenly her face lit up. And so it helps me that way. But it definitely didn’t open doors for me acting.
Thankfully now I have an undisputable resume that has a lot of diverse characters. It makes it a lot easier to be able to step into roles or to even get appointments. It’s almost better in some ways than being so identified. I really struggled with, when I was doing Queer Eye, reading and having people be like, what’d you do again? That would bother me. Now I love it because I’m not pigeonholed into oh, you’re just fashion guy, or whatever it is.
BF: Is there anything else that you do want people to be more aware of with you, or anything else that you’d want to say to readers?
JR: Obviously the new Queer Eye is out and I’m obsessed with the cast. I think they did an incredible job casting it. I think they’re all where we need to be in 2019 in terms of raising the visibility of all our differences. Tan, who I believe is of Indian descent, who’s a Muslim who’s married to a Mormon, and from the UK, he checked a lot of boxes. Jonathan, he’s really non-binary and a great example of where queer society is at the moment.
And I’m glad they didn’t try to do what they did to us because it was a different era. I remember having to always wear a blazer to present as older. My age became an issue, because the guys were about a decade older than me. That was always something that was in play and always brought up. It was kind of refreshing to be able to see Karamo [Brown] wearing a fitted cap. I would’ve never been allowed to wear a Yankees cap or whatever. That’s just not something that wouldn’t have been encouraged. So I’m just happy to see that the show has evolved with the times.
The only thing I’m jealous about with these boys is they have social media and we didn’t. I would’ve loved to have had that instant connection with fans as opposed to having them write letters or start chat groups or whatever it was back in the day. I wish we had social media back then. People are welcome to find me, because I’m with social media. Like if you DM me, I’m DMing you right back. I’m that guy. I treat it like a text message. (laughs) Fans are always like, is this really you? I’m like, yeah, what do you think I’m doing?
Article content is (c)2020 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr.