Interview: Barry Conrad on joining the Australian production of In The Heights, career lessons and aspirations, and the importance of authenticity in his work

Barry Conrad’s multifaceted career spans screen, stage and music.

After breaking out on the reality series The X Factor, both local and international tours followed, including openings for such R&B icon acts as Brian McKnight, Craig David and Eric Benet.

Landing a role on FOX’s Power Rangers: Ninja Storm, his first feature film was the box office hit The Sapphires, before making his theatre debut in the Australian premiere of Broadway’s Violet, followed by an unbroken streak of roles including the Helpmann Award-winning Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

In 2019, Barry originated the role of Kane Jones on Neighbours, appeared in the AACTA Award-winning Erotic Stories and created the original series ‘Banter with BC’.

If his cup hadn’t completely runneth over, he was recently announced as one of the key cast members of the Australian production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, starring in the role as Benny.

As the show gears up for its opening on July 20th at the Sydney Opera House, Peter Gray spoke with Barry about joining the celebrated musical, career aspirations, and the importance of authenticity in his work.

I’ll start right off by saying congratulations on In The Heights.

Thanks so much, I’m stoked to be in the show.

Knowing the history this show has on stage, as well as the recent film adaptation, did you feel any pressure in stepping into the role of Benny?  Or because it’s a new production you’re able to just go into it with a fresh mentality?

I didn’t feel pressure coming into it necessarily, because it is a new production. I’d actually stepped away from theatre for a few years, so this is a completely reinvigorating experience for me. I’ve also worked with Ryan Gonzalez (who’s playing Usnavi), Joshua Robson (producer) and Amy Campbell (choreographer) before on Violet, so this is like a reunion and full-circle moment. I’m just excited.

And I can really relate to Benny as well. I feel like with a lot of these characters, people can really find themselves in them. There’s so much elation and joy, it’s been awesome so far. Can’t say enough good things about it.

When I heard about it I was so excited.  And knowing what Australians did with Hamilton has me even more excited, because there’s that feeling of In The Heights being so ingrained in American culture would it translate? And looking at this cast, it’s so amazing to see authenticity.

Honestly, there’s a special energy in the room. With this cast, you’ve got Latinxs, South Africans and Filipinos, for example. And I’ve never been in a room like that before as a performer in any way. People in Australia can really look at this and see that it’s actually more a representation of our country than what they might have seen before. It’s also got so much heart, I can’t stop gushing about it.

And it’s opening in, like, 2 weeks?…

Don’t remind me, Peter (laughs).

Does that turnaround just amp you up even more?

Well, we rehearse 6 days a week, all day. At first you’re like a sponge, because it’s a lot of material to take in and it’s a lot of work. It’s exhilarating, scary, exhausting, terrifying, exciting… all those things wrapped into one! Of course, we’ll get it done, because we’re professionals. But I love a challenge and the tight turnaround just amps me up even more.

My introduction to you was The X Factor days…

Man, that seems like a lifetime ago!

When you go for something like that, are you thinking of the possibilities as to where it can take you? Or is there a part of you that’s ready to commit to being the type of artist the show expects?  

I always knew going into (The X-Factor) that it was a show first. It’s not necessarily a talent show. I knew that if I got the opportunity though that I could use it as leverage and something to build on. There was a period there where you’re trying to shake that “reality TV” label. But in hindsight, I’m just so grateful. That show afforded me so many opportunities and my life has changed because of it. I’m not sure Neighbours would have come my way, for example, if I hadn’t done it. I can’t knock it.

Mentioning Neighbours, you’ve also had roles in The Sapphires, Power Rangers Ninja Storm, Erotic Stories…was acting something you always had envisioned for yourself? 

Absolutely. Always from a young age I’ve sung and acted. I hadn’t had the opportunity to act on a bigger level, but I was in my first play at 9 years old. It’s always been adjacent to my music. They both fill different buckets, but are equally creatively fulfilling. When I’ve done Q&A’s on my Instagram and people have asked if I had to choose between the two (music and acting), I can’t really. They’re both cathartic and fun in their own ways. Plus, you get to live in someone else’s shoes, which is pretty awesome. And then in a show like In The Heights I get to use everything that I’ve got.

One of your focuses now is your web series/podcast Banter with BC.  When did you decide you wanted to expand your platform from beyond the space we were used to seeing from you?

