The prodigiously talented Justin Cooley, who just graduated high school in 2021, is accumulating those proverbial fifteen minutes upon fifteen minutes of fame with no end in sight! Originally from Kansas City, he grew up singing in a choir, began acting as a freshman at Olathe East High School in the ensemble of Hairspray, and by his senior year decided that a career in the theater was the right one for him. He wasn’t alone in his thinking.
Recipient of his home town’s 2020-21 Blue Star Award for Outstanding Actor in a Lead Role (for his portrayal of Dmitry in Anastasia), and then selected as a finalist in NYC’s prestigious 2021 Jimmy Awards (the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, presented by The Broadway League), Cooley, during his first semester as a musical theater student at Texas Christian University, was contacted to audition for the Off-Broadway musical adaptation of Kimberly Akimbo by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) and Tony winner Jeanine Tesori (music).
Not only was he cast in the role of Seth – the smart and shy anagram-loving high-school student who forms a growing attachment to the eponymous character with a rare aging disorder – he was honored as the recipient of a Theatre World Award and the Clive Barnes Award for his outstanding performance, as well as Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Antonyo Award nominations. And this Fall, Cooley made his Broadway debut in the role he originated in the Off-Broadway musical production, with the transfer of Kimberly Akimbo to the Booth Theatre, where it opened on November 10, and has continued to garner critical acclaim and the love of its audiences.
In the midst of this busy holiday season and his full Broadway schedule of eight shows a week, Justin graciously made time to answer some rapid-fire questions, to let our readers and his fans get to know him a little better and to give us some insights into his career and his experience with the smash-hit show.
- What three emotions did you feel when you took the Broadway stage for the first time?
Justin: Thrilled, astonished, and proud!
- What do you like best and relate to most in your character Seth from Kimberly Akimbo?
His unabashed weirdness and curiosity! I relate to him a lot in this way. I was always a goofy kid growing up, with eccentric interests and an almost hyperactive enthusiasm. But in my teenage years I definitely became a bit more shy about it and the things that interested me. I love that about Seth and love that I was able to relearn how to celebrate your own quirks through him.
- What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve ever gotten from an audience member?
I get some pretty good reactions playing Seth on a regular basis so it’s hard to choose, but one that I always think back to is when we had a group of high-school students on a field trip to see the show, and in the last moments, when Seth and Kimberly (Victoria Clark) finally share – spoiler! – their first kiss, the students squealed and cheered in the audience! It was so sweet to see kids connect with Kim and Seth and really want the best for them, despite the fact they are outcasts. I think that’s something very important Kimberly Akimbo can remind teenagers to think about.
- What’s the most important take-away message from Kimberly Akimbo?
Kind of continuing what I said in the last question, I think the most important take away is to live your life to the fullest and embrace your craziest wishes and your truest self. We only live once, so I like to think the musical shows you that you can’t spend time fighting yourself and hiding from who you want to be. I think it’s a story about finding the light in yourself and using that to guide you to the greatest joys life has in store for you.
- What’s your favorite memory from the Jimmy Awards?
My Jimmy Awards was very different from the regular experience since it was in 2021, so the whole event took place in my bedroom on my computer screen. That’s not to say it still wasn’t incredible though! Talking to industry professionals, memorably the sensational Rob McClure, and getting to hear their stories was so inspirational and has stuck with me to this day. Though I think my favorite part was seeing the talent of other kids from across the country, and the overwhelming support we all showed each other, blowing up the zoom chat with praise and compliments every time someone finished performing.
- What do you love most about the holidays?
I love having fun decorations in your home, changing the vibe, and just feeling cheerier and cozier! Though I hate putting them up and taking them down, they usually go up a little late and last well into January.
- What’s at the top of your Christmas list this year?
A PlayStation 5. Honestly, down time in very important to take advantage of in this career, and gaming is one of my go-to hobbies. Also, hats and scarves and gloves – I was definitely unprepared for the New York winter, moving from Kansas to here.
- If you had a pet reindeer, what would you name it?
I know this is already a famous reindeer name so maybe it’s a cop-out, but “Comet” is such a cool pet name! Cute and cool at the same time, and it if it flies, I mean it just makes sense!
- Do you have a New Year’s resolution?
I want to start dipping my toes into the world of music composition/production, so starting with just recording my own music! Probably just covers, but a good start to one day maybe making my own. Also start taking lessons and classes again; even while being on Broadway, there is still so, so much out there to learn!
- Is there a role or a show you look forward to playing in the future?
It’s still weird for me to think about the wild dream roles and performances I fantasized about in high school, and suddenly they become maybe an actual possibility? But playing Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors would be incredible, or Laurens/Philip in Hamilton. Also if SpongeBob or Tuck Everlasting had a revival, I’d be all over that.
- Who’s been the biggest inspiration in your career?
Victoria Clark. Growing up I was a fan of many performances of course, but I never really followed people’s journeys, partially because I entered the world of theater so late and partly because it all seemed so far off – and that felt too real. But being thrust into this show, I’ve had an intimate look at her life and her perspective on people and life and the art. Not to mention her overwhelming talent! She inspires me every day and I hope to build my career to one day be as impactful and wholehearted as she is.
- At what age did you know you wanted to have a life on the stage?
Not too long ago really; age seventeen was when I finally gained the resolve to admit this is what I needed to do and decided to go for it, though the wishes and dreams had been milling in my head since around fifteen to sixteen. I didn’t start or even really understand theater until my freshman year of high school, and though it struck suddenly and powerfully, I thought it was too late to commit fully. But I found myself coming back over and over, and by my senior year it was clear I didn’t want to do anything else.
- What’s your first creative memory?
I’ve been an actor and creator for as long as I can remember, I just didn’t realize it. I’ve always had an incredibly potent and ambitious imagination, often disappearing into dreamland as entertainment; I still do that. My first creative memories are in my early years, probably around five or six, playing house, or playing with toys, and wanting to weave vast storylines with continuity, dynamic characters, and relationships. And that energy not being returned by my playmates.
- What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Enthusiastic, whimsical, pensive.
- What is it about New York?
New York is just a special place to me. I love the diversity and culture, people around all the time doing things and working in a way that seems special to them. Everyone seems to be true to themselves here, and I feel I’m able to absorb that energy and learn something new all the time.
Mant thanks, Justin, for sharing a fast and lively 15 minutes with us; all best wishes for the holidays and for your well-deserved flourishing career on Broadway!
Kimberly Akimbo plays through Sunday, March 26, 2023, at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $94-294, plus fees), call (212) 239-6200, or go online. Masks are no longer required at the theater.