Matthew López on Making History as First Latino to Win Best Play Tony Award and His ‘Bodyguard’ Remake

Matthew Lopez
CJ Rivera/Everett Collection

Matthew López became the first Latino playwright to win the Tony Award for best play last Sunday, but “The Inheritance” creator was worried the milestone would go unnoticed unless he drew attention to the historic moment while taking the stage.

Before the big night, López surveyed several friends and fellow writers about what he should say if he won the top prize. Gloria Calderón Kellett, the co-showrunner of “One Day at a Time,” was one of the people who read his draft and urged him to seize the moment.

“When you’re the first you understand the grave responsibility you have for all those who come after you,” she says. “He understood that this moment was bigger than him and beyond being a celebration of his work. To not talk about it would have been a missed opportunity.”

And López had an important message for the crowd of theatrical power brokers and producers. The Latin community is 19% of the population, and it should not be ignored.

“We are a vibrant community, reflecting a vast array of cultures, experiences and, yes, skin tones,” he said onstage while accepting the award. “We have so many stories to tell. They are inside of us, aching to come out. Let us tell you our stories.”

Less than 48 hours after capturing one of Broadway’s highest honors, López spoke with Variety about his decision to put a spotlight on the barrier-breaking moment for Latinos, his work on a remake of “The Bodyguard,” and what’s next for “The Inheritance,” his sprawling look at the AIDS crisis that seems tailor-made for a prestige TV miniseries.

In your speech, you read a statement about making history as the first Latiné playwright to win a Tony for best play. Why did you decide to make note of that fact?

I had known for some time that no Latiné writer has ever won the Tony for best play. Nilo Cruz was nominated and Miguel Piñero was nominated, but no one’s actually ever won it. That never really gets talked about, certainly not in the press or in the theater media. When I was nominated a year ago, I knew that were I to win, I would be the first. In the 10 months following the nominations and leading up to the awards, I never saw anything about that written. Usually firsts are greatly anticipated, even if they’re not expected to win. The would-be is remarked upon, and it wasn’t. And that tracked with my experience as a Latiné writer. We often are not considered. We often are not part of the conversation as writers, as artists. As the awards grew closer, I realized that were I to win, there was a chance that it might go unremarked upon, it might go unreported. I didn’t want that to happen. I decided if I wanted it reported, I needed to say it myself.

I sat down on Friday and wrote those words down. It was important to me because if I were to win, I would have a platform to not only claim it for myself, but for the Latiné community at large. It wasn’t enough for me to go up and accept the award. I needed to claim it. That’s important because when I was growing up, it took me a long time to come out as a writer. I didn’t see a lot of writers who had my last name. I watched the Tonys from the age of 5, and I knew what they meant to me as a kid. I knew the importance they played in allowing me to own my identity as a writer. One of the reasons why it took me so long to own that is that there were very few examples for me to look to. I knew I had an opportunity to open that door for others, just as writers like Miguel Piñero opened that door for me.

Why did you think the history-making nature of your win would go unremarked upon?

The proof of the theory rests with the experience we had with the New York Times. The words they used were López “described himself as the first Latino writer to win the best play Tony” as if it were a statement of opinion rather than fact. We complained to the Times and their answer was “We didn’t have time to fact check that before we went to press.” My attitude was you’ve had 74 years to fact check that. My play was Tony eligible for two years and Tony nominated for 10 months, and you’re telling me that on the night of Tony Awards, it took you by surprise that I was the first Latiné writer to win best play? That was why I knew it wouldn’t be reported if I didn’t say it. It wasn’t even on their radar. To me, that was proof that I was right to make that speech. It’s an experience that a lot of Latiné people and artists feel. We’re often ignored or overlooked. We’re often not part of the conversation and our achievements are diminished by the media’s indifference.

[Editor’s note: A spokesperson for the New York Times said in a statement: “We take firsts seriously and it’s our policy to fact-check them as rigorously as possible. On deadline and unable to confirm it immediately — as we had been able to with other milestones — we attributed the statement to Mr. López. Once we were more confident that it was accurate, we updated our coverage.”]

You used the term Latiné and not Latinx. Why do you prefer that term?

