Jai Rodriguez :: Life after ’Queer Eye’
Some times a good thing can be hard to shake. And, why would you want to?
Well, if you are an actor, being on a successful show playing a particular role can lead to typecasting and role steering for the rest of your career. Just ask Jai Rodriguez of the groundbreaking Emmy-winning BRAVO reality-TV show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
Rodriguez’s 5 season stint on "Queer Eye" (where his role as Culture Vulture allowed him to comment on trends and ideas) led the public to forget about his beginnings as a musical theater performer - instead, associating him exclusively with reality show personalities.
"When you think about it, post ’Queer Eye’ was when reality-TV first burst (heavily) on to the scene, and I was suddenly thrown in with a group of people I didn’t fit in with," says Rodriguez.
Before 2003’s "Queer Eye," Jai Rodriguez was already a notable actor and singer in musical theater circles, well on his way to becoming the next big thing on Broadway with singing roles in the Toronto cast of "RENT" (Angel) and the off-Broadway musical "Zanna, Don’t" (Zanna). He also had an acting role in "Spinning into Butter" at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan. And while on a "Queer Eye" hiatus, Rodriguez stepped into the role of Carmen Ghia for 3 months in Broadway’s "The Producers." Most people had almost forgotten that Jai could sing or even act, solely based on his hosting gig on "Queer Eye." "There was a period of time where I took "Queer Eye" off my resume so people wouldn’t be steered by that," says Rodriguez, in an attempt to reclaim acting and singing beginnings.
Claiming to have the hustle of a true New Yorker, Jai has spent the last 5 years after "Queer Eye" creating many opportunities for himself, and has managed to build quite a resume of guest star appearances on television shows like "Nip/Tuck," "Detroit 1-8-7," "Harry’s Law," "Bones" and others. This led to his role as a regular cast member on the Reba McEntire sitcom "Malibu Canyon" on ABC, becoming the first male reality-TV cast member to be cast as a regular on a major TV network series.
Speaking of the people who have now forgotten his tenure on "Queer Eye," Rodriguez says "I think I have successfully crossed over enough, and enough time has passed that people no longer look at the small line on my resume that says ’Queer Eye.’" It has only been recently, with the 10-year anniversary celebratory appearances with fellow "Queer Eye" cast mates Carson Kressley, Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas and Thom Filicia, that the public has been reminded of Rodriguez’s beginnings on cable television.
Beyond being a fine actor with great comedic timing, what surprises people the most is how great a singer Jai Rodriguez is. Beyond his appearance on the musical stage in primary singing roles, Jai also released an album in 2007, and hasn’t ruled out expanding his career to singing/song writing. It is his singing that has definitely allowed him to give back to the organizations and causes he believes in, by performing in fundraising benefits across the country.
Before returning to San Francisco to appear in another annual Help Is On The Way concert benefit for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation on December 9th, I had a chance to put my queer eye inquisition to work on Jai, and uncovered how he struggled to find his way in Season One of "Queer Eye,". We discussed how the Emmy-winning reality-TV show was the sore eye on his resume, how he has been able to survive as a Latin gay actor in Hollywood, how his approach to auditions has become his life lesson, and how life after "Queer Eye" keeps getting brighter and brighter.
Getting ’Queer Eye’
BeBe: When most people hear your name, I’m sure they automatically think of you and ’Queer Eye’. But you had the beginnings of a thriving stage career prior to that show. What was the catalyst that made you interrupt your theater career to audition for a reality TV show?
Jai Rodriguez: Well, I never would have thought that a TV show like ’Queer Eye’ would have been the one to make me famous. I would have thought something like ’(American) Idol’ would have been the one because I was a performer, and like, well-known in that arena. But, ’Queer Eye’ happened in conjunction with my stage work. Ten years ago Bravo was a very small cable network. They didn’t have much programming, but they were owned by NBC, who of course had money, and they took a chance with ’Queer Eye.’ It really helped them get an audience. Then bringing on ’Project Runway’ helped them keep an audience. But, I didn’t leave my job. I left ’RENT’ for a 6-month hiatus to do an off-Broadway musical called ’Zanna, Don’t.’ I would do that at night while shooting ’Queer Eye’ during the day because during Season One, we didn’t make a whole lot of money. I needed to have both jobs.
