Nikki M. James set the stage for her career in the spotlight at the age of 5, when she belted out a Whitney Houston ballad at her kindergarten graduation. Fast forward to March 2011—just a few months shy of her 30th birthday—and James became the first actress to play Nabulungi in the now exceptionally popular musical "Book of Mormon."James won the Tony for Best Featured Actress that year for her role, which she held until January of this year. These days, she stuns audiences as Eponine in the remake of "Les Misérables."
In honor of Broadway’s biggest award night on June 8, we chatted with the theater star about what it’s like to win the trophy, her pre-show rituals, and why she switched productions after all her success.
Shape: What was it like to win the Tony for "Book of Mormon?"
NJ: Totally surreal and awesome, and luckily they televised that so I was able to DVR the performance, because I don’t remember much of the evening. Emotions are so high that night, it’s hard to know what’s happening from one moment to the next. It changed my life and it changed the direction of my career, and I’m really lucky.
Shape: What made you want to switch to "Les Mis?"
NJ: After doing "Book of Mormon" for as long as I did—and the incredible experience it was for me to be creating a role in a Broadway show that won nine Tony Awards—I thought my plan would be to take a break from musicals for a while and maybe try to do something on television. That was, until I heard they were doing "Les Mis," and then it became totally clear to me that that’s what I wanted to be doing. So my lesson there is the best-laid plans are going to be ruined, and sometimes the thing that’s next for you in your career and life is something even better than you could have imagined.
Shape: Tell me about how your experience in "Les Misérables."
Nikki M. James (NJ): It’s a thrill to be able to do a show that I’ve loved my entire life. A memory that I’ll take with me forever is on the very first day of rehearsal, we started at the top of the show and sang through the material. The pianist played the opening cord—you know, it’s very iconic—and probably 90 percent of the people in the room started crying. To people who love musical theater, this is a show that you can’t ignore and I know how lucky I am to be a part of it and also to be doing it in this way—a new version being brought back to Broadway after 10 years or so.
Shape: Since this is a three-hour show, how do you keep your energy up?
NJ: I eat well, I drink very little, and I exercise. Getting a good workout boosts my energy better than anything else I could do in my day, so I try to stay as active as I can, and I get eight hours of sleep if I can. Also, I’m not a caffeine person, but I do have a tiny sugar addiction, so I treat myself to some Smarties or something like that every now and then, usually halfway through the show I give myself a sugar boost.
Shape: What kind of workouts do you like to do?
NJ: I change it up a lot. Right now I’m doing Barry’s Bootcamp. I love doing barre classes too, and I try to keep a pretty consistent yoga practice of Bikram and vinyasa. I’ve found that working out in class is the most fun for me. I’m a little competitive, so I find being around other people who are kicking ass makes me feel like I can kick ass too. There’s also the element of making an appointment with yourself, signing up for a class, and knowing that that’s going to be something you’re going to do—it helps me make sure I’m staying on my game. If it was just say I’ll go to the gym around 3 o’clock, I’m still, like, searching YouTube for clips of cats or something.
Shape: What are some of your favorite things to eat?
NJ: Like everyone else in the world, I’ve fallen in love with kale. I taught myself a really easy roast chicken recipe that takes almost no time or talent, and that’s a good thing for me to have in the house to snack on or to put on a sandwich or put on top of a salad or something like that. I’m also a French fry addict and I consider myself a French fry connoisseur. I walk pass McDonald’s on my way home from work. I’m not going to say that I don’t walk in there and get an order of French fries at least once a week.
Shape: Do you get nervous for shows?
NJ: Not every night, but if there’s someone special in the audience that I care about and whose opinion I especially value, that will gives me extra butterflies. It’s funny how you don’t get nervous anymore, but it doesn’t take away your need or want or desire to be good. There’s a change in your energy that goes from being regular, puffing around, doing errands, to the feeling you get when you walk out of your dressing room and down onto the stage to make your first entrance. There is that transition period where I go from being a person to this actress who is going to be playing this role.
Shape: Do you have any preshow rituals?
NJ: I like to be on the stage before the show starts. I’m not in the very first scene, but I walk around and I check in with all the other actors, and I like to listen to the buzz of the audience and sort of get myself geared up. At that point I have a ritual with the actor named Will Swenson: He makes sure he smacks everyone before we start the show. So if I don’t get smacked by Will, it can throw my entire evening into a tizzy.