“American Idiot”‘s Declan Bennett is Neither American Nor an Idiot, Just Very Talented

While Green Day’s punk musical American Idiot, which debuted last week on Broadway to a rave review from the New York Times, doesn’t have any gay characters or gay themes, it does feature out singer Declan Bennett as part of the cast.

Bennett might not be a well-known name on American shores, but back in his native UK, the twenty-nine-year old singer/songwriter/performer has been a steady presence in England ever since he got first his break in 1999 singing on a British morning TV show. That appearance led to his joining Brit boy band Point Break. While not a huge success, Point Break did have four UK Top Twenty hits and even found success in Asia.

In 2002, Bennett joined Boy George’s West End show Taboo as Guru Dazzle, a relatively minor part. But Bennett did well enough that he later took over the lead role of Billy, which he played until 2003. By 2006, Declan had landed on American shores where he joined the U.S. tour of Rent for nine months as Roger before later playing the part on Broadway. And now he’s just had his first Broadway opening.

But as if that isn’t enough for one man, Bennett also found the time to record two solo albums and two EPs and has a third full-length album in the works. You’re probably exhausted just reading what he’s done

AfterElton.com recently caught up with the busy Brit to discuss his career, his long distance relationship and much more!

AE: Are your nerves jittery about opening night for American Idiot?

I don’t feel nervous, just a bit giddy. I’m an excited child, really.

AE: Well this isn’t your first show. You’re a veteran.

Exactly. Although, this is the first show I’ve opened on Broadway. I’ve never opened on Broadway before, so that’s going to be cool.

AE: Many of our readers won’t be familiar with you or your work. So pretend we’re both single and we’re out on a blind date. What are the five most interesting things about yourself you’d be sure to bring up to intrigue me.

[laughs] Right. Okay. I’m originally from Coventry, England. I’m not from your country.

AE: I would have guessed that from the accent.

I just had to restate that. I’m a huge fan of music in general. Oh my God! This is really difficult. I won’t drink coffee or caffeine, how about that? Oh my word! You’re putting me on the spot right now. I wear size 12 U.S. shoes, just for your own personal knowledge. And I find first dates really quite awkward.

AE: Have you had a lot of first dates?

I’ve had a few. I’ve had my fair share. I find them quite awkward.

AE: You’ve been in a boy band, you’ve been a solo artist, you’ve starred in a West End production, you’ve toured in the U.S. in a Broadway production, and now you’re opening on Broadway. What kind of career are you trying to carve out for yourself?
Well sometimes I ask myself the same question. [laughs] I find it quite hard to define myself as any one thing. My first creative passion is music, and being a musician and a writer. That’s’ what fuels my everyday creative life.

I’m lucky in the sense that I’ve crossed paths with people who have offered me these really cool jobs, Rent … and when I did Taboo in the West End. It became more about if someone came to me with a project I thought was an interesting, creative project that I would get something personally out of, then I’ll absolutely do it, whether it’s a West End musical, whether it’s in music, whether it be in a film, or any kind of creative endeavor.

I see myself as more of a creator rather than an actor or musician or any one thing. I tend to be all of them at different times.

AE: I know you’re part of the ensemble for American Idiot, but what exactly is your role?

I play one of the suburban kids living in Suburbia. Their lives suck and they’re all doing the same thing day after day after day. They’re looking for an out, really. They’re looking for something to get them out of this existence, but they feel there’s nothing. They’ve been deadened by mass culture. I play one of these kids.

AE: Is there any gay content in the show? Are any of the kids gay?

No, there’s no gay content.

AE: Is there anything about Green Days music you especially relate to as a gay man?
I cant say there is anything general that I relate to from a gay point of view. Of course there is the one line in the song ‘American Idiot’ that asks ‘Maybe I am the faggot america?’ I think Billie Joe’s lyrics are brilliant because he doesn’t shy away from anyone else’s fight. This song in particular I think he’s fighting for everyone who felt suffocated by corporate and religious America and wanted a voice, including the gay community. And we all know the fight we have against religion in the USA.

AE: Do you have a favorite number from American Idiot?
My favorite number is the opening ‘American Idiot.’ You can literally see people blown away in complete f*cking shock! Especially the ones who thought they were coming to see a regular "Broadway musical.".

AE: What’s the experience been like so far?

: It’s been amazing. Without a doubt, it’s been one of the most demanding — both physically and vocally — pieces I’ve ever been involved with. The choreography is so intense, and the music is so intense, and when you combine the two together, the experience is pretty phenomenal.

The best thing about it has been obviously working with Green Day, a band that I would never have called myself the biggest fan of them before, but working so closely with them … they’ve been around the project a lot, which has been great. They had a very vested interest in it, and they could have walked away and been like, "Oh yeah, you do what you want to do." They were very much a part of the creation from day one. Working along side them, and seeing how they work, and seeing how Billie Joe approaches thing has been really f*cking inspiring, and really cool.

And then Steven Hoggett who’s the choreographer, I’ve been a huge fan of his work since I was in college. When I was in college I used to go see his company tour the UK. When I found out he was choreographing the piece, I kind of fell to pieces a little bit.

