In The Heights star Olga Merediz on how she nailed the film version of 'Paciencia y Fe'
Even though Olga Merediz is extremely grateful she was able to reprise her Tony-nominated role of Abuela Claudia in the film adaptation of In The Heights, she had trouble watching her showstopping number "Paciencia y Fe" on the big screen. "I had to excuse myself and go to the ladies room to take a moment for myself. It was overwhelming because you see yourself, and it's you, but it's not you. It's a transformation. It's a creation and a transformation, but you're there too. Your essence is there. It's powerful. It's like, Whew. I don't know."
The lively 65-year-old talks to EW about always being an unexpected choice to play the elderly matriarch of the barrio, the ageism she felt while playing her, and how she prepared for this highly anticipated incarnation of the Tony-winning musical.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long has this journey been playing Abuela Claudia?
OLGA MEREDIZ: Since before 2007. I started with this project and with Lin-Manuel Miranda from the readings and the workshops before Off Broadway. I was playing another character, the mother, and my song was "Carnival" at that point. And then they couldn't find an elderly actress to do this part, to sing "Paciencia y Fe." It's a very challenging song, vocally, technically, emotionally. And so I think it was Quiara Alegría Hudes [who wrote the screenplay and the original musical's book] who said let's audition Olga, and so I said, "I don't think I can do this. No, no, no. Don't take me away from the part I'm doing."
Long story short, I gave it a shot and the rest is history and it's just been an amazing journey. You know that theater actors don't get to do their parts in the movies very often, so it's been like a miracle, and I'm just so humbled and so grateful for this opportunity; that Lin and [director Jon M. Chu] trusted me with this part and that I was able to perform it.
Have you always felt a particular stake in this project with it being so specific to your Latina identities, as someone who is Cuban, who spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico, and New York? Has that changed at all as In The Heights has gotten bigger and bigger?
I tell this story — Lin knows, I spoke to him yesterday and I told him again — that when this first started, I was telling my representatives, "I don't know. These kids, they're rapping? It's a rap musical? I don't know if I should do it." And I said, "Let me give it a shot because I'm really connecting with the songs, and it's a beautiful Latino story. And I like this kid Lin." Anyway, so yes, I felt the connection from the very beginning, but as I told you, I wasn't even playing Abuela Claudia then. And then [playing her] I definitely felt very attached to this character. I felt I gave a part of myself. I took parts of my family, of the matriarchs in my family, my aunts, my grandmothers, my friend's mothers, and I felt like I created this quintessential Latina matriarch, but she could be anybody's abuela really.
And her story with her Cuban background is just very touching to me. I cry when I think about it. Somebody just asked me, "Do you like to watch your performance?" Absolutely not. I don't want to. When I'm in it, I'm telling the story, I'm reliving it. You have to tell the story in that way or else. It has to cost you. And so I don't want to watch myself. I just want to give her to everyone. And I do feel a tremendous connection with Lin, with Quiara, and now with Jon Chu. And definitely with this matriarch Abuela Claudia.
Had you been in talks to play Abuela Claudia for as long as the idea of a film adaptation has been floating around, or did they circle back to you when it was officially happening?
There were never talks about me playing her in the movie. Zero talks. Nada. To be honest, it was a surprise to me when they came to me and said, "Would you like to audition?" I went, "Of course I would like to audition, what do you mean?!" And so I really just wanted to audition, blow it out [of the park], and impress them. That's what I wanted to do, whether I got the part or not.
You mentioned that you were playing a different role and then ended up as Abuela Claudia. How has it felt playing someone of an older generation? You've always been quite younger than Abuela Claudia. Did it make the role easier to hop back into because you were aging up before then, and you're still aging up now?
You know what? It was initially hard at the very beginning when they asked me, because I was playing the mother and I was very happy, and they're like, "We want you to audition for Abuela Claudia." I told them, "No, it's going to be a caricature, it's not going to be authentic. I don't think I can do it." But I said, "Okay," and I really prepared myself. At that moment, I didn't connect and didn't want to do it. Then after I got into playing her, I was like, "Wow, this is rich. This has so much depth. I can really relate to it. I can bring my family, my past, my Cuban-ness, my Latina experience, my experience as Olga." And then the elderly part, I just watched a lot of elderly people walking down New York streets. And what I noticed was they're overlooked. People are like, "Get out of the way, I'm going to 14th street!" They're invisible.
