Broadway alum Damon J. Gillespie proposed to his fiancée, YouTube star Grace Aki, on the set of NBC's Rise

By Dana Rose Falcone
April 24, 2018 02:27 PM
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While his Rise character Robbie may struggle to act in the high school staging of Spring Awakening, Damon J. Gillespie has a solid Broadway background. But he understands what the football player-turned-actor is going through.

“I was not the best actor in high school,” Gillespie, 24, tells PEOPLE. “So many things that I see high schoolers doing now and I’m like, ‘I remember when I was doing that too.’ I know exactly what high school actors do when they’re kind of unsure or they’re not as specific with their intentions, so it was really fun to go back to that and explore how to kind of portray that.”

In Tuesday’s episode, the cast, including Robbie’s girlfriend and fellow drama student Lilette (Auli’i Cravalho), enters tech week for Spring Awakening, and the pressure “really hits” Robbie, Gillespie says. “Tech week is one of those things that that’ll bring anybody to the stress-meter to 100.”

Maarten de Boer/NBC/NBC via Getty

The actor, who appeared in Newsies and Aladdin on Broadway, also found himself really trying to deliver when he appeared in a summer production of the rock musical during college. Gillespie was so focused, in fact, that he almost missed out on starting a relationship with his now-fiancé, YouTube comedian Grace Aki.

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“We were doing Spring Awakening at a local theater in Tennessee, and she always tells people, ‘No, he was not into me during that show,'” he recalls. “And it’s because when you do this kind of work you try not to put your own feelings into it.”

The two kept in touch as Gillespie returned to college in Chicago, and just over four years ago, they moved to New York City together. On Dec. 19, he proposed on the Rise set.

“When I found out that I got this job and we were doing Spring Awakening on Rise I was like, this is perfect!’ ” Gillespie says. “Everything was exactly how I wanted to do it. I planned how I wanted to do it two years ago, so it was a no-brainer.”

Now the couple is in wedding-planning mode, gearing up for a small Southern affair with close friends and family, plus a bigger party in New York. “I had no idea how much went into planning a wedding,” the Roosevelt University grad admits. “So anybody that has ever planned a wedding in their entire life or even been a part of planning a wedding, kudos to you because this is so insane. But it’s also very exciting.”

One thing they know for sure is that their big day will include throws to Spring Awakening. “A lot of it is theater-themed,” Gillespie says. “It’s going to be a nerd alert type of wedding.”

Rise, also starring Rosie Perez and Josh Radnor, airs Tuesdays on NBC at 9 p.m. ET