Arguably one of the most popular educational children's TV series of its era, the original "Blue's Clues" enjoyed a successful 10-year run, from 1996 until 2006. The show remained a TV memory until 2018, when Nickelodeon issued a press release announcing it was rebooting the show with a new title, "Blue's Clues & You!" In addition to the new title, the revived "Blue's Clues" also introduced a new host, Josh Dela Cruz. As that release pointed out, Dela Cruz brought along some impressive Broadway experience, having appeared in such shows as Talking Heads founder David Byrne's "Here Lies Love," "Encores!: Merrily We Roll Along," and Disney's "Aladdin."
Landing the gig was no mean feat; as the actor revealed in a conversation with BUILD Series, he was hired after a national casting call that saw 3,000 actors audition for the part.
Since the premiere of "Blue's Clues & You!" in 2019, Dela Cruz has become a familiar face in households with small children. In an exclusive interview with Nicki Swift, the actor discusses making the transition from the Broadway stage to children's television — and how surreal it is to see his face on "Blue's Clues & You!" merch on store shelves.
You're coming from Broadway into "Blue's Clues & You!" It seems like a very different type of performing style, projecting out to an audience as opposed to being all by yourself in a room with a green screen. What was that experience like for you?
It was pretty trippy at first. I'm so used to having props and having costumes and having other actors on stage. But then I realized that, "Oh, you know how to do this," because every kid that's gone to any theater school or any theater camp whatsoever knows that they don't actually get props or costumes or anything. If they're lucky, they just get maybe an actual glass so they don't have to mime it. But it's essentially just the black box in your imagination. Once I realized that I was like, "Oh, okay, I can do this. I know how to do this." I'd been taking film and television class for a few years prior to that and so I was really trying to hone in on this different audience perspective.
I think what I found was the most helpful was Steve Burns and Donovan Patton, the original hosts of the show, they pulled me aside and they said, "Hey, we love everything that you're doing and the reason you're here is because of the things that you did. Don't ever feel like you have to replicate or do anything that we've done in the past. Just keep celebrating you and then doing what you do and always remember that you can't move on until the kid on the other side of the screen has helped you. They are the expert." Really personalizing the character in the lens is something that is immensely helpful because, again, it's so different. You don't have an auditorium of 500, 1,000 people to amp up your energy or put your focus out to.
You've been doing this for a while now. Now that you're settling into the role, what kind of lessons did you learn doing that first season that are helping shape how you do it going forward?
Oh, you know what? There's so many things that I've learned. There's a lot of personal upkeep. Because the day's from eight to around six, it's a lot of... And it's on concrete because it's a green room. Now that I'm really hitting my 30s, I'm realizing how important yoga has become in my morning, day to day. I think I got lazy at the end of— just from getting tired at the end of this past season, and then we finished the season, and then I pulled my back, because I stopped doing yoga. I was like, "Well, that's what you get."
But aside from the personal upkeep, what's amazing that we keep building on season after season is that our crew, everyone that the audience doesn't see. My assistant, Ashley, who voices everyone before the voice actors ever get in there. She is my acting partner throughout the entirety of filming. Her, our hair makeup supervisor, our AD, our animators on set, our grips, our gaffers, everyone working on the show and in the production office, we have created this family atmosphere where we can come to work and we know we're going to laugh no matter how tedious a sequence may be or how tricky it may be. We always have a good time. That's something that season after season I hope comes through and the audience can feel the love as much as I do on set.
Now that live performances are starting to come back, are there any plans to take "Blues Clues & You!" on the road with a live version?
I would so, so love that. I'm so excited for musicals and live performance to be back and to be back in full swing. I used to be in "Aladdin" and I'm so excited for that show to come back. We had tickets to see "Company" on Broadway — I have a dear friend that's going to be in that. We're looking forward to that. But as far as "Blues Clues & You!", fingers crossed. I hope that we do have some sort of live performance. We did the Macy's Day Parade right leading up to our premiere. Hopefully that can work out again. But even if it doesn't, I'm just excited to be out there and to get to meet the kids that are watching the show.
Speaking of meeting those kids, have you had a chance to encounter any of your young fans? What kind of reaction do they give you when they see you face to face?
Yeah. It's amazing. Thankfully, my reactions, whenever people recognize me, are positive. I don't have to worry about anything that's a sticky situation. It's usually parents first. Then once the parents draw the attention of the kid, then I get one of three reactions. One is, "Oh, I know who you are. You're my best friend," and then we just have a great time and laugh. The other one is they get very shy and their parents say, "Oh, you watch Josh every day," and that's how I am.
That's how I am still, even after I see a Broadway show and I have friends that are in the show, I'll go to the stage door and other actors will come out and I'll still be very shy, because I'm like, "Wow, you're really, really good." The third reaction is I get this sideways glance where they're like, "What are you doing out here? Where's Blue?" That's usually the only thing kids will say to me. If they work up the courage to ask me, they would be like, "Where's Blue?" I'll have to say that, "She's taking a nap at home," or "She's in school." It's a lot of fun. I'm so grateful that every experience so far has been so positive.
