Tony Awards 2018: How Grey Henson Made Damian More Than a GBF in ‘Mean Girls’ (Exclusive)

Grey Henson
Joan Marcus

The actor explains how he evolved the character beyond being “too gay to function” in Tina Fey’s musical adaptation of the 2004 hit teen film.

Grey Henson, nominated for playing Damian Hubbard in Mean Girls, is one of ET’s Standout Performances on Broadway.

When audiences -- especially fans of Tina Fey’s 2004 film -- go see the musical adaptation of Mean Girls on Broadway, they might be surprised to learn that Janis Sarkisian and Damian Hubbard narrate the story. Kicking off the show with a “Cautionary Tale,” they set up the events that led Cady Heron, a homeschooled girl from Africa, to infiltrate the Plastics, a teenage clique led by Regina George, and learn the harsh lessons of high school hierarchy before jumping back a year to find out how things unfolded.

“It’s an exciting way to start the show,” says Grey Henson, who plays Damian and has earned a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, one of 12 nominations for the musical.

In the film, Damian is North Shore High’s resident gay best friend who’s almost “too gay to function” -- and while that’s still very much part of his character on Broadway, Henson tells ET that he wanted to make sure Damian was more than a stereotype. “For me, the most important thing when creating Damian was to make him human. Yes, he’s out and proud -- and I think that’s amazing to see a teen so confident in himself -- but I also wanted to make him multifaceted and not just the butt of a joke.”

In fact, for all his quips -- yes, the Danny DeVito joke is still there -- or gay icon graphic tees he wears, Damian may be the most well-adjusted and aware teenager in the show. Not only is he self-assured (“He’s so unapologetically himself”) but he sees Cady starting to go down a dangerous path, thanks to her thirst for resident hottie Aaron Samuels, and is one of the first to try to warn her.

Opening Act II with “Stop,” a tap dance show-stopper that didn’t exist when the show first opened for out-of-town tryouts in Washington, D.C., Damian teaches Cady, Karen Smith -- who admits to sending nude selfies -- and the audience a lesson in obsessive behavior, exacerbated by social media. “It’s about editing yourself when you get carried away online or when you’re crushing on somebody,” Henson explains. “It’s a lesson I have to remind myself of because, you know, you have to put the phone down when you’re scrolling through Instagram and you’re comparing yourself to everyone else.”

Initially worried that the character gets lost in the second act, the creative team led by Fey, her husband and composer Jeff Richmond, lyricist Nell Benjamin and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw conceived a new number that takes advantage of Henson’s dancing background.

Having grown up doing ballet and community theater in Georgia before studying theater at Carnegie Mellon, dance has always been a part of Henson’s life -- perhaps less so after a growth spurt made him into the “oversized lineback that I am today,” the 27-year-old performer quips. But shortly after graduating from college, he landed the role of Elder McKinley in the touring production of The Book of Mormon, in which the character performs that tap-heavy number “Turn It Off,” choreographed by Nicholaw.

While tap is not necessarily Henson’s strength, once he learned it, the actor says, he had it. “Casey was like, ‘You can do this,’” he recalls, adding that if nothing else, “you can sort of fake it if you get the arms and face down. So, if anything, I’m just trying to sell it as hard as I can.”

Ultimately, Henson pulls it off night after night. To be told he was getting a brand-new song and it would open the second act was the biggest compliment he’s ever been paid: “I was beyond flattered,” he says, proud to carry the number.

The other thing he really enjoys about playing Damian are those graphic tees. In a running gag throughout the show, each time Damian appears on stage he’s wearing a new shirt covered in a gay icon, from Cher to Judy Garland to RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Alyssa Edwards. “It’s really cool because everyone mentions the shirts,” Henson says.

The idea came after costume designer Gregg Barnes saw the actor wearing a Cher shirt -- which be bought after seeing her in concert years prior -- during a rehearsal for producers. “I just thought, This is a Damian shirt,” he recalls. Soon it evolved into the character being a celebrity worshiper, obsessed with divas. “I was like, Damian would watch RuPaul’s Drag Race because it’s 2018 and he’s a young gay man,” he says of adding in the shirt featuring Edwards, as well as Damian’s Spring Fling jacket, which features a hand-painted print of Bianca Del Rio as a saint.

A fan of the VH1 reality competition, Henson “knows everything” about RuPaul’s Drag Race and has met former contestant Alaska, who came backstage after one performance and has even tweeted with Edwards about his costume. When asked if he would ever want to be a guest judge on the show, Henson claims he’s “not fancy enough.” But he is a Tony nominated actor on Broadway -- that’s got to count for something? “Maybe if I win, they’ll consider it!”

The 2018 Tony Awards hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles will be handed out live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.