‘Love Lifts Us Up’: Wes Williams makes iconic role his own in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’

‘Love Lifts Us Up’: Wes Williams makes iconic role his own in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’

Imagine a sandy-haired, sweet-faced boy, middle-school age, waiting backstage before his acting debut in the smallish city (population 20,000) of Lexington, S.C.. He auditioned only because he had a crush on a girl, and cast in the lead, he was “mortified for the entire rehearsal process because I was so nervous.”

“Then on opening night I heard the audience from behind the curtain, and something changed,” remembers Wes Williams. “I decided then and there that I’d pursue theater.”

Not so many years later, Williams is once again playing a leading role, this time as Zack Mayo in the musical version of “An Officer and a Gentleman.” It’s his first tour — stopping Jan. 4-9 at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville — and he’s the first actor to play the role in a completely revamped version of the show. Based on the 1982 film starring Richard Gere, the plot still focuses on Zack’s journey of self-discovery.

“While the show had two prior iterations in the UK and Australia, our production started from scratch: A new book, a new score, and a new perspective,” says Williams. “Originating a role has always been a dream of mine, and being able to experience that so early in my career has been invaluable. For every bit of terror, there is twice as much gratitude for how rewarding it has been. The creative team has been an absolute dream to collaborate with, and they were incredibly willing to work with me on all sorts of aspects: what keys certain songs of mine are in, occasional melodic liberties, saying specific lines in my own words, etc. I really can’t express enough how artistically fulfilled I feel. These are definitely huge shoes to fill, and that is thrilling.

But “this is my first tour,” he adds, “and while I’m the most fulfilled I’ve ever been, I’m also the most exhausted I’ve ever been. Because the show covers officer candidates going through [Officer Candidate School], it’s very physical: a 12.5 foot wall climb, jumping jacks and high knees — while singing — and more.

“On top of that,” Williams goes on, “Zack has the most physically demanding track in the show. I average 75 push ups per show, as well as burpees and a second wall climb — [and] at 8 shows a week, it adds up! So the two biggest challenges are vocal and physical sustainability to do something so demanding so frequently. For me that means being very conscious of when I’m speaking outside of the show — to preserve my vocal energy — and being incredibly cautious with my own personal workout regimen to make sure I’m not overstraining my body.”

While Williams says off stage he’s a “huge goofball” — and a dedicated player of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game — on stage, he takes the responsibility of portraying an up-and-coming military officer seriously.

“Both of my grandfathers served in the Air Force, and my stepdad is in the army, so growing up I was very familiar with the military,” he says. “As far as research for Zack, it was about finding the balance between honoring what Richard Gere made to be so iconic, and finding ways I could bring myself into the role as it lives in our show. More than anything, Zack wants to escape the rough life he’s known by getting through OCS and becoming a pilot. He’s more than capable when it comes to strength and mental prowess, but has a long way to go as far as teamwork, trust and emotional maturity. That’s what I always tried to come back to.

“Our director and choreographer, Dick Scanlan and Patti Wilcox, spent a day at OCS speaking to the instructors and officer candidates there to learn more about it in hopes to represent it as accurately as possible,” Williams reveals. “When Dick had the opportunity to ask a few OCs what they hoped he’d do ‘right’ as far as representing them, one said that he felt like a lot of the time in entertainment, soldiers were represented as having the same ideals/opinions and that that couldn’t be further from the truth. He said it was his hope that there would be as many characters as there were actors on stage, each with their own personalities. I think that’s something we got right, and I think the show does a great job of being patriotic without being political. As far as themes go: Nobody does it alone.”

Live theater, he adds, also thrives on collaboration, not just among actors and crew but with each night’s new audience.

“It’s unlike anything else,” he says. “On top of that, a perspective shared by our director is that storytelling is where we go to have our questions answered. How should I feel about this? What should I do in this situation? What’s right and wrong? Whether you’re aware of it or not, we look for answers to these questions in storytelling. Live theater is a vital part of our culture.

“I left a small town in South Carolina to pursue acting, and being able to do this has been a dream come true,” Williams concludes. “On top of that, first and foremost my goal is to be an adept storyteller. Dancing and singing are important to me, but above all I consider myself an actor first.”



‘An Officer And A Gentleman’

WHEN — 7 p.m. Jan. 4-5; 1:30 & 7 p.m. Jan. 6; 8 p.m. Jan. 7; 2 & 8 p.m. Jan. 8; 2 p.m. Jan. 9

WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville

COST — $41-$82

INFO — 443-5600, waltonartscenter.org

BONUS — A pre-show cocktail class, set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 7, includes two show-themed cocktails. Cost is $35, and space is limited.

Categories: Cover Story