‘Rise’ Star Damon J. Gillespie Has His Eyes Set On ‘Hamilton’
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
The pressure of being the star quarterback at a high school can be tremendous. If you’re the big man on campus and the lead in the high school musical, the spotlight becomes even greater. Damon J. Gillespie is tackling that exact role as Robbie Thorne in NBC’s new series, Rise.
The show, which focuses on the lives of seven students in a working-class town, showcases how the arts are often pitted against sports. Rise not only includes the structure of high school cliques, but the idea that annual budgets are often created around sports teams — sometimes the drama department gets left out.
Damon shared his dance story with Dance Dish recently to talk about his performing arts roots in Chattanooga, Tennessee, his Broadway debut in Newsies and the shows he has his eyes on next.
Dance Dish: When did your dance training begin?
Damon J. Gillespie: My mom put me in Karate and Taekwondo when I was two years old because I was obsessed with Power Rangers. She was afraid I was going to hurt somebody.
I started dancing when I was three because my mom did it when she was little. I then took two years off and came back to hip-hop. It grew from there with jazz, tap and ballet.
As I got older, I was more into jazz. I found out I needed ballet to improve on the jazz because I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t getting any better. So I had to study in ballet, too.
DD: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
Damon: I figured it out during my freshman year of high school. I went to a performing arts school. I had chosen musical theatre in my school and every year, the musical theatre department came to New York to see Broadway shows.
That year we came to see Billy Elliot. It was my first time in New York, first time seeing a Broadway show and I saw Billy Elliot. I said, “I have to do that. That is what I want to do. This is it.”
DD: Did you decide to go to college or did you go straight to New York after high school?
Damon: I had my first professional audition when I was 17. I had been invited, but I was just a kid from Tennessee. I flew to New York, I did the whole audition and they told me that night that I didn’t get it. It crushed me immediately.
They liked me, but they said I needed to work on my technique. I went back to high school and I started training more. I told myself that I wasn’t ready for New York.
I went to college [Roosevelt University in Chicago] for a couple of years and came back to that audition and ended up booking it. And a few months later I was on Broadway for the first time. The show was Newsies.
It took me three years of training to book that job.
I drove my family and roommates crazy because I wouldn’t stop practicing the choreography I had learned in the audition. I was practicing my double tours in my basement.
Two years later, I stepped into Aladdin. I am just so thankful I had the blessings that I did. I try to never take it for granted.
DD: What was the most surprising thing about working on Broadway?
Damon: I never expected to feel it physically — all of the emotions, all of the dancing, all of the stress, all of the exhaustion. Here I was on Broadway and I still wanted to go home and sleep. I never thought it would ever happen.
My put-in (final dress rehearsal for a replacement actor in a long-running show) was the day of my Broadway debut, so I had to do it twice. Then we had two shows the next day. It essentially was a six-show week for me. I was exhausted.
DD: What was the audition process like for Rise?
Damon: There was no dance audition because my character, Robbie, doesn’t dance. It’s strictly singing and acting. They didn’t find out later when we were officially picked up as a series, that I was athletic and danced. When we get to episode four and we are on the football field, it was so much fun to move around.
In later episodes where we are supposed to dance, I had to tone it down. I couldn’t spot in my turns, I couldn’t point my feet — Robbie doesn’t know what turnout is. When we were doing different dance sequences, I had to consciously not be a dancer.
DD: What was it like working with choreographer Danny Mefford?
Damon: We were learning choreography for three numbers in a matter of two hours and then we would have to go shoot a different scene. Then we would have to revisit it later.
Danny made sure we were comfortable and it was authentic to the story. It was a lot of fun. When you’re rehearsing for theatre, you get all of this time. We had to figure it out quickly that we didn’t get a lot of time, but we still had to treat it like we were in a theatre space. We had to push for that time.
DD: Do you have your eyes set on another Broadway show? What’s your dream role?
Damon: Oh my gosh, yes! I am itching to get back to Broadway; you have no idea… first off, any role in Hamilton — even the ensemble — because the dancing is so awesome. I’ve known about the show for about two years before it opened. I’ve been in love with it for years.
I would love to do Dear Evan Hansen again. I would love to do a revival of Next to Normal, Avenue Q, Aladdin. There are so many shows on Broadway that I am very open to. I want to get back to my roots.
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