Conor Ryan is Flipping the Script

Written by | Entertainment, Stage

There’s a whole new generation of up-and-coming performers who aren’t afraid to live their truth as openly queer and they’re crushing it. While the calculation once revolved around concealment as a necessary strategy, owning one’s sexuality and making no apologies is reaping benefits that go beyond advancing one’s career. Of course, it helps to have the goods and a formidable talent to back it up, which the subject of this feature certainly does. Proudly riding this wave of increased visibility is rising star Conor Ryan who gives a breakout performance as Christian in the National Tour of Moulin Rouge, a role which otherwise could have become a paint-by-numbers exercise. Conor sat down for a Zoom chat with Metrosource for his first national print interview to share what it’s like playing his dream role, the formative influences along his journey that brought him to this place and why you might want to hang out at the stage door after one of his shows.

As a super fan of the movie (he’s seen it over 100 times), it must have seemed like fate when Conor learned it was being adapted into a live staged musical. Conor shared some of the drama behind the scenes leading up to his being cast for the tour.

I had a handful of auditions. Then I had work sessions with the director and the music supervisor, both fantastic guys who I really hit it off with. And then I was supposed to have a final audition on the stage of the Broadway theatre, the Al Hirshfeld Theatre. Which is an old school theatre scenario. They don’t do that much anymore – kind of a Golden Age thing. They said they just needed to pair me with a Satine [his romantic leading lady] or two. Commonly referred to as a chemistry read. That was scheduled for March 29th 2020. And then the pandemic hit, so it never happened. I was holed up in my apartment in New York for months and months waiting. I eventually ended up leaving New York and going on a cross-country road trip – having a whole pandemic soul-searching experience. It wasn’t until April of 2021 that I got a call from my agent that I got the part. After a year of unemployment, bouncing around from a friend’s house to my mom’s house, it was such a relief to see a light at the end of the tunnel. And to be here now, it’s just a total dream come true.

Conor talked about embracing his sexual orientation while fronting a national tour, which he partly attributes to the pandemic and the social justice marches following the murder of George Floyd.

I feel like just in the last few years something has shifted either in the zeitgeist or in myself, but I just don’t want to live a life where I can’t be open about who I am and expressing the fullness of who I am. And I’m grateful to be an actor at a time when it feels like that’s okay now.

Conor acknowledges that this evolution didn’t happen overnight.

I’ll admit that in my early years in New York, I was moving around professional spaces, be it opening night galas or certainly auditions in a closeted manner. People still feel so much fear, especially in our industry. I have friends who are professionally still in the closet. It’s one of those things where it’s a case-by-case situation. I have always been submitted for predominantly straight roles. In the intense desire to have success in my career, I wanted to make sure that I never did anything to get in the way of that. But ironically, looking back, I feel that sense of imposter syndrome or discomfort in my spirit probably ended up closing more doors than my gayness ever would have.

Conor understands the societal pressure to conform and fit neatly into our preconceived notions of what a leading man is. And so, it was a huge relief that his experience on Moulin Rouge signaled an atmosphere of acceptance.

There was no discussion of my sexuality in the auditions. And it was something that I have a lot of anxiety around. When are they going to find out I’m gay? Will they still want me? I bring that into every job, especially if it’s a job where I’m playing a straight character, which is more often than not. I must admit, almost immediately in the rehearsals for this [Moulin Rouge], I just felt an unspoken permission to be myself. This has been one of the most rewarding and transformative experiences for me because I have a feeling I won’t bring as much of that fear into future rooms after this experience. I’m so grateful for it. They all know [I’m gay] and they couldn’t care less. The producers and everyone. Moulin Rouge is probably the biggest responsibility I’ve had as a leading man and ironically, I am hungrier than ever to express the reality, the authenticity of my spirit.

Conor (now 30 years old) reflected on his auspicious beginning, landing his first Broadway show at the tender age of 22 just a week after graduating college. He had been up for two roles, one as a member of the ensemble of Cinderella on Broadway, a situation most college graduates would kill for. But a week into his first rehearsal, he got a call that a principal role at the Public Theatre he’d been vying for had suddenly become available. His agents advised him that a leading role at the Public was worth leaving a Broadway show as a member of the ensemble. Even though he was well within his contractual rights and gave ample notice, the move did not go over well with cast and crew.

By the end of my first week on Broadway, I put in my notice, and everyone was really upset with me. Cast, crew, everyone. It sucked to upset so many powerful people, so soon. But, I had other dreams, other priorities as an artist. So, there’s a reason why I think that was my only Broadway show and that everything else I’ve done has been new work and off-Broadway stuff, regional tryouts of new Broadway shows, readings and workshops. It’s all stuff that doesn’t necessarily pay very well but is incredibly fulfilling artistically. You really have a presence as a collaborator in those rooms because you’re reading lines and the next day the lines are different. And they’re writing songs for you or they’re changing notes to fit your voice.

What makes an actor interesting is often the interior life that they bring to a role. With this in mind, we delved into Conor’s upbringing which had a pivotal impact on the actor he would become. Such as the fact that his father died when he was only five months old. It’s worth noting that a slew of prominent actors lost a parent early in life, including Barbra Streisand, Madonna, and Julia Roberts to name a few. While it’s something Conor was prone to downplay as being too young to have really felt the loss, a therapist got him to understand that a loss at such an early age is every bit as impactful, perhaps more so.

