Interview: Cameron MacDonald

Picking up the iconic character of Roger in Singapore’s first performance of Rent, Cameron MacDonald tells us what to expect from the longstanding musical about New York’s East Village in the early ‘90s.

So you’ve just finished working on the Georgie Girl musical in Sydney?
Georgie Girl was in Sydney. I finished that season, and without a day off started rehearsals for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in Melbourne, then Georgie Girl went to Perth, which I did. I had a day off, went to Sydney and did a season for Songs for a New World, and then without a day off, we’re here.

Rent has such a strongrepertoire of music. Playing the character of Roger the musician is quite a challenge. Are you a musician?
Growing up in a folk music household, there’s always been instruments around. Mum and dad both play guitar. I’ve dabbled with it over the years without ever making it my number one focus or anything, but this last couple of months I’ve had to step it up and put a lot of time into it. What’s probably the most daunting thing about the role is you have to have real control of that particular craft, so that you don’t think about it.

The story of Rent happens at a time when there were a lot of unknowns about AIDs. Telling Rent now would be a whole different story.
That’s right, absolutely. You watch these characters take their AZT or whatever and you’re like ‘Damn, is that even the right thing to do?’ We’re watching this period of time where people really didn’t know about it. It was a death sentence back then, and it was really scary. I think it’s a really important show, and an exciting time to be doing it in Singapore – particularly for the young people who come to see it. There’s a lot in it for people who are finding themselves, and it’s amazing how it takes a group of truly ill people – who don’t know if they’ve got a day to look forward to – to live in the moment. And they still make mistakes, and they don’t live in the moment, but the message is clear. The heroes of the story are amazing because they live right in the moment. That’s really important for this generation who are so deeply into their phones and miss that personal connection.

Roger is quite an emotionally deep character to play.
I take a massive interest in what happens to Roger before Rent begins. You get little titbits about the character, like his girlfriend found out that they had AIDs, and she killed herself in the bathroom, so what would that do to a person? When we pick up the story, Roger’s friend Mark says he’s just coming back from half a year of withdrawal. It’s like something, whatever it was, made him get rehab. So that’s amazing too, that shows some strength, but you’re right, he’s in a real dark place.

Is Roger one of the darkest characters you’ve played so far?
I’ve played Charlie Brown and he’s a dark little soul too – and he’s five years old. They just say how they’re feeling. Some of his little lines were so tragic as well. He broke my heart as well. There’s been some big characters for sure.

Rent is running until 23 October at the Drama Centre Theatre.