Green Day

AE: You went from a relatively small part in Boy George’s Taboo to basically the lead. Do you have similar plans here? Are you hoping to eventually move up to one of the lead parts?

It’s kind of wait and see what happens with that one, but it’s not off the radar. Put it that way.

AE: Is there a particular part you’d want to play?

Right now I’m covering Will, who is one of the three main guys, but he gets his girlfriend pregnant and is unable to leave Suburbia to go to the city with the other two guys. He ends up staying at home. I’m sure I’ll be going on for that a few times.

AE: How was it different working with Billie Joe versus Boy George?

You know what? Not massively different, actually. The thing that they both have in common is that when it came to putting their name to a piece of musical theater, they did it with such pride and 150% commitment. That’s really important for the art of musical theater.

Musical theater, particularly in the popular contemporary music world, can get a bad rap. People can be like, oh, musical theater is cheesy or it’s rubbish or whatever. The thing that George and Billie Joe have done is step forward and say, "You know what? I support this is every way, shape, and form, and this is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on." To have the backing of those people and for them to be so committed to it is great for us, but it’s even better for the community in general.

AE: What was Boy George like? He seems like such a big personality, and he’s such an iconic person. I remember when he first came on the scene with "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," it made such a huge impact on me as a gay teen. What’s it like for someone your age to work with someone of that era?

Obviously I knew of him. I remember seeing the videos for "Karma Chameleon" and "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" as a really small kid. Watching him growing up, I was definitely aware of him, but George is interesting. I feel like he’s one of those dying breeds of someone who is literally a super star.

He just commands this kind of attention and respect that is very rare these days. You don’t really find people like that anymore. But at the same time, the reality of what he’s doing, and the reality of his talent is that he’s not just this person who dresses a certain way and wears hats and makeup and whatever. As a songwriter, especially as a British songwriter, he’s one of the best we’ve produced … ever. He’s an incredibly, incredibly talented man.

(Photo credit: David Angel)

AE: No argument from me. I’m a child of the 80s and Culture Club was huge for me. I was looking at some of your videos on YouTube, and it seems some of your songs and videos are specifically gay or gay-themed. Is that fair to say?

Sure. Yeah.

AE: At what point did you make the decision to be out as an artist? Was that from the beginning or did you just decide at some point, "Eh, I want to sing gay love songs."

It’s never been a conscious decision in my own head. I’ve been out since I was 18, even back in the boy band days. I was out when I was doing Point Break at 18-years-old. I didn’t make this big point, "Oh, I’m the gay pop star!" It was never mentioned in that way, but as far as my own inner circle of people, they knew I was out.

When I left the boy band and went back to square one and started thinking about my own music and who I wanted to be as an artist, the only decision I made was that I wanted to write music and lyrics that were based on reality, based on my life. I was going to write music that was documenting experiences I had in my life as a gay man. I’m going to write about those, and that’s going to form the body of my work. I definitely haven’t shied away from it.

AE: How do you see yourself as a musician, and who are some of your musical influences?

I definitely grew up enjoying the more acoustic side of things. I’ve always liked lyrical artists. I have quite lesbian taste in music. [laughs] If you looked at my record collection, you’d think I was a middle-aged lesbian. I tend to like Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, Tori Amos, Alanis Morisette, that sort of thing. In college, I was affected by how honest these women were and they way they phrased their music, the way they used metaphors and played around with words really stuck with me, and I thought that’s the kind of music I want to make and that’s the kind of lyrics I want to write.

My first couple of albums were very acoustic. I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for years now. That was the basis for the first two records. After I finished my last record and worked on Rent and started work on the Green Day project, I picked up an electric guitar for the first time last year. I’d never played with an electric guitar before, never even touched it, and it just opened up this whole new world to me. It was like, "Okay, maybe I’m not this acoustic singer/songwriter that I thought I was." Or maybe it’s just another part of me. I was him before, but now I have this whole other part to explore.

For the last six months, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve got myself this electric guitar, and I’ve written this whole new batch of songs for this new record I’m making next month. We’re going to start recording. It’s definitely a new sound for me. It’s a big departure from the acoustic, folky side. It’s much meatier, and electric, and harder.

AE: Are you single, dating, partnered?

I’ve had a boyfriend for about fourteen months now.

AE: How did you guys meet?

We met in London, just hanging out. He’s a London boy.

AE: How was that first date? Was it awkward?

[laughs] It wasn’t. We went to the Natural History museum. We were supposed to go to this art exhibition, but we ended up just going to a bar and getting really drunk. [laughs] That took away the awkwardness. [laughs] It was awkward for about half an hour and then it was fine.

AE: Are you guys doing the long distance thing?

Well, he’s here now for the opening and then he’s heading back. He comes back and forth while I’m here.

AE: Anything else?

My new album will be out later in the year, and I’m playing Joe’s Pub in New York City on May 17th.

Tickets for Declan’s performance at Joe’s Pub. where he will be presenting a sneak preview of his new album tentatively titled Breakup with a 7 piece band, can be purchased by calling 212.967.7555 or through www.joespub.com.