My therapist helped me to understand that no, no, you were there, and you experienced that. And just because you couldn’t verbally communicate doesn’t mean that you didn’t receive all of those vibrations and the energy and the pain of that moment. An infant is incredibly vibrationally porous, particularly still very connected to the mother. I have come to a deeper understanding of how formative that was on my spirit and my personality.

Conor acknowledged that some of this seeps into his onstage persona.

What you see on stage is very representative of my authentic self. There can be a wide-eyed, maybe even doe-eyed innocent openness to me, and vulnerability that I love and is a beautiful quality, but in certain scenarios can get me into trouble. With any pattern in your life, it’s really useful to understand the source of it.

I was effeminate as a little kid. The sort of straight-passing thing didn’t come for me until I hit puberty and started to present myself in a more “acceptable” package. Luckily, my mom is really expressive and incredibly magnetic, and colorful in her spirit. I was that little boy who wanted to be Snow White for Halloween and my mom was like, okay, let me go get my makeup. I didn’t feel any gender oppression at home.

We talked a bit about what draws an actor to certain roles and how much is chance and how much an actor is in control of the choices that come their way.

The only aspect of it that I feel somewhat in control of is that with material that I’m really really drawn to, I come alive in a way that I don’t for shows that I’m not as drawn to. I think that the stuff that you’re drawn to is kind of drawn to you too.

One such role which challenged Conor and allowed him to cut his teeth included a musical version of the harrowing biopic Into the Wild (not to be confused with Sondheim’s Into the Woods). The movie, released in 2007, starred Emile Hirsch in a haunting true-life story of a young man just out of college who decides to renounce all worldly possessions and live in the wild. The transformative journey takes a tragic turn when the main character eats a plant which turns out to be poisonous and dies an agonizing death before our eyes. While it sounds horribly depressing, the movie was incredibly powerful and conveyed the redemptive power of living one’s truth no matter the consequences.

It was an incredible role. I never left the stage. I was able to wring out my soul in that way that I get to do in the second act of Moulin Rouge, which for me is actually incredibly cathartic. I was so invested in it. By the end of the show every night, I would be completely drenched in sweat. It was an amazing experience.

Another role which proved challenging in an entirely different way was another stage adaptation musical of the movie Benny and Joon in which Conor played the role of another eccentric misfit (played in the movie by Johnny Depp) though this character was decidedly more whimsical.

I got to do all these cool things which I had never done before. I had to learn how to roller skate and juggle and do hat tricks. I think I did like 20 impressions from old-time movies, and I had to puppeteer in one scene.

What about your dating life? Are you seeing someone?

No, I’m very much single. I was looking forward to dating a little bit, but with COVID and now Monkeypox, it’s unfortunately a pretty scary time. And the show is of course everybody’s top priority so some of the social sacrifices can be fairly extreme. I thought now that I was on tour, in this big lead, I was going to be feeling so amazing about myself, and so secure, and so confident. And ironically, for a lot of reasons, it actually has not been a good time for dating because the show is so exhausting in so many different ways that I feel actually very raw right now, very vulnerable. And my heart is actually a little more sensitive than normal.

Despite finding the touring experience “really demanding and fairly lonely,” Conor has found ways to signal that offstage Conor is not the straight leading man he plays onstage.

Sometimes I feel like I need to do something on my physical person to signify that I am interested in something other than beautiful young women. I might come out of the stage door in a skirt or some jewelry or a crop top. That usually does the trick. You have to advertise a little bit.

How much of an impact has it had to see people like Harry Styles and Billy Porter breaking down those fashion gender barriers?

Thank God for the folks out there pushing the boundaries. When I see images of Billy and Harry out there living their lives, it’s empowering. I just recently got into this. Well, I used to wear my mom’s clothes when I was little, so maybe I’m getting BACK into it. It just feels so breezy and fun. Plus, I like that it kind of advertises my queerness, signifying to others a more accurate idea of who I am and what I’m looking for.

With annual fundraiser showcases like Broadway Backwards, Broadway stars get a chance to perform songs traditionally associated and reserved for another gender, often resulting in viral moments like Gavin Creel and Aaron Tveit’s gender flipped performance of the Rent duet “Take Me as I Am.” Traditional gender norms are being upended with the Tony winning revival of Company with a female lead. Even regional theatres are taking more risks such as a gay version of The Fantastiks with two male leads. With all this in mind, I asked Conor if there are certain female roles he’d be interested in playing.

Oh man, there are so many female roles I’d love to play. Particularly some Shakespearean classics like Juliet and Lady Macbeth. But if I had to pick one musical leading lady, it would probably be Dot from Sunday in the Park with George. Maybe Sally Bowles [from Cabaret] too.

What are you watching and listening to?

Right now, of course, we are in the summer of Beyoncé. Renaissance has been playing on repeat. Other than Queen Bey, I’m a huge Frank Ocean fan. His queerness opened the world of hip hop/R&B to me. I always liked that music but felt like an imposter listening to it. Like it wasn’t supposed to be for me. Frank Ocean broke that open for me, and he’ll always be my favorite. Yebba is another singer I play constantly. There are some voices that just light that fire in your gut, and you want to copy everything they do. 

I watch too much TV and film to know where to begin here. I’m super excited for the new Game of Thrones spinoff, House of the Dragon. Some of my favorite movies are American Beauty, Moonlight, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Boogie Nights.

Do you have a celebrity crush?

Oh my god. Frank Ocean.

That didn’t take you long.

No. He’s my husband, he just doesn’t know it yet.

Last modified: October 4, 2022