You mentioned positivity and this is a very positive project to be involved in. This isn't some dark drama where you're coming home after tracking a serial killer or something all day. When you're working on something that just brings up positivity with people, that must be a really good feeling to experience that.
It's a great feeling. It's a great feeling to be some sort of anchor, especially for parents and kids having to go through what they've been going through in the past year, year and a half, that no matter what, they know that when our show comes on, they can just sit back and know that it's going to be a good show. It's going to be a great time and you're going to learn. It's also been a hugely positive experience for me, outside of the fact that I get to do what I love to do, but that I have to carry that positivity with me and take a deep breath.
I'm a human being and the day to day can get frustrating sometimes. We're back in New York City after being in Canada and especially post-quarantine, being out with people again, and coming into contact with people, and taking a deep breath and being like, "Oh, that's not a big deal." And carrying that with me. I have found that my mood, because I'm just more positive generally, and really working to stay positive, and be a positive force whenever I'm walking through my day to day, I have been in a much, much better mood. It serves all around.
I've mentioned to a few people who have young kids that I was going to be speaking with you, and they said, "Please tell Josh, thank you so much." Parents who've been cooped up in their homes for the last year with their kids, who just fell in love with the show, it helped get them through it. Then, it also occurred to me that you're doing the kind of show that is actually pandemic-friendly to film in a sense. You don't have a huge cast, huge crew, it's basically just you.
We were so worried when everything started to come down and it started to happen. My wife and I, we were in New York and then we were in Delaware and we didn't know what would happen to the next season. Thankfully, we're so grateful that we were able to get into Canada and work, because like you said, our show is built for the restrictions. On the floor, I think we have 12 people, 12 to 14 people in the room tops. When we were filming, we had a COVID compliance officer. I got swabbed three times a day... Three times a day, three times a week.
I'm so grateful that we were able to work and we went 87-plus days of filming without a single incident. Through the effort of everyone on set and the people consulting, and our producers, we were able to get through it. The show has been so healing for me, as well as our crew, as much as it's been for everyone watching at home. That's just what it is. We're a community, even though we're not in the same room all the time, it doesn't mean that we're not connected.
"Blue's Clues" is such a big brand for Nickelodeon. What's it been like to see your face on all this branded merch? It must be surreal to say, "Here I am, there's my face on the shelf."
It's really funny. It's wild. I loved action figures growing up. I remember I had a Spider-Man action figure that was my favorite thing in the world. I think if I did a little bit of digging, I could find it, but that was the thing that got me through operations as a kid, being sick, and having a good time. Now I get to be an action figure. To me, that is just such a crazy, crazy thing, but also very, very funny, because I remember a lot of the pictures that were taken for some of the merchandise, but there's some pictures that I look at and I'm like, "Wait a second. I don't think I ever took that. Is that my arm? I think they just Photoshopped that bit." So that's very, very funny. It's a dream come true and it's so surreal, especially now that we're going back into Target and everything and going through the toy aisle and seeing our show on the racks. It's wild. Without saying too much, we've been working on some more electronic toys that I'm just so excited for. I can't wait until they're out.
What's the most surprising thing that you discovered about "Blues Clues & You!" while working on it?
Oh. The most surprising thing. I never really knew it, because I wasn't a part of the filmmaking process, but I knew that our show, more than any show, especially at the time when it would first air, really put the script through its paces. Testing it with kids, working with people with degrees that are much smarter than I could ever dream or imagine to be, and really making sure that everything that we do with the order in which we say things, and present things, and colors, really are there to help kids learn and to get concepts that they can then apply to preschool and beyond. I had no idea just how much went into it.
Every table read that we do, there's always somebody there making sure that if we have a note or if we have a question about something, "Oh, well, this came back in research," and coming from being on set and getting notes about specific performance things and things that we have to tweak really, really is so surprising how specific everything has to be, which makes it more challenging, but in such a fun way. Because, we don't ever want to cut comedy for time or for comedy's sake, but in order to make that work, how can we do that? It's been really, really great getting on my toes, keeping me on my toes, and stretching all those muscles in order to make this set of curriculum work.
It occurred to me that communicating effectively to children is a very special skillset that, especially on television, I think it's one of those things that's tougher to do than people realize, because you don't want to be condescending and at the same time you can't be too sophisticated. Did you look at any other hosts in the past, like Mr. Rogers or anybody like that who had maybe influenced you?
Oh, absolutely. Mr. Rogers was who I grew up with when I was a kid. I don't even think we had cable until I was in middle school, I want to say. And so Mr. Rogers on channel 13 was who I grew up with. Then later, when my younger sister was at that age, I would watch "Blue's Clues" with Steve. Then later with Joe, with my cousin when she was born. Watching them really, really helped inform me on how to approach this. When I went into my audition, I remember that Steve Burns surprised me while I was there for my screen test. The director came up and gave me notes. I knew there were people sitting out of view. I just didn't think it would be Steve.
