MJ Rodriguez is a force on and off the stage. She has had breakthrough roles in Rent (playing Angel in the 2011 off-Broadway production), Runaways at Encore! City Centers, and the world premiere of Burn All Night this past summer at the American Repertory Theater, as well as notable roles in tv and film. Her vivacity is undeniable and links all of her performances together. That energy is equally visible in her life outside of acting, being a vocal and proud trans woman speaking up for herself and her community. MJ and I recently spoke the importance of theater, what auditioning for Hamilton meant to her and how playing Angel in Rent changed her life.
Tell me about when you first knew that you wanted to be an actor.
I was 7 years old. I wanted to be everything under the sun but my main passion was singing and I wanted to act while doing so. And thank goodness I can move well so I can get past some dance auditions. I’m not a technical dancer. This is definitely something that I want to do. When I was 7, I wanted to see if that acting world would accept someone who was predominantly a singer. And it’s just carried through, throughout the years.
What was the first show you saw and what was the first show you saw on Broadway?
The first show I saw was Rent when I was 11 years old, I saw the movie. My first musical on Broadway was Wicked and then I went to see Rent on Broadway right after because I had to see it.
You played Angel in the off-Broadway production of Rent in 2011. When you saw Rent on Broadway, did you have a sense that you would be in that show?
I was in this program at NJPAC [New Jersey Performing Arts Center] at the age of 11 and all of the kids said, “Oh my god, MJ, you have to play Angel”. At that time, I really did want to play Angel, but I was in denial, I didn’t want anyone knowing about my trans-ness. At that time in 2000/2001, our existence as trans people was not at the forefront. I would say, “I don’t know, maybe one day” but in my mind I would be thinking, “Hell yeah, I’m going to play Angel!” Then I went to see the movie and then the musical on stage. I told my dad that I wanted to be in that show and he said “In due time.” Once he said that, it lit a fire under me because if my father said it’s okay, then everything is okay.
When I was in college, the opportunity presented itself through [original Broadway cast member] Fredi Walker Browne. I was 18 or 19 and Fredi saw me in a college production of the show and helped me to get in the door for an audition for the off-Broadway production. I got 5 callbacks and I got the part. I got to be me, fully and completely who I was on stage. I got to literally rub my soul all over that stage. I lived for it.
In your 2016 Playbill.com interview, you shared that while you were living your life on stage, you were still not out as a trans woman off-stage. To be able to live your truth on the stage says a lot about the power of theater.
It’s very, very true. At that time physically, I couldn’t be who I wanted to be but in my head I was a girl with a short haircut, a girl who wears baggy clothes but one day is going to grow out of her tomboy stage. That’s who I was in my head for all of my life until that time. When I was 19 and 20 years old playing Angel in Rent, I had to ask myself if I was going to stay in my tomboy stage so people could be comfortable or be in the phase of the complete feminine creature that I’ve always been. The time came and I said, “Girl, it’s time for you to put on some lipstick and be the woman you always knew you were and have always been.”
One of my best friends now, who I met through Rent, she came to me after the show and said, “I see you girl.” I thought, “Oh no, she knows. She knows through the baggy clothes, through the short cut hair.” That made my heart light up because it meant if she knows, then other people saw. I was very ready but I didn’t think the world was ready. I accommodated to the world. And this is all due to Rent.
You auditioned to play the Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds track in Hamilton: An American Musical. Can you tell me about that experience?
There was a video that I had made in my room. This was at the time in my life when I had decided that the woman I am has to be shown, honey. I had to blossom into the person I wanted to be. And for people to see that I don’t have to be a stigma. So I made the video and put it out there and it got a lot of views. I got a call from my agent telling me that Bernie Telsey [casting agent] wants me to come in for Hamilton. I said, “Are you joking?” but then I remembered that I’ve been working with them since I was 10 years old, we are family. Two weeks after the audition I was feeling blessed that I got to go in, that they saw me, Jeffrey Seller (producer) and Lin Manuel Miranda. They were all in the room and Daveed [Diggs, original Lafayette/Jefferson in Hamilton] said, “MJ, you’re beautiful.” I thought, “Oh my god, they see me. They see me.” The two weeks had passed and I thought I have to let people know that no one is closed off to trans women auditioning for cis gender roles and Telsey is one of those people. Like I said, didn’t expect anybody to notice. And girl, it went viral. Right after that, they called me in for a final callback.
