On Tuesday's premiere of Rise, it didn't take long for Stanton High's starting quarterback, Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), to realize that he may have a budding affinity for the stage. Having a crush on a fellow student who happens to be a theater geek certainly helps in that department, as does having your English teacher agree not to fail you if you audition for the school play. But no matter!
Now the big question is: Will Robbie be able to juggle a role in Spring Awakening with his position as a leader on the school's football team? It's a question Gillespie — who also played football and did theater as a teenager — is all too familiar with.
"I was doing dance classes and I was taking acting classes, plus my musical theater rehearsals after school, but I'd also have to go to football practice right after," he recalls. "Sometimes I would miss school performances, or I'd come late to football games, and it definitely took a toll on my stamina. Also, you don't want to let your teachers down. You don't want to let your director down. But you also don't want to let your team down and your family down either. ... There comes a point where you literally can't do both because it takes so much of your time between the two activities. That was the epitome of how I could relate to Robbie."
TV Guide spoke with Gillespie (who, needless to say, chose the acting route over football) about how Robbie will handle the pressure, whether sparks will fly between him and Lilette (Auli'i Cravalho), and what it was like to perform a rap written by Hamilton himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
How much of Robbie's decision to give Spring Awakening a shot is rooted in his crush on Lilette? What is it about the show that he connects to?
Gillespie: The reason why he kind of gave into it was Lilette. That was the first hint of, OK, I can do it for her. But then once he actually started to read it and experience it, I think he realized that he could for a minute not be Robbie Thorne. He could be someone else and he could also have fun while doing it. I also think that Melchior is a type of person who is the popular guy in his school, but for different reasons... He's always searching for something beyond what is expected of him. And I think that speaks a lot to what Robbie wants as well.
Will he ever make his feelings known to Lilette? They've clearly noticed each other, but will we see a romance blossom between them?
Gillespie: It's definitely there. With the material that they're doing in Spring Awakening, they have to rehearse not only in the theater, but they actually have to rehearse outside of rehearsal. It's both of their first times [performing]. They want to get it right. ... When you sit down with someone for more than an hour, you're going to get to know them pretty well. You can look at just a relationship in general. Where does it start? It starts with that first just catching each other's eyes, and immediately there's a spark. So, you know there's going to be something there. [Creator Jason Katims] has definitely hinted at it, but it's exciting to see where the relationship's going to go.
How is Robbie's arc going to diverge from a typical "jock who discovers a love of theater" story?
Gillespie: I think we see it in his personal life. His relationship with his mom is very special, so that's something that's definitely different and it's a much darker take on the typical football character. But I also think that Robbie didn't know what theater was. He didn't really want to do it in the first place. As he goes on, he's discovering it, but he's also trying not to disappoint people. And I think that's where he discovers how he cares about it, is because he wants to make the people he looks up to proud. ... For his dad, it could be playing football. With Lou, it could be doing theater or just doing well in his class. I think that's what's different about it, is that he doesn't really have an initial love for theater. I don't think he really loves theater. I think he's enjoying the moment that he has right now.
What type of relationship does Robbie have with his father?
Gillespie: I think that he doesn't want to be pigeonholed by his father. I think he and his dad have a great relationship. They know each other very well. But I think because they know each other so well, they can clash very, very easily. Robbie's dad's character, to me, doesn't seem like he's a stereotypical, like, coach dad. He's very justified in what he's doing. He's looking out for the future of his son. [Robbie] has a great chance to really prosper and do something great with football, so he's trying to take the talent that his son has and try and mold it and kind of coach him... I think that Robbie understands that, and that can cause some tension... When [Robbie] is attached to someone, he doesn't usually let go. Because he knows how that feels, for something to be taken away from him.
Robbie also seems to be very close with his mother, and the tenderness he demonstrates with her seems like a side of himself that he doesn't want to show to his teachers and peers at school.
Gillespie: One hundred percent. That stoicism remains there. ... If people were to know, I think people would start to feel sorry for him, and he can't have that. At this point in his life, he can't have people feel sorry for him. He has to remain strong. He has to lead a team. So, that's a big factor that could have people not take him seriously, or be like, "It's OK, dude." It's like, no. That is my life. That's my business. It doesn't take away from what we need to get done here today.
Based on what you've said and what we've seen, there's a huge amount of pressure on Robbie. How does he respond to that as the season progresses, and what impact does participating in the musical have on that pressure?
Gillespie: I think it's a good pressure. I think he's someone who thrives under pressure. That's just what he's been taught to do... I think he secretly enjoys it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the rap that Robbie performs at the pep rally. What was it like to shoot that scene?
Gillespie: It was awesome. It's probably the highlight of the pilot for me, because it really was like a rock star moment, where you're surrounded by, like, 500 people. First off, the fact that I can say, "Oh yeah, it's casual. I just had a rap written by Lin-Manuel Miranda just given to me. I didn't have to pay for it or anything." That in itself is like, oh my gosh, this is insane. But, the fact that I got to perform it and really kind of be an M.C., almost — literally, my job was just to pump up the crowd and get them ready. ... Doing that is just so much fun, but it was exhausting. I think it took six to seven hours just to shoot that one scene. It's barely five minutes. [And] it's deceptively high, that song is. It really is. It's also kind of taxing, because you have to growl out the rap a little bit. It's vocally taxing. So, the entire time, I had, like, Entertainer's Secret [throat spray] on me. ... I was leaving every now and then to grab a tea ... It was incredible, but it was incredibly exhausting too.
What can you tease about what's coming up on Rise?
Gillespie: We really get to dive into these characters. You see somewhat of a stereotype or characters that we may have seen before, but it's not exactly what it seems. ... We see exactly why these characters are acting the way that they are. I'm very excited about that, to take all these different characters and really open them up and get to the heart of who they really are.
Rise airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on NBC.