After a year of pandemic-induced delays, it’s finally lights up on “In the Heights,” a movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway smash.
The Warner Bros. musical, directed by Jon M. Chu, opens in cinemas and on HBO Max on June 10 — and the timing couldn’t be better. As COVID-19 rates drop and people continue to get inoculated, the arrival of “In the Heights” reflects the joyous revival of a city that was among the hardest hit by the global health crisis. There’s a reason why Chu has called the larger-than-life movie “a vaccine for your soul.”
“In the Heights” takes place in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan and tells the story of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos of “Hamilton” fame), a bodega owner who longs to return home to the Dominican Republic. He’s surrounded by a close-knit community of dreamers, including his longtime crush, the aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), as well as Nina (Leslie Grace), Usnavi’s childhood friend who returns to the neighborhood after her first year at Stanford University, and her on-and-off love interest Benny (Corey Hawkins), who works at her father’s taxi dispatch. Uniting them all during a scorching-hot summer is Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the block’s beloved matriarch. (She’s not really their “Abuela” but she practically raised them; the corner is her escuela.)
For Chu, the almost entirely Latino cast of “In the Heights” presents an opportunity to shed light on a group that doesn’t often get its due at the center of a major summer blockbuster.
“We have to invite people into our world,” Chu says of portraying any underrepresented culture. “After a pandemic especially, people need leadership to open up their hearts again. And ‘In the Heights’ is the ultimate connection movie.”
Click here to read Variety’s cover story on the decade-long journey to bring “In the Heights” to a movie theater (or HBO Max account) near you, and keep reading to get to know the cast of the film.
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi de la Vega
What do you remember about your audition?
It was at the Weinstein Company back in the day. I had been out of “Hamilton” for a minute, and they were doing auditions for “In the Heights.” I had a horrible audition. I was nervous, I wasn’t present. I was going through the motions that day. You know when you feel good after a good audition? You leave the room like, “That felt great. I don’t know if I got the job, but that felt great.” This one didn’t feel great. I left the room and I was like, ‘Dang, that was it. I blew that.”
About a year later, they pulled the movie from the Weinstein Company and shopped it around. I hadn’t heard anything for a while. Finally, Warner Bros. gets the film and Jon is directing. I was like, “Oh snap they’re really making it happen. I hope they don’t watch my tape [from the Weinstein Company] because if they do…”
Fast forward, I do “In the Heights” at the Kennedy Center. It had been two to three years since “Hamilton.” Lin came to a couple of rehearsals, and he wrote this beautiful ass tweet about what it was like seeing me play Usnavi. I read that shit, and that shit got me emotional. I had met Jon Chu a little before that in L.A. We sat for breakfast in West Hollywood and shared stories. We were both crying at 10 in the morning, getting emotional over breakfast burritos. I hadn’t heard from him in a minute and finally the straw that broke the camel’s back was that I got another job that was going to conflict with the shooting dates for “In the Heights.” I texted Jon and said, “I just got another job, but I really want to do this movie, bro.” He was like, “Hold. Let me get the suits to move.” Those were his literal words. And boom, I got the offer the next day.
What was your favorite musical number to film?
“96,000” was mad cool. It was raining, it was grey out. I don’t know how they made this shit look like a sunny day, because it was not. It was a hard three days. One of the highlights was where you see everyone in the pool jump at the same time and splash the water. Right before that part, everyone starts clapping it up and cheering for each other and saying “Let’s go, let’s go!” The elements were crazy but the fact that we’re all here, this is something greater than us. Jon calls action, and it was like electricity. The other part that stood out to me is that Jon was in the pool with everyone. I was like, “Yo that’s my director.” That’s a dude I look up to. He’s not just in his chair perched up. My man is in the pool, he’s in the fucking mix. You know what I’m saying? He’s cold as fuck with everyone else, explaining what’s going on.
Lin played Usnavi on Broadway. Did he give you advice?
Nah, no advice. Literally nothing. He said “Do your thing.” That was it. To be honest, I just made it my own. That’s all I can do. At the heart of it, I know what I love about the character – I love his story and his commitment for the people he loves. Also I’m from New York; I lived a lot of the shit he lived out. I’m not a bodega owner, no, but growing up in the struggle and having big dreams, the Latin experience, I’ve lived that. I didn’t have to do too much character study. I was like, this is my life. I know what a piragua is, I know what this food tastes like. I’ve been going to Latin clubs since I was a kid when I was too young to even be in there.
What does it mean to see “In the Heights” promoted as a summer blockbuster?
It means a lot, especially being Puerto Rican. You don’t see 75 Latinos dancing in the middle of street and singing about pride and repping their block [in films]. This movie created a space for us, not only to be in it, but to be ourselves in a major motion picture and give people a glimpse into a life, especially what it is like to be Latino in New York. That’s specific. It comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s Mexican, it’s Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, Peruvian. I love that this movie encapsulates everything, from the lightest of the lightest to the darkest of the darkest. “Carnaval” is my favorite number because of that; there are so many flags. Being Puerto Rican, we don’t see our flag in movies. Hollywood doesn’t know the difference between Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, everyone thinks we’re all one. We’re all one, but the places are different, the food is different, the salsa comes from this place, merengue comes from that place. The fact that this movie has all these different flags, it’s like, “We see you. It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario
What was your approach to playing Nina?
