After 13 Tony Award nominations and four wins, Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Musical IN THE HEIGHTS, based on the Novel by Quiara Alegría Hudes, is ready to be seen by the world. A dazzling love letter to the people of Washington Heights in New York City, the story centers on a bodega owner named Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) who is in a relationship with Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), but longs to go to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with his roots. Vanessa works at a beauty salon but dreams of a career in fashion. We meet also Nina (Leslie Grace), finishing her first year at Stanford, but what her proud family and the tight-knit community don’t know is that she is dropping-out. Through Latin rhythms, Hip-Hop and breathtaking choreography, stories of love, dreams and the uphill battle immigrants and descendants of immigrants face, are told through this Jon M. Chu-directed Adaptation of this beloved Musical.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Chu and several cast members in advance of the Film’s eagerly-awaited release, including:
MELISSA BARRERA – Vanessa
LESLIE GRACE – Nina
DAPHNE RUBEN-VEGA – Daniela
DASCHA POLANCO – Cuca
GREGORY DIAZ IV – Sonny
OLGA MEREDIZ – Abuela Claudia
JIMMY SMITS – Kevin (Nina’s father)
See the Trailer:
Was ask Gregory Diaz IV, Daphne Ruben-Vega and Dascha Polanco about the experience of working with Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Gregory: I think the combo of Jon, Lin and Quiara, their minds are just so creative and you see the bigger picture that I know for me personally, I could never really see at first when it came to the Film. Jon is just great and thinks on a such a big spectrum. If there was a scene where I was struggling to reach that point that I wanted to get to, he would take me to the side and tell me one, two or three things and immediately I was like, ‘Yeah! That’s what I wanted.’. Lin and Quiara, it’s such a beautiful story they’ve crafted. I think it’s really evolved from the Broadway production.
Daphne: For me it was one of the first movies where the Director brings you in and has a conversation with you and shows you the Mood Board and the skeleton of the story and so forth.
Dascha: At first I was wondering, the Director’s calling me in… I was wondering if I still had a job or not! (laughs) And it was like, ‘Oh! You want me to see what the sets are going to be like and what I’m thinking, what you want me to bring to life and what my thoughts are.’. That doesn’t really happen, especially when we do this for a while and IN THE HEIGHTS was really that. Everybody was included. We had a set vision, but wanted to incorporate what everyone artistically can bring forth. In that regard, Jon was really careful of – to stay respectful and authentic to the community and beyond. So as an Actor, I then understood how necessary it is for you to be included and feel it, but when you’re actually doing it, it makes sense.
Daphne: Jon‘s just a Homie, a guy who’s so approachable. And that allows us to have a conversation. So we’re no longer just the Talent, we’re the participators in a collective experience. With Jon, Lin and Quiara leading the way, we feel comfortable that we can bring our A-Game and trust them.
Olga Merediz’s performance as Abuela Claudia, the woman who helped raise Usnavi and many of the kids in the neighbourhood, delivers the Film’s showstopping moment. She embodies what it meant to be an immigrant in a country that speaks a language she can’t. Having originated the role both off and on Broadway, we ask what different approaches she took in the Film.
Olga: So much to talk about. I’m so happy you were touched. She touches me. When I think of Abuela Claudia, I think of women like her, like your mother. I just tried to maintain her dignity even though she went through so much. There’s a big difference between the stage and the Movie because Jon Chu really just broke the barriers of the Fourth Wall and his visual genius allowed me to just to be in it and for him to all around me create that magical world of Paciencia y Fe (Patience and Faith) – which is the number I sing. I just wanted to make her into this quintessential matriarch we all wanted in our lives, whether you had a wonderful mother or not, because that’s complicated. So I took a little bit of my mother, my aunties, my grandmothers and I wanted to give her that giving nature where the people in the community could go to her for advice, or wisdom, or a cooked meal, or just to rest their heads. And I’m humbled that I was able to have this incredible journey with this character from workshops, to readings to off-Broadway to the Movie.
Jimmy Smits and Merediz are asked where this Film ranks in their careers.
Olga: This is number one for me. It’s a climactic point in my career and life.
Jimmy: I have been fortunate to have been in a couple ensemble pieces throughout the decades and we always feel this is the one that’s going to break through. But then there’s always that one or two. The difference is – and I think this relates to so many topics, not just in the Latinx community. And now that we’re coming out of this pandemic, where the world got jolted and we had to think about other social things that relate to inclusivity, this is gonna be a little bit of joy that I think the audiences are really gonna relate to because of the universal themes. Not just because of the specificity of the culture. We’re trying to be as authentic, spot-on and positive as possible. Because it’s time. Because the population in both Canada and the U.S. are changing and different, but are the same having immigrants come with a dream. Whether you’re from Ireland or the Caribbean, you want community and you want your children to do better than you. Am I thinking about the home that I left, or the new home that has all of those things? I think this resonates really well in the Film and I’m hoping audiences will take this little bit of joy and go with it!
