When Alex Nee walked in Northwestern’s graduation in June, he already had more main stage acting experience under his belt than most theater majors get in an entire career. Nee spent much of his senior year playing the lead role of Johnny in the international touring company of the broadway musical “American Idiot.”
After the show closed and he finished up his remaining credits at NU, Nee landed a role in the national touring company of “Once,” which plays at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago through Oct. 27. Nee discusses the new musical and how his time at Northwestern led him to such a fast start in the competitive world of theater.
How did you manage to land a lead role in an international touring company while still a senior at Northwestern?
I was in “Rent” at Northwestern in fall of 2011, which Dominic Missimi was directing and he was friends with casting director Jim Carnahan. Jim happened to be out in Chicago casting a different show, and Dominic brought him to see “Rent,” and then because of that a couple of us got asked to audition for “American Idiot.” After a five-month audition process of going back and forth to New York, I finally got cast in the show. It was the biggest thing that ever happened to me at that point in terms of theater. I knew this was something that I wanted to do as a career, but I was very much focused on school and being at NU and doing the shows there and finishing up my education. It was a lot of soul-searching, but when I got cast it felt like a dream come true, and I couldn’t be happier with the decision.
What happened after the “American Idiot” tour ended?
Timing-wise, it all very miraculously fell into place. I finished touring with “American Idiot” June 16 and then two days later I flew from Vegas to Chicago and walked in cap and gown at graduation with my class, even though I hadn’t technically finished. Because it was the same casting director for “Once” and he already knew me, I ended up getting an offer to do this tour right after “American Idiot.” I did the summer session at Northwestern and finished up the three credits that I needed to get my degree. Then I started rehearsals for “Once” in mid-August and have just been going since then.
I couldn’t ask for anything more at this point in my life. It really was just sort of luck and timing that gave me that first audition, but I’m so thankful that it worked out and that people have been so generous and trusting in giving me a shot, considering I’m so young. It can be hard and draining and kind of lonely sometimes being on the road all the time, but I wouldn’t change it for anything, because I get to do some pretty amazing shows that I didn’t think I would ever get to do at this point in my life. I’ve also gotten to work with some really incredible and inspiring people.
Describe “Once” and the character you play in the new musical.
It’s based on the 2006 movie, but there are differences, because it’s adapting it for the stage and telling the story in a different way. It’s about two traveling musicians in Dublin—one of them is Irish and one of them is Czech. Something about them pulls them together and they immediately connect and fall in love, even though every circumstance in their life is telling them that they shouldn’t be together. It follows these two people who make beautiful music together, and connect and try to make it work and all the people who help them make this beautiful music. My character, Andrej, is one of the Czech immigrants in Dublin, and he lives with the main girl. I’ll leave the ending open, but it’s a very realistic story and not a fairy tale.
What do you like about the show?
I’ve been a huge fan since the movie came out. The music—there’s nothing else like it, especially in theater. It’s not something you can find in any other musical. It’s simple, honest, but emotionally complex music. It’s so easy to listen to and play this music every single night, because I deeply connect to it—and every time it sort of elevates me to this heightened state. The show embraces the awkwardness of real human interactions. It’s messy, but very honest, and I think it connects with audience members because of its honesty.
My other favorite part of it is that I get to embrace my musician side, as well as my actor and dancer side. Everyone who’s onstage is playing all the music, doing all the scene work, dancing, moving—it’s a completely self-sufficient show. You see all the inner workings, and there’s no hidden orchestra or anything. I’m playing the bass, the ukulele, mandolin, guitar and cajon (hand drum). It was great to really practice and learn new instruments once again, because I haven’t done that for years and it really sparked a lot of creative juices in me.
How has your Northwestern training prepared you for such a rigorous show?
Northwestern helped me a lot in how I approach the rehearsal process. My acting teacher demanded that we come fully prepared into any scene—learn all the mechanics first and do that on your own. There’s no excuse to not know the lines or not know the music, so having that Northwestern “go-getter” mentality helped a little bit. But once you have that down, it opens you up to all the possibilities that are around. It makes you really able to listen to everyone else more and learn so much from everyone else in the room, instead of focusing on what you’re doing. I think that’s extremely important for this show, because until you can look up from the instrument, until you really know what you’re supposed to be playing, you’re not actually going to start the real work of the show.
What else were you involved in while at Northwestern?
That same year that I was in “Rent,” I was also in “Spring Awakening,” which is another sort of rock musical. I was in David Catlin’s production of “The Little Prince.” There was a ton of onstage music in that show as well, and we were able to collaborate and make up parts with each other, so I was doing a lot of drumming and similar stuff to what I’m doing in “Once.” I also was in Asterik and sang a cappella all three years I was there. I did a lot of student productions and department productions and was just trying to get my hands into as much stuff as possible.
What advice do you have for current theater students at Northwestern?
I was never planning to audition outside of Northwestern until I had finished school. I think by fully investing myself in the Northwestern experience and fully giving my time to those projects and not being scatterbrained about it, that’s what ultimately gave me this outside opportunity because I really connected with the faculty members there. I think it’s such an important experience. I wish I had that fourth year, and I really cherished those three years that I did have. You don’t need to try and get started early, because the people who are at Northwestern are so incredible and have these great connections—so if you really connect with them and make long-term friendships and connections, that’s ultimately what’s going to help you.