My intention was literally to do the musical and ’Queer Eye.’ (I thought that) ’Queer Eye’ would run its little course on a little network where no one would see it, and then back to ’RENT.’ But what happened instead was by doing both the musical and ’Queer Eye,’ I got so tired that I decided to leave ’Zanna, Don’t.’ Two weeks later ’Queer Eye’ debuted to phenomenal ratings, and suddenly, my life changed. I gave my notice to ’RENT’ that I wouldn’t be coming back from my 6-month leave. It was a crazy, outrageous thing that happened. By no stretch of the imagination did I ever think that ’Queer Eye’ was going to amount to anything, especially with the word ’queer’ in the title. I was hoping no one would watch it because I didn’t want to be outed in the theatrical community. I thought that would really hurt my career back then.
BeBe: Well, not so much of a ’coming out.’ but more of a ’now everybody knows.’
Jai Rodriguez: It was like a commitment. I was like all right now, everyone knows that I’m gay. They were going to get to know me for a field (reality TV host) I’m not super passionate about. When we started ’Queer Eye’ they were set on me being the Puerto Rican Emily Post for the modern gay man. But, I didn’t have that skill set. They hired me strictly because I was a performer and charismatic with high energy. But, what I was doing in Season One wasn’t organically close to who I was. As the season progressed, I sort of found my way and started doing things where I felt I could contribute what I knew how to do, strictly with my background. Being 23 years old shooting that show, it was tricky because a lot of that stuff was a very adult matter. Now that I’m 34, the age of the other guys when we started, I get their perspective. Ten years ago, I didn’t have enough life experience.
BeBe: You hit upon what the times were like ten years ago being a gay actor and thinking that being open about that, at the time, would have hurt your career. Well, you are out and the show has been over since 2007. Have opportunities in any realm of entertainment been negatively affected for you because you are openly gay?
Jai Rodriguez: Thank God, I have done so much television in non-reality (TV genre). I guest starred on everything from ’Nip/Tuck’ to ’Harry’s Law’ (NBC) where I played a transgendered woman, to ’Bones’ (FOX), where I played a murderer, to being the first male who garnered fame on a reality show to become a series regular on a network TV show. I was on ’Malibu Country’ (ABC) all year (2012-2013 season) with Reba McEntire and Lily Tomlin. So, I think I have successfully crossed over enough, and enough time has passed that people no longer look at the small line on my resume that says ’Queer Eye.’ They’re more interested in the high number of guest star roles or season regular roles that I’ve had.
It’s funny because when I auditioned for ’Malibu Country,’ they saw that I had an Emmy on my resume and asked what I had won it for, and I said ’Queer Eye’. They said ’what did you do on that?’ I said ’I was one of the 5 guys.’ But, there was a period of time where I took ’Queer Eye’ off my resume so people wouldn’t be steered by that. So, I loved it when I got the job based on my audition. When you think about it, post-’Queer Eye’ was when Reality-TV first burst (heavily) on to the scene, and I was suddenly thrown in with a group of people I didn’t fit in with. People from ’The Bachelor,’ people from ’The A-List: New York,’ we were all considered the same thing, yet I was an Emmy-winning host for a show that was highly produced, and we were really, really working. It wasn’t like a docu-reality TV show.
BeBe: It isn’t surprising to me to hear of your ability to cross over, so to speak, into other TV genres because you are one of those thespians who has been able to work in many different disciplines. You have done dramatic and musical stage work. You’ve done a lot of television which you mentioned. You’ve done film (’The New Guy’ (2002), ’The Producers’ (2005), ’Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!’ (2009)). And, you’ve recorded an album (on Airgo Records) back in 2007. I’m sure that all has been a benefit for you because it kept you employed (we laugh). But, if you had to choose one of those disciplines to spend the rest of your career in, what one would it be?