We had so many conversations about the experience of being a first generation Latin American. That’s not a conversation we’ve seen being told a lot [onscreen]. It feels like a privilege to talk about the quote-unquote struggles of being a first born in the United States and having parents that have busted their asses to make it here just for the potential of a future opportunity. We had so many conversations about the right amount of tension between your parents. How do you embody that without being disrespectful? It’s the balancing of “I love you so much, and I want to do this, but I have to find a way to do it for myself.” And not just because I feel the weight of all your dreams on my shoulders, but the dreams of my community.
What was it like to shoot your first movie?
I was so petrified. [I didn’t] have a point of reference for anything that’s supposed to happen on a movie set of any scale. Jon, among all of the calls huge and small that he had to make as a director, had the capacity to sit down with me and explain how we were going to shoot everything. All the little things that would make you scared or intimidated, he took the time to explain. He gave us everything we needed.
I was hyper-aware that I didn’t know anything, but I also knew I was surrounded by greatness. I was always trying to soak it up and ask all the questions because I knew that this is just like an anomaly of experiences to have on a first go-round. It made me feel like I had imposter syndrome all of the time because I was just like, “I am not worthy of this experience.” But every moment informs Nina because that’s what she felt. The main feeling as a first generation is imposter syndrome. It’s an identity crisis of not feeling worthy enough of all the sacrifices that your family makes that they didn’t get to reap the benefits of, and now you are. Corey [would say], “You are your ancestor’s wildest dreams.” On that set, I think all of us felt some degree of that.
Was it hard to learn the choreography?
Oh my gosh, that was the best part. We had two months of dance training. You don’t see any doubles dancing for us. We really wanted to learn for ourselves. It was really important for our bonding process. That’s where we really became like a family. We were sweating together, crying together because salsa dancing is fucking hard.
What was your reaction when you saw the movie for the first time?
To see it come together is beyond mind blowing in terms of representation. When we see things like “Carnaval,” I have this moment where I’m waving my flag in a feature film that’s going to been seen by the world. And we’re going to take up the most space — we’re not going to take up a corner, which is what Jon told us to allow us to dream. “We’re going to make this big movie about this block because it deserves that space.” We’ve got to stop making our stories feel like they’re small.
Melissa Barrera as Vanessa
What was your favorite number to shoot?
It’s really hard to choose one. One of my favorite days on set was “Champagne.” We got to do the entire musical number without any breaks, and it felt really emotionally charged. After we wrapped, Lin came with a bottle of champagne to pop together from 2008, the year the show was on Broadway and won the Tony.
Is there a lyric in the show that resonates with you?
“It won’t be long now.” For me, that’s literally what I tell myself everyday to keep going in life and in this career. You have to push through the hard moments and the in-betweens and trust that you’re going to be able to do the things you’ve always dreamed of. But you have to be patient.
There are multiple big dance numbers. Which was the hardest to master?
For me, it was the club sequence. That was the number that intimidated me the most because I knew it was going to be a big number with really good salsa dancers. I am not a salsa dancer, and I was scared I wasn’t going to nail the choreography or I was going to look bad. They’d show me the choreography and I was like, “Yeah, no.” I didn’t want to let anyone down. It was very stressful. Everyone was very supportive and pushed me. After I shot that number, I felt the proudest I’ve ever felt of myself. I felt invincible.
What was it like to see that scene play out on the big screen?
I’m the worst at watching myself. I’m always criticizing myself. Particularly in this number, I was like, ‘Why is my hair in my face the whole time? People are going to think it’s a dance double!” I’ve seen the movie six times, and every time I see it, I can enjoy it more. I love how [the club sequence] makes people feel. It makes them want to get up and dance.
How did the cast unwind after long days on set?
Honestly, I don’t think we had time to unwind. It was such a hectic production schedule. It was so ambitious to film this size of a movie in 10 weeks. It was just like a train, powering through. We were having so much fun that I didn’t even think I needed to unwind. I was trying to absorb every moment, knowing it was going to end so soon. During the rehearsal process, I would unwind by putting my feet in ice. I don’t know how dancers do it. My feet were murdered.
Olga Merediz as Abuela Claudia
Since you originated the role of Abuela Claudia on Broadway, did you have to audition for the movie?
They had always told me it was possibly going to go to a big-name celebrity. I wanted the opportunity to audition. When they did call me to audition, I did the best possible audition I could do. I created the role, so I had it in my body, mind, soul and heart. I guess they liked it, because I got the part. I don’t know who they were auditioning. My reps said “Olga, don’t get too excited.” It’s very rare for a theater actor to [reprise] their role in film. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this show would take me so far. That I was able to do this part that I poured my heart and soul into, I feel like the luckiest lady in the world.
