James Monroe Iglehart Talks 'Hamilton' Demands, Batman Magnets and Close-Up Magic

Joshua Dela Cruz
James Monroe Iglehart

The Tony-winning breakout actor of 'Aladdin' tells THR about spoofing 'Matilda' on the Netflix series 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' and staying strong onstage: "We have the best butts on Broadway."

What comes next after Aladdin?

For James Monroe Iglehart — who played the Genie for three years in the Disney musical and won a Tony Award for the role in 2014 — the answer is Hamilton. In the Broadway hip-hop phenomenon, he now plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson — the dual roles originated by Daveed Diggs, fellow Tony winner and cohort in the rap group Freestyle Love Supreme.

“His advice to me was, ‘Stop listening to the soundtrack and bring your James swagger to the role, because you got the rapping down,” said Iglehart of Diggs. “Once I got his vote of approval, I felt great. A lot of people really don’t know I do hip-hop, so they’ve been pretty surprised so far.”

Iglehart, 42, goes Off Script with The Hollywood Reporter to talk ferry videos, favorite celebrity guests and spoofing the Matilda musical on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

What’s the biggest difference between Aladdin and Hamilton audiences?

Both audiences are fantastic, but the Hamilton audiences will often mouth along. I’m like, “Please Lord, don’t let me mess up these words because they know everything I’m about to say!” It’s like a rock concert — people have sometimes been waiting to see this for a year or two. It’s so cool to see adults amped and hyped for something like this.

What’s the best part about playing your characters?

I love them both for different reasons. Lafayette is youthful, hungry and energetic and raps fast with something to say. But Jefferson, this uppity aristocrat, just enjoys being, for lack of a better word, a prick to Hamilton. I’ve always played such nice people, so to play somewhat of a “villain” is so much fun.

What helps you most when making that character transition?

During intermission, I sing through “What’d I Miss?” while putting on Jefferson’s purple outfit. Instantly, the whole attitude changes.

What’s the toughest part about these roles?

The lyrical [density] actually wasn’t the big issue because I had to be quite fast when I played the Genie. But I wasn’t ready for the physical demands of this show. A couple of us nickname the show “The Stairmaster Show.” We have the best butts on Broadway — we’re literally always running up and down steps, not only to our dressing room but also onstage, and there’s no one immune to it.

What new habit have you taken on?

I’ve always been a stickler about stretching, rolling out and doing things to keep my legs strong. I just double that. It’s a concentrating role; you have to get your stamina up.

What are your pre-show rituals?

I’m coming from right across the Hudson, and I listen to music to get me in the mood. Because of my two characters and their brashness, I listen to old school hip-hop or something from today. Right now, it’s Kendrick Lamar and Drake. On Sundays, I listen to Gospel music.

And at Aladdin and Hamilton, I have a prayer circle in the basement for whoever wants to be part of it. I like to get spiritually ready for what we do.

What do you do when you’re not onstage?

I stay engaged, but I kick it with a couple of castmembers. I don’t check my phone because knowing me, I’ll go down a rabbit hole and be late for my cue.

How do you unwind after a show?

I like to watch comedy on YouTube, usually Stephen Colbert’s latest opening monologue or Seth Meyers’ “Closer Look.” Or — and this is really nerdy, so forgive me, but I’m really into close-up magic, so I’ll watch Penn & Teller: Fool Us videos. And I’m a big kid, so sometimes I’m watching some Looney Tunes or Disney or some cartoon. On the boat back home, people will look over and be like, “What is this grown man watching?”

What do you do on your day off?

I kick it at home. My wife and I are homebodies. I have a cool leather couch with recliners and chargers for our phones, so we’ll talk to each other while playing music and playing games, just like how we were in high school.

What’s something special in your dressing room?

A picture of my wife and I from college, and my magnet collection: Batman, a ton of Marvel characters, Transformers’ Optimus Prime and Megatron plus some Tinkerbell and Phineas and Ferb. I’m always collecting new ones for my wall and door.

Favorite backstage guests so far?

Jon Favreau, David Wayans and Bobby McFarrin. But one of best was judge [Marilyn] Milian of The People’s Court — my wife and I have been watching that show for years and she was so upset she wasn’t there [to meet her], so we made a video to say hello.

 

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Best stage door reaction so far?

In my second week, there was a young girl from France who didn’t speak any English and knew the show phonetically. She wanted to do Lafayette’s introduction in “Guns and Ships” for me, and it was the cutest thing in the world. I wish I could do it as well as she can.

You’re also back on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in its third season — this time, spoofing the Matilda musical. What was your initial reaction to that idea?

I loved it. Each time, I’ve gotten to do something completely ridiculous — the Spiderman: [Turn Off the Dark] jump in the first season, and then the one-man show — and Coriolanus is such an oily and terrible person who has talent, but not as much of it as he thinks he does. But this time, it was such a great twist to wear the wig and that outfit. Nobody sees it coming. It was so much fun. I’ve seen Matilda twice and I love the show, but I loved that I’m in the wig and the dress and my goatee is still there. They didn’t even want a shave.

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