Anthony Ramos on In the Heights: 'Musicals can save lives'
The film version of the Broadway show is arriving this month
There are a couple of spoilers in here for anyone not wanting In the Heights twists ruined for them!
It's been two years since WhatsOnStage was whisked to New York to meet the cast on the set of In the Heights, during one of the hottest summers we can recall.
On display was the hum of activity you'd expect to find backstage at a stage show – wardrobe, chore, make-up – individuals bustling around as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes' musical was transplanted from stage to screen. You can read all about the experience on set here.
Leading the surefire blockbuster (set to be released later this month in the UK, while out in the US today) was Anthony Ramos: musical fans will know him as Philip Schuyler from the original Broadway cast of Hamilton. Now, he's stepping into the shoes of bodega owner Usnavi – the role originated by Miranda himself when the show first came to the stage.
How did Ramos feel stepping into the role, considering Miranda's global fame? "A dream," he confessed, while sat in an unfurnished side room inside the film's Brooklyn sound-stage. The production had meticulously recreated the Washington Heights street corner inside a giant warehouse – like something out of Dogville but with more walls.
"I'm like man, I can't believe this is my job to tell this story. Following in Lin's footsteps, for him to trust me with this role – it's huge. I remember playing the role for a special Kennedy Centre performance and we were in rehearsals in front of Lin: seeing his eyes bloodshot red. Afterwards, he just hugged me."
He goes on: "Lin has always been like, big bro. We've always had this vibe – the love is so real. His work has changed my life, and changed the lives of so many Latinx people. There just aren't that many roles – I wanted to stop acting when I was 19 because there are so few shows for me: like Man of La Mancha and In the Heights. Maybe like West Side Story, but you have to be like a ballet dancer to be in that show! But Lin has inspired us – not just to perform but also to write our own things – like I'm making my own music."
Like any good movie casting, there's always a story involved, as Ramos recounts: "Before I was cast, I sat and had breakfast with the director Jon M Chu in LA one morning and we shared stories across from one another. Next thing you know, we're both crying."
It wasn't plain sailing however: "I got an offer for another film, and that's what did it. I had to send Jon a text saying, 'I've got an offer for another movie, I'm gonna go ahead and do it if you guys are looking elsewhere'. Jon replied saying: 'Give me a second, I need to get the suits to move.' The next day I had the offer."
This is now Ramos' third Warner Brothers movie – after supporting turns in A Star is Born and Godzilla. To some, Ramos' career might feel like a rapid turnaround: going from auditioning for an off-Broadway musical (The Hamilton Mixtape, which would later blow the world away as Hamilton) and working in a bakery – to having Hollywood knocking at his front door. But he sees it differently: "It doesn't feel rapid to me! I've been doing this for eight years (ten now!) trying to find my places: cracks where I can fit in. Do you ever see the concrete in the street with the grass growing through the gaps? I was that f**king grass growing through the concrete."
Are there any moments from shooting that stand out? "Recording "Alabanza" was so crazy for me (a scene when the community comes together to mourn the death of barrio matriarch Abuela Claudia) because my grandma used to live with us as a family – and she passed away in our home. Not to make it dark but, even at the age of ten, I'll never forget it: my grandma was lying in bed when we found her – just like the "Alabanza" lyrics."
Ramos has a whole load of love for his co-stars – including Melissa Barrera, who plays fashion visionary and Usnavi's love interest Vanessa: "Melissa's dope. She's so talented: I remember that Lin and Jon had been looking for Vanessa for a while, and I was shooting another movie so I couldn't go into most of the chemistry tests – I didn't have time. But they were like, we need you to come in for Melissa. I actually slid into her DMs on Instagram before the chemistry test – we met up an hour beforehand and had lunch so we could go in and already feel like we knew how to act like we were in love."
He finishes up: "Musicals can save your life. I was chatting to guys in costume and sound and we got into a deep conversation: people often say about the theatre 'we ain't saving lives here' – but we are. Think about pieces of art that people connect to deeply – when art is honest and made with passion and love, it saves lives."