Casey Likes Is Trying to Figure Out 'How to Be a Human' | Playbill

Special Features Casey Likes Is Trying to Figure Out 'How to Be a Human'

The Back to the Future star reflects on his meteoric rise so far, and why he's taking time off to direct Rent.

Casey Likes Michaelah Reynolds

It isn’t easy growing up in the public eye. As a person moves through the personal evolutions tied to adolescence and young adulthood, mistakes are bound to occur as boundaries shift and identity solidifies. For Casey Likes, currently starring as Marty McFly in Back to the Future on Broadway, those changes have played out on a gigantic stage for the world to see.

“I wish I’d been allowed to make mistakes,” Likes confesses. Since making his Broadway debut in Almost Famous, Likes has had barely any downtime. He went straight from the short-lived musical where he was the lead, to playing young Gene Simmons in the film Spinning Gold, before rocketing back to Broadway as McFly. It has all been a bit dizzying, though he does feel a bit pained that he hasn't been able to have a typical young adult experience.

“That's kind of what college is, really, a place to make mistakes," he explains. "And I didn't go to college because of Almost Famous. And that's fine, but as a performer experimenting as a person in my own personal ways, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I would have done in college if I had had the chance.” While Likes compares his experience in Almost Famous to the foundation finding period of grade school, Back to the Future is, in his mind, his equivalent to college. 

“By the time I was done with [Almost Famous], that would have been when I would’ve graduated high school," says the 22-year-old performer. "And I had a lot of questions about if I was going to stick around, because of it.” After years of developing Almost Famous for the stage, its brief Broadway run had thrown into question what Likes actually wanted for his life. Then, the phone rang. 

“Genuinely, Back to the Future is the one thing I've ever allowed myself to kind of make a mistake on. I didn't put too much pressure on it, if it went well with audiences and critics and awards, or whatever. I decided to treat it like college, and see who I’d be at the end of it all. When it comes to the job, I keep on my best behavior. But offstage, this show allows me to go on that journey.”

Roger Bart and Casey Likes in Back to the Future: The Musical Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

And what a journey it has been. While Likes prefers to keep his personal life strictly private, the noise of the internet, and its endless onslaught of expectations and opinions, have made the act of getting to know himself rife with difficulty.

“I’ll give it one thing,” Likes laughs. “I've learned a lot about the importance of really just going off of your own opinion.” Unlike rising stars of past eras, it is nearly impossible for Likes to fully disconnect from his fame. In past generations, Broadway actors of anything less than the top-tier of icon status could blend in once they exited the theatre district. Today, it's almost impossible to escape fans and their attentions. The dizzying flood of social media attention can be a young actor's greatest promotional tool as well as their greatest liability.

“There's not a lot of jobs where the job is, legitimately, to make people perceive you,” Likes sighs. “It is my job to make you want to look at me. The work is my body. And look, I've heard the whole gamut of opinions on myself via social media. And that's educational, sometimes, but it’s definitely toxic. I wish I could turn it off sometimes. But the thing is, you have to be very, very famous to do that. Like yeah, Angelina Jolie probably doesn’t check her social media, she has a team to do that, but she is kind of that last generation of Big Fame that can get away with that. Now, I have friends my age who are just as famous as she is, but they don’t get to turn off their phones.”

While Likes acknowledges that the outer presentation of his life can seem fantastical to fans, living inside of it can be extremely pressurized. He admits that it can be hard to tune out the criticisms levied at him every day. “Right now, my relationship with social media is genuinely just reminding myself that everyone has individuality. Everyone has their own taste. Everyone has their own morals and opinions... Some days I’ll get a comment saying I don’t even deserve the role, and the very next comment will say I’m the only person who they could have ever cast."

It doesn't help that his fame essentially removes the social part of being online, at least publicly. While fans and critics alike feel empowered to offer their opinions to him digitally, he is beginning to learn that communication can't always go both ways: weight is put on his words, and the act of defending himself or his loved ones can be read as hostility. So what to do? Answers Likes: "I’m learning to value that such a wide range of opinions can exist on planet earth, and that I really have to follow my own compass and not listen to anyone else.”

Casey Likes and cast in Almost Famous at the Old Globe in 2019.

Learning to calibrate that compass has been a work in progress. Likes admits that it came as a shock to the Almost Famous cast when the show closed. “It just did so well in San Diego [during the tryout]. And there were people that really, really believed in it. We had stuck with that thing for years, we had just turned down other jobs, we had dedicated our entire lives to make that show happen, because we were so confident in it.” 

