Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ in the North American touring production of Tina – The Tina Turner Musical.
Zurin Villanueva is indestructible.
What else could you be as the person who brings the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll to life on stage night after night? Since last fall, the Brooklyn-born-and-raised performer has been stunning crowds across the country as the late Tina Turner in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
“When I got it, I was like, “‘Oh, so I'm going to be indestructible after this,’” Villanueva recalls during a recent Zoom chat. “Just like Tina herself, I will be indestructible.”
Tina: The Tina Turner Musical traces the story of Anna Mae Bullock’s transformation into Tina Turner and her rise, reinvention and domination in music. A legend with a reputation for powerhouse vocals and a high-energy stage presence, Villanueva stepped into the role having been trained at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and Howard University and having performed on Broadway in The Lion King, Mean Girls, Shuffle Along and Clueless.
“It has been a role that requires even my pinky toe,” she says of playing Tina Turner. “This requires the goofy and the pretty and the feminine and the raunchy and the badass. It requires all of it and I've never had a role that requires my entire self, and it's been so rewarding for that reason.”
Read more below from Villanueva about carrying on the legacy of Tina Turner; her favorite song from the musical and more.
What details did you discover about Tina during your role prep research that enlivened your portrayal?
The way she dances, the way she flips her hair, the way that she speaks when she's not singing. She was very feminine, very matter-of-fact and she laughed a lot. You pick up all of these things. A few things I didn't know about her that I know now is she was in charge of The Ikettes in terms of what they wore and dance moves and fingernails and jewelry and hair and costumes. All of the dance moves they would pick up from seeing in clubs put it into the Revue. So I didn't know that she was doing that; it really shows an eye for specificity.
Have there been any special moments on this tour? I saw you posted a picture with a Tine drag queen in Nashville. It made me think how important arts and entertainment is in its function as a safe space.
We've had a few! We've had more than a few drag queens come through. And the first was in Minneapolis, I believe. I definitely would not have expected to see a fabulous drag queen in Minneapolis, but there she was in the front row and I'm like, “You know what? This entire show is for you, OK.” Completely dressed up, and I was like “Yes!” There have also been sweet older people that have seen [Tina] in person who actually have gone out of their way to come up to me and say, “No, I saw her. I saw her in ‘68, I saw her in ‘76, I saw her in ‘82 and you are doing her justice. You keep going. That's it. You are Tina. If I close my eyes, you sound like her.” Just things of that nature, and that means the most to me because they actually experienced her.
When Tina Turner passed, you wrote a really beautiful tribute on Instagram and one thing you said is, “This journey with her has brought me back to my true self.” Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, absolutely. I am someone who, as a highly sensitive person, I grew up really taking care of everyone around me, and their emotions around me. And so it left me forgetting to take care of my own emotions. Or even feel them. And as an adult, especially as an actor, like hustle, hustle, get it done—you're very task oriented. We all are very much now in the rat race well, we find ourselves there. And I forgot about or didn't really know how to take care of myself. And doing this show, the only way to do it is to be solely in your emotions, fully in your power, you have to go back inside in order to function. These things she's going through are the realest, and in order to give it justice, you have to be real with yourself. So I had to do it. And then what I found was acceptance and so much I didn't know that was inside of me. And I was in this space where I was able to release it and able to revel in it and able to honor it and able to just let it flow through me in a way that I had never done before. And so that is how Tina Turner got me back to myself. I am so so grateful. Bravery and freedom and expressing myself to the fullest level were things that I was afraid to do.
Tina passed right before the run of L.A. shows began. What was it like stepping into this run of performances?
It was more like it was the end of an era, so I felt a heavy love kind of grief for this woman that I never got to meet. Like, “OK, pass the baton.” This is it. She gave it to us. Now she doesn't have anymore and it's ours and we must do right by it. So it felt like a beautiful honor and responsibility to carry on our oral history tradition to let the new generation know about Tina Turner, to let them know that they too can have absolutely nothing and still make something happen.
Do you have a favorite song or moment in the musical?
I do; it moves around. It changes with the day, the week, the month. The last couple of months it's been “Don't Want to Fight No More.” I have realized how much I have been fighting preemptively, getting ready for a fight or as a woman, we have to fight a lot. We have to fight to be heard. We have to fight to be seen. In our jobs, that happens a lot. So you get used to it and you can get tired from that. So doing “Don't Want to Fight No More” [makes me feel like] I'm gonna be safe, I'm going to be OK, I’m not going to fight. I'm going to just be me.
Tina is a rock icon, but why do you think the musical theater stage is a proper space to tell her story?
It needed Tina Turner's hands herself on it it. This particular musical that we're doing, she worked with the playwright Kotori Hall as to what goes in it and what doesn't. This is very much her story. And I feel like that would not have happened unless on Broadway, unless it was a play. Theater is scrappy. So in order to keep Tina Turner’s story as pure as possible, we need to keep her scrappy. So I think that's why this is definitely the medium. Also, the drama of her life as it is is completely a play. It could be nothing else, just from knowing what you know about her story. Kotori Hall wrote an amazing book. This is more like a play with music than most of the musicals I've done in terms of being able to really get into the acting work and the beats and all of the alliterations and all the beautiful things us actors love that really make her story pop off the page.
Do you have any other projects you’re excited about?
I am actually working on an e-book to teach all of the young musical theater actors all of the hidden rules and regulations that we have outside of what we do outside of our singing, acting and dancing. The things that will help you have a long, beautiful reputation and career. Because that's something that we really don't talk about much and you really just learn on your feet. It would be really helpful to give them a few tips on like how do we keep doing eight shows a week healthfully, without burnout?
During the pandemic, I had thought about it. I had thought about it a lot when I had my first big production, which was the Book of Mormon on tour. I thought about it then, but you're young, you're gigging. And then during the pandemic, I was like, “No, I've thought about this. I should just write it down.” And so I just started writing down all the things that I would want to tell my baby sister who's about to do her first Broadway show.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Photo by Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022; Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022