Supporting actor talks 'Rent'

“The national tour of the Tony Award-winning RENT comes to E.J. Thomas Hall this weekend, and it features Broadway veterans as well as eager newcomers. Among those newcomers is Michael Ifill. Ifill plays Benny, a former roommate of main characters Roger and Mark, who turned into an egotistical slumlord after marrying a rich socialite.”

The national tour of the Tony Award-winning RENT comes to E.J. Thomas Hall this weekend, and it features Broadway veterans as well as eager newcomers.

Among those newcomers is Michael Ifill.

Ifill plays Benny, a former roommate of main characters Roger and Mark, who turned into an egotistical slumlord after marrying a rich socialite. Although Ifill loves his role as an actor, he admitted he was just a regular guy.

I had regular jobs. I worked for Verizon and UPS, Ifill said. I didn’t seek it out, this thing found me.

But he said his first love is art.

I like to draw, paint and airbrush. But, I’ve been singing since I was 5 years old. I never went to school for theater. I went for graphic design, fashion and business.

RENT chronicles a year in the lives of eight friends and their struggles with loving, losing, AIDS, drug addiction and racism.

Even though it’s been running for 11 years and has inspired a movie, many people still don’t know the story of RENT. Ifill said he is glad to be part of a national tour that brings the play to little towns and cities and the less fortunate.

E.J. will hold three shows of RENT, one on Friday and two on Saturday. Tickets range from $37.50 to $52 and discount tickets are available for students. Seats in the first two rows are $20 cash at the door on the day of the performance and go on sale two hours before each show with a limit of two per person. Saturday’s shows are at 2 and 8 p.m.

Ifill, a Bronx native, became involved in theater and plays at a young age, but never expected to be in a national tour of RENT. It happened because of a fluke.

The actor was formerly a client with the Alvin Ailey Modeling Agency and was caught singing in the hallway. The agency wasn’t aware that he could sing and was opened up to a whole new world. Ifill auditioned for RENT by singing Marc Antony’s My Baby You and the job offers soon followed.

Before joining the cast of RENT, he admits that he didn’t know much about theater. He wasn’t pressured, at first, to fill the shoes of those that had come before him, such as role originator D’Monroe and Taye Diggs, who reprised the role in the movie adaptation.

We had four weeks of rehearsal and then we went to New York and saw the play, he said. Then I felt pressure in all directions. But I knew the lines, I knew the songs, and I saw how each actor was able to put their own flavor to it, so that’s what I did.

Although, typically, Benny is portrayed as a villain of sorts, Ifill loves his character.

People think that Benny is the biggest jerk, but he’s just doing his job, he said. I love my character. He’s a smooth, cool dude.

In fact, he said Benny would be the only character he’d portray if ever asked to return to the cast of RENT.

You have to let go of yourself to play the character. You can never change things like racism, he said.

Ifill is eager to bring RENT to cities and towns that have yet to experience such a controversial story.

Get a clear, open mind and let yourself go, he said. If you’ve never been in to plays, this would be a good one to start you off. It will change your experience.

As the line in the play goes, After all, there’s no day but today!