Just a few short months ago, Philadelphia native Ethan Jih-Cook was a high school senior preparing to graduate from Friends Central School. This fall, he’ll return to high school once again on stages across the country. Jih-Cook traded textbooks for a tour bus and the role of Damian Hubbard in the national road company of “Mean Girls,” Tina Fey’s popular musical based on her iconic 2004 film. The out actor will be playing his hometown when the tour arrives at the Miller Theatre for a weeklong engagement beginning Oct. 3, a date that is sure to have significance for fans of the film. PGN recently spoke to Jih-Cook about getting his start as a child actor in Philadelphia, how he landed his current job and his long-term goals. Some responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
As a movie and now a musical, “Mean Girls” is a cultural touchstone for so many people. What did “Mean Girls” mean to you before you were involved in this process?
“Mean Girls” has always been iconic for its pop culture references and what it’s given to the culture. Even though it was created in 2004, before I was born, the story is still so relevant to younger people today. The issues that the characters face as high schoolers are similar to what I experienced. Even though it’s so funny and relevant, it still has great meaning and a great message. As someone who just graduated from high school, it really resonates with me.
Can you talk a little bit about your audition process?
The producers sent out an open call. I was 17 when that happened, and you had to be 18 in order to audition. I just thought I would audition for fun. But then I got an appointment after the open call, and then it got really real. They asked to see me dance and hear me sing a little more during that day. I was still processing just even getting a callback, because I didn’t think I would make it that far in the process. I was just excited to be there. I found out that I got the role the next morning. It was a crazy fast process, and it felt like a dream.
If you hadn’t gotten this tour, did you have other plans for the fall?
I was planning to go to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for musical theater. I deferred my admission when I booked the tour. The plan is for me to go there next fall and start school.
How are you preparing to be doing a multi-city tour as your first big job outside of Philly?
It’s kind of hard, because I don’t really know what to expect, so I don’t really know how to prepare. I feel like it’s going to be a situation where I learn what works along the way. It’s a completely new experience that I never even thought of doing. I’m taking it step by step, and it’s been fun and amazing so far.
How did working with some of the Philadelphia theater companies as a young performer prepare you to start your life as a professional actor?
I booked my first regional production when I was eleven at the Walnut Street Theatre, and that really assured me at a young age that I wanted to do theater for the rest of my life. I am so grateful to the Walnut Street Theatre for what they gave me, because ever since that first show, I’ve been working with them up until just this past year. I’ve worked at the Arden, the Kimmel Center, and done a lot of stuff around Philly. All of those different places really prepared me to do this as a career. I’m really grateful to have grown up in Philly, because the training and children’s theater here is so great.
The Kimmel Center is actually the second stop on the tour. How do you feel about performing a leading role in your hometown now?
It will be a real full-circle moment. The first show I ever saw was “Wicked” at the Kimmel Center when it was on its tour. That really inspired me to pursue musical theater at a young age. It’s going to be a really great experience.
The national road company of “Mean Girls” performs Oct. 3-8 at the Miller Theater, 250 S Broad St. For tickets and information, visit kimmelculturalcampus.org.