It gave me even more gratification to play an older person and to give that person the weight, the platform, the light that they deserve. So I tell people that I experienced ageism. When I would come out as Olga, people would treat me in a different way. And then when I would put that wig on and that housecoat, they would look right past me, which was very interesting. And I used that for Abuela Claudia. These are invisible people in our culture that have so much wisdom, so much to say, and they're usually discarded. So that Lin created this character, I was talking to him the other day, and I was thanking him for doing that.
How'd you react to their plans to translate "Paciencia y Fe" to film? And did it take a lot of rehearsal? Did you have notes on what you want it to bring to it?
At first, I'll be honest with you, when they said we're going to shoot it in the subways I went, "Huh? What are you talking about, the subways?" [Laughs] But as you see, it's magnificent, it's magical. I didn't like the idea at first, but then it grew on me. And again, the song, there's some little changes from the stage version. And yes, it took a lot of rehearsal.
I spent a lot of time with Chris Scott, the choreographer, and those young dancers. They were from all over the United States. Americans from the Midwest, there were some that were Puerto Rican, some Dominican, some Cuban, some South American, but they were all so eager, and we had lots of rehearsal, and I had a lot of conversations with them because they're very young. And so I had to explain to them Abuela Claudia's psyche, her world. How older people, all they have is their past, this is all they have. And so I was trying to explain to them what the song is about, and so we were really connected by the time we shot that song. It was seamless. We were like a tight-knit community.
One thing that stands out in stage to screen adaptations, it is incredibly hard to capture that experience of being in the theater. But specifically the vocal performance you give for the film version of that song, I got the same chills I would get if I was in the room seeing you perform it. Is that something you paid attention to? Like, "I want to make sure that this feels just like I delivered it when I performed it on stage."
Absolutely. I started warming my voice up every single day, singing every single day, because it's a muscle, and if you don't use it, you lose it. Which reminds me I better start singing again. [Laughs] Yes, it was very important for me to deliver that song vocally the way I wanted to deliver it. And Alex Lacamoire, our musical director, and [composer] Bill Sherman, the recording and because we were singing live too, it was really a collaboration with them to make sure that those passages and those emotions were matching up to the vocal part. It had to be together. So yeah, it was very important for me to be in tip-top shape for that.
How has it been seeing an already glowing response to the film, with you being one to watch this awards season? Does it feel a little like déjà vu, or something much bigger than the experience you had being a part of the Broadway cast?
Much bigger. Much, much bigger. I don't even remember the Tonys. [Laughs] I know they happened, and I know I was nominated and all that, but no, this feels huge. And all these mentions, it just feels like a reward for all the years, all the judges. I was talking to Lin and he said, "All the judges you played, and all the help you played, and all those small parts you played, and now you are center stage singing an aria." It's overwhelming, but I'm trying to take it all in. But at the same time taking it in stride, and all I have to say is we will see, paciencia y fe, whatever. It doesn't matter. Like I said, I just wanted to audition, and then I got the part, and then I just wanted to play her the best way possible, and do the work. That's all you can do.
What is your relationship to Abuela Claudia now? Did doing the film feel like a farewell to her? Is she a definitive role you would revisit? A legacy you're happy to keep?
Absolutely. I'm happy to have that legacy. It's funny because the last scene of Abuela Claudia, it was a reshoot and everybody wanted a picture with Abuela Claudia, and I was very sad. I was like, "Is this it? Is this my final farewell to Abuela Claudia?" We did a picture with the whole cast and crew, Jon Chu and the cinematographer and everybody, and I had a conversation with Jon and he said, "Well, you know, 20 years from now, there'll be a sequel and you'll still be playing Abuela Claudia." [Laughs] Except I'll be the right age.
In The Heights will be released in theaters Friday and available to stream on HBO Max.
This interview has been edited and condensed.