Pop the champagne! In the Heights cast on bringing fireworks to the screen with film's long-awaited debut
It all began with a dream. Well, dreams, actually. First up, a pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda's dream of In The Heights, a Broadway musical about the vibrant culture and community of his predominantly Latin neighborhood, New York's Washington Heights, which was ultimately nominated for 13 Tony Awards in 2008 (and won four of them, including Best Musical). Next, director Jon M. Chu's dream for a big-screen adaption, which he pitched to Miranda during a trip to New York City around five years ago. "I presented him with an idea that probably sounded crazy to him," Chu tells EW. "I told him I wanted to bring the characters' dreams to life — to pick apart how they see the world and let it invade the space of Washington Heights."
Chu, who directed 2018's Crazy Rich Asians, envisioned a larger-than-life musical extravaganza, shot on-location with up to 700 extras. Luckily for the director, Miranda trusted the Chu's colossal conception ("That's the brilliance of Lin!") that would magnify the story of an underrepresented community. Soon, Chu, Miranda, and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes were bopping around the barrio, with Miranda pointing out trains to take, the best spots for café con leche, and where he shot his student films (under the tunnel at 191st Street) to integrate Chu into the way of life. "It was amazing to get that kind of tour," says the director, who saw similarities to the immigrant Chinese American community he grew up in in California. "All those details played into how we would eventually film."
Now familiar with the A train and flavors of piragua (a Puerto Rican shaved ice dessert), Chu turned to casting, allowing the actors he met to inform the storytelling too. What started as a casual coffee meet-up between director and Hamilton veteran Anthony Ramos — who plays the movie's protagonist Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner whose sueñito ("little dream") is to escape his block for a new life — soon turned teary. "It was one of the most memorable meetings I've ever had," says Ramos. "We got emotional talking about the parallels from our childhoods and our parents' upbringing. There was this connection from the start and that bled over into filming." Chu remembers knowing then that Ramos "was going to bring truth to the character, to this neighborhood, and especially to the songs," he says. "What each line [of the musical] meant to him was so embedded in his D.N.A., he was educating me."
Rounding out the ensemble cast are veterans Olga Merediz (who originated the role of Abuela Claudia on Broadway), Jimmy Smits, and Daphne Rubin-Vega. "Everyone saw Daphne as an inspiration on set," says Chu of the Broadway icon. Then there's relative newcomers like Melissa Barrera (known for her work on Vida), who plays aspiring fashion designer and Usnavi's love interest Vanessa; Straight Outta Compton's Corey Hawkins as taxi dispatcher Benny; and Leslie Grace as his on-again-off-again, away-at-college girlfriend, Nina. (The cast also includes Dascha Polanco, Stephanie Beatriz, and a small but memorable role — and musical number — from Miranda himself.) Bringing in fresh faces was vital to Chu, who informed the studio and casting director Bernie Telsey early on that they needed more time than usual to get this right. "The opportunities for great actors in the Latinx community just aren't there," says Chu. "So we were going to have to create the infrastructure to find that."
That infrastructure allowed Chu and Co. to find Barrera for the role of Vanessa. After seeing hundreds of girls, the director landed on Barrera, but not before having her audition for Vanessa, then Nina, then back to Vanessa again. Despite having seen Vida, Chu admits he "didn't know her range until she showed up at our doorstep." Getting across that threshold was more than a decade-long quest for Barrera, who first saw the stage show on a junior high, model United Nations trip to New York. "We saw that this new musical with Latinos was playing and we were like, 'We have to go see this!'" she remembers. "I was obsessed. From that moment, I was like, 'This is incredible. I can be in this musical.' I so clearly saw myself; it was people that looked like me, sounded like me, their names sounded like mine."
Ramos had a similar revelation the first time he saw Heights on stage when he was in college. "It was wild listening to this music, the salsa and the pulse of this show," he says. "It had felt hard to find my space in this [mostly white] Broadway world, and In the Heights gave me this spark plug. It was almost like this voice telling me, 'Yo, don't worry. Keep going. Things are changing.'" At age 19, Ramos would play the role of Usnavi for the first time as part of a six-week regional production of In the Heights in Salt Lake City. The experience earned him his theater union card, and by extension, ultimately his role in Hamilton. "The Heights popped it all off," he says.
With the cast in place, there was still a ton of work to be done before it was "lights up" on Washington Heights. The actors had to sing, dance, laugh, cry, and sweat profusely through huge-scale production numbers under the relentless 2019 New York summer sun. "That s--- was brutal," say Ramos of the exuberant "96,000" sequence at the Highbridge Park public pool, complete with synchronized swimmers, pool floats, and hundreds of dancers. "The water was cold. It was gloomy out. But it was also amazing. We were cheering [the dancers] on, like, "Let's go. This is for the culture!" The music starts playing, and you could feel the energy. That power, that adrenaline, that heart was what was keeping everybody going."
For Barrera a moment of doubt crept in when she found herself struggling with the steps for the intricate dance sequence in a nightclub-set number. "I had to level up," says the actress whose dance experience was more limited to nights out. "I was holding onto so much fear and I needed to let it out." A 20-minute cry in the bathroom, some Kleenex, and many Band-Aids later, Barrera mastered the complex choreography. "We shot that number in two days and it felt like I'd climbed Mount Everest."
Chu also had some almost-insurmountable moments. The rousing, celebratory number "Carnaval del Barrio" had to be shot in one day, with most of the cast and hundreds of dancers congregated in a crowded courtyard. "The spirit was with us that day," says the filmmaker, who recalls calling "cut," only to watch the cast carry on singing and dancing for 10 more minutes. Ramos adds, "I wish I could explain that s---. There are a lot of people's hopes and dreams in this movie, not just ours, but our ancestors and family members, the people who came before us and people who will come after us. I hope people feel that love, that sangre, that adrenaline, that electricity we put into it and feel hopeful for their best today and their best tomorrow." Barrera concurs, "We all felt it. We were honoring the struggle, and honoring the pain of leaving your country behind and starting anew in another country. It was such a beautiful day, seeing all the flags. Everyone felt represented and everyone felt seen. It was the highest high and we felt like we were making history at that moment."
Bringing extra emotion to that scene, Miranda was standing on a fire escape above the action that day. When the cast and crew started chanting his name repeatedly, he, too, was overcome. "They did it for so long, everyone started crying," says Chu. "He's looking down at hundreds of people who are employed because he wrote this show. That's what this whole journey was about. That's what's most fulfilling." When dreams come true.
In the Heights hits theaters and HBO Max this Friday.
Video courtesy of Warner Bros.
A version of this story appears in the June issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order with covers featuring Lil Nas X, Mj Rodriguez, Bowen Yang, and Lena Waithe. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.