Latinx is not a Spanish word. It doesn’t work in Spanish. It’s not pronounceable in Spanish. It’s pronounceable in anglicized Spanish. I fully support and believe in the necessity of allowing Spanish to adapt to a gender neutral usage. That is the right thing to do, and I’m very happy that it is in the conversation right now. I support that fully, but I also support an evolution of the language that works with the language, and Latiné is a Spanish word.

In you speech, you also mentioned that Latiné people make up 19% of the population. Were you making a commercial argument for the audience of theater producers to promote more representation, as well as an artistic one?

One of the things that’s always been frustrating in theater and film and television is the assumption that the audience won’t be there. The audiences hasn’t traditionally been there because you haven’t sought them out. The perfect example of that was “Crazy Rich Asians.” I think there was an attitude in Hollywood of “We couldn’t have seen that coming.” All my Asian friends were like, “We could have seen it coming. It’s about damn time.” We have to force, we have to cajole, we have to convince and sometimes we have to wave a couple hundred million dollars under their noses to get their attention, as was the case with “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Black Panther.”

You wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in 2020, in which you talked about getting criticized for having a white, Jewish protagonist in “The Inheritance.” Why do you think you were questioned about not focusing the play on a Latino character?

It is astonishing to me the way we are sometimes treated in this business. Your last name is López, why aren’t you writing about rice and beans? If you’re not writing what we expect you to write or if you are not teaching me about the Latiné experience in every single thing you write, then you are useless to us. We cannot put you in the box that we have made for you — get back in your box, why aren’t you staying in your box? It is the ultimate expression of white supremacy. You’re only good to us if you are teaching us about your culture.

While my culture also includes heartbreak and my characters in “The Inheritance” also go through lots of heartbreak — love, loss, death, longing those are all part of the Latiné experience as well — I chose to write my protagonist Eric Glass as a young Jewish man because there was a lot about the Jewish diaspora in America that I wanted to investigate in the themes of “The Inheritance.” It is my right as a writer to write about the things I want to examine. No one ever asks a white writer why they chose to write the stories they do. No one has ever stopped white writers from writing whatever they want. And yet when a writer of color chooses to put a white Jewish character at the center of his play, he’s criticized for it. He’s questioned about it. It’s a double standard. I write what fascinates me, I write what scares me. I refuse to be told what I am allowed to write.

‘The Inheritance’ has a lot to do with the responsibility that a younger generation of gay men has to previous generations who lived through the AIDS crisis. One theme of the play is how much people had forgotten or decided to forget about that plague. We just lived through more than a year of another deadly disease. Has COVID-19 changed the way the play is received?

I’m very curious to see how the play resonates in L.A. next year when we bring it there. This experience definitely is a reminder of what the play was insinuating, which is these things never go away. History does repeat itself and the only weapon you have against history is our knowledge of it. The play is about what we do to survive and how we memorialize those we’ve lost. I think we all know what that’s like now.

You’ve been hired to write a remake of “The Bodyguard.” How are you approaching the project?

It’s so much fun. When Warner Bros. approached me about the idea, I quickly said I would but I wanted the protagonist to be Latina. They agreed to that. There’s been a lot of speculation about what I’d bring to the remake and some people were assuming that there’d be a gay storyline to it. Instead of focusing on an established star like the one Whitney Houston played, this is about a young Latina performer who has just become famous. It’s about how her life has changed because she is an overnight sensation. In the 21st century, that means she’s in immediate need of protection. It was important to me to use this opportunity to get Latin faces up on that screen and to get their stories told in a big way.

Are you going to turn “The Inheritance” into a miniseries?

Because the play is based on pre-existing material [Editor’s note: the play is a loose adaptation of E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End”], there are a number of people at the table. The funny thing is I don’t own “The Inheritance” outright. I share it legally with the Forster estate. “Howard’s End” is still under copyright in the U.K., in the United States it is not. Both by virtue of the fact that we premiered in London and we wanted to do the production in other parts of the world, we went to the Forster estate initially because we knew we needed their blessing. They’ve been great partners. [Director] Stephen Daldry and I are trying to figure out what we want to do next with the play.

What was it like for you and for your husband, Brandon Clarke, to make an appearance into the “Freestyle Love Supreme” wrap up of the Tony Awards?

Winning a Tony did not compare to having my husband name-checked in their recap. That was the surprise of the night. That was probably worth the entire 10-year journey of working on ‘The Inheritance’ to get to that 10-second moment.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.