Dallas — In an ultimate example of serendipity, who would have guessed that when Texas resident Nathaniel Cullors sang "Who's Loving You" for his sixth-grade talent show, it would lead to him singing that same song on Broadway and in the national tour of Motown the Musical, motoring into the Winspear Opera House July 28? A videotape of his sixth-grade performance is exactly how 14-year-old Cullors landed the role in the jukebox musical based on Berry Gordy's 1994 autobiographical account of creating the Motown record label, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. The 2013 musical, nominated for four Tony Awards, features classic performances from legendary artists like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. Motown the Musical ended its original Broadway run earlier this year, but will return to Broadway next summer. Cullors took time while on the road to talk to TheaterJones about his first tour and preparing to play the iconic King of Pop.
You and your family live in San Antonio, but I understand you were born in Okinawa, Japan. How did that happen?
My dad was a Marine for 14 years, and my parents were stationed there. That's where they had me and my sister, who is 9. I very vaguely remember some things from our time there, like tiny little video clips that show in my head sometimes. We moved from Japan when I was 4 or 5.
Tell me when you knew you wanted to be an actor.
I didn't start out thinking I wanted to be an actor. I just wanted to be "out there." I wanted to be famous—that was the goal. When I was 6, I booked my first film, The Red Cape, and that was when I knew I wanted to be an actor. The film was a student film, and the director was in college and funded it with his own money. It's still not finished.
How did you get the part in Motown the Musical?
My aunt told my mom about the show because she had gone to see it, so my mom looked it up and saw they were having an open audition. She sent them the video of me singing "Who's Loving You" in my sixth-grade talent show, which is one of the songs in the show. I originally booked one week in New York with the show, then one of the boys in the show left, and they put me in, so I did the Broadway show. Then, I got called to do the tour. We've been on the tour for a couple of weeks, but I have been with the show for nine months.
Is this your first tour? What's the best thing and the worst thing?
Yes. Broadway and the tour are the first major things I've ever done. The best thing is being in a different city every couple of weeks. I'm getting to go places and see and meet people I wouldn't otherwise get to meet. The worst is that I miss my family and friends, but social media keeps me from missing them too much. I also really miss my bed. The hotels are great, but the beds are not my bed.
How did you prepare to play someone as well known as Michael Jackson?
I like to call it "YouTube University." Because we live in this day and age, all you have to do is type "Michael Jackson" into the computer, and you can see everything about him -- his family, his performances, his influences. Michael Jackson didn't so much make up moves, he imitated ones he saw on TV and in concerts, so that's what I did. I looked up James Brown [one of Jackson's major influences] and watched his moves and then I watched how Michael Jackson did James Brown's moves. The crowds expect to see Michael Jackson in the show, not Nathaniel Cullors, but Michael Jackson.
What age is Michael Jackson in the show?
It's when he auditioned for Motown when he was 11 with his brothers, the entire Jackson Five.
What songs do you sing in the show?
I sing four of the Jackson Five's major hits: "Who's Loving You," "ABC," "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There," but only portions of the last three. Like a medley.
Who worked with you to prepare you?
In New York, I had a voice teacher who helped me. How I sing in the show, that's not at all how I sing in real life. She really helped me push my voice to the next level to be louder and better. The moves are pretty open. They give you a set of moves that you have to do, but then, they tell you to add your own moves. That's what makes Motown different. They don't give you all the exact moves, they want you to add your own things to it. I basically do the same moves every night, but I might add an extra spin to it on some nights. I've figured out how I want to do it. Some nights I do more than other nights.
Is there anything in the show or about being Michael Jackson that you, Nathaniel, relate to?
When I met Berry Gordy, he said that I reminded him of Michael. Now that I'm 14, I relate to when a news reporter asked Michael Jackson what he would do about his voice changing, and he said, "It happens." That's really how I try to approach everything. It just happens. I just live it day by day.
Do you have a favorite Michael Jackson song?
His Motown audition song, "Who's Loving You." That's when I feel closest to Michael. It was his audition song, and it was my audition song.
What roles are on your wish list?
I really want to do Billy Elliot. I also want to play Fiyero in Wicked. For some reason, I just love the idea of being the bad boy because I've always been the good boy.
What do you like to do when you're not performing?
I'm not athletic, so other than performing, I love all types of art forms—photography, writing, reading. I get out there and do guy things, too—my friends get me out there.
In addition to playing Michael Jackson, Cullors plays the young Berry Gordy and the young Stevie Wonder. He shares the roles with another young performer, Leon Outlaw Jr. They each perform four times a week. Motown the Musical runs at the Winspear through Aug. 16.