LOS ANGELES – Look like you can’t dance.
That was the toughest job for Damon J. Gillespie, the actor who plays the oh-so-cool quarterback in “Rise,” the new NBC series about a high school drama department.
A trained dancer, Gillespie went to a performing arts high school and appeared in a number of musicals, including Broadway’s “Newsies” and “Aladdin.”
To play a jock who doesn’t quite know how to move on stage, he had to look at those who couldn’t and emulate them. The football angle? That required a peek at family members who did play the game.
But, Gillespie says, “football players don’t carry themselves in an awkward manner. They’re very strong and, respectfully, they’re bland. They don’t let things sink in like they should.”
Combining sports and arts was ideal, particularly since Gillespie knew his days as a dancer were numbered.
“During ‘Aladdin,’ I fractured my foot onstage and, realized, right away, this was going to be a short career. I knew I had to look at roles that required more acting than dancing.”
Now “almost 24,” Gillespie and his fiancée binge-watched “Friday Night Lights” when he started filming “Rise.” It gave him a good bead on the life of a high-schooler and introduced him to the work of Jason Katims, who also produces his series.
“I watched it and didn’t want to give it up,” he says. “It was so great.”
NBC officials hope “Rise” will be just as memorable.
Certainly, Gillespie says, the signs are there. “On paper, this is a show that has it -- the material, the backing, the promotion. Everything is just spectacular.
“I’ve been in those situations where, on paper, it looks great and it falls through. So I don’t want to get too excited. But if I set my personal fears aside, this is a slam-dunk.”
Beginning his performing career in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Gillespie enrolled in Chicago’s Roosevelt University to study musical theater. During his sophomore year, he was cast in the Broadway company of “Newsies,” the first of many dance-heavy roles. The “Aladdin” gig followed and the change in focus.
“I was looking for a job and this happened,” he says of “Rise.” “I’d auditioned for musicals on television before and didn’t get them but this just seemed right up my alley.”
Robbie Thorne, the high-schooler he plays, leads what many would assume is a charmed life. “It doesn’t come through until later in the series that he doesn’t want to disappoint anybody. He does the best he can but it kind of backfires because he’s spread a little too thin.”
To look like a football player, Gillespie worked out with his uncle, who’s a personal trainer. “When you’re a dancer, you already take care of your body, so that aspect kind of felt at home to me. But relearning how to throw a football…was a challenge. I’m not going to lie.
“In theater, you have two-and-a-half hours to get to the climax of a story. But in television and film, you are filming sporadically. One moment you can be jumping for joy…and the next you have to go cry in front of an entire group of people. It was a learning experience…but I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”