Leslie Grace on how In the Heights reinvigorated her career: 'This movie saved my creativity'
Although a fresh face to film-goers, Grace is a three-time Latin Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter dominating the music charts with her tropical beats — an ode to her Dominican heritage — and a role model to young Latina fans with their own sueñitos. But the pressure of staying at the top became a hindrance to her creativity as an artist.
But everything shifted when she landed the role of Nina Rosario, her feature film acting debut.
"When you're a well-known artist that has achieved a level of success, the struggle never stops," Grace tells EW ahead of the film's release this Friday. "Especially when you have a family, like me and Nina. You're trying to pave a new path for yourself and for everybody else while fighting for your dreams. It felt like, 'Okay, I got this now, what's next?' And it's not out of selfish ambition. I cannot squander what I've been given so I have to keep going until I can't anymore. That's what I saw my mom, my dad, and my grandma do."
She adds, "It got to the point that I wasn't having fun making music anymore. This movie saved my creativity. I knew that by having the opportunity to be part of this incredible story and this family of brilliant people that my life was going to change, and it has."
Working on the big-screen adaptation of the Broadway smash from Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes was a surreal experience for Grace, who related to her character in surprising ways. Both are the children of immigrant parents from Latin America who carry the burden of success on their shoulders, as a way to thank their ancestors for all of their sacrifices.
"Every experience that I've had informed everything that Nina is," she says while becoming emotional. "It's so strange because you'd think as an artist that you've felt seen before. I write songs about my experience all the time. But this was the most autobiographical experience of my life. I told this story without having anything to do with the writing and it hit so many points from my own life. That speaks to the brilliance of Lin and Quiara's beautiful writing. This musical is so beloved because of how it makes you feel. You either know these people or you are these people. That's magic."
Nina is one of many characters living in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood, who are connected by their dreams. The first in her family to go to college, Nina is home for the summer and has yet to tell her overprotective father (Jimmy Smits) she has no plans to return to Stanford. And while the temperature rises outside, she also reconnects with her beau Benny (Corey Hawkins).
"Every day that I acted with Jimmy, I was taking notes," Grace says of working with veteran actor Smits. "There were moments where I would get frustrated because I don't know the process of making a movie and he was so generous with me. I had a similar experience with both Daphne [Rubin-Vega] and Olga [Merediz], our matriarch who knows this story through and through."
And while Grace had many "pinch me" experiences while working on the musical drama, there's one that stands out from the rest.
"The moment I knew my sueñito was really happening was when my parents came to visit the set during a rehearsal day and we were inside the salon," Grace explains. "I didn't know prior to their arrival that we would be rehearsing that particular scene. I remember taking my mom inside and realizing it's her story we were telling. My mom is the real-life Daniela, the firestarter in the community who is always looking out for everyone."
"My mom's first business was in Washington Heights, not far from where we shot," she continues. "And here she is visiting her daughter on this huge movie set and we're rehearsing in the salon that looks just like her old salon. Her reaction was priceless. I couldn't have planned this serendipitous moment if I tried. This was a moment of fulfillment for me, where I felt I could finally give them something back. We're the fruits of the seed of struggle, sacrifice, and the hard work of our ancestors. We are the first fruits from that seed and in the eyes of those before us, we are that dream. That's very powerful."
Grace departs from the experience refreshed and inspired, and has been working on new music since shooting wrapped on In the Heights. She giggles at the prospect she and Hawkins could maybe sing a duet in the future.
"Corey will be humble to the death of himself because he had never sung this way before — but this man knows how to sing. Everyone knows him for playing Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton and his other acting roles but he's been singing all his life. I leaned on him as a partner, especially when we're singing and dancing on the side of the building. Working with this cast has been one of the joys of my life. I really wish we could continue this story with them together forever."
She adds, "But since we have to move on, I am planning my next move. I have new music coming out soon and I'm reading scripts to further my acting career. I plan to do it all!"