Jai Rodriguez: I think it would be a hybrid. I would like to do a show like a musical and like a stage show ala Kathy Griffin with Bruno Mars elements so I could still perform and still be theatrical on a stage. I love an audience. The great thing about being on a sitcom is you get instant applause or gasps. When you do single camera stuff and there’s no audience, you have to wait months before you know what anyone thought about the work. So, I’d like a sitcom or a John Leguizamo-meets Kathy Griffin-meets Bruno Mars touring concert type thing. It is interesting because I never thought I would be doing so many different things. I always thought I was going to be a Broadway performer until the day I died. I didn’t have TV aspirations.
I certainly had no aspirations to live in L.A. I’m a die-hard New Yorker. So, it’s interesting because now I live in L.A. and when I go to New York, I feel like a tourist. Back in the day, you had to be able to sing, dance and act. That was the way it was. Now people are like ’I’m just an actor’, and I’m like ’good luck with that.’ I don’t know how they will make it work with just one thing. I’ve been blessed and fortunate and done the hustle. I don’t sit back and wait for the phone to ring. I’ll create work where there isn’t work. That for me has gotten me by all these years so I haven’t had to have a sideline job. I have that New York hustle in me.
Many people ask me if it feels limiting being Latino and an out gay man in Hollywood? I say it’s really about creating your own vehicles and walking into auditions completely prepared and like you already own the part. Originally my role on ’Malibu Country’ was written urban black. A girlfriend of mine once told me that when you walk into an audition where you make such a strong choice, you either get the call you booked the job on your way walking to your car, or you’re being escorted off the property. In a city like L.A., where there are hundreds of thousands of actors, fate does not get you the job. You have to walk in and be the shit from day one. I think that’s just a life lesson.
A new album?
BeBe: You released your debut album some 6 years ago. Have you considered revisiting studio recording again?
Jai Rodriguez: I’ve thought about just releasing a single and seeing how it goes, but it is a competitive market and you have to be super passionate in devoting the time for promotion and proper exposure. It’s really going to depend on what happens with the Spring (2014) season of television with all the pilots and stuff.
BeBe: Are you working on anything new that you can tell us about?
Jai Rodriguez: Well, I’m auditioning for a pilot that won’t start until February, but I’m really excited that I have a TV movie coming up on NBC called ’Kelly Clarkson’s Cautionary Music Tale.’ It’s a one-hour holiday movie where Kelly plays herself and I play her long suffering assistant. It’s basically a hyper-reality thing where she plays a diva version of herself. The undertone is sort of the Scrooge holiday story (’A Christmas Carol’) where she learns the meaning of Christmas. It’s me and her, William Shatner, Whoopie Goldberg, Ken Jeong (’The Hangover,’ ’The Office’), Blake Shelton, Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood. I keep calling this my audition for NBC comedy. I really got lucky with this because Reba is Kelly’s mother-in-law, and they share the same manager (Narvel Blackstock), who’s Reba’s husband. When Kelly was reading the script, she was wondering whom she would get to play her assistant, and she thought maybe she could get the guy who played Reba’s assistant on her sitcom, ’Malibu Country.’ Kelly thought I was funny. So, they called me and said that Kelly specifically wanted me to play this part in her movie. It was really very flattering.
Jai Rodriguez joins Debby Boone, Bruce Vilanch, Tim Hockenberry, ’X-Factor’s’ Jason Brock and more in a performance at the Help Is On The Way For The Holidays XII Concert & Benefit Gala 2013 benefiting the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation (REAF) on Monday, Dec. 9 at the Marines’ Memorial Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit visit this website.
Jai also co-stars with Kelly Clarkson, Reba McEntire, Whoopie Goldberg and Trisha Yearwood in "Kelly Clarkson’s Cautionary Music Tale" on NBC on Dec. 11.