NEW YORK – New York born and bred Daniel Velasco couldn’t be a lot happier these days than to count his blessings. First, he earned his degree last May from the Fordham University where he majored in theatre; second, he turned 22 in June, and third, he landed the lead role in the comedic drama play Year Zero, his first professional project as an actor since graduating.
Year Zero is a production of Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT) which premiered on September 11 and will run until October 5 at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. It is a play that is very relevant to immigrant communities as its message is about finding a direction and a home.
Daniel plays the role of Vuthy Vichea, a 16-year-old Cambodian-American living in Long Beach, Calif. in the 2000’s, whose mother fled the Khmer Rouge in the 1980’s and has recently died. He is a high school outcast who is divided between two worlds: “I’m too Cambodian for the black and Latin kids, and I’m not Cambodian enough for the Cambodian kids”.
In the role of Vuthy, Daniel identifies himself with the character as a weird kid and wears thick glasses. And since his best friend moved out and his mother died, the only person he can talk to is a human skull he keeps hidden in a cookie jar on top of the refrigerator. Vuthy periodically asks it for a blessing – in one instance to guide his mother’s soul to a place of eternal rest.
Year Zero revolves around four characters: Ra (Juliette Hing-Lee), Vuthy’s older sister; Glenn (Arthur Keng), Ra’s well-meaning boyfriend; and Han (Michael Rosete), the muscled bad boy who grew up next door and knows more about their mother’s past than Ra or Vuthy.
All actors are having their debut performances in this production of MRT.
“I love the heart of the play,” Velasco told the Philippine Daily Mirror in an exclusive interview. “It is a familiar story that a lot of people can relate to but it still has the truth of not only Cambodian life in America but also immigrant life as a whole. It gets to explore how we feel about our identity and where we fit in the world.”
At the opening night on Sept. 11, Velasco said it was an “incredible” night as the house was full and everyone in the audience seemed to love the play. “They were very responsive and gave us a standing ovation. It was just a great feeling to bring this show to life,” Daniel remarked candidly.
Daniel started early
Daniel started acting when he was very young. His godfather, who was in the original cast of Miss Saigon that performed on Broadway, suggested to Daniel’s mother that he would be good at acting.
“He is also an actor/performer and I would definitely say that he inspired me to pursue acting,” Daniel said remembering how he started and had set a goal for himself.
As a young boy, he has had several TV show appearances and print and TV commercial credits for various major brands. He is a member of the Screen Actors Guild (now known as SAG-AFTRA) since he was 10 years old. He ventured into martial arts, which he also now enjoys doing including kickboxing and jiu-jitsu.
Velasco was a college sophomore when he made his main stage debut at Fordham as the lead actor of Swooney Planet and also a supporting actor in Eurydice. He also acted in numerous plays while in high school at Loyola School NYC.
Auditions for Year Zero
Daniel said his agent got him to audition in Year Zero for the part of Vuthy, two days after his graduation. He had to do the first two scenes which included a part with him beat-boxing and rapping in the room. “I think I brought an energy and honesty to the role because I relate to a lot to the character,” Daniel responded when asked how he thought he was selected for the role.
Year Zero was written by Michael Golamco, an LA-based playwright and TV/Film writer, who is of Filipino and Chinese American lineage. Year Zero received acclaimed runs at Second Stage in New York City, Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, and at the Colony Theatre in Los Angeles. He wrote The Law of Sacrifice (Season 3, episode 18) of NBC’s TV series Grimm., where he is a staff writer.
Daniel said he has not met Golamco yet and hopes to see the talented guy someday and talk to him about his work.
Before the premier night of Year Zero, the cast was in rehearsals from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. After the opening, they do eight shows a week (Wednesday to Sunday) and have days off on Mondays and Tuesdays.
“Other than that I just hang out around Lowell or take trips with my cast-mates out of town,” Daniel said recalling how his typical day goes by.
Daniel had to leave his restaurant job in New York City to work full time in this play. MRT provides the cast with their own studio apartments near the theatre.
What the future holds
When asked if he wanted to perform only in theaters, he said: “I’d love to move into more TV and film in the future but I love doing theatre so I’m hoping that I can achieve some sort of balance between them.” Year Zero is Daniel’s first lead role out of school. He says that as long as the role is well written he does not have any issues playing specifically Asian characters.
“There seems to be a few more Asian actors on television right now so I’m hoping it continues so I can get my shot as well,” says Daniel.
Daniel received a Denzel Washington scholarship during his senior year at Fordham. He believes he was recommended by the faculty and he is grateful for it. According to Daniel, Washington studied at Fordham and has since set up a grant for industry professionals to teach classes in the theatre program as well as set up a scholarship. He met Denzel this summer after a performance of A Raisin in the Sun.
“Denzel is an incredible person and an actor who inspires me every day,” Daniel remarked.
Vivian, his mother, a long-time community leader, is as fulfilled as any parent would be to see her son performing at a professional level. During her early years, she, too, was performing for the Folklorico Filipino Dance Company of New York. After nurturing her son, guiding his progress and finally seeing him in the limelight, she says her labor and love are not in vain. She is thankful to God and prouder still for how Daniel is pursuing his dream and what the future holds for her son.
Everyone who knows Vivian is so proud of how Daniel is moving up in his career. They remember him as a quiet, obedient and unassuming boy who used to tag along with his mother to every community cause his mother was a part of. At age 22 or perhaps even earlier, he may not have been involved in what he used to do with his mom any longer. He has set his sights to somewhere else.
But now that he has been given a big break, he said: “My mom is the most supportive mother I could ever ask for. She loves to see me perform and tell everyone what I’m doing in my professional life. I owe her for everything I am today.”