DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE: Tony Award winner talks about his life growing up in Panama City

Entertainment

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Life has just gotten a little better for a Panama City native and Broadway playwright.

Matthew Lopez scored his first Tony Award on Sunday night for his play, “The Inheritance.” Lopez is also the first person of Latin descent to win the Tony Award for Best Play.

News 13’s Jenna Maddox had the opportunity to speak with Lopez about his historic win and his life growing up in Panama City, along with what he has planned for the future.

JM: How have the past few days been for you?

ML: It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. You know, I don’t think my feet have yet touched the ground, and it feels good. I hope they never fully do again.

JM: Yeah, I don’t blame you. I can’t imagine standing on that Tonys stage, looking out to the crowd, and seeing all these Broadway stars, and you’re accepting your award. How is that feeling for you?

ML: You know, it’s very funny. I had two moments of where I was just sort of having an out-of-body experience, the first one when I was climbing the steps up to the stage, and I was taking off my mask. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I just want a Tony Award,’ (laughs) and then I’m on the stage, and I’m in the middle of my speech, and I just remember thinking, ‘You’re very calm right now!’ I was very impressed with how calm I was. I couldn’t believe how, like, collected I was. Because, you know, I, you never know how you’re gonna react in a situation, and they never sit you down and they say, “Now listen, if you ever win a Tony Award, this is how you should behave.’ Yeah, it was really great. And you know the thing that was so cool, too, is that the two presenters, Andrew Garfield and Robin de Jesus, are friends of mine. So it was like, to get the Tony from them was just like, you know. I have a copy of the envelope just to prove that the fix wasn’t in.

JM: You’re a Panama City native, so it’s incredible to see somebody like you get to this point. Tell us about your upbringing.

ML: My parents are originally from New York City. My dad, for a time, stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base long before I was born. They stayed in Panama City, and my brother and I were born and raised there. The thing that was really, really impactful for me growing up in Bay County was the arts scene in Bay County. First, it was Rosie O’Bork and the Pot of Gold Players that I was involved with when I was a kid. That was the very first thing that sort of lit the fuse for me. Later, I started doing shows at Kaleidoscope and getting to know them, and Charlie Wilson, who I miss so much. Sue Webb, and Ida Jean Plum, and David Garcia. I mean, this is just like my extended family growing up in Panama City. Those people, and Rosie and Rusty over at the school, they were the very beginning of my journey toward Sunday night. I honestly have to say that if there’s any heartbreak in Sunday night, it was that Charlie Wilson wasn’t around to see that, because I think he would’ve really liked that. But I’m very grateful that so many others got to see that, and that I got to experience it.

JM: Yeah, and I actually spoke with your old friend Jason Hedden yesterday.

ML: Ah, Jason. I met him in high school. (laughs)

JM: We talked a lot about your experiences together, and especially at Gulf Coast State College, and you both went to [the University of] South Florida. Tell us about your college experience.

ML: You know, Jason and I were roommates in Tampa. It was there that I learned to take risks. I’m really grateful that I studied acting in college, even though I really sort of had no business being an actor… I found that out a little later. One of the first things they teach you in acting school is how to make yourself uncomfortable. You cannot be a successful actor without frightening yourself a little bit. It was a valuable lesson that they taught us at USF, and I took that into the world with me as a writer. With “The Inheritance,” in many ways, I wrote the things that frightened me. Because of that, too, I was actually able to help these actors with their performances as the writer of the play, help them make decisions that frighten them. I’m very, very proud of winning the Tony myself for “Best Play.” And the thing that I’m almost even prouder about, is Andrew Burnap winning the “Best Actor” Tony for playing this role that I created of Toby. I’m very happy for Lois, as well. But Toby is a role that that comes from me, comes from my experience. He and I spent years, years crafting the role together, and I spent years watching him grow as an actor, and frighten himself, and challenge himself. I think all of that does come back to your question of, “What did I learn in school?” I learned how to take chances and I learned how to really sort of push myself out of my comfort zone.

JM: I want to know more about how you put “The Inheritance” together. It’s obviously a two-part epic, several hours long. I know it took you longer than several hours to write the play.

ML: It started with the novel ‘Howards End’ by E. M. Forster. When I was a teenager, the movie came out with Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave. I didn’t know much about it, but I had read that Emma Thompson was sort of favored to win the Oscar for it. I asked my mom to take me to see it. I was curious about it. There’s something about that movie that really, really spoke to me. It’s weird because, you know, here I am as a Puerto Rican kid growing up in Panama City, Florida and this is a story about a bunch of white people in England in 1910 bickering over real estate. It didn’t occur to me that what I was responding to was the author himself, E. M. Forster. The more I got to learn about him and his writing, and I found out that he was gay and closeted all of his life. I realized that was the connection, so I started to imagine this play. ‘Howards End’ is about three families from three social classes. ‘The Inheritance’ is about three generations of gay men, and it’s all centered around the impact of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and the 90s. I think I had the idea back in 2008. I didn’t start putting it together until about 2013. From the moment I sat down to really outline the thing, and that’s when it occurred to me that I was writing something larger than one play could hold. It just started to find its natural state in the world, and I was very fortunate that I had a lot of support, both institutionally from theatres and also individually from great artists like Steven Daldry, my director and now my dear friend. It wasn’t easy, but it was never hard because it was always, always supported throughout the process. It was a slow, methodical, painstaking and very, very tiring and exhausting six-year experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Not only have we won lots of awards, which is always nice, but I hear from people regularly who tell me what the play means to them and how it’s changed their lives, and that’s worth every sacrifice that I’ve had to make to work on it.

JM: Absolutely, and it premiered in London a couple of years ago. How was the process of getting it onto Broadway in New York City?

ML: Broadway is often just about real estate. I mean, it’s about much more than real estate, but often it just comes down to real estate. And that’s just simply, there are X number of theaters available. When you consider the fact that ‘Lion King’ has been running for 20 some-odd years and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ has been running for 30 some-odd years, and ‘Chicago’ has been running for 25 years, it’s fewer theaters than you think, right? You’ve got a lot of plays and musicals wanting to come to Broadway that are vying for a handful of theaters every season. Not only that, but musicals are usually favored over plays because they have a better chance of succeeding financially, right? It’s a business. We got very lucky in that we were successful in London. We sold out at the Young Vic. We did really great business in the West End. We won every award in the West End, which is always a good thing, and people were really supportive of the play. We ultimately had less trouble than most seven-hour plays about gay men and HIV getting to Broadway. We had the amazing Shubert Organization, who owns half of the theaters on Broadway, really, really behind us. When the right theater became available, we were given it, and that’s when we went.

JM: I never knew what that kind of process was like, so that’s cool to hear from the source. And then also, Matthew, what’s next for you? I heard you’re going to be working on the adaptation of ‘The Bodyguard,’ so does that mean the Oscars, next? Maybe even an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) for you?

ML: (laughs) Yeah, that Grammy is gonna be hard for a playwright to get, I think. Well, you know, I’ll tell you what. What I need to do is make a Polka album, and get that Grammy that way. (laughs) Yeah, I’m working on a couple of film projects, and most recently, I started working on this remake of ‘The Bodyguard,’ which has been so much fun to be given the opportunity to reimagine and to take something that is pretty classic cinema from my youth and rethink it. Warner Brothers is making the film. They just sort of gave me an empty playground and told me to build whatever I want on it, and they’ve given me so much support and leeway to create my own version of ‘The Bodyguard.’ That’s been a lot of fun, and so that’s what I’m working on right now.

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