By Laurie Dietrich
Roy Thomas should be a star. And not just because he's talented. Followers of the famous know that talent is not necessarily a prerequisite. He should be a star because he might not fit into any other role. As our culture has become more celebrity-saturated, we may finally be seeing the rise of a personality type temperamentally unsuited to be anything else - who understand their own lives in terms of images and slogans. And who, in their unself-conscious self-absorption, find what feels like a fierce authenticity in the role of performer, in becoming their own work of art. If, like Thomas, they're also talented and charismatic, so much the better. And it never hurts to have a history that'll fit comfortably on VH1's Behind the Music.
Thomas grew up on a family farm near Castroville. He was born with health issues that overwhelmed his soon-to-be divorced teenage mother and mostly absentee, truck-driver father, so his grandparents adopted him to make him eligible for insurance coverage. He grew up with his cousins, whose family also lived on the farm."They were always very farm boy and I was very much into TV and my music," he says, setting the stage for an all-too-familiar artistic-sensibility-in-a-small-town scenario.
Thomas, who sang all the time around the house and in the car, got involved in the church choir and performed in school talent shows. Although he wasn't exactly one of the guys, he had an idea about the niche he might carve out for himself: "I was going to be a big country singer," he says.
And then came high school.
The church choir soloist with Nashville dreams discovered Nirvana and Green Day. "I chose the rock 'n' roll thing, obviously," says Thomas, "and discovered the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the rest is history." He took theater classes his freshman year, but tired of being told his monologue subjects were inappropriate. ("I just did stuff that was very morose, and gothic, and dark. Some students liked it, but you know those students that live in that little happy bubble? They were just like, 'Oh my God, I can't deal with it.'") He focused on choir instead. His first acting role came in his senior year, as the judge in Harvey, the classic play about a giant, invisible rabbit.
"I was going through that whole depression thing. I had just come out and was thinking oh, life is horrible 'cause I'm Gay Boy in this little town," he recalls. An Eagle Scout, Thomas' regular summer gig at a Boy Scout camp in Kerrville evaporated that same year, in 2000, when the Supreme Court gave the BSA permission to ban gays from being scout leaders.
After one semester at Northwest Vista College, Thomas left school to take a job as a stagehand at Sea World. He kept his performing feet wet as part of the cast of the Satanic Mechanics, a Rocky Horror performance group.
In 2001 he saw the movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell's screen adaptation of the off-Broadway hit musical about a bitter, sexually conflicted rock 'n' roll muse. It changed his life, again.
Thomas formed his own production company and brought the SA premiere of Hedwig to Alamo Street Theatre for one insane weekend of record-breaking crowds. From the perspective of the theater community, Thomas came out of nowhere and pulled off a truly electrifying debut. "It wasn't an ego thing," he says. "It really wasn't. I wanted to do it because it was something that was important to me and I wanted to bring the story across. My own story kind of melded with the story of Hedwig, a small town boy wanting something different, who just needs to be himself. It spoke to me in a way that nothing else had before. So I had to tell the story."
Highlights of his NYC experience include a lost job at Starbucks, when he accidentally-on-purpose dropped two Frappucinos on the expensively shod feet of an annoying customer. Employment mishaps of that kind led to a two-week stint of homelessness in the Big Apple, sleeping on subway cars and in public buildings. On the positive side, Thomas landed an off-Broadway job just three months into his stay, in a new play by Peter Bronstein called Andy and Edie, about the Sedgwick era at Warhol's famous Factory.
"I'd probably still be in New York if it wasn't for that show," Thomas says, "because I was so focused on the play and acting that I wasn't focused on life, and jobs." He dropped out of the cast because of illness, took the bus back to San Antonio, and almost immediately found himself involved in the Alamo Street Theatre's production of The Fantasticks, initially running lights and then picking up, with no rehearsal time, the role of the Mute.
But what really impressed director Deborah Latham was the night he helped the cast "make musical theater history." Latham explains, "When the young man playing Matt collapsed in the dressing room and had to be taken to the ER, Roy very calmly said he could do the role - songs and all. No one in the show had ever been in a musical where someone went on in a leading role with no rehearsals. But Roy did it, and he did it with such amazing composure and confidence that the performance was as good as any we did."
"I'm on this kind of cusp right now in my brain," Thomas says."New York was my moving on. I had a taste of that and it just wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I lost myself a little bit and integrity is important to me now. I've come back and it's kind of like a rebirth in a way. I'm really fascinated with the whole idea of rebirth and the phoenix, stuff like that."
Thomas will be reborn next as Gilda Goldstein, a stereotypical Jewish mother in Marcia Baer Larsen's Mazal Tov Menudo, a broad romantic comedy about young love and culture clash. Thomas says he's having a lot of fun. "I get to wear a fat suit with a big beehive wig and be in drag yet again." But, he admits, "I really need to find guy parts to play where I don't have to wear a lot of makeup. I want to do drama. Something really deep, more gritty. More real.
"I don't know yet what my message is," Thomas muses. "Maybe not compromising yourself. Not changing for anyone. Doing what you feel like and just not caring. I guess that's why I come off like a bitch or as egotistical. But I think I have something that most people don't and I realize it, and there's no shame in realizing that." •