Colby Lewis has blunt advice for aspiring actors: “Fail beautifully. It’s the only true way to learn and succeed.” The East Mecklenburg High School alum should know: He failed spectacularly in an audition for “Hamilton,” which ultimately led to him getting a starring role in the Chicago production of America’s hottest musical.
Let him tell it:
“I read for a part when it was at the Public Theatre in New York (spring 2015, pre-Broadway). I went in to understudy Hercules Mulligan/James Madison and got stuck on the hip-hop, totally breaking down. Bethany Knox, the casting agent, said, ‘Start over.’ I tried again and it went downhill from there, with me just singing ‘Mumma mumma mumma.’ I figured, ‘That’s the end of my “Hamilton” experience’ and became kind of a ‘Hamilton’-hater.
“Tracy Byrd, a friend from UNC-Wilmington, moved to New York and kept saying, ‘You know you can be in that show.’ I downloaded the cast album and started listening every day on the treadmill at the gym. Tracy and I made a video, singing a neo-soul number called “Girlfriend”; it randomly got a lot of views, my agent sent it to ‘Hamilton,’ and within a week, I got a call.
“I had to learn not only that Mulligan/Madison rap but also Lafayette/Jefferson. My audition with Bethany and (music director) Alex Lacamoire went well. Over the next three months, I kept going back, and they would add another part every time: George Washington, Aaron Burr, even John Laurens. In my final callback, I just riffed off everything and sang every male role except Hamilton. And I got the job.”
Sure enough, the Windy City gig meant understudying every major role except Hamilton – and then, when he’d proved himself, taking over as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson last January. Leading-man status made him visible enough for the NBC-TV show “Chicago Med” to cast him in the recurring role of Dr. Terry McNeal. (The show, on NBC on Thursdays, returns to the air Jan. 9.)
Good work for a guy who never appeared in a single play in high school – he didn’t even take a theater class – went to college intending to get a business degree and says he’s considered the third-best singer in his immediate family, behind his dad (a firefighter and church minister of music) and sister (an occupational therapist).
A fluke encounter in his last weeks of high school in 2006 revealed the future he didn’t know awaited. He’d been “a four-year basketball player, student-government kind of dude” who ambled into a theater class once to hear an actor alumnus speak.
“I had participated in a talent show the year before, so friends forced me to sing in front of this guy. We started playing improv games, including ‘Bus Stop,’ where you’d be a character until somebody else sat down, and you’d slide over and become another character. I was a clown, a goofy kid, so I relished that. I was on my way out the door when the teacher (Glenda Kale) asked ‘Where have you been?’ I was like, ‘Uhhhh…in the gym?’ She said, ‘You seem to have a knack for this. Promise me you’ll take at least one acting class in college.’ I thought, ‘OK, cool,’ and walked off. I never had another interaction with her, but I kept my promise.”
He fell in love with theater at UNC-Wilmington, where he played basketball informally every chance he got. (“That’s still my refuge. Whenever I am sick of the theater, I play pickup ball.”) A talent scout for “One Tree Hill” cast him as a basketball extra; later, he got a guest spot on that TV show. He did “Rent” and “Five Guys Named Moe” at local theaters and landed a grad school scholarship at the University of Connecticut.
“I leaned the craft from a deep standpoint there, which changed my life. My MFA is in classical acting: Chekhov, Feydeau, Shakespeare, anything from French farce to mime. I created a theater piece based on a teacher’s one-sentence prompt and played the world’s tallest Seaweed Stubbs in ‘Hairspray.’ Today I think I can do anything within this craft.”
He used that confidence to play Cassius Clay in “One Night in Miami” at Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2015. (At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, he was the champ’s size.) He uses it now every night to play the cocky Lafayette and hard-nosed, acerbic Jefferson in “Hamilton.”
His parents came to see him in Chicago and, he says, “had this look on their faces that said they hadn’t known their son could do it. They’d had reservations about my acting but never put those on me or told me it was an impossible job.
“I think I loved acting because it was hard for me. I grew up with a natural facility in other things: basketball, visual arts. But the first time I tried acting, it didn’t work. This was the thing that wouldn’t come easy, and I had to take it on with a level of dedication I hadn’t been pushed to at that point. I didn’t know what it was or how do to it. But I knew that, if I made it to the other side, I would grow as a person.”