In 2012, Northwestern University junior Alex Nee was appearing in a college mainstage production of "Rent" and thinking about life after graduation. But a chance visit from a casting director led to the lead role as Johnny in the second tour of "American Idiot"—the Tony Award-winning musical based on Green Day's rock opera album of the same title—and Nee put his senior year on hold to perform across the country and in the UK.
After a year of rocking out onstage with a fauxhawk and guyliner, the 21-year-old Palo Alto, Calif. native concluded his run this past June, returned to Northwestern to finish his degree over the summer and then joined the original touring production of "Once," the Tony Award-winning musical based on the Academy Award-winning film about a Dublin street musician (Guy) who bonds with a Czech immigrant (Girl) over their shared love of music. Nee plays Andrej, a musician and fast-food worker who lives with Girl. Chicago is the second stop on the year-long national tour, which started Oct. 1 in Providence, RI.
"I've always sort of dreamed of being in a big band," said Nee, who has a musical background in addition to his theater degree. "And now I get to do that and tour the country as a band, basically." We called him during the show's Providence run to find out more about his musical roots, his experiences in the shows and more.
Go: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today through Oct. 27 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Tickets: $27-$95. 800-775-2000; broadwayinchicago.com
On continuously touring for two years: "I'm definitely homeless. I've had the same two suitcases for about a year and a half now. But I don't have keys to anywhere, except a little plastic card that lets me into whatever hotel I'm staying in. [Laughs]"
About "Once": "Expect to be viscerally hit and turned on by the music and the singing as well as just the honesty of these characters. It's quite a simple show on the surface, but the relationships and the inner life of all these people is so complex, as well as the inner life of the music—and I think that is something that you don't often see in musical theater. And those invisible chords that connect people really start vibrating with the acoustic instruments and it creates this sort of transcendent experience."
His character: "I play Andrej, a Czech immigrant to Dublin. He works at a fast-food restaurant—he's the manager—but he's got an upcoming promotion that he can't wait for. He's this very passionate, optimistic, quirky, weird guy [laughs] who lives with Girl and just wants to support everyone around him. And unfortunately, he has to deal with his dreams being crushed, but gets then uplifted by being a part of creating this music with Guy and Girl."
What he and Andrej have in common: "I'm definitely a nerd at heart. I hung out at the math club in high school. As much as I like to pretend that I don't, I really do try hard and I'm optimistic about life and excited by everything that's going on around me. He wants to have fun; he wants everything to be good, which I think we can all connect to. So I'm just amplifying that part of myself."
Why he chose Northwestern for his theater degree: "I absolutely love California, but it's sort of a bubble and my initial instinct was to look outside of California, at New York schools and Chicago stuff—I wanted to be near a big theater city. I settled on Northwestern because it's not a conservatory, which was important to me because I wanted to delve into other areas of learning. I ended up getting a minor in economics and doing a bunch of other different academic things just to keep myself spread out. But while it is not a conservatory, they have an amazing acting program [with] great faculty who are all very, very actively connected to the theater scene in Chicago. The resources they had with the people there really drew me as well as their proximity to Chicago, to the city."
His musical background: "I've been playing music since I was five [when] my parents started me on piano. But since my parents were forcing me to do that, I [laughs] eventually rejected it and took up the guitar [when] I was 14. I've been writing music and playing on my own and in bands but nothing ever too serious. But it's always been an outlet that I've found really exciting and also calming and sort of therapeutic."
That's him with the earbuds: "I listen to music constantly. Unfortunately, I'm always plugged in when I'm walking around, 'cause there's just so many artists out there that I want to listen to and soak up."
What he listens to for "Once" inspiration: "Bon Iver is a big one for me. In that vein, James Vincent McMorrow is an Irish artist who's really wonderful. I listen to Mumford [& Sons], of course."