A man of many faces: Josh Gad in conversation at USC

Josh Gad talks about rejection, relevance, and the road to success.

Star of stage and screen Josh Gad visited the University of Southern California to speak to students at the Bing Theatre last Thursday. Gad is known for a variety of work that ranges from silly to serious. He voiced the affable snowman Olaf in Disney's "Frozen" and originated the role of charming sidekick Elder Cunningham in "The Book of Mormon". But Gad has also starred as tech giant Steve Wozniak in "Jobs" and in the film adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express" alongside Dame Judi Dench and Sir Kenneth Branagh.

Gad is a large personality that holds plenty of joy and a surprising amount of depth. The minute he entered, his natural charisma took control. He prefaced the interview with a joke before any question was asked and even joked about how his legs dangled above the ground when he sat down. He set a light tone for the conversation, despite the fact that his road to success was anything but light and easy.

Gad was drawn to the theatre as a way to cope with personal struggles from within his family and himself. He performed all throughout high school and went on to graduate from Carnegie Mellon University with a BFA in Drama. He spent the three subsequent years after graduation facing rejections rather than audiences. After so much rejection, he thought that the answer was to give up and become a lawyer. Thinking this choice would make his mother proud, Gad called her with what he thought was good news. He was shocked by her response, "I'm disappointed in you. You spent fifteen years dreaming about this and only three years living it, and frankly, I think that's cowardly" Gad quoted his mother. This phone call turned into a wake-up call very quickly.

He went on to pursue his passion with a newfound vigor. He auditioned for the Broadway production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", despite the fact that he had not done musical theatre since high school. He was offered a role in the San Francisco production instead. He declined the offer, eyes set solely on Broadway. He auditioned for the Broadway production again and eventually in front of director James Lepine. Like the beginning of his interview, Gad cracked a joke to dispel the tension in the room. Lepine reacted poorly and in the dark of the Circle in the Square Theatre told him, "I don't think this is for you. I don't think you have what it takes to do this." Even when recounting the story, the frustration Gad must have experienced at this moment resurfaced, "You can question if I'm right for this role, but don't you dare question my work ethic" he told Lepine. Gad left knowing Lepine had made his decision. And he was right, the director had. But it was not the decision Gad expected. Gad was offered the role that night.

That production helped set his career in motion. After that, Gad went on to receive numerous offers in TV shows, movies, and plays. But the years of rejection taught him a lot about himself and the work he wanted to be doing. "There's going to a lot of rejection," he warned students, "Brush it off, mourn it, and move on." As his success grew, Gad experienced a plethora of offers to choose from. One of his biggest decisions was to either remain in "The Book of Mormon" or take a role in the sitcom "Modern Family". While "Modern Family" would have resulted in a steady income, Gad could not turn away from the creative process of  "The Book of Mormon""'The Book of Mormon' was the most fun I ever had…creating something from the ground up with those people and being there in that moment before anyone knew what we had…" He now feels he has a good balance of work that satisfies both his creative and financial needs. "One for them, one for you…that's a healthy lifestyle."

Gad's acting cannot be singularly defined by a certain type and he continues to challenge himself not only as an actor but as an artist in general. Gad has also become a writer, finding joy in creating the roles he wants to play. "What keeps us relevant?" Gad asked. "You surprise you [the audience] and you surprise yourself." By writing and taking on the projects he is most passionate about, he felt that he is able to remain relevant in the industry. But he feels the industry should be about more than who is typically considered relevant.  "Our industry is due for shaking up," Gad told the audience of students, "and I would love for you guys to be the ones to shake it up."

Josh Gad appeared at the School of Dramatic Arts Spotlight series, which invites professionals in the acting world to speak about their experiences in the industry. For more information about Spotlight @ USC, click here.