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Conrad Ricamora on breaking down barriers in 'How to Get Away with Murder' and 'The King and I'

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Paul Kolnik

A lot can change in a year. You could be facing unemployment one New Year’s Eve—and a pair of golden tickets to both Broadway and Shondaland the next.

By now, Conrad Ricamora has settled into something of a new life after having one hell of a 2014—with a juicy supporting role as shy IT guy Oliver on fall’s runaway hit How to Get Away with Murder, a breakout stage performance in the Public Theater’s beloved Off Broadway disco musical Here Lies Love, and a Broadway debut in the Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of The King and I, which opened to raves on April 16.

They’re the three projects that have put the 36-year-old actor on the map—and as an Air Force brat, Ricamora is more than familiar with how geography can change a person. After living in Florida, Iceland, California, and Colorado, he spent most of his childhood in the South, even attending Charlotte’s Queens University on a tennis scholarship. Post-graduation, he remained in North Carolina to pursue professional tennis—but soon traded in his racket for raconteuring as he worked at a coffee house and conquered Charlotte’s theatre scene.

“As is turns out, I kind of hit the ceiling with what you could do theatre-wise in Charlotte,” says Ricamora with a laugh. After community gigs and “godawful” local commercials, Ricamora worked as an actor in Philadelphia for four years, then headed back to the South for three years of grad school. “The mistake people that want to be actors make is to move to New York or LA right away. But it’s like…go act somewhere first,” he advises. “Be an actor. A story is a story and an audience is an audience, no matter where you’re doing it.”

That could be the key to why the actor’s current digs at Lincoln Center haven’t sent him whirling into a Rodgers & Hammerstein-style breakdown solo. There’s a certain pressure that accompanies a Broadway debut in one of the most talked-about classic revivals of the year—particularly one that looks to be a Tony lure for star Kelli O’Hara and director Bart Sher. But for Ricamora, the show outweighs the buzz around it.

“I’ve strangely never been nervous doing this show,” he says at a coffee shop just down the block from The King and I’s Lincoln Center home. “I love Bart’s vision for the show. Growing up as an Asian-American, people tend to exoticize the Far East, and this orientalism, mysticism bullshit that you kind of grow up with. We’re not doing that production.”

Given Ricamora’s Southern, semi-nomadic youth, finding his identity was always a challenge. “It’s been really good for me to be around this many Asian people, which I’ve never actually experienced in my entire life. But while it’s been nice to represent what seems like an underrepresented population [in The King and I], I’d actually say it’s even more so on How to Get Away with Murder. To be a part of that show, looking like I do, on national television seems like that’s more a breaking down of barriers.”

ABC/Mitchell Haaseth

On Murder, Ricamora plays a gay IT expert who assists the show’s bad-boy man-eater, Connor Walsh (played by breakout Jack Falahee). “He thinks there’s something sexy and dangerous and James Bond-ish about collaborating with the guy that he’s in love with,” Ricamora says of Oliver’s questionable tendency to help Connor, well, get away with murder. But between the couple’s copious, steamy sex scenes and the season finale reveal that [SPOILER!] Oliver is HIV positive, Ricamora’s fan-favorite character has grown from a throwaway role in the pilot to a crucial ingredient in one of TV’s most refreshingly diverse LGBT-friendly series.

“The finale was broken up into two episodes, and I only got the script for the first episode where Oliver and Connor go to get tested for STDs. I thought, ‘oh, awesome, [HTGAWM creator] Pete [Nowalk] is doing a solid to bring awareness to getting tested after all of these sexual scenarios, and that’ll be it and we’ll get the results back and then have make-up sex for the first time. And that’ll be a sweet finale,’” he recalls. “I went to shoot, and Jack said, ‘Did you hear? You…you have HIV.’ And I stood there, as if it was a real revelation. I was spaced out for a while, and I just…I actually got depressed for a little bit. I’m glad we’re telling the truth of this story, though.”

Of course, he’s since fully embraced the storyline—a juicy narrative like that guarantees his character’s return to Murder this fall—as well as his newfound place in Shondaland. “Nobody tells you about how you’re going to involuntarily react to feeling like you’re being watched outside of what you do for a living,” Ricamora says with a laugh. “Or that you’re going to be made into a GIF.”

There’s also the unexpected thrill of being a part of a popularly shipped couple. In his case, he’s one half of what fans call Coliver. “I’m a huge sucker for romantic comedies, so this was definitely on my vision board. You learn more about yourself in intimate relationships than any other endeavor. I can go do King and I and sing out in front of 1,000-plus people, but trying to open up about something that’s bothering me with somebody that I’m in a relationship with? That’s the scariest thing,” Ricamora says. (Another fun link between Broadway and Murder: Both his love interests, Falahee and King and I co-star Ashley Park, went to the same high sc.)

Until the phone rings urging a return to Los Angeles for season 2, Ricamora isn’t itching to rush through his Broadway debut. After so much movement, he’s relishing the chance to sit down for a bit, both in the theater and in New York—where he’s just furnished his very first apartment of his own. An open run will do him good.

“I’ve been pounding the pavement so hard, so long, that I’m enjoying spreading my wings a little bit,” the actor says, proudly holding up a bag of new purchases for the apartment. “I remember, when the show first premiered, these women recognized me at a bar and even paid for my meal. I was grateful, but I’m also like, ‘Hey, I can actually pay for things now.’ I needed this a long time ago, when I was starving!”