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‘In the Heights’: Daphne Rubin-Vega Talks Playing a Queer Character and Recalls Starring in ‘Rent’ 25 Years Ago

In the Heights Daphne Rubin-Vega
Courtesy of Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Daphne Rubin-Vegas face may be on an “In the Heights” billboard on 41st Street in Times Square, but her son isn’t so impressed. “He is 16, so I am not the coolest person at all on the planet,” Rubin-Vega tells me. “I’m like, ‘Just so you know, I’m the most badass mom you could ever have.’ He just gives me this look and goes, ‘Yeah, well, next time try for 42nd Street.’ My family keeps me on my toes.”

Joking aside, Rubin-Vega appreciates what seeing a film about a Latino community could mean to aspiring Brown performers. She says she had few role models to aspire to. For example, she loved watching “The Sound of Music,” but Julie Andrews was “the last person” she thought of when dreaming of becoming an actor. “I just wanted to achieve that feeling — whatever that was that she was doing when she was twirling on that mountain — that’s what I wanted to achieve,” says Rubin-Vega, who earned a Tony nomination for playing Mimi in the original production of “Rent.”

“But there were no women, particularly women of color, or even men of color, that were doing exactly the brand of what I thought I wanted.”

In “In the Heights,” Rubin-Vega plays Daniela, co-owner of a neighborhood hair salon with her life partner Carla (Stephanie Beatriz). The two were made queer for the film after being portrayed as straight co-workers in the stage show. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes called to tell Rubin-Vega about the updated relationship. “She’s like, ‘How do you feel about that?’” Rubin-Vega recalls. “I’m like, ‘I’m loving it.’

“Daniela is a high priestess of bad-assery,” she continues. “She’s a part of the person that I aspire to be, which is fully herself, making no apologies for who she is. She probably has earned her right to claim her fullness — self-empowered, self-employed, she has her own business. She touches other people’s heads, which is kind of a sacred thing in our culture, that we let people touch our heads.”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of “Rent” opening on Broadway. “Adam Pascal [who played Roger] and I huddled together so closely back in the day,” Rubin-Vega recalls. “We would see cabs with our pictures going by and I remember saying, ‘Can you imagine one day we’ll have kids and they’ll be seeing that?’ And he said our kids won’t recognize us. They’ll be like, ‘That wasn’t you.’ And so here we are with grown kids that are like, ‘Yeah, whatever.'”

PS: I’ll be on the red carpet Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival screening of “In the Heights.” Make sure to follow Variety on Twitter to watch all my interviews. The festivities, taking place at the United Palace theater in Washington Heights, kick off at about 5:30 p.m. ET.

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Courtesy HBO

Speaking of “Rent,” HBO’s “Revolution Rent” premieres on June 15. The documentary tells the story of Broadway actor and director Andy Señor Jr. staging a production of the Tony-winning musical in Havana in 2014. It was the first Broadway musical produced in communist Cuba in 50 years. Neil Patrick Harris is the film’s executive producer. He and Señor have remained friends since working together in “Rent” —  Señor has played Angel in multiple productions — in Los Angeles.

“It was the day after the ‘On Your Feet!’ opening [on Broadway], which I worked on, and I went to Neil’s house,” Señor (above, with Luis Alberto as Angel) tells me. “I created a 10-minute teaser and I played it for him, and he was blown away by it. He was like, ‘OK, great. What do you want me to do?’ I just looked at him directly and said, ‘I want you to be the executive producer.’ And he’s like, ‘All right. Great.’ He jumped on board immediately.”

While he’s tight-lipped about details, Señor is hoping to return to Havana with an original work by Cuban artists. “I would love to create a show with a story that has Cubans telling their own story,” he says. “And if there’s an existing show, I could take there; I think ‘The Color Purple’ would be really interesting. Set it in Cuba, like in the outskirts in the country. I think it’d be really beautiful, and I think they would be able to identify in a beautiful way with the show.”

SIGHTING: Music producer Max Martin having dinner with his family at Sunset Tower.

Have you seen Variety‘s gift guide for Pride? Spend money but give back at the same time. Check It out here.

EXCLUSIVE: In lieu of the Chanel and Tribeca Festival Artists Dinner at Balthazar, the legendary fashion house will be sending gift boxes to VIPs on June 14. The goodies will include an at-home art project, Domaine de L’Ile Rosé Porquerolles Vin Biologique and a postcard book featuring work from the annual art awards program. Chanel also sent gift boxes instead of holding its annual pre-Oscars party with Charles Finch in April.