We ask Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace about landing the gig of a lifetime here and the fantastic vocal work we hear, and what it took to get to that level.
Leslie: The gig of a lifetime. I felt so many times I felt unworthy of the experience because I felt I was being spoiled. I was reminded every day by my lovely castmates, ‘Yo! It’s not always like this!’. And so I was walking around like I was in Disney World every day. And even in production when we were sweating and sometimes bleeding on each other learning all these dance steps, it just felt like home and I just feel so fortunate and blessed to have gone through this process. So much of our hearts are in this. They are our stories. We finally get to tell what feel like our stories on the big screen and in a feature film, so it is the gig of a lifetime with amazing people.
Melissa: We both had really long casting processes. It took us over a year from the first time we auditioned. She auditioned, I sent a tape and then over a year I got called-in and she also over a year later got called-in, so it was a long process. But I think for both of us, it was perfect because it gave us time to prepare. For Leslie she was like, taking acting classes because she was an incredible singer already. And for me, I needed to work on my voice, so I had the time to take voice lessons and really feel comfortable with the material because Lin writes really hard songs to sing! (laughs) For me it was that, nailing the vocal aspect.
Leslie: And that you did, darlin’!
Melissa: But I think the amount of time, the timing was perfect because it let us get to where we needed to take on these roles.
At the heart of IN THE HEIGHTS’ story is community, but also the love stories. We ask the two stars how they built that believable chemistry that jumped-off the screen.
Leslie: It’s all real. We were just on Zoom for the first couple weeks together and every time each of us started to talk, we’d cry. Just having these people in your life, it’s not something everyone gets to experience and it’s not every day you come across people you just met and feel like you’ve known your whole life. If we had just done the experience of this Movie and nobody ever really saw it – which would be sad – the experience alone changed our lives. Sometimes you do a movie, waiting for everyone to see it so your life will be changed. But there’s a before and after for me in my life, after doing this Film with Melissa, Anthony, Corey, Jon, Lin and all the family. So that joy you feel from the screen is real.
Melissa: I think we were lucky we got such a long rehearsal period. We got ten weeks. During those ten weeks, we spent a lot of time together bonding over our frustrations, bonding over not getting Choreography. And going into a corner and wanting to cry, wondering if we were ever going to get this! All of that being there for each other really brought us so close and we became family. So the love and the chemistry that you see is real. We got so close that we became family and I think in a way it was perfect. These characters grew-up together and knew each other their entire lives. They live in this neighbourhood and it’s like a tight-knit community and for that to feel so real, I think we needed to have that in real life.
Leslie: You definitely can’t fabricate that in a Movie like this which has so much heart.
We ask Jon M. Chuhow as a Taiwanese-American from the West Coast, what are some of the conversations and questions he had to ask when coming into a Film like this, which is so deeply-embedded within the Latinx community and set on the East Coast?
Jon: I had so many questions, even the question ‘Should I be doing this?’. And I think that’s a fair argument to have. What a great argument to be able to go back and forth on. But the fact they allowed me to ask stupid questions was huge. I couldn’t understand things like, ‘The blackout in this show is a really big deal, but we get blackouts all the time, what’s the thing?’. Lin and Quiara explained ‘You don’t know how one feels when the plug goes out and you don’t know when you’re gonna get it back and you’re the last person to get it back. And that’s what power is essentially about. And I was like, ‘So is it all negative and do bad things happen?’. And they were like, ‘Actually it’s the opposite. It’s about love. When God pulls that plug, you turn to the people you take care of and who take care of you.
So this brilliant night that was supposed to happen – this brilliant dinner – never happened because of a fight. And in the end it did happen because they turned to Abuela Claudia for safety and they all came together and had this moment. In a weird way, I look at right now. The world has gone through a really tough year where we feel isolated and we turn to all the people that we care about the most. Usnavi actually says that in the Movie. Once you get there, how do you get back up, how do you get back out? Daniela goes out and does her last makeover for the evening for the neighbourhood and says, ‘Believe in yourself, you are beautiful. You never needed me for the Air Conditioning for your hair to be done. Grab your flag and be proud and dust yourself off, and you have each other!’. This is the message that the world needs right now and how appropriate that the neighbourhood is Washington Heights showing the world how to survive, how to get back up and it’s going to guide the world out of darkness and into the next light.”.
See our Chat on Video:
Warner Bros. Canada release IN THE HEIGHTS in theatres and on-demandThursday, June 10 2021.