And he walked away and he was like, "Oh, Steve, do you have any notes for Josh?" When I put two and two together, I got so nervous, because the guy that created the role and that created the thing that I'm trying to do is watching me. As soon as he opened his mouth, I felt important. I felt like my voice... I was supposed to be there. I realized, "Oh, you know how to do this." You talk to the kid at home the way you would want to be talked to by anyone with respect, with kindness, with understanding. Don't be afraid to ask for help, because that's essentially my job. My job is to ask for help, which has been a really, really wonderful practice, because you can't do everything on your own. In order to get farther, you need the help of other people and who better than the kid at home who is the expert at everything, from counting to colors, to feelings?
It's interesting you mentioned that about having Steve on a set... I thought that the way they introduced you and that passing of the torch was done really well, because that's something that could very easily be botched, but it sure looked like they put a lot of thought and a lot of effort into that whole process.
Yeah. Our creator, Angela [Santomero], she is phenomenal. Our entire writing staff, our producing team, everyone working on the show, made sure that this was done right, because there are a lot of things that come back for nostalgia's sake. I loved the Ninja Turtles growing up, so it didn't matter... I think we love the Ninja Turtles movies, but it could have been bad and I would have seen it. But because of the nature of our show, it's an educational show. The reason we came back was, yes, there is that nostalgia factor, where parents can enjoy with kids, but there's over 20-plus years of new research and new ways to help kids learn.
That's why it was important to get it right. In doing that, they were able to use their amazing creative skills to bridge that gap between me and Steve and Joe, and honestly, based on how much time we've actually been on set together and in a room, it doesn't make sense how well we get along. We get along like we are cousins or brothers. I'm so, so thankful because I would have been so crushed if I met them in real life and I'm like, "Ooh, I don't like you."
I came across a very fascinating interview you gave about how, when you started off as an actor, you really tried to downplay your heritage. Then when you started working in Asian-Americans theater groups, you had an epiphany about how, "No, I'm doing this all wrong. I've got to lean into this." Then meanwhile, I thought of that recent study about AAPI representation on screen, where it turns out The Rock has 30 percent of all the roles for AAPI characters on film. What are your thoughts on that?
Growing up, it was... I never saw myself as somebody that would ever be on TV. My mom used to joke around with me and she's like, "You watch so much TV, you should just be an actor." I never thought that that was a possibility mainly because now as an adult, I realized, oh, I didn't see anyone that I really connected to on screen. Anybody that really looked like me or acted like me, or anybody that I related to that wasn't a foreigner, that wasn't something else. Most of my young adult life has been trying to figure out how to justify being me and being American. A lot of that was trying to fit into a box that was not made for me.
One of my dream roles of all time, whenever anybody would ask me about theater, is to be a Jet. I would love to be Action in "West Side Story." I have a lot of training to get back into any sort of shape to be Action in "West Side Story," but he's a Jet. Because of the way that I look, I would never be able to play that role. Unfortunately that is the story for so many roles on Broadway and a lot of the roles on television and in movies, and so I never saw myself in that space. The only reason that I thought I could do theater was because I saw Lea Salonga and because I saw Lou Diamond Phillips later on in "The King and I," and BD Wong.
There are so many ways that you can watch media now. You can watch on YouTube, you can watch on Netflix. Every network has a streaming platform and there is no shortage of content or roles for people to play and to watch and to connect to. The more and more we strive to reflect the America that it actually is, the better off we're all going to be and that anything is possible. Stories are going to change and the way that we tell stories are going to change. If we didn't have "In the Heights," if we didn't have any of the shows that came before "Hamilton," how could "Hamilton" have existed? That's so exciting, because it's our story now, it's everyone, regardless of how you look. Looking toward the future, I'm excited. I'm excited, I hope we continue to represent more people on screen, but also behind the camera and the creative space, because I think there's no limit to the greatness we can achieve in any space if we do that.
Clearly you're very passionate about Broadway. Now that it's opening up, any plans to return? Or is the "Blues Clues" schedule just too restrictive to allow you to do both?
I really, really want to go back. I really want to go back. Right now, the schedule is super, super restrictive, but if there was ever any sort of vacation week or whatever at "Hamilton" or any other show... It doesn't have to... I could King George it. I would love to go back, hopefully once... COVID has put everyone's schedules in a funk and hopefully once we get back to, "We're filming this time and we're ending at this time," we can start to schedule that stuff in and hopefully do some new works and bring a new role to Broadway.
One last question, it comes from a parent who has young children who watch the show all the time, and she was wondering if you ever just find yourself singing those songs when you're not on set, without even realizing it?
Absolutely. I'm so sorry. Parents, every parent that's out there, I want you to hear me and I want you to know that I'm serious. If you ever get annoyed, or if you're already annoyed at my voice and the songs that I sing, I'm so sorry, but thank you so much for continuing to play it for your kids. You're all superstars. I do find myself singing, "We got a letter," and that is just one of the things that people ask me if I sing on the daily, and, sadly, I do. A lot of the time when I'm having trouble finding something, I'll start singing to myself, "I came into this room to look for a glass." It's not far off, but yes. I'm sorry.
"Blue's Clues and You" airs on Nickelodeon.