Amid the many familiar faces of “Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration” — including Josh Groban, Martin Short, Shania Twain, David Alan Grier and Rita Moreno — is one TV viewers may not know yet: Joshua Henry as Gaston, the hunky himbo in pursuit of Belle (H.E.R.). With his powerful baritenor voice and a striking facial resemblance to the late Sidney Poitier, Henry steals the show by performing with lengthy locs, subtle prosthetics and, as Gaston himself says, “biceps to spare.” (The chest hair and cleft chin are fake; the bulging muscles are real.)
It’s genuinely rare for a male actor this — strapping — to take center stage as Henry does here, singing, dancing and landing punchlines. But if you’ve arrived at this story after thirstily Googling “Who is that??” during Thursday’s telecast, know that the 38-year-old performer has built an impressive resume.
Though ABC’s two-hour anniversary special, streaming on Disney+ starting Friday, is arguably Henry’s most high-profile screen project to date, Henry — who was born in Winnipeg, raised in Miami and lives in New York City with his wife and three sons — is a three-time Tony Award nominee, previously appeared in Netflix’s “Tick, Tick… Boom!” movie and has established a career on the stage with roles in “Hamilton,” “Carousel,” “American Idiot,” “In the Heights” and “The Scottsboro Boys.”
Hours before a Broadway performance of “Into the Woods,” Henry spoke with The Times about getting heavier — and hairier — to play the beloved character, releasing a new single and where he hopes his new physique might lead next.
Singing, dancing, lifting barrels and swinging around Lefou — as Gaston, you look like you’re having a blast.
Yes! This number is just huge and iconic and boisterous, and I get to use my full chest voice and sing with all that bravado and gusto, and dance and have so much fun with Rizwan [Manji] who plays Lefou, and find so many different comedic beats. Of course, people have seen this number before, but they haven’t seen it with Jamal Sims’ unexpected choreography. When I saw him do it for the first time during rehearsals, I was like, “OK, I gotta live up to what they’re doing to fit into this amazing puzzle.”
Since Gaston has “biceps to spare,” how did you physically prepare for this role?
I love the gym, and this was a great excuse to really lift heavy and to put on some pounds. When I got this [role] in late June, I slowly started increasing my calories, stopped doing crazy cardio and started lifting as heavy as I could, week after week after week. I actually would talk to myself like him in the gym and just be like, “One more for the ladies,” to get into the character.
I didn’t measure my biceps beforehand, but I have to think that we’re at least two inches bigger, which was great because that works for Gaston. But our costume designer Marina [Toybina] got a little ticked off — I mean, stuff fit me, but when also doing the choreography, I split my pants two times, right up where the sun don’t shine. So we had to adjust the costume to accommodate the movement.
It’s fun to transform a little bit for this character, who obviously leads with his body. Since filming, I’ve kept up the heavy lifting. It feels good to be really strong. I’m hoping the world sees me like this and this leads to action projects or other things where I can use my physicality to tell the story. Plus, I also have three sons, so I have to be ready to pick them up at a moment’s notice.
How old are your sons? Have they ever watched any version of “Beauty and the Beast?”
My oldest is 4 1/2, and the twins are 22 months old. They haven’t [watched] but my oldest came to set when we were rehearsing and met H.E.R. and Martin Short. I showed him a picture of me in costume with a bow and arrow, and he was like, “Daddy, you’re like a superhero!” It’s really special that my sons and so many other little chocolate Joshuas out there will be able to see me doing this iconic role because it fits me and I’m really good at it. I hope their eyes are going to be opened and that they’ll find their place in seeing that.
Playing this role, you have quite a bit more hair on your head and chest than you usually do…
They go down to the middle of my back. It took 4 1/2 hours to get them in, and then I had them in for three weeks while we were rehearsing and filming. I’ve never had any kind of braids or locs. I loved the look, my wife loved it, and even my manager was like, “That’s the vibe.” But it’s a lot of upkeep — I was like, y’all, I can’t shower, I can’t drive, I can’t sleep, so I was happy to take them out once we were done.
And the chest hair, well, let’s call it the chest ‘fro, or the chest Chia Pet. We went through different gradations; the first one was way too much, you would have thought it was like Don Cornelius on my chest, like you could get your hand lost in it. So we had to find a good balance.
There’s also a lyric in the song that goes, “No one’s got a swell cleft in his chin like Gaston,” and while I have lots of other physical attributes that match this character, the chin was not one of them, so I also have a tiny chin prosthetic. It’s super subtle, but it’s all about the details.
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for everything about the TV shows and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Though you’re very well known for your stage work, many audiences of this special might be watching you perform for the first time. What do you want them to know about you?
Coming from the stage primarily, I am an acting, singing dancer. This is where I live, and I’m just doing what I love. I was talking to Lin-Manuel [Miranda] the other day, and he was like, “Listen, I’m so glad folks get to see you do what you do. Nothing’s changed here but the venue.”
I am a guy who has a very full life. I’ve lived a life dedicated to my family, to my art and to growth. I’m excited that there will be a lot of eyes on me and that audiences are gonna get to see me and what I do, but this is something that didn’t come overnight. I’ve been doing this for 16 years, steadily progressing in my craft, and I want anyone who’s looking at me to understand that this is possible. It’s possible to graduate at the bottom of your class academically and not know what your place is for a while, and then find it and excel to one day be in the Broadway scene and in this Disney classic. If you’re dedicated to your art and growing in it, good things can happen.
I imagine some people will be surprised by how closely you resemble the late Sidney Poitier? How many times have you been told that?
So many, countless over the years! I got it as a child, in high school, in college. It might be our West Indian descent; he’s Bahamian, I’m Jamaican, our complexion is the same. I loved his book and I would love to play him someday.
You just released a new single, following your debut album last year. How is your sound as a musician growing?
I’m feeling inspired about where I am as a songwriter. The song I just released is called “Can’t Nobody Tell Us Nothin’,” you can nod your head to it but it’s got an emotional tug as well. It’s all about being in that fiery, undeniable place of love, with all of its fireworks and its intimacy. I’m all about love — for your partner, for your art — and this is about that feeling of being right in the middle of that embrace.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a show this Saturday at the Kennedy Center, and after “Into the Woods” ends on Jan. 8, I’m performing shows in February with the Philly POPS that’s all about the history of soul music. And then I’m going to take a month off to do nothing and just be with my family, because I’ve been hitting it really hard. Folks will have to wait and see what I do next.