Time didn’t actually slow down when I first saw Anastasia star Derek Klena through the windshield of our SUV—but it sure felt like it did. Not slow like Baywatch, more like an action hero walking away from an explosion. We’d never met before, and all anyone had told me about him was, “He’s just a great guy.” He definitely fits the role of Dmitry, every millennial girls’ animated childhood crush, with his swooping brown hair and a muscle-gripping tee that makes it look like he’s only ever seen either the inside of a gym or theatre. The musical is currently playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Klena is the type of person you meet and you know is a star. He opens the door with a smile as white as his shirt and greets the part of today’s photo crew he knows with oddly charming bro-y handshakes and laughs. He then proceeds to introduce himself to the others, including myself. Klena’s good looks and charm ooze perfection so naturally one of my first questions for him is: How often do people fuck up?
“All the time.” he responds, suppressing laughter. He then impersonates some of the instances, and I’m impressed. His casual sings and hums are a better tune that my pipes have ever produced.
When we arrive in Coney Island, there is not a cloud in the sky, which means lots of sunblock application because, “you can’t be on Broadway with a sunburn.” Throughout the day, Klena and I make small talk as I style him for each look. We wrap at 3 p.m. on the dot so Klena can be back in the city for a 4:15 p.m. audition for a film project. He spends the duration of the ride back into Manhattan going over his lines, which he’s written out on index cards. Back in the city, Klena jumps out of the car, tag still hanging from the back of his shirt, and we make a plan to meet up after his show later in the week.
At 11:15 p.m. on Thursday, Klena and I meet at the Bowery Hotel. He looks like the leading man he is, wearing a navy suit, classic white button-down undone three notches, and a pair of Stan Smiths. Klena is the type of guy you could sit down with and talk about your favorite things to eat at Cheesecake Factory (one of his guilty pleasures) for 45 minutes and have a great time doing it, but based on our conversation at the photoshoot, I had to know how this 25-year-old star skyrocketed to Broadway success.
“I think it’s always been in my blood,” Klena says, noting that his mother was always interested in acting. “When I was 3 or 4, my mom took us to see Beauty and the Beast and it immediately sparked a love for it.” He started voice lessons when he was 8, and he also participated in a theater group that did two shows a year for the next decade. “My first paid acting job was Tom of Warwick at the end of Camelot, which I was extremely proud about it,” he says.
However, prideful would be the last adjective I’d use to describe Klena. Even when he speaks about his accomplishments, there’s a humbleness to him. “I actually used to play baseball and the second the game was over we would hop in the car and hustle over so I could make it the end of the show and play Tom,” he remembers.
Oh, that’s right. Klena wasn’t only a natural on the stage, but he was also a star on the diamond. He walked onto the baseball team at UCLA, and then he was faced with a difficult decision: Baseball and college or move to New York for an Off-Broadway show? Klena sits up a bit and begins to speak a little faster, as if adrenaline is coursing through his bloodstream remembering that decision.
Klena initially got the opportunity to audition for the non-Equity tour of Spring Awakening, but didn’t get it. Soon after, he sang a song from Catch Me If You Can at a cabaret concert that the show’s composer Marc Shaiman heard about. Shaiman reached out to Klena and told him next time he sang it to send them a copy, which he did and Shaiman loved it. He forwarded it to the casting director, who then invited Klena to New York for an audition. Did he land the role? Nope, but he impressed the right people. The team brought him back to the city for a workshop of Carrie, after which he had to fly back to L.A. for finals. His experience playing baseball and Tom in Camelot were coming in handy.
But when he landed the role for Carrie’s Off-Broadway run, which Klena calls “defining moment,” he had to decide between theater and baseball and theater won out.
Though Klena says his “first big break” came with Dogfight, the tuner based on the 1991 film about a group of marines who throw a party before shipping out and challenge each other to bring the ugliest girl they can find. Klena played Eddie, the troubled soldier who ends up falling for his date, Rose, when the show ran at Second Stage in 2012.
“Dogfight is what gave my career that boost and was basically the experience that changed my life so New York was home,” he says as he sits back into his chair, half smiling as if he’s dreaming with his eyes open. It seems like things were pretty smooth sailing career-wise early on, so I have to ask, what have been the struggles?
“There’s definitely been long periods of unemployment,” Klena says, noting that Dogfight director Joe Mantello wanted him to join Wicked eight months after Dogfight closed.
“You kinda have to live your life accordingly and learn to save for these periods between jobs. I had just done two Off-Broadway shows where I was making not a lot of money,” he says. “It’s just a grind to the finish and that’s the hardest thing about choosing to do this as a profession. I’m so grateful for the successes that I’ve had and am super lucky to have been consistently working, but at the same time there have been periods of unemployment and things like that and it’s just been constant learning.”
The energy has shifted, and I give Klena a minute to let all of that sink in before I ask, “Has it all been worth it?”
“Oh my God, yeah,” he says without hesitation. “At the end of the day, it’s literally the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. When it’s good it’s the best and when it’s not good it’s just the worst. You have to prepare yourself mentally for that. And that also that’s why I value trying to be as well rounded as possible and have other interests like I still play softball in the park. It’s really about the activities and the environment that you surrounds yourself with that will keep your sanity and keep your happiness and honestly keep you focused on what’s important.”
Klena’s career accolades are impressive at any age, but for being only 25 the story still has many chapters left. So what’s next for Klena. “I would love to do films!” he says ecstatically. “I’ve done some TV over the past couple of years, but I’d love to work on a film. The reason that I love theatre and the reason that I think theatre will always be a part of my life is because of the collaborative environment that it gives and I love what I do because of the people that I get to work with. I would love to work on a film where I get to be with the same group of people for an extended period of time and really put a story together.”
Klena thrives on camraderie, whether it’s on a sports team or as part of a show’s ensemble, and he doesn’t see baseball and performing as all that different.
“Acting is a team sport,” he says, adding that there’s a similar pressure in performing a show or playing a game. “Part of it is learning how to deal with that pressure and learning what things about your day and your preparation allow you to perform at your highest level the most consistent amount of times,” he continues. “Now every night is going to be totally different, I feel different every day; the audience is different everyday. So that is what keeps things interesting and keeps things ever-changing.”
So, considering Klena’s career success, I have to ask: What’s your best advice for those pursuing their dreams of being on Broadway? Klena sits back again and takes a deep breath.
“Seize every opportunity,” he begins. “That’s the amazing thing about New York is there are so many opportunities going on all the time and you may not think that each opportunity is worth it. You may talk yourself out of seizing every opportunity but you never know who’s going to be there and what is going to lead to what. That’s been the key to my life—random experiences that have led to so many things. So, seizing the opportunity and being present is huge, but also being yourself. I mean it’s the hardest and most cliche thing to say, but it’s true…I think it’s really important to trust your instincts and trust yourself and know that you are enough to achieve what you want to do.”
There it is. Derek Klena, what a great guy.
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