Taylor Trensch knows a sentimental smash when he sees it.
Aaron Sorkin’s new Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Bartlett Sher, brings Harper Lee’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to life with Ed Harris as Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama. The three children at the heart of the story are played by adult actors; Trensch has replaced Tony nominee Gideon Glick as Dill, a neighbor boy who befriends Finch kids Scout (Nina Grollman) and Jem (Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson) while the trial exposes racism and social injustice in their small town.
Mockingbird marks Trensch’s sixth hit Broadway show following Wicked, Matilda, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Hello, Dolly!, and Dear Evan Hansen; he took over the latter’s lead from Ben Platt and Noah Galvin.
The out actor spoke to NewNowNext about his lucky streak and why he loves playing a queer young’un.
You’re coming in hot off Hello, Dolly! and Dear Evan Hansen. At this point in your career, are you only doing juggernauts?[Laughs] Exactly. Offer only for enormous commercial successes—I’m not interested in anything else! Being an actor is full of unknowns, so I feel preposterously lucky to be a part of shows that people want to see, and it’s nice to have a little bit of job security. It’s a dream come true.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history. Why has it resonated so strongly with audiences?
First of all, everyone in America has either read the book or seen the movie. It’s part of our DNA as a country, so people come in already loving the story. And Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant adaptation is aware of and addresses the time period we’re in now. There are frightening similarities, and so many of the lines are things we still hear today.
What drew you to Dill?
Well, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, and I were actually invited by producer Scott Rudin to read the first draft of the script as the kids. He told us that eventually these parts would be played by 9-year-olds, so we just came in to have fun. I’d read the book a bunch in school but I didn’t really remember Dill. When we sat down to read that first draft, I fell in love with the character, and I was so sad they were going to steal it away and give it to some child!
Dear Evan Hansen/Matthew Murphy
I’m glad they ultimately decided to cast adults. Why didn’t you open the play with Celia and Will?
At that point I had already signed up to do Dear Evan Hansen. I’m so happy this opportunity came back around, because Dill is so funny, so openhearted, like a tender clown. And how cool is it to see this gay little boy running around in 1930s Alabama, traipsing across the Shubert Theatre stage? It’s a delight to play him.
Even though Dill is very young, you approached him as a gay character.
Yeah, and also knowing that the character was based on Truman Capote, Harper Lee’s childhood best friend. I think Aaron Sorkin has even pulled in details from Truman’s life and peppered those in throughout the play. Being queer is a big part of the character. Also, just as a queer actor, I can’t help but bring a little bit of that sensibility to the part.
I don’t think my teacher mentioned Dill being queer when we studied Mockingbird in high school.
There are so many themes in the book that aren’t really taught. Racial injustice is the biggest theme, of course, but there are things about gender, sexuality, and parental neglect that really aren’t addressed in schools.
How much did Capote inform your performance? Did any research help you find the character?
Gideon was like a true scholar with all the work he did, but I did a little research. I read some of Capote’s early stories, some of his biography. It was fascinating, and I think there were tiny morsels that were helpful, but Aaron’s script and the source material are so rich that I drew mostly from what was on the page.
You were born and raised in Florida. Have you pulled from your own experiences growing up queer in the South?
Totally. Dill and I are actually very similar. Dill is so bright and wide open, eager to meet new people. My mom told me recently that as a child, if I saw someone I knew—and they could’ve been a mile away—I’d shout “Hi!” at the top of my lungs, just thrilled to see anybody, ready to make a friend.
How do you tap into Dill’s childlike quality without slipping into caricature?
Oh, I know as an audience member how awkward it can be to watch an adult playing a child. Our director, Bart Sher, was enormously helpful in reigning us in to something that felt real. We’re never playing the idea of what a child is. We’re just trying to be truthful with what we’re given, and the costumes and dialogue do a lot of heavy lifting for us.
You also have a youthful look that’s enabled you to play younger for years. Has that ever felt like a curse?
There was maybe a period in my 20s where I was like, I wanna be a grown-up! But now, at 30, I’m like, What creams do I buy to stay this way?
Next month Mockingbird will become the first Broadway play to perform at Madison Square Garden. Where does one go from there?
I know. I guess I have to do a stadium tour and go full Lady Gaga?
You’ll perform one night for 18,000 New York City public school students. Nervous?
I think it’s one of those things where I’ll pee my pants in excitement and poop my pants out of fear. [Laughs] What a cool opportunity for 18,000 New York City public school students to come see a Broadway play for free. It’s thrilling. But are we going to use the Jumbotron? Will my face be gigantic? That’s terrifying to me.
You’ve been in a lot of shows with very enthusiastic young fanbases, including Wicked, Dear Evan Hansen, and Rent. Bare particularly resonated with young queer audiences. Has that come with any pressure or responsibility?
I’ve been really lucky to play so many parts that are so beloved and that mean so much to people. So yeah, I do feel a responsibility. It’s also an honor and a privilege to play these parts that have become fixtures in the theater universe.
Those musicals also positioned you as a role model.
It’s crazy, because I have nothing to offer as a role model. I’m such an unextraordinary person.
You’re very open about your relationship with actor Ben Levi Ross on social media and in the press. Are you aware of what that visibility means to fans?
Yeah, but I didn’t set out with the intention to be visible. I came out to take care of myself, to live a happier life. But I do think that visibility is important. Growing up, I had very few queer people to look up to. The best way to encourage young people to come out, to live the lives they deserve to lead, is for them to see other queer people who are out, successful, and happy.
Hello, Dolly!/Julieta Cervantes
Have you always been out professionally, or was there a moment you had to make that decision?
I never had any intention of hiding anything. My first professional job was the national tour of Spring Awakening. We would do press in every city we visited, and early on I was asked if I wanted to talk to a gay publication. There was no hesitation, but I do remember thinking, Oh, right, this will be out there and available in perpetuity. But I love being gay, so there was never a question.
You’ve worked with a lot of great actors, but was it ever hard to keep your cool while doing Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler?
Yeah, inside I was always a little [squeals]. She made us feel so comfortable, though, and she’s also the most hardworking person I’ve ever met, so there was so little time to be like, “Miss Midler, I loved your work in First Wives Club!” But every performance there would be some moment where she’d be backlit, standing in front of me, and I’d be like, Oh, my God, Hocus Pocus!
Did she like your Carmen Miranda drag at her 2017 Hulaween event?
She did! Well, she didn’t recognize me for the first 30 minutes. We were taking pictures, and I think she was like, Who’s this woman? When she finally recognized me, she was like, “How dare you upstage me at my own party!”
To Kill a Mockingbird is now playing at the Shubert Theatre in New York.