Isaac Powell on his journey to Broadway
The rising theatre and TV star on the places and people that have shaped his journey from North Carolina to New York.
Isaac Powell (he/him) has spent all morning reassembling his beloved bike after flying it back from filming in Los Angeles. Since debuting on Broadway in the award-winning Once on This Island shortly after graduating college, acting has taken him all over the US, from small-town North Carolina to New York, where he now lives. His meteoric rise, which started in local theatre and now includes high-profile TV and film roles, was crammed into a non-stop five-year journey he can draw on at work. ‘My craft is nothing without personal experiences’, he says. ‘To say that they influence one another is an understatement. My personal experience and what I can bring to a character is all I have.’
Growing up in his home town of Greensboro, North Carolina, Powell was the youngest of three children in a family of athletes. The influence of exercise and the outdoors is still strong, hence the bike. Although a career in the arts was never an obvious choice given his rural background, pursuing that dream has led to him playing Tony in West Side Story, appearing in anthology TV show American Horror Story, and gaining a part in the film adaptation of musical, Dear Evan Hansen. Luckily, he is the kind of actor who thrives on stress. ‘When I'm not feeling the pressure, that's bad’, he says. ‘I like to fly by the seat of my pants. Pressure is the gas that fuels my engine.’ If not being brought up around artists were a disadvantage, it hasn’t held him back.
From the midst of a New York heatwave, Powell talks about treating theatre like his gym, finding acting inspiration in the city’s neighbourhood hangouts, and following in his heroes’ footsteps. ‘And for me’, he says, ‘that’s really just continuing to work with people who excite me, on material that moves me.’
‘Seeing how people interact with the city and each other is a wealth of inspiration’
‘This is the one place where an actor can feel like a professional athlete. There's something about performing as a New York actor on a Broadway stage that feels like an athlete playing on home turf. The audiences are extremely supportive. There is a ravenous appetite for theatre in New York City, so getting to perform for those audiences is thrilling. Your Broadway debut feels like a rite of passage.’
ON UNTRADITIONAL PATHS
‘I never aspired to a career in the arts. It wasn't something that I saw as possible. I didn't grow up around artists, my family are all athletes and I lived in a rural part of my hometown. It wasn't until I was about 12 and I saw my first play that the world opened up. I remember watching this child actor and thinking that I could do better, so I auditioned for a local community theatre. Everything snowballed from there.’
ON EXPLORING IDENTITY
‘I played Daniel in a production of Once on This Island, my Broadway debut in 2017, and that character came from a very similar world to mine. I'd never been able to play a mixed character before who existed between two social worlds in conflict with one another, so that was very exciting. At that point in my life, I could really identify with that.’
ON PUTTING IN THE HOURS
‘Theatre is an excellent training ground for TV and film work. You're doing the same show eight times a week, so the biggest task is keeping it fresh every time. When you get to perform something that often it's almost like going to the gym and lifting weights, you do so many reps that you start building strength and endurance. It’s somewhere an actor can flex their muscles every day and stay in shape.’
ON BREAKING BOUNDARIES
‘When I was performing as Tony in West Side Story it was on the same Broadway stage that Patti LuPone performed in Evita. All of these iconic performances had taken place on that very stage, like Patina Miller in Sister Act, Sutton Foster in Shrek the Musical, Kristin Chenoweth in Promises, Promises. So many actors that I looked up to had performed there, so it felt really exciting to follow in their footsteps.’
‘The longer I spend in a particular city, the more I start to dress like that city.’
ON FINDING COMMUNITY
‘I was lucky and moved to New York with a job already - I got my first Broadway show right after graduating college - so when I arrived it was straight into rehearsals, and I was immediately welcomed by the theatre community. I found my footing quite quickly.’
‘The longer I spend in a particular city, the more I start to dress like that city. Much of this last year I spent living in Los Angeles and I definitely adopted a sort of California style. But now that I'm back in New York, I find myself dressing like New York. California has a looser vibe while New York is more on its toes, more edgy. Then when I go home to North Carolina I'm in cowboy boots and Dickies® again, so I’m a bit of a fashion chameleon. I like to blend into whatever city I'm in.’
‘The first thing I do when I get to my parents' house is walk down through the woods to this creek that I grew up near to. I love being outside. The thing I miss most about North Carolina is the nature, but there's a lot of it here in New York if you look hard enough, places like the High Line, Little Island at Pier 55 and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.’
‘I love the area where Greenpoint meets Williamsburg, it always seems full of young artistic types. New York is the best place in the world for people watching. Seeing how people interact with the city and each other is a wealth of inspiration for an actor. Even the way people act when they're alone or think no one's watching.’
ON NEW HORIZONS
‘I've loved visiting London, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Paris. And I'd really like to explore more of North America, I know there's a lot of film work in Vancouver, and I'd love to see some of the nature up in British Columbia. I can definitely live in other places for a while, but I'll always be an American, I'll always return to this place. America's just in my blood.’
Last place you took a cab to?
What’s on your dressing room table?
'A vocal steamer.’
Favourite living playwright?
Last thing you do before going on stage?
‘Say a prayer.’
Most authentic theatre in New York?
‘New York Theatre Workshop.’
Isaac Powell (@isaaccolepowell) wears the Autumn Winter 2022 collection for COS.
Photography by Mario Sorrenti.
Styling by Camilla Nickerson.
Words by Ben Perdue.
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