Call Answered: Julee Cerda: "Children of a Lesser God" on Broadway,
I remember watching Julee Cerda on Netflix's Orange is the New Black. I was impressed with her acting, so needless to say, I was quite excited to receive an e-mail asking if I wanted to interview Julee as she readies to open Broadway's Children of a Lesser God alongside Joshua Jackson & Lauren Ridloff! I get the 411 on this incredible show! Julee really opens up about the whole process from auditioning to the Williamstown out-of-town-tryout to getting ready for Broadway.
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I actually never realized I wanted to become a performer until much later in life, but I do have a vivid memory of the first time I was inspired to even consider it. I was in high school taking a drama literature class and our teacher would organize these field trips into Manhattan to go see a Broadway play. This one time she took us to go see Les Miserables, and I was floored. I wept from beginning to end. Not only because it was a sad story, but because I was so moved by the entire production of it—the heartfelt songs, the grand stage scenery, the choreography, the conflicted storyline…I was so touched by the level of effort it took to tell this one story and I remember thinking to myself, “I want to tell stories like this.”
2. What made you initially want to audition for Children of a Lesser God? I had lunch with director Kenny Leon, way before the show was given the green light, and listened to him talk about the play and how he wanted to bring it to life. What struck me was that he had hired a deaf coach (who turns out to be Lauren Ridloff) not only to teach him ASL but because he truly wanted to immerse himself into her world in order to be able to tell an authentic story. I was so inspired to hear his level of commitment that I even went to the Drama Bookshop after our lunch to purchase a copy of the play. I did not expect to be auditioning for the show, but a few months later got a call to do a reading of the play and that’s how it all started.
3. What do you identify most with about your character, "Edna"? What is one characteristic of hers that you are glad you yourself don't possess? "Edna" is a civil rights activist lawyer who steps in to defend the right of the deaf and hard of hearing in the play. Now, one does not become a civil rights activist lawyer without having some sort of deep-rooted passion for humanitarian causes and so I think that’s how I most identify with "Edna." We’re both humanitarians at heart with a strong passion for “justice for all.” On top of that, she’s a woman—a female lawyer from the late 70s who probably would’ve experienced a lot of discrimination as a high-powered professional woman from that era. Obviously, I can relate to this not only as a woman but as a minority too. I love "Edna," so I can’t say there is a characteristic of hers that I’m glad I do not have. She has so many wonderful qualities. But one thing is for sure, I am glad I am not a real lawyer.
4. What did you learn about your character from the Williamstown Berkshires run that you feel will influence your portrayal on Broadway? I learned that no matter how inclusive or “woke” you consider yourself to be, that it’s almost inherent you will make naïve assumptions and/or say inappropriate things on subjects that are not inherently yours. And that’s okay. That’s how we learn and grow as human beings.
5. What are you looking forward to about the Broadway run of Children' of a Lesser God? Just to be on a Broadway stage with the most inspiring and deserving group of actors I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and to tell a story about “finding your voice” in a time when it matters so much.
Over the next few questions, let's break down the plot of Children of a Lesser God. Children of a Lesser God tells the story of an unconventional teacher at a school for the deaf and the remarkable woman he meets there. As their relationship heats up, so does their desire to connect — igniting a thrilling exploration of passion, intimacy, and what we surrender when we fall in love.
6. What is the most unconventional thing you feel you have done in your career? Believe it or not, staying true to who I am. As an actor, we are constantly asked to read for roles that don't feel right to us for whatever reason. And it's tricky because most of us are not in a position to refuse any opportunity that comes our way. But I do think, no matter what level you're at in your career, it's important to say no to something that feels very wrong to you. Acting is an art. Creating art should not be a chore. It should bring you joy.
7. Besides acting, what are you passionate about? My family. I have a three-year-old daughter and have been having a blast with the whole parenting thing, like figuring out how to be the best role model for her. I truly believe that if there is one thing I can contribute to the greater good of our society, it's my child. So I will do my best to shape and influence her into becoming a better (not perfect) version of me. Hopefully, she'll turn out to be a really nice person with a big heart. That's all I want for her.
