Before RENT Goes Live, Valentina Visits the Center

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How do you measure…what research actors will do to portray their characters with authenticity? For Valentina, the RuPaul’s Drag Race sensation who will make her professional acting debut as Angel in Fox’s upcoming live production of the musical RENT on January 27, it included a visit to the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

The role of Angel Dumont Schunard—the drag queen percussionist living with AIDS but embraces life to the fullest—is a demanding one. It won a 1996 Tony Award for Wilson Jermaine Heredia when he originated the character on Broadway. Now it’s Valentina’s turn.

To prep for her interpretation, Valentina, who recently revealed they identify as gender non-binary stopped by the Center-WeHo to learn more about services the Center offers and how treatment for people who live with HIV has changed since the era in which RENT takes place. Valentina spoke with the Center’s Linkage to Care Coordinator Blossom Brown and AIDS/LifeCycle Ride Director Tracy Evans to develop a more expansive knowledge on the current state of life with HIV and AIDS.

What research have you done to play Angel?

Valentina: I’ve spoken to a lot of older gays who lived through the AIDS crisis in the ‘90s. I have a friend who is very compassionate and selfless, and I spent time studying him. When I hit a mental block, I wonder What would my friend do in this situation? Today I’m at the Center, and I spoke with Blossom who is so sweet and has done things like Angel did for the community and really cared for other people. She’s really fulfilled in life, knowing she was able to help people. I’m very happy to pull from my experience as coming out as non‐binary and breathing that non‐fluidity into Angel.

What’s the difference in living with HIV as Angel did in the ‘90s compared to today?

V: The stigma has changed and, back then, it was considered a plague that was contagious and that you shouldn’t interact with people who were suffering. People were dropping dead left and right because there was no treatment. Through the beauty of science, we now have treatments for people to live full, healthy lives. It’s really important to have grown and come a long way, but we must also encourage people to be in charge of their own sexual health. And, as far as breaking down taboos, that’s something we should always be working on.

What was your first experience with RENT?

V: It was in my high school’s choir class. We did Seasons of Love in a show that incorporated songs from famous musicals. I fell in love with Seasons of Love. Then I discovered the rest of the music, then the movie and the characters, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

How would you describe Angel to people who aren’t familiar with RENT?

V: Angel is the heart of the story. He’s the most selfless, caring, and compassionate person who is so fulfilled in life by knowing she made a difference every single day. He lives life to its fullest. He’s a hustler who will always keep going and moving. I think it’s a role that’s come into my life and motivated me to become a better person. We should all be more like Angel. I’m excited for people to tune in and see what the character is all about—that Angel’s not just a drag queen. He’s a really sweet human being who held everyone together in the story.

There have been numerous productions of RENT over the years. How will your interpretation of Angel be different from the others?

V: What will distinguish it from the others: I can bring some authenticity to the wardrobe, and my stage presence is very much like a drag queen. I unapologetically hit the stage and give you the gig. With FOX and Michael Greif (the original director of the play)…we’ve been playing with the fluidity of the character. Is she trans? Is she fluid? Is she gay and likes to do drag? We’ve been playing with that. Someone asked me how I felt about Angel and how she stood with her gender identity. By coming out and feeling liberated, exploring myself and feeling those things has helped me have an idea of the kind of life I get to breathe into the character. I’m really excited for people to tune in because I’m really diving in as best as I can and delivering something very authentic that’s mine.

RENT will be broadcast live on Sunday, January 27. from the Fox Studios in Los Angeles.

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