Known to many as Tina Cohen-Chang from the Fox mega-hit Glee, Jenna Ushkowitz is once again singing on screen, this time in movie theaters as a part of the cast of Hello Again. I caught up with her to talk about the new film and how her time on Broadway and on TV screens prepared her for the role.
In 1996, you were in the revival of The King and I. What did you learn during that production that you’ve carried with you to today?
I was 9 years old and it was my first real Broadway experience. I learned what the Broadway community is all about and that’s what made me really fall in love with Broadway. I also learned how to be a professional from Donna Murphy. I’ve carried those things with me. It also taught me discipline at a young age. As a kid, taking on 8-shows-a-week with nine costume changes, going to school during the day and doing shows at night—it taught me how to grow up quickly and gave me the tools I would bring into my next experience.
Fast forwarding to your next Broadway experience—Spring Awakening was a huge hit with such a dedicated fan base. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think back on that experience?
The first thing is family. We’re all still pretty close. It was also my first real experience with a real hit and being a part of something that was bigger than ourselves. That experience, for me, was my first adult experience in the Broadway world and I was so grateful. When I’d seen the show for the first time from up in the mezzanine, I didn’t ever think that I could be a part of a show like that. When I actually booked it, it was a big accomplishment for me but it was also a lesson in dreaming big. I could believe that anything is possible.
Glee was an instant cultural touchstone and you were there from the beginning of it all. What do you hope is the enduring legacy of the show?
With Ryan Murphy, it’s always about raising the bar and talking about things that aren’t necessarily talked about on TV. I think he did do that—bringing light to many different social issues. I also think we were one of the first shows to represent the underrepresented kids in society. Kids were thanking us for representing the outcasts and underdogs who never saw themselves in the public media.
I imagine being a part of that show opened up so many opportunities for you. Is there one that sticks out as the most unexpected?
Probably my book, Choosing Glee, which I wrote in 2013 during the show. I never thought of myself as a writer but I put pen to paper to flesh out what I wanted to say and it all came in 24 hours. So that was the most unexpected thing that came from that experience.
Last year, you were back on Broadway in the hit musical, Waitress. How was this time on Broadway different than before?
Being a true adult on Broadway in a leading role was a bigger step for me than being a swing in Spring Awakening. The responsibility is definitely heavier–having to learn to take care of yourself in order to maintain 8-shows-a-week specifically. Coming into the cast, it was also the same situation as with Spring Awakening in that I was the first replacement to the original company. That was definitely scary for me to come into such a tight knit group and trying to find where I fit. There was also a fear that since I was coming off of Glee, there might be an expectation of, “Can she do it?” That thought, of course, was completely in my head and coming back to the stage, it was great.
This month, you’re a part of the cast of the movie musical, Hello Again alongside Audra McDonald, Cheyenne Jackson, Martha Plimpton and others. How did making this film challenge you in a way you hadn’t been challenged before?
This my first adult role on screen since Glee and the maturity of these characters and the piece was a challenge in its own right. Michael John [LaChiusa]’s score was a challenge as well. It’s a very sexy film. Having to simulate sex while keeping the intention of singing the song and also being half naked was a very vulnerable place to be. There were all these moving parts, all moving very quickly because it was a low budget film, but we had a great team of people who we were collaborating with so I never felt unsafe in the process. It’s a production I’m very proud of.
Why is this particular story important right now?
You know, this was a play written 100 years ago and then the musical was written for an Off-Broadway production in 1994, but it’s all still so relevant today. The need for human connection, for love, for physical love, for emotional love, the desire to be pursued, to be seductive—it’s all still incredibly relevant. Desire is very human and it transcends time. This film lets us create another level of intimacy by bringing it to the screen from the stage.
Apart from the film, what else is on your plate at the moment?
I’m working on a podcast called “Epic Fail” which features live performers telling stories of when they’ve messed up on stage. That’s in the middle of airing right now. Apart from that, it’s really about waiting for the next thing that feels right. I’m definitely interested in coming back to the stage but I’m also looking at getting back on screen as well. Who knows what’s next.
Hello Again is in theaters now.