8. What is the most intimate thing you are willing to reveal about yourself? I’ve battled with depression for quite some time. It’s a constant attempt to balance the ebbs and flow of it, but I’m finally at a point where I believe I am in control of it. For a long time, I didn’t realize I was depressed. Looking back, all signs of behavior point obviously to it. It wasn’t until I had reached an ultimate low with depression, to the point of considering suicide, did I realize I needed help. And it was a very tough thing for me to hear at first but ultimately I accepted it. And once I accepted it, that’s when things started changing for me. That’s when I met my husband and when my career starting turning for the better.
9. If you have fallen in love, what do you feel you surrendered to do it? My guard. I was raised to build a wall that shielded my heart from anything that would hurt me. But when I fall in love, I completely surrender my entire, unguarded heart over to that person. It is the scariest and most vulnerable position to be in. I’m an Aquarius after all.
10. As an Asian Latin American actress, what do you feel has been the most challenging part to get cast compared to other actors? What do you think was the role that led you to get cast more & what was it about that role do you think opened the door? The most challenging thing is that people just don’t know how to categorize me because sadly, we still live in a state where we bucket people into these ethnic categories. Luckily for some who are of mixed race, “ethnically ambiguous” has become a bucket they can fall into. But that doesn't work for me because I look more Asian. The funny thing is, I grew up with father’s Dominican side of the family so I identify more with my Latina side. But I rarely ever called in to play a Latina because I simply just don’t look the part. So I’ve had to really sit down and try to figure out who I am and decided I had to let go of focusing on my ethnicity and focus more on my personality type which is strong, smart, and authoritative. I've had success with this shift in focus and that’s why you’ll see me playing doctor, lawyer, journalist, and even police officer a lot more. The ethnicity thing just becomes a subset of the role.
11. You credit your success to the following quote: “Don’t let fear rule you. Dare to try. Dare to fail. Only then will you experience success.” How did you come up with this quote and were there specific events that lead you to create this specific quote? You know, I think at the time I was taking an improv class that turned out to be one of the most inspiring classes I ever took. It required getting up in front of the room and doing improvisational character work that rooted from your emotional life and it was scary. But like any improvisation (even comedic ones) the “unknown” will always scare you because you cannot plan ahead how you're going to save it. You simply have to dive into it blindly and oftentimes go down in that sinking ship in front of a live audience. The sinking part makes you want to crawl into a cave and never come out again but can't. So you're forced to recover. And when you recover, it is the most amazing, genius-inspiring, and exciting thing that I truly believe one could ever experience. I think everyone needs to try improvisation.
More on Julee:
Julee Cerda is an accomplished American actor who has made a career tackling the lives of strong, smart women, and in April she will be appearing in the upcoming Broadway revival of Mark Medoff’s CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon) in the role of "Edna Klein," a civil rights activist lawyer from the late 1970s. On screen Julee has guest starred on numerous hit TV series including HOMELAND, HOUSE OF CARDS, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, BILLIONS, NURSE JACKIE, WHITE COLLAR, and ROYAL PAINS. On film she recently appeared in Morten Tyldum’s PASSENGERS with Chris Pratt and Nancy Meyers’ THE INTERN with Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. As a supporter of diversity and women in the arts, Julee is proud to have worked with emerging playwrights Maya Contreras in the world premiere of THE BLOODLINE OF SHADRICK GRACE (FringeNYC), Lydia R. Diamond in a regional production of SMART PEOPLE (True Colors Theatre), and Lauren D. Yee in a New York production of OVER THE ASIAN AIRWAVES. She is also currently appearing in several national AT&T commercials in the popular “Spokespeople” campaign series.
Julee was born in South Korea and raised in New York and the Dominican Republic, where she learned to speak fluent Spanish. “My mixed heritage has allowed me to appreciate the full spectrum of a very colorful life which ultimately inspired me to share my own experiences through acting and comedy.” After graduating from Marist College with a B.A., Julee enrolled in several acting programs in New York including T. Schreiber Studio, the Ward Acting School for Meisner, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, and the LAByrinth Theater Company. She also had the pleasure of forming her own Latino-based sketch comedy troupe called Tangana! where she developed and performed original sketch and stand-up every month at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe between 2010-2012.