Justin Huertas wears his nerdy heart on his sleeve (presumably the sleeve of a Spider-Man T-shirt). The 25-year-old actor and cellist—who's appeared in recent Seattle productions of Avenue Q, Spring Awakening, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson—makes his playwriting debut this month with Lizard Boy, part of Seattle Rep's New Play Festival. Lizard Boy is the story of a young man who's been covered in green scaly skin his whole life...but apart from that he's a normal guy. He works at a Starbucks, plays the cello, and dreams of becoming a rock star. Feeling desperately alone, he decides to seek companionship with the help of Grindr (for those outside the loop, Grindr is, in Huertas's words, "the gaydar app"). When he makes a new friend, it sends Lizard Boy on a late-night adventure that includes running into a female rock star who has a power to change his scaly facade.
For our latest Points of Reference interview, we asked Huertas about five pieces of pop culture that influenced the making of Lizard Boy.
The musical Spring Awakening has a pretty direct influence, actually. When I was 19, this musical came out and I was obsessed with it because it was rock music and a lot of it was driven by a cello. I had never heard a cello being played to drive a rock song, and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the rock singing; it just felt like everything I wanted to do stylistically.
I ended up auditioning for the Broadway production when I was in college. That didn't work out for me, but later I ended up getting a job as a cellist on the national tour. Jerry Manning, the artistic director of Seattle Rep, heard that. He didn’t know I played cello; he only knew me as an actor. And that's where this commission actually came from. He said, "Well, I'm fascinated that you’re an actor and a cellist. I would love to see you on stage playing a cello, telling your story." It sort of began as journals on tour with Spring Awakening. I would talk about what touring life is like, what the people are like, what playing the music feels like, and then any other nerdy things that would pop into my head. Jerry Manning and I are both huge comic-book nerds, so in meetings with him we realized the direction we felt we should take this was totally in a comic-book superhero kind of direction.
Hero by Perry Moore
I forget when I first read Hero. I want to say I read this one in college. It's a world where superheroes exist and people are born every day with these extraordinary powers, but this is the first story I had ever read that centered on a teenager who, not only was dealing with his emerging power, but was also dealing with his homosexuality. I had never read a story that had put a gay character in the forefront. I thought it was pretty revolutionary. It actually served as a pretty big inspiration for Lizard Boy.
At the time when I was on tour and writing my journals and everything, I was working with Andrea Allen, who was the director of education at the Rep. She would prompt me and ask me to write certain things about my life, just in case we wanted to use it in whatever show this would turn out to be. She asked for my coming-out story, which I still firmly believe is the most boring story there ever was. There wasn't really any ostracization, or struggle, or anything. No one thought that who I was, was wrong in any way. Perry Moore had just passed away, and I sort of felt solidarity to him, so I spiced up my story with superheroes. I made up this history: It was basically my coming-out story, but I added dragons. My being bitten by a dragon turned me into a lizard boy.
“Dying is Fine” by Ra Ra Riot
Ra Ra Riot is just one of my favorite bands. The thing that makes them different is that they use their cello and their violin is such specific ways that really drive their rock songs. I've seen them a few times live and they always end with this song, "Dying is Fine." There's something about that song and the way they play it; there's a bridge section they could jam out and play forever and they tend to just let themselves go as long as they want. There's something so raw and unpolished about that that I just love. That's something I really want to bring to my show. I want the music to feel like a garage band who’s having a really good time. The show is like me living out every dream: I want to be a superhero and I want to be in a garage band.
The Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley
I'm just all about nerdfests. Scott Pilgrim is such a nerdfest. I love how much it really sums up a generation so concisely. It's from this kid’s point of view and his dramatizing a seemingly simple situation—falling for this girl who has baggage and coming to terms with your own baggage. But I love the way it sort of complicates the story by looking at it through the scope of a video game. My brother and I grew up playing Super Nintendo, and I grew up on Game Boys and Pokemon Red and Blue. So reading through that whole series, I was just having nerdgasms all the way through: just happiness, happiness. I look to that sometimes when I think about what I want the tone of my play to be. What I'm really attempting to do is write a simple love story between two guys, and one of them happens to be a lizard boy and there happens to be a subplot with this other girl with powers.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
It’s my favorite movie of all time. I keep saying this, but I feel like a lot of my things are just things for nerds. This feels like a romantic comedy for nerds. Just because of the way it tells this deconstructed, backwards romance. I love how meta it is about [Jim Carrey’s character Joel] re-experiencing his memories with the girl he loves, or loved. And as he experiences them, he comments on them and then he imagines that she comments on them, too. And through his own commentary, he realizes he's still in love with her. I'm just so enamored with [writer] Charlie Kaufman and his storytelling. I just think he's a genius.
I'm planning for this to be a super weird...a super weirdo experimental play.
Jan 25–Feb 3, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $15 (reading only)