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‘Rise’ Star Damon J. Gillespie Talks Writing His Own Raps, Returning to ‘Spring Awakening’

Damon J. Gillespie is no stranger to the theater versus football conundrum his character Robbie Thorne faces on “Rise,” NBC’s new drama from Jason Katims.

“I grew up with theater and sports at the same time. So it was very easy to tap into Robbie,” Gillespie says.

The actor who embodies Stanton High’s resident star quarterback-cum-thespian grew up doing musical theater, appearing on Broadway in shows including “Aladdin” and “Newsies.” He even previously portrayed “Spring Awakening’s” Melchior — the role his “Rise” character inhabits in the show-within-the-show — on stage at a local theater in his home state of Tennessee.

“Just jumping into this type of production in general, it’s still a little unreal to me. I’m still like, ‘Okay. This is the good part of the dream, so I’m destined to wake up at any time,'” Gillespie says.

Here, Gillespie talks with Variety about how his background helped inform his new role, the burgeoning on-screen romance between his character and Auli’i Cravalho’s Lilette, and the struggles ahead for Robbie juggling his tough family situation, football and the play.

How did your musical theater background lead you to “Rise,” and how did that impact your portrayal of Robbie?

I grew up doing musicals, but I also grew up playing football, too. So around the time that I got into high school, I started to figure out, “OK, I could either try my hardest and probably never get into football at 5’8″. Or try my hardest at acting and probably never get into it as well.” I went with the easier route apparently. But for Robbie, when it comes to the attributes and what I know, we clicked immediately. It was very, very easy.

What first sparked your interest in musical theater?

I actually started dancing first. And then my mom sent me to a performing arts school around middle school. I actually had no idea what musical theater was. I knew what singing, dancing, and acting were, just not all in one thing. And so when I was sent to a performing arts school, I was watching the seniors at my school perform the opening number to “A Chorus Line” and I immediately fell in love. I was like, “I have to do that. I have to do this type of thing. This is amazing.”

And when you played football in high school, what position were you? 

I was a wide receiver. And I played two years of quarterback. But because I was so small, I couldn’t see over the line. But I did ballet so I could jump my butt off. My calves were great. I could do wide receiver and catch the ball. But for quarterback, I couldn’t see over the line. So you know, that’s the problem with being short in football standards.

Would you want to go back to Broadway? Is there a role you’re dying to play?

I want to go back so, so bad. There are so many roles that are not available at the moment. No one’s leaving. Everyone’s like, “No, I’ve got my job. I’m not going anywhere.” [But] I would love any, any role in “Hamilton.” Including the ensemble. It would be nice to go back and dance again. “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Aladdin.” I would actually love to do “Avenue Q,” even Off-Broadway. Honestly, I feel like I’m looking for real estate. It’s like, “All right. Well, this one’s not open yet. This one’s not open.” But really, what is open?

In the pilot for “Rise,” you performed a rap at the pep rally. Did you audition with a rap?

I did. So, for the pilot, I came in and I was doing my song and the sides. And then I was like, “Hey, I read in the script that he raps. Do you want me to rap as well?” And they said, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s throw it in there.” I wrote my own stuff.

You wrote your own rap?

Yeah. I had been writing for a while. I was working on a song at the time, so I did that for my audition. When I got to my screen test/final callback and I did the same thing, they called me back in and asked if I had another rap. So I did another one that I had written in college. It had a beat to it — I wrote all the lyrics — and went crazy with it.

Why do you think that Robbie and Lilette (Auli’i Cravalho) are so drawn to each other on the show?

First off, it’s the physical attraction part. There’s a spark as soon as they see each other that happened before we even get into episode one. They’ve seen each other. They know each other. The physical attraction helps. And I think as they got to know each other, they related so much. They’ve never done theater before. They’re both attracted to this. It’s one of those things where, on Robbie’s end, once he gets to know how strong of a woman Lilette is, even though she’s still a kid, there’s something about that. Robbie is so drawn to such a strong woman. And I think that’s where he comes from. At least that’s what I gave to him.

So are we most likely going to see Lilette become a solid support system for Robbie as the season goes on?

I think what we’re going to see is that they become a good support system for each other, or at least they try to be. And it’s going to be nice to see stereotypes kind of broken, things like “the woman always needs the man” in certain situations. But I think in this one, you’re gonna see more of Robbie needing Lilette, which is really cool.

How would you describe Robbie’s overall relationship with his parents? 

I think he’s the closest with his mom. After seeing the first three episodes, we kind of understand that. But he’s also very close with his dad. If he wasn’t close with his dad, the rap wouldn’t have gone over well. They would have a really rocky relationship. But I think when he called out his dad in the pilot, it’s just a little playful jab. He kind of means it and kind of doesn’t at the same time. And I think that they have that type of relationship where they are extremely close, so they know how to push each other’s buttons. But I think Robbie understands that his dad has his best interests at heart. His father isn’t a jerk. He’s not just trying to take over his life. He’s trying to make sure that his son is the most successful he could be. And I think Robbie knows that, too. But what’s going to be really cool is to see how that relationship goes in the season.

Will Robbie feel any pressure to appease his dad and what his dad’s hopes are for him, possibly in football?

Oh my goodness, yes. You have no idea. Just you wait. Especially on next week’s episode [Episode 4, “Victory Party”]. I mean, what’s the one thing we haven’t seen Robbie do on the show? Play football. There’s a couple of twists that you don’t see coming.

Why do you think Robbie chose to fight for being in Stanton drama? What do you think the drama department offers him as an outlet as opposed to playing football?

I think it’s something that no one really expected him to do, but he found a connection to it. There was a scene that we did in the pilot that got cut. Essentially, he reads the play before the audition and he’s kind of drawn to it. But he doesn’t want himself to be drawn to it. And I think we see that in the pilot as well when he’s speaking to his mom. He’s like: “I can’t get my mind off this guy. I don’t know what it is.” I think he really has found something he really enjoys outside of football that he might be fairly good at.

What do you think drives Robbie? What do you think his goals are for his future?

You know, I think I’m still trying to figure that out, because I don’t think he knows. I think he’s still trying to figure it out. That’s why he’s doing theater. That’s why he’s doing football. That’s why he’s getting involved with these two different things because I don’t think he really knows if he wants to do football or if he wants to go on a different route.

What songs are you most excited for fans to see you and the cast belt out onscreen?

There’s a surprise in the finale. There’s a couple of surprises in the last episode. That’s what I’m really excited about. Because not only have we not heard the recordings, but no one else has either.

What are you most looking forward to fans seeing from Robbie and from the show as the season continues on?

I’m excited for people to see how accurate the stress of putting on a high school production can be. The stress, the inspiration, the triumphs of it all. I’m excited for people to see our telling of what high school theater is like and what an inspirational teacher can do for you–whether that be Tracey or Lou or even Coach Strickland.

“Rise” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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