If you’ve been watching the new NBC musical drama “Smash” -- which airs Monday nights on Channel 7 and was just picked up for a second season -- then you have an opinion about Ellis, the sweet-faced yet conniving assistant who not only suggested the idea for a musical about Marilyn Monroe, but who has wormed his way from being the composer’s go-fer to becoming the right-hand man of the show’s producer Eileen Rand, played by Oscar winner Anjelica Huston.
Although this is the first television role for Jaime Cepero, the East Bridgewater-bred actor is already a veteran of the stage. Bit by the bug early, Cepero worked in school and community productions while in high school. After graduating in 2003, he worked professionally in and around Boston, playing well-reviewed supporting roles with the Company Theatre in Norwell and earning his Equity card at the SpeakEasy Stage Company before heading off to New York to pursue the Broadway footlights.
We recently chatted with the 26-year-old actor on the phone from his home in New York, where he was still pinching himself over his good fortune, marveling that one day he was waiting tables and worrying about finding an apartment, and then “all of a sudden the next day I'm sitting next to Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing.”
Q. You’ve known since a young age that this is what you wanted to do. Do you remember your original inspiration?
A. I just kind of fell into it. Things just go your way when you’re in the right spot of life. I’ve been singing ever since I was a little kid, my parents could never shut me up. (Laughs.)
Q. You chose to go to New York as opposed to college and managed to land good regional theater and touring work. Did you ever spend any time waiting tables or doing a temp job?
A. I worked at a lot of restaurants and it was pretty tough. I was hustling. I was making $20 stretch for a week.
Q. So you were living the life that Katharine McPhee’s character Karen Cartwright is living on the show?
A. Absolutely, I can totally identify with that.
Q. Did you realize Ellis was going to be so conniving? He started out so innocent.
A. I know, right? (Laughs). All of the scenes that they’d given me during the first callbacks were for that first episode where he was really nice. So they really wanted to see another side of me so they wrote me these new scenes from a future episode. So I have known that he was going to grow into this conniving, snake in the grass.
Q. Were you worried at all, thinking “This is going to be great stuff to play, but everybody is going to hate me”?
A. It worries me a little bit but, I mean I’m playing a character and I’m a really nice guy in real life, so if people can’t differentiate me from a character they’re a little crazy. (Laughs.) It’s really fun. I’ve never played a villain before, so I was really excited. I look really young and I always play the kid or the boy next door, so this has been really cool and it’s stretching me as an actor.
Q. Do you think Ellis deserves credit for the musical?
A. Technically, he does give them the idea. They don’t start writing anything until he mentions that he thinks it would be a good show.
Q. Is that going to be part of the ongoing story line?
A. I think so. It’s pretty clear in the first couple of episodes that he’s trying to make sure he has a hand in everything. He’s always there.
Q. Yes, eavesdropping, tattling, and even stealing the script!
A. Exactly, that’s definitely going to play a part as the series goes on. He’s really slick about getting information that’s useful, and he’s trying to figure out the right people in positions of power, and he’s just kind of stocking up this information to make sure that he’s invaluable. I think he’s an amazing character. There are actual people out there in the business like this. I’ve met people like Ellis, so it’s really cool to delve into somebody this layered, who’s got this cut-throat ambition.
Q. What is it like working with this cast?
A. It’s been so incredible. They’re so professional. For me to be working with people of this caliber and have them treat me as a peer blows my mind every day. I mean this is crazy, I’m doing scenes with Anjelica Huston. Who’da thunk? Everyone is so good, it really keeps you on your toes and makes you want to put your best work forward. I’m learning so much just by being in a room with them and watching them work.
Q. Do you feel like shows you worked on at SpeakEasy and some of the other local theatre companies are helping inform you on the set of “Smash” now?
A. Absolutely. I feel like you can go to school for other things and look in a textbook and learn how to do math or mechanics, but when it comes to acting and singing and performing you learn more in the field, in the action, then you’d learn at school. Doing those shows, that’s where I got my ground work. I learned my theatre etiquette and how to be professional. I totally owe a lot to SpeakEasy. I got my Equity card there on “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin.” They treated me really awesome and I learned so much from working there. It was kind of a home away from home.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.