Kevin Cahoon has had one of the most varied performing careers imaginable.
One of the most reliable actors on Broadway, he’s appeared in Tommy, The Lion King, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hedwig And The Angry Inch, and The Rocky Horror Show. Cahoon’s talents have also extended to television, where he’s popped up on Modern Family, The Good Wife, Elementary, CSI, and Law And Order.
Cahoon’s origins weren’t on stage or in front of a camera, though. At just 5 years old, Cahoon told his parents that he wanted to be a rodeo clown. Over the next few years, Cahoon became known as “The World’s Youngest Rodeo Clown,” performing on rodeo circuits across Texas and Oklahoma.
“I wouldn’t be the actor I am today without starting in the rodeo,” Cahoon said. “It really cemented my roots and my love of all things Texas. Even if I see a pair of cowboy boots and a cowboy hat today, I know that I’m gonna grab them.”
As Cahoon moved into the world of theater and television, rather than trying to look or act like the other performers, he realized that his unique roots would help to set him apart: “My Texas roots are always with me. I’m always carrying them forward. What some may think of as a hindrance is the thing that makes you the most special.”
Cahoon’s background helped to secure him the recurring role of singer Earl Clark on Monarch, FOX’s ambitious musical drama series about the successful country music family the Romans, who are thrown into turmoil when their authenticity and legacy is questioned. Also starring Trace Adkins, Susan Sarandon, Anna Friel, and Beth Ditto, the 12-episode-long first season features appearances from numerous country music stars, including Shania Twain, Martina McBride, and Tanya Tucker.
The Texas Observer spoke with Cahoon about the original way that Monarch explores music and celebrity, his own unique upbringing, and the critical advice that he has for any up-and-coming entertainers.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Talk about your links to Texas.
I am from Houston, my parents are from Houston, and my grandparents were Texans. I went to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston.
How did you become a rodeo clown?
My family was a rodeo family. My dad was a calf roper, and my parents met in rodeo club in high school. When I was about 5, I said to my parents, “Hey, I want to be a rodeo clown.” [Laughs] You know, that’s every parent’s dream. But they said, “Great!” So I did that from the time I was 5 until I was 15.
I did the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which was one of the largest rodeos in the world at that time. It was at the Astrodome every year. We did rodeos all over the state of Texas and Oklahoma. Every weekend, we would just load up the horse trailer and go. That was my first introduction to performing. I was in front of a stadium full of people doing comedic acts. We had a trained dog and a trained pony.
How did you transition into acting?
When I was about nine, my mom signed me up for a summer drama program at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. That’s when I was first introduced to theater. I fell in love with it. I started doing many shows at Theater Under the Stars in Houston and worked at pretty much all of the theatre companies in Houston while I was growing up. There was a time where I was doing rodeos and theatre back and forth. Eventually, I left Houston, went to (New York University) to study acting, and left my rodeo dreams behind.
Did performing as a rodeo clown help you as an actor?
A hundred percent. It was my first introduction to working and dealing with an audience. I learned that the audiences really are a character in the show. When I was 13, I took part in a television show called Star Search, which was kind of like American Idol. I auditioned in Houston and then I got it. The next thing I know I am in LA and I win the 1985 edition of Star Search. Suddenly, I had this fascinating chessboard of a life as I moved between rodeo, theater, and television. But I wouldn’t be the actor I am today without starting in the rodeo. I was creating my own acts. I was pulling myself up from my bootstraps and testing it with an audience. Asking myself, “Is this funny? Do they think this is funny? Let’s try it! Let’s see!” I would have a lot of banter with the announcer at events, which I would script. It was an incredible way to grow up. It really cemented my roots and my love of all things Texas. Even if I see a pair of cowboy boots and a cowboy hat today, I know that I’m gonna grab them.
It’s incredible that you were writing your own performance at such a young age. Do you look back on that time and think, “I can’t believe I did this!”
