Towards the end of our interview, In The Heights star Leslie Grace begins to have tears in her eyes. She tells the story of how she was helping out in her mother’s living room in the Bronx in New York City and how a movie like In The Heights, which seeks to portray the Latinx experience in all its joyous glory, seeks to represent the would have helped.
It’s hard not to be emotional in return as it’s palpable how much this film means to her and her community. In the Heights, based on the musical of the same name from Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda, follows a group of first generation immigrants spread across Puerto Rico, Cuba and the DR singing and dancing through their struggles, their joy. and their connections in the northern tip of Manhattan. While he talks about the Latinx experience around issues of representation and identity, he also talks about community, family pressure, and self-acceptance – something that makes the film a story for everyone.
At the heart of it all is Leslie Grace’s Nina Rosario who goes against the dreams of her father and his community and leaves Stanford University and returns to the neighborhood with her secrecy and shame. But while this may be the 26-year-old’s first big-screen role, she’s already racked up three Latin Grammy nominations to her name, collaborations with Becky G and Maluma, and a million d ‘Instagram followers to her name – but that didn’t stop her from doubting herself as I discovered while zooming into her LA house.
Here, Leslie explains that she feels “unworthy” to star in the movie, the times she had to explain “what I look like” after moving to an unvaried neighborhood as a child and what she would say to her young self who worked in her mother’s Bronx living room …
In the heights, it’s sens-fucking-sensational! I love the way he deals with both performance and joy, which is so powerful. When you were filming, how much did you think, “Wow, that would have helped me a lot when I was younger”?
We thought about it all the time! I almost felt unworthy of the experience because I knew so many people didn’t have it. None of us had really onscreen people who looked like us, and often a lot of people in the Latinx community, but especially the Afro-Latino community, didn’t really see ourselves onscreen when we did. got to see stories about the Latinx community. I felt unworthy, and during my first gig as an actress, to be so privileged. I’m from New York, I have family in the Heights who’s been on set a lot, and they were like, “Yo, this is my neighborhood. What are you doing here? You’re shooting something. thing here? “
Love it – did your family embarrass you on set by just introducing you?
Sometimes! It made it all the more enjoyable and it felt surreal. It also set the bar like, “Now that we’ve done this, we can dream even bigger!” This is what we want everyone, no matter where you’re from, whether you’re in the Latinx community or not, watch this movie and feel like, especially the little boys and the girls and the younger generation looking to see someone maybe it’s different on screen, they say, “I can dream bigger. They did that, I can dream even bigger. It was electric, it was rewarding to be able to walk on a set like that every day in a place that seemed so familiar to me.
How did your own journey unfold with self-validation and the search for validation?
Well, this experience was definitely important to me in terms of self-validation for a number of reasons. I’ve told Nina a lot in the sense that she feels a little ‘thirsty’ when she goes to Stanford. I was born in the Bronx, grew up in Yonkers then when I was 10 we moved to Davie, Florida where there wasn’t a lot of diversity, at least not in 2005 when I was in fifth ! Before that, I never really needed to explain who I was or what I looked like, and I never knew it was even a question people asked people, because I grew up. in a crucible. I grew up going to school with people who came from all over, who seemed different to me and there was never anything to question about it.
I also grew up with a mom who owned a salon one block in the Bronx and saw all kinds of women and all kinds of beauties walk in. So in the same way that Nina goes to Stanford and has to answer for who she is in a predominantly white space, I must have done at 10 without having much language for it. Thanks to Nina, I was able to process a lot of experiences that I never thought would affect myself. It affected the way I spoke to myself, the way I shrank sometimes, even in the music industry and as an Afro-Latina, what it meant and how it affected me.
In The Heights is ultimately about not having a glass ceiling on dreams, no matter where you are from or where you are from. Have you ever felt like there was a glass ceiling in your dreams?
Yes! Even just getting into that and being a musical artist and never having done anything onscreen and it’s such a huge movie with Lin Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu (director of Crazy Rich Asians), and playing with my father, Jimmy fricking Smits in this movie – what is it ?! In a way, I was like, “I’m just a little musical artist. I did stuff and I worked really hard! ‘ I put it all in Nina. In the same way she feels like she made her way to Stanford, it was kind of my Stanford, thinking to herself, “I have to prove that I can do it!”
So many times, you run into an obstacle at those times, when you feel like, “It’s my time. So having this opportunity to play Nina in an honest and true way was definitely a way to reclaim pride in my own story and in the stories of my family, and the people I know love the lounge girls in the movie. I grew up as a salon girl at my mom’s family business reception, literally having her salon a few blocks from where we’ve been filming all summer. These stories meant something to me, and they meant something to all of us. Being able to participate in the telling of this story in a festive way allowed me to reclaim it, allowed all of us to reclaim the pride of who we are, and to shatter that glass ceiling.
If you could get back to this girl who worked on that counter, helping your mom in the living room, what would you like to say to her?
Oh man, I’m emotional just thinking about it. These are moments of formation for me, my sisters and our family. They were some of the happiest moments of my life. I appreciate and treasure them all a lot more now, because they informed everything that allowed me to embark on such a beautiful project like this which has so much purpose, with the knowledge of beauty and magic that are in our experiences. Sometimes when we experience this we close our eyes to the beauty around us because we think our dreams and our happiness is there, and it is not here.
I would say to him, “soak it in more, soak it up as much as you can, because your experience is rich and valuable and someone else will feel so validated that you know all these stories”. This is what I would say to anyone, no matter where your neighborhood is, a small neighborhood or a big city, know that your experiences are valuable and someone might need to hear your story to feel that his story is valid.
In The Heights is now in theaters.