Rare is the person who is truly self-aware. Rarer still the celebrity.
And even, er, rarerer is the celebrity who’s fame and fortune rests on a term that is used just as often as a pejorative as it is a descriptor: Boy band.
But speaking with Carlos Pena Jr. from Nickelodeon musical vehicle Big Time Rush, there’s a sense that he knows what he and his three co-stars are in the middle of — he uses the boy band label without flinching — even if he didn’t know what he was getting into.
“It’s been a crazy four years, and we definitely have a couple more ahead of us.”
Those crazy four years have seen Pena riding a consumer juggernaut, built around the made-for-TV, Monkees-esque premise of four young hockey players who become members of a, yes, boy band, after being discovered, and their comic adventures are intercut with musical montages. It is now one of the highest-rated kids shows on cable (it airs in Canada on YTV), and a musical act that has sold millions of albums and toured the world, including a current Canadian jaunt to support their latest album Elevate, which brings them to Calgary Friday for a Saddledome show.
For Pena, who plays the eternally hockey-helmeted, nice but not-so-bright guy Carlos Garcia, Big Time Rush is a somewhat but not complete divergence from the path he was originally on and one that, ultimately, could help him get further down it.
“My passion was always musical theatre and I went to school, the Boston Conservatory, for a year, and that was kind of where my life was headed. I had a full scholarship there and I was super-stoked and then this kind of came out of nowhere,” he says of the role he had to be encouraged to audition for.
“In a sense, it’s what I want to be doing; I mean, I still get to perform live in front of a lot of people every single night, if not more people than I would on Broadway. But I still have those goals and plan to chase them as soon as Big Time Rush is over.
“To me it’s all about building a career. I always told myself, if I could make a living of singing and dancing for people, and support a family, that’s the coolest thing. And this is just part of it. I’m trying to make a name for myself and hopefully go on to do movies and do Broadway, and who knows,” he says presumably only half-jokingly, “maybe a Big Time Rush reunion tour when we’re all 40.”
Still, Pena’s self-aware enough to know that as much as Big Time Rush has furthered his career, it also may have brought with it some limitations. Playing such a high-profile role for a lengthy period of time has a way of affecting both industry and public perception of who you are and what you’re capable of.
Add into the fact that you’re part of what is, in essence, a fad that appeals to one specific demographic (i.e. girls) who will eventually, presumably, grow older and/or move on to the next big thing (or, more appropriately, in another One Direction), that paints you into an even smaller corner.
Again, it’s something that Pena has obviously pondered but has no problem rationalizing.
“Of course,” he says candidly. “There’s always that in the back of the head: ‘You know what, how will (people) take me seriously. I’m in a boy band, I’m on Nickelodeon, blah-ta-blah-ta-blah.’ But we try and make it as real as we can. I mean, we sing live every night, so sometimes it doesn’t sound that great but that’s us singing live. Not everyone’s perfect, not every song is going to be on the money. And no one considers themselves dancers. We had to learn how to do all this stuff.
“So, yes, it’s contrived in a sense, because they found us on Nickelodeon, they made the band, and then the TV show came and then the music started taking off, but we still try and make it as real as it can be.
“All four of us love what we do and, to me, I think it shows.”
As for how long the wave will last, right now, it’s still a lucrative enough prospect that despite earlier plans to wind things down after this tour Pena and the other three — Kendall Schmidt, Logan Henderson and James Maslow — have been enlisted for at least another couple of years. Now, instead of getting on with a post-Rush career, they’ll quickly regroup, film another 16 episodes of the series, perhaps release another album and, more than likely head out on another tour.
The commitment is one that Pena made willingly, but also aware of the fact that there eventually will be an expiration date.
“It’s funny, I thought it was going to be over once this summer ended. When we wrapped last season, they tore the pool down, we said goodbye, we had our cast and crew party, and this tour was supposed to be the last hurrah,” he says. “And then with the success of the third season … and the summer tour sales, they were like, ‘Well, let’s do it for another year.’ We got word about a month ago about a fourth season, and we were like, ‘OK, well, why not?’ … If the music is right and the fans are there, they’re going to keep growing with us, so, it’s all part of the fun.”
And, not surprisingly he says his future won’t be limited by holding onto a life and fame that once was, and an appearance on, say, Celebrity Rehab in an attempt to reclaim it.
“I hope not,” Pena laughs. “That’s not my plan.”