When the show did not enjoy the long-running Broadway engagement everyone had hoped for, it forced Likes to reckon with how much he still had to learn about the industry, especially post-pandemic. In the aftermath, he has developed his own definition of success. “To me, in this new, post shutdown version of Broadway, the only thing that can be quantified is the audience. You can’t measure if people were moved by it. But if enough people are coming back to it, that is something.” To him, that sentiment extends not just to long-running hits, but also to shows that have a short, but powerful, life. 

“At this point, I think the only way to qualify as a failure is if you didn't get an audience," he explains. "If no one comes or connects—and I think connect is the more important part of that equation, because if you do good enough marketing, you can get anyone to come once. But repeat visitors, and people who tell you, ‘This piece means everything to me’? People talk to me constantly about Almost Famous. That four-month run was very important to a lot of people. And I can’t call something that made that kind of an impression on people a failure.”

Hugh Coles, Casey Likes, and guests Heather Gershonowitz

While Likes doesn’t plan on leaving Back to the Future anytime soon, he is taking steps to discover what his post-collegiate life could look like. Step one? Returning to his Scottsdale, Arizona, hometown to stage a starry, sold-out production of RENT (July 5–7), uniting those who inspired him at an early age with people he has bonded with on the east coast.

“I used to perform at the community theatre called The Scottsdale Community Players, and the creative director there said to me, ‘Whenever you want to put on anything, just let me know.’ Now that I've done these two shows on Broadway, I want to leverage that to celebrate people making art outside of this Broadway bubble, you know?”

In many ways, the core of RENT’s colorful characters is the very thing Likes is wrestling with: What does it mean to be an artist in your 20s in New York, trying to figure out the boundary between yourself and your art? The piece itself is indelibly tied to Jonathan Larson’s own philosophical wrestling, a veiled continuation of the meta-theatre the late composer had engaged with previously in shows like Tick, Tick…BOOM! Likes’ Back to the Future co-star, Roger Bart, was able to provide the young actor with crucial insight—he was a close friend of Larson and the namesake of one of RENT’s protagonists. Bart will record a video foreword for the production.

“When you eat, sleep, and breathe what you do, who are you outside of it?” Likes pauses, looking down for several beats before continuing on. “I am really trying to figure out the life outside of the career part. That's been my journey, since I closed Almost Famous, really. To figure out how to be a human, as well as an actor.”

Tom Kitt and Casey Likes Krista Schlueter

Likes admits that he's been struggling to truly connect with people when not fulfilling the public persona that is expected of him—especially living so far away from his family. “There's a lot of people that have fun in this industry, but finding a genuine, actual support system of people who care about you, and know you, is important," he says. "Learning how to be alone, and finding my daily routine, has been so important.”

And about that wünderkid persona. “It's very funny how my journey with Almost Famous really mirrored my experience in life,” Likes laughs. “All of these heroes of mine, that were people I'd followed for many, many years...they all called me the Kid. And for good reason! I started when I was 17 years old, and I was not as educated as I was when I left the experience. Back then, I was a little more frustrated by it, because, you know, ‘I was doing well in Arizona! Why don't you guys trust me?’ But now it's like, ‘Why would you?! I didn’t have anything on my belt.’ I really needed the education that they all gave me, truthfully. And look, you'll interview me in three more years, and then I'll be like, ‘What was I saying?’ But now, I'm at the place where I’m starting to actually trust myself.”

As Likes endeavors to craft a public version of himself that's a little more adult and less "The Kid," he can’t help but poke fun at the process of "creating yourself": ”The truth is that most of the actors I've met are crazy. Everyone who does this is a little bit crazy. And if most of the people I knew presented the versions of them that I know, truthfully, I truly don't think actors would be put up on the pedestal that they're on in society. And I don't think we should be. Actually, most artists should probably not be speaking for society. But I don't control the way the world works, so I try to make my public self as true as possible. I truly am an optimistic person, sometimes. I am truly in love with this art. I'm in love with these people that I do it with. And if I ever say anything in an interview, it is true at that moment. I don't lie in an interview. I might change my mind, but I refuse to lie.”

As the far-reaching conversation comes to a close, Likes wants to make one thing clear. “I’m doing my best to have no ego attached to me. I want to be as equally fulfilled doing RENT in Scottsdale as I am doing Back to the Future on Broadway. I'm chasing things that give me joy.”

Take a Look at Production Photos of Back to the Future: The Musical

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