I’ve gotten into the mindset that once I get a final callback, I’m not even bothered if I don’t get the show or I do because it’s a blessing enough to have these people see you. That means they may consider you for something else.
Why is it important for you to be play both trans women and cis gender women?
We have to create an even plane for trans women so that we don’t become a trend. I don’t want to be a trend. I want to be someone who can act in any role. I love playing who I am because that makes people more aware. But also with being more aware, people need to be aware that if a cis gender person can play a trans role, then a trans person can play a cis gender role as well. Being able to play Una in Burn All Night and not be signified as trans and play a cis woman and be a mother of the pack is beautiful thing because people look past it. I have to thank Jenny [Koons, director] and Sam [Pinkleton, choreographer] and everyone in the creative team because they looked past that. Once you look past the label, people say, “Okay, we get it.” And they got it.
You were recently in Burn All Night . The music in the showis so good [score by the Teen Commandments]. How did you get cast in that show?
Jenny Koons [show director] is one of my good friends. We were texting and I said, “Girl, this music is on point!” Everyone fell in love with the music.
Jenny hit me up and said, “I think you may be great for this role.” I wrote back to her saying, “Girl, you know I’m down to do anything you are involved in.” We had worked together before in Runaways at Encores! City Center. Not only are we great working partners but we are great friends. Knowing that I was working with my boo, Sam Pinkleton again [they also worked together on Runaways], it was perfect. And the cast was beautiful.
Burn All Night was performed in the Oberon at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, which is a club theater space as an immersive musical. What was it like to perform right next to, among, and through the audience?
I am someone who loves people. I love interaction, so being next to the audience was totally fine, I wasn’t scared. There was a time that I used to love going to the club and dancing, so just as people were watching me, I was watching them. I was enjoying how people were watching the story. It was inclusive and immersive.
You identify yourself as a POC trans woman. That is a dangerous category to belong to in terms of violence. [As of September 14, 2017, 21 transgender women have been murdered this year, all but two of those women were people of color.] What do you want people to understand about wanting to feel safe as a trans woman of color?
I just want to feel like every other person. This is no shade to them, but I think that cis gender, hetero individuals can walk down the street and be totally fine. Yes, there are terrible things that can happen but statistically, it does not happen to them as much as it would happen to a trans person, especially an African-American trans person. I want that weight to be lifted. Even with my career rising, I still feel susceptible to anything. I get cat-called down the street. A lot of people do not know my transness but when I do state it, because most of the time I do state it out of respect and also out of pure fear, I wish I didn’t have to worry about being on my heels about someone messing with me. I had to deal with that when I was younger and I’m a grown-ass woman now. I don’t have time to be worrying about what someone is saying or about what someone is trying to project onto me mentally or physically. I wish there was someone, a prominent cis, hetero individual to tell people that they got to stop. To say, “These trans men and women are just like us. No different. They are human spirit, just like us.” I guess the risk to them is miniscule but it’s not to us. There’s not many of us. We have aspirations and goals. We are not a stigma.
What advice would you give to people who are struggling with coming out?
I would tell them to take 20 minutes out of their time to look at themselves in the mirror and tell themselves that they are enough. Also, try to find places where there is a community of LGBT people who you can talk to and feel safe around. It may be hard but things do reveal themselves and do change. Don’t be afraid to talk to your parents. And then keep pushing forward, don’t move backwards. Most of the time when they say negative things, they are coming from a place of not knowing and fear. My mom is the best thing that has ever happened to me, she has always been supportive. But as all parents do, she went through a faze of asking “Why? I don’t understand.” Sometimes that may be projected as anger. One day after I had come out to her, my mother called me and said, “I get it.” I was blessed enough to be able to transition while I was with my mom. It was the best thing ever, I don’t know how I would have transitioned by myself. I had the wisdom of my mother here and she got to see me blossom into the person I was always meant to be.
What’s next for your career?
I just completed a movie that I made an appearance in, it’s called Adam, it’s going to be coming out in 2018. I was recently in a concert for Rent. And there are some other wonderful things that are happening that I can’t talk about yet but you will see something very soon.
A woman with equal passion for her theater community and her LGBT community, MJ is creating a body of work that is both powerful and eclectic. From that little girl who just wanted to be seen, to a “grown-ass woman” who cannot be ignored, I cannot wait to see what’s next for this dedicated actress.
If you would like more information about gender identity and what it means to be transgender, please check out at the resources at The Human Rights Campaign or GLAAD.