A hundred-and-fifty percent. How did I ever do that? Where did that confidence come from? How did I have the belief to go out at the Astrodome and entertain these people? A lot of that comes from the belief that my parents had in me and them allowing me to do this crazy dream. They always supported me. It was amazing. Rodeo clowns are now a dying art form because now they do commercials on the big screens. In my time, there weren’t big screens to have commercials. You had to entertain the crowd with something. That’s where I came in.
Talk to me about your transition into theatrical acting. Was the dream to always appear on Broadway?
The minute I stepped into the theater, I knew I was never going to leave. I knew that the great love of my life was being a part of the theater, being part of a company, and telling a story. The true challenge of putting on a Broadway show is making sure that the audience has no idea of the time, the energy, and the craftsmanship that goes into every aspect of it. You want them to just be along for the ride. For me, there’s something about the attention to detail and the trial and error of telling the story in the best way that really is the most satisfying part of being an actor. Then, when you’re doing the theater, you have the great fortune of trying something different every single night.
How has being from Texas impacted your voice as an actor?
I can guarantee you that I’m the only student who has ever gone to the Circle In The Square Theatre School in New York City wearing wranglers and Roper boots [Laughs]. That was my uniform. Everyone there knew immediately that, “Oh, this is someone from another world.”
Did you ever feel daunted?
I just did what I wanted to do. My Texas roots and my beginning have always served me well in my career. You do a lot of speech and diction classes where they try to strip away your accent, which is because they want you to be as versatile as you can be. However, I cannot tell you the number of times, including with Monarch, where my accent has come in incredibly handy. So my Texas roots are always with me. I’m always carrying them forward. What some may think of as a hindrance is the thing that makes you the most special. That’s what sets you apart from the others. That’s what makes you unique when you walk into a room after they’ve seen 40 people audition. Just look at people like Holly Hunter, Sissy Spacek, and Billy Bob Thornton. They kept their accents and had these legendary careers. So I tried to embrace it.
What attracted you to Monarch?
I had been doing a series of workshops and presentations for a new Broadway musical set in the country music world. One of the producers of that show happens to be a producer on Monarch. So I got an audition. I made my tape. Of course, I was drawn to the world of cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and horses, and how it explored drive, ambition, and the myth of the West. The Roman family, which Monarch revolves around—they’re the most ambitious family you have ever experienced.
How does Monarch explore celebrity and entertainment in an original manner?
I loved how it looks at the myths of what is real and what is authentic in art. You know, how did people like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton present their truth to the rest of the world? Is there a showbiz element to their reality? That’s one of the great, magical things about show business. What is real? What is the truth? They say, “All great country songs are three chords and the truth.” But the truth can be a little murky. It’s fascinating how Monarch looks at how show business and entertainment overlap.
What did you relate to about Earl?
Earl likes to be in the spotlight. Earl likes his connection to this world. I loved the chance to wear a crazy rockabilly hairstyle in the show. My suits are all very flashy and sparkly. I told the hair design team and the costume designers from the first day that he has to enjoy getting ready and showing off as much as each other. When he walks into a room, he knows that he holds the keys to the kingdom. I’ve played a lot of characters in my career who are just to the side of whoever the star is. But at the same time, they’re getting just as much attention as the star is.
What do you want audiences to experience while watching Monarch?
I want them to have fun and escape. The show is in the great tradition of Dallas, Dynasty, Desperate Housewives, Nashville, and Succession. Everyone is out for themselves. That is so fun. Because you can’t believe it. You can’t believe that these people would go to these lengths to get what they want. Plus, the music is fantastic, we have covers and there are original songs. When popular culture is doing what it does best, you can escape and fantasize about a world that you don’t know anything about. That is this world of country music.
What advice do you have for people getting into the entertainment industry now?
I think it harks back to what we were talking about earlier—what makes you unique is the greatest card in the game for you. Do not try to change or shift. Lean in to what makes you special. You will find your way and the way will find you. If you try to be a cookie cutter presentation of other people or something that you’re not, you will be a diluted version of yourself. That would be my biggest piece of advice.