In terms of acting, Shakespeare can be scary for any newcomer. But Shakespeare + Off-Broadway + an A-list co-star, now that can be downright terrifying. Credit then goes to Julian Cihi, who stars in Romeo and Juliet opposite former BULLETT cover girl Elizabeth Olsen, for tackling his role with straight-up confidence. The NYU grad was originally cast as Tybalt in director Tea Alagić’s edgy take on Shakespeare’s great romantic tragedy, but when initial lead Finn Wittrock pulled out, the job was Cihi’s. Here we talk to him about catching the acting bug, taking on an iconic script, and acting alongside a movie star.
Describe the moment the acting bug first bit you. Where did it happen and what did it feel like?
The bug bit me hard when I sang “Tonight” as Tony in my high-school production of West Side Story. I went to an all-boys school and the school musical was one of the few times we got to mingle with the girls. I didn’t think there was anything better than kissing a girl while singing.
How much self-doubt comes with pursuing a career as competitive as acting?
I have absolutely no doubt about myself and my passion for acting. The doubt for getting an acting job is another thing and that comes in waves. I try not to let it become a tsunami.
Why do you think you gravitated towards theater rather than film?
My love for musicals. When I watched Phantom of the Opera on Broadway at age 16, I knew I wanted to do theater. The gravitational pull, however, has been equalized nowadays.
Tell us about getting cast as Romeo in this production? What was going on in your life at the time?
When I was offered the part of Romeo, I was in the employee’s bathroom of a Japanese restaurant where I worked at the time. I didn’t come out for a good 20 minutes, which is unheard of during a shift. The first thought I had was, “I need to learn my lines. Now.”
When you found out you’d be playing opposite Elizabeth Olsen, were you nervous?
No. I was cast as Tybalt at first, so I had been telling my friends I was going to be Elizabeth Olsen’s cousin. Later I started telling people I’m actually playing Romeo alongside Lizzie. “Who?” “Oh, sorry, Elizabeth Olsen. She goes by Lizzie.”
What was it like when you first met her?
I had stayed up the night before trying to memorize my lines, so I think I may have slightly blacked out when I first met her. Except for the part where we filled out our emergency contact info and I glanced over to see that her contact was one of her sisters, everything else is a blur. She was definitely wearing a really sylish hat.
You’re taking on an iconic role opposite a famous actress. What was the intimidation factor like?
“I am afear’d, being in night, all this is but a dream. Too flattering-sweet to be substantial.”
Was there instant chemistry between yourself and Elizabeth, or is that something that needs to be established?
I secretly enjoyed observing rather than interacting in the initial days of rehearsal. We then hung out at her apartment in the later days and I feel like since then we’ve established a solid relationship of trust and play. She’s quirky, graceful and lovely, the perfect Juliet for my Romeo.
Are you at the point in your career where acting is your full-time job?
I sure hope so. I don’t particularly enjoy taking calls in the employee’s bathroom.
Is there a responsibility to bring a unique perspective to a role that’s been performed this many times?
The story of Romeo and Juliet is simple. It’s about two people who will die for each other. They are gladiators of love. Whether a character or performance is unique or not is up to everyone but me. I’m Japanese-American, born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, and I believe I have my own interpretation of Romeo. Having said that, the text is most definitely where I start, especially if it’s Shakespeare.
Romeo and Juliet is now playing at the Classic Stage Company.
Photo by Joan Marcus.