When Zurin Villanueva was eight years old, she told her mother she wanted to be an actress.
“She smiled the way you do when your child says something funny but as far as I was concerned, I was serious,” Villanueva said. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. Period. I’ve taken side roads of dance and singing, but it’s always been acting I was in love with. I don’t remember a time I didn’t want to do that professionally.”
Today, that intention she spoke into existence as a kid has become a reality. She’s currently taking the stage eight times a week as part of the ensemble in Broadway’s super-hit, Mean Girls.
“I love this show. The people in our show are so supportive and we lift each other up. That’s how we get it done. We feel each other’s energy on stage night-to-night.”
Villanueva felt that support recently as she made her debut as Gretchen, one of the two parts she understudies in the show.
“I wouldn’t have been given the role as Gretchen’s understudy if there wasn’t some of it inside of me, and there is. Anxiety is real. When I went on, it was really just a matter of hyping up that part of me. It’s finding your own rhythm with Gretchen. She’s a faster rhythm but you have to find your hook and sway because she’s navigating this world very strategically.”
So what were the last few moments like before she made her entrance with the Plastics?
“I was so excited,” she said. “We’re sitting on the table, the doors opened, the smoke goes and then there was an unbelievable quiet before the roar of the audience. All I could see was us on the table and everything around us was dark so it felt like we were floating through space. It felt otherworldly. It was one of those theater moments you don’t forget.”
Mean Girls is full of social commentary on topics that range from bullying to the ills of social media to the importance of being yourself. For Villanueva, the subject matter of the show is extremely relatable.
“I was not popular as a kid,” she says. “I was too honest. I was excited, gangly, and friendly to everyone. That doesn’t make you cool so I got picked on. I was always told by everyone that I had to calm down, I had to relax, I had to not care so much. By the time I was a fresh adult, I thought the way I was born was wrong; the way I know so many other kids feel. ‘I’d Rather Be Me,’ the song that Janis sings, challenges that. That’s what Mean Girls means to me. It means being free to be yourself which is a lesson I only just learned how to put into practice.”
So what has the show taught her about herself as an actress and a performer?
“I’m stronger than I think I am. It’s definitely tested me physically. I’ve done another Casey Nicholaw-directed show when I did The Book of Mormon, but this is on a different level. And I can do it!”
I had to ask the question everyone wants to know the answer to: What was it like to work with Tina Fey?
“She’s a normal person, down to earth, observant, and I can feel her groundedness. When we were in rehearsal, I tried to come up with a good question to ask her. I mean, when else are you going to see Tina Fey every day? My favorite I came up with was when I asked her about comedy. I asked, ‘Is there a way to make anything funny or is that the actor’s job or the writer’s job?’ What she said was amazing. She said there are some people who can make anything funny and that’s rare. That’s the prodigy. She said that most things are funny depending on the line you give a particular actor and so that’s how she writes. She gets to know who she’s writing for and then writes lines specifically for them. I was so glad to have had that moment to hear that from her. It was beautiful.”
From opening the show to performing on the Tony Awards, the key takeaway for Villanueva has been the importance of embracing each moment as it’s happened and not trying to rush through it to get to the next thing.
“This is only a moment. I’ve been realizing that in this business, these things happen and they’re great. Then they’re gone. The next thing happens and it’s great and then it’s gone. We have this moment right now and that’s it. Between starting the show and performing at the Tony Awards, I’ve seen these memories being created and I remind myself that I need to remember them. Very soon, it’s going to feel like this all happened so long ago.”