You know, Peter, to be honest, I make some of my income from social media, as a by-product of working in entertainment, and I thought, “What else can I do content-wise that isn’t just the same old?”. It really came out of a desire to connect more with people. I don’t know what it’s like for you as a journalist, but I’ve always been someone that believes in crossing the room and just talking to people.

I love connecting with people and I love to eat (laughs), so I thought why not just combine those two things and film it? It just felt organic. I had an awesome camera (as an ambassador for Panasonic Australia), partnered with a great venue (shout-out to the incredible team at Bar Milano), and here we are! There’s nothing staged about it. Other than getting my guests to think of the ‘Two truths and a Lie’ segment, what you’re seeing is happening in real-time. I’m discovering things, they’re discovering things… I love it.

I think that is the best way to utilise your platform, in showing that authenticity.  Organic, as you said.  With social media we’re so used to seeing everything through a filtered lens.  We can’t trust social media, ironically.  Having something like Banter with BC in the entertainment space is something we need more of.

Yeah, there is something voyeuristic about it – maybe not voyeuristic – but you’re watching people eat, it isn’t pretty. You’re just watching us just talk and interact. I get so much feedback, a lot of the time from young men, saying that it’s just so cool to see celebrities being real. It’s really resonating and that’s exactly what I want. We’re all just human at the end of the day.

Do you feel your work with R U OK? also helped spur this idea on?  I feel like we’re in that shift of men being able to show vulnerability and their emotions, and we’re stripping back that toxicity around masculinity.  Do you feel it’s changed the way you talk to people, and how people open up to you?

Definitely, yeah. Great question, by the way, thanks for asking. (‘Banter with BC’) does tie in really well with being an ambassador for R U OK?. It’s just a natural extension of myself, not necessarily being under the moniker of anything. It’s also a way for me to help destigmatize mental health, particularly amongst men. Men want more examples of what that looks like, I really believe that.

Being real and opening up isn’t easy, but contrary to societal pressure, expectations or conditioning, there’s actually nothing weak about it. Vulnerability is actually extremely brave and courageous, and to me that’s a powerful example of masculinity.

It’s funny, with R U OK?, that’s sort of how having Tristan MacManus (on ‘Banter with BC’) came about. I was a guest on Studio 10, which he co-hosted, and spoke about R U OK? and ‘Banter with BC’. When it came to season 2, I DM’d him and was like, “Hey bro, I came on your show, can you come on mine?” (Laughs).

Is there a bucket list of guests for you for Banter with BC? Anyone you really want to invite on to crack them open?

You know what this show has taught me? I have such mad respect for producers now! I don’t have this massive team doing every little thing for me, I’ve actually used a lot of my own relationships when it comes to guests. We’re in the second season now though, which is great, but I’m running out of people (laughs). Now it’s about really reaching out, and with that of course comes a lot of no’s and scheduling conflicts. Props to all you show producers out there (laughs)!

Bucket list? Hmmm… I’d love to have a massive star like Margot Robbie. Not sure how realistic that is right now, but hey, who knows? I’m not scared to knock on doors. All you can do is ask and see what comes back.

And looking at your career, is there anything that you haven’t tried that you want to dip your toe into? Or perhaps anything that you want to further explore?

The answer to that would be a bit of both. There is something that I am working on, something very, very exciting I’m creating that’s like nothing I’ve done before. And I’m not just saying that like a cliché interview answer (laughs). It’s actually happening. Watch this space.

Of course, I’d love to take what I’m already doing so much further. It’s funny, I think there can sometimes be a bit of a trap where we can think that there’s a “there” there. Like, once I reach “there” then that’ll be it – they’ll be successful, find contentment, be happy… whatever it is. Right now I’m intentionally doing my best to enjoy each moment and celebrate every win. Even though there’s more I want to do, I don’t want to feel like I have to cross this huge chasm just to feel successful.

The reality is I’m actually living out my dream right now and there are plenty of people who’d love to be in my position, so I’m very grateful. I just want to keep working hard, keep building and enjoy the ride.

In The Heights will be playing at the Sydney Opera House between July 20th and August 25th, 2024.  For more information and ticket sales, head to the official site. For more information on Barry Conrad, his music and Banter with BC, visit his official site here.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.