What’s the difference between performing on Broadway and on camera?
When you sing on stage, you take the audience for a ride and you take yourself for a ride. In the movie, it’s completely different. It’s stop and go, you have to cut and do it again. We were shooting “Paciencia Y Fe” out of sequence, and the challenge is to maintain that thread and focus. You have to know where you were before because when you shoot like that, it’s not like you do the full number. It was so difficult. I had done that song so many times; I knew it inside and out. Once you do Broadway, you can do anything. It took a lot of concentration, especially at the beginning. During a night shoot, when you’re singing at 4 a.m. I don’t even know how I did it, to tell you the truth.
What does it mean to star in a commercial blockbuster with an almost entirely Latino cast?
We’re so lucky to have this movie to show the world we’re all different shapes and sizes and colors. As far as Abeula Claudia, I love bringing people that are invisible or forgotten, especially the elderly immigrants, the caretakers. I want to bring that lady to life and give her the time and the respect that she deserves. She’s really the heart of the stage show, and she’s still the heart of the movie.
“In the Heights” is playing in theaters and on HBO Max. Do you have a preference for how audiences see it?
This movie is so big and epic. it should be seen in theaters or, at least, the biggest screen you have. But a lot of people will not be able to make it to the theaters, so they’ll be able to see it at home. I think it was a very smart thing to do. We needed it last year, desperately. I’m so beyond ready for this to come out. I think people are going to be dancing in their seats.
Corey Hawkins as Benny
What was the most challenging musical number to film?
Dancing on the side of the building in [“When the Sun Goes Down”]. It’s Nina and Benny’s vision of Fred and Ginger, even if they don’t know who Fred and Ginger are. They allow themselves to dream and take up space in that way. It was hard because we only had two days to shoot it, so you can’t mess it up.
What’s your favorite song lyric to deliver?
One that a lot of other people like is in the bodega when Benny says, “You ain’t got no skill….” But my favorite is [in “Benny’s Dispatch] … “There’s a traffic accident I have to mention at the intersection of 10th Avenue and the Jacob Javits Convention Center…” and he just goes into this long thing at the dispatch. That was so much fun to shoot. I was tripping up and messing up the whole time. That’s the genius of Lin.
Lin is known for writing incredibly fast raps. How did you learn the lyrics?
To quote the all-time classic poet Biggie, I let my tape rock until my tape popped. I listened to that song so much. “In the Heights” was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway, and the soundtrack was classic. We had that for years before “Hamilton.”
Christopher Jackson, who originated the role of Benny on Broadway, was on set. Did he give you any advice?
Nobody told me Chris was coming to set that day. [Laughs] I’m like, “How did y’all let that slip?” I knew Chris from before – not too well — but through the theater community. He let me have the space to do what I needed to do. This was an opportunity to create a completely different Benny. His performance was the one I saw all those years ago, and that’s what I based my Benny off but I got to take it to the next level. I had his music in my ears for years and years, and that’s what I was listening to during the shoot.
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Mr. Piraguero
Did you ever consider reprising the role of Usnavi?
I was going to be Usnavi in the first go-round because I had been playing it on Broadway. And then when that whole situation ended, I closed the book on it. I was like “OK, I’m working on this other thing [“Hamilton”], I’ll just keep writing.” I saw Anthony in a production of “In the Heights,” and I can’t tell you how surreal it was. I had shared many performances with him as my best friend and my son in “Hamilton.” His connection to Usnavi was so molecular. It was just like, I was playing Usnavi and Anthony is Usnavi. That’s genuinely how I felt when I watched him do it. That was a good six months before we were even talking casting, but I knew he had the chops to do it.
Which character do you relate to the most?
Even though I played Usnavi [on Broadway], I identified most with Nina — the person who is from the neighborhood but went to school somewhere else and feels out of place everywhere. I think it’s a good definition of a writer: someone that feels out of place anywhere, and someone who was already observing the situation.
What was the first day on set like?
We were at Astor Place. Since I was just sort of sitting there, I had a chance to revel in the full circle-ness of it. When you’re a New York kid, you have layers of memories for every block in Manhattan. I was thinking about when I used to sit on the floor of Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore around the corner. When I used to sit in the humor section of the now defunct Barnes & Noble that was on Astor Place that is now, like, a gym or something. And it’s a block from where “Hamilton” premiered at the Public. You have layers of experience on every block, which was intense on 8th street so imagine how we felt a few days later when we went up to my actual neighborhood to begin shooting.
What’s the key to adapting a musical for the big screen?
In the most successful movie musicals, you have to bring something that is not in the stage adaptation. We experience movies differently. “In the Heights” is very different from the stage show, but it has the spirit of a stage show, which I think is true of [movie musicals like] “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” The most successful ones aren’t afraid to break the thing a little to make its own thing.
“In the Heights” and “Hamilton” grapple with themes of legacy and what we leave behind. Has your relationship to that notion changed at all?
No, I am just as morbid as I was when I was 16 years old and thinking I could die tomorrow.