Just two years ago, Justin Cooley was deciding which tie to wear for his high school graduation. Now the Kansas native is starring in Kimberly Akimbo, his first professional acting role, where his fresh-faced performance has earned him a TONY nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical this year. Not too shabby for a guy who had never seen a play on Broadway before.
“It was initially a state of complete awe and disbelief to hear my name called out on the award nomination livestream that I’ve paid attention to for years,” he tells EBONY. “I was just astounded to see how I have come so far and reached so many people. I was filled with pride and gratitude.”
Cooley plays Seth, a lovable, geeky high schooler who befriends another student who suffers from a rare disease that ages her at four times the normal rate (she appears like she’s in her sixties at age 16). Cooley's role, which calls for him to play the tuba and conjure up anagrams, isn’t too far off for this self-proclaimed quirky 19-year-old thespian.
Here he shares with EBONY his most embarrassing high school job moment and why young actors of color shouldn't be afraid to pursue their great adventure.
EBONY: You are only a few years out of high school! How did you approach this role?
Justin Cooley: Initially, it was hard to get a grip on Seth. He is a unique character to me in that he navigates the wondrous yet perplexing landscape of high school, but he does so with such optimism and vulnerability. Teenagers love to play it cool and understated, often tempering and complicating their own light as they try to get a grip on who, what and how they want to be. I know definitely had those struggles in high school. It took me stripping away those walls and pressures I felt not only as a teenager but as a young man debuting in the professional world. Once I was able to see the beauty in myself in all the quirky, messy, bright colors I had, I was able to bring that to Seth. It feels really good to let that shine.
What part of the character do you personally relate to?
His nerdiness, absolutely! While it’s not exactly the same, I definitely had my eccentric interests and quirks, and I wasn't very good at hiding it, for better or for worse. I get very excitable and impassioned about small things and have a sense of curiosity in which weird things or people spark more intrigue than judgment. I think we share that same sense of wonder and excitement about life; a head in the clouds but feet on the ground type of thing.
Seth has some creative passions. What's your most unusual creative outlet?
Writing, designing and illustrating Dungeons and Dragons characters and campaigns. I hardly get to play cause I don’t have time but I just enjoy the process of creating them and keep them to myself. It’s so lame but so cool and very fun.
What was your most embarrassing moment in high school?
I did embarrassing things at school on a daily basis which means they kind of lost impact, so I don’t know if I can really narrow one down. If a high school job experience counts, I did work at a buffet once and slip and spill the mashed potatoes all over me while I was trying to replace them. The customers who saw were just disappointed they didn’t get their mashed potatoes.
Have you done your name as an anagram? What did you get?
I got Joyous Client, which is very fitting if I do say so myself.
What message do you hope the audience takes away from the show?
I hope audiences are able to gain a positive perspective of themselves in the pursuit of joy. People can be quirky and problematic; full of love and also a walking disaster all at once. I think it’s important to face that and embrace it to find the truest joys in life. Kimberly Akimbo displays that no matter who you are, there is a great adventure out there for you and it is of utmost importance to live and chase it because life’s too short, unpredictable, fun and tragic to let it pass by.
You left college to pursue your Broadway dream. What advice would you give young performers of color about taking a risk for their careers?
It is okay to be scared and it’s also okay to be brave. Don’t apologize for putting yourself into rooms or roles where you might not have seen anyone who looks like you be in before. Bring your fullest, most authentic self and don’t let people define you because of your skin, only let your skin enrich you. People aren’t used to seeing the complex, quiet and beautiful corners of our beings, and it’s time to bring the full picture. It's time to trailblaze.