Culture, Singing, and Neighborhoods Reminiscent Of Home: Q&A with the Cast of “In the Heights”

Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace & Corey Hawkins Give Us the Rundown of What It Was like to Embark on a Journey through Washington Heights and Transform the Hit Musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda from Stage to the Screen
Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace star in “In the Heights”, now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Picures

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

For the second part of our rendezvous into Washington Heights and “In the Heights” this week, (First interview is with Head Honcho Lin-Manuel Miranda on pages 14 & 15) we head to talk to some of the main cast of the movie-musical, including Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace and Corey Hawkins, who portray Vanessa, Nina, and Benny, respectively.

Barrera is an actress that was most recently in the Starz original show “Vida” as well as Netflix’s “Club de Cuervos”, while Grace is a singer and songwriter who is making her acting debut in “In the Heights”. Hawkins has had notable roles in “Straight Outta Compton” and “Kong: Skull Island”.

The trio sat down for their interview with me and shared their first experience with musicals and acting, setup their characters and their motivations, and talked about how filming in the Washington Heights neighborhood really enhanced their experience and reminded them of their own roots and neighborhoods.

“In the Heights” is streaming now on HBO Max and in theaters.

Hello you all. For the first question, I was just curious to know what your first experiences were with theater, whether being part of productions or the first play you saw.

Melissa

Well, I think the first play I saw was like a school play, I must have been in like third grade or something and like fifth graders were doing a musical in my school. And I just remember being in so much awe of everyone that was on that stage and thinking that I could never do that because I was like painfully shy and more of like a sports girl, like I played basketball my entire life. So it was like a very different world, the sports kids and the arts kids.

But I remember seeing people on that stage and like them singing and dancing and acting. And I was like, I wish I could do that.

Leslie

You doing it girl, you doing it well.

Melissa

[Laughs] I’m doing it!

Leslie

Well, for me, my first experience with theater was in high school. I did American musical theater in high school. I honestly like struggled a little bit because I had relied so much on my voice that I had never experienced, like doing it all at once. Like you’re learning the choreography, you’re learning the scene and you’re learning the song – all at once. And I remember being part of this musical called “Big River” in high school.

And that was me like really opening my eyes to like, wow, you really you really can embody so many things all at once and tell a scene through a song. And, you know, it’s just like a whole new world opened up to me when I experienced that, and then I continued to do it throughout high school. And that was like my first experience with theater. Fell in love with it then.

Corey

Yeah, it’s like, wow, because I just always feel incredibly blessed to not only be doing what you love, but to call it your career and to know that came from like a little dream, you know, a little idea, being a kid who is always like a little different, but like the family, like would always put in front so I could speak and show off to the other parents! I mean, I can’t remember like my first experience with, like seeing a play or anything.

I don’t think it really happened until I was in high school, but I grew up around a family of singers and my grandmother’s brothers and sisters in the church, which the theatrical comes from that as well. And so, yes, it’s always kind of like been around me and then went to high school, but it wasn’t until I got to New York, my first musical that I ever saw was “In the Heights”.

So, I had seen, I think plays before that. But like musicals and people singing and like Leslie said, that thing about being able to combine all of them and not just be a singer who acted and danced, but to be able to do it all, and to do it all compellingly. When I saw “In the Heights”, not only did I see that, but I was like, “And they look like me, and they’re from where I’m from.”

And it was like, “Wow, this is dope.” With theater, that’s where we cut our teeth. Like that’s the, you know, theater off-Broadway. That’s where you train, that’s where the training happens and that’s where you learn and try stuff and you know.

In “In the Heights”, you three play the roles of Nina (Grace), Benny (Hawkins), and Vanessa (Barrera), and I was wondering if you can give me an idea of your characters in the story, what their circumstances are at the start of the film and what you appreciated most or what attracted you to the role?

Corey

Benny is a bit of an anchor in Washington Heights, I think he – you know, this is sort of what I kind of came up with – but I think Benny came to the Heights when he was very, very young and grew up in the Heights.

And so he, you know, came from another borough. Maybe his family moved, you know what I mean? He moved in, and he’s always considered that his home. He’s always been. He was a bit of an outsider, but that’s his dream, to grow up there and to start a business there and to ‘keep the money uptown’ as we used to say. Benny and Nina were in a relationship, and then she went off to college. And when…

Leslie

He dumped me…

Corey

He let her go and fulfill her dreams, you know! So, Benny has always sort of just been clear eyed to me. He’s ambitious and goal oriented, but again, reminding people that when you’re home, you’re home, you know, and you can take that wherever you go. I love that about Ben.

Leslie

Yes. Nina loves that about him too. Nina has this beautiful love story with Benny, and there’s some tension there at the beginning of the film because she does go off to college and she feels a little bit almost like, “Man, you just let me go off to this faraway place. Didn’t try to hold me back.” And she almost projects her fears onto Benny and her relationship. And then Benny reminds her like, “Hey, I want you to, like, dream as big as you are meant to dream and go off and be this beautiful light that you are. And I don’t want to hold you back because you deserve that.”

And that’s a very generous way to love. I think we all learned our learning how to love in that way is, it’s very unconditional and very hoping that the person that you love becomes [and] is able to fulfill their fullest potential. But Nina, at the beginning of the film, she comes home and she doesn’t feel as accepted at Stanford as people may think, especially her neighborhood, where she is the one who made it out. She’s the ‘little genius’ you know, she’s the girl who’s gotten straight A’s all the way through. She wants to become the mayor eventually. And everybody thinks that she’s all good.

And if we had to worry about anything or anyone it’s not Nina, you know, so they’re just excited to see her and to hear all the amazing stories about how she’s doing at Stanford. And really, she’s debating about dropping out. So, you see her go through finding ownership of her story and like really finding the purpose in in why she will go back to Stanford beyond her, not only beyond herself, but what really lights her up. Because I think she feels the burden and responsibility of the sacrifices her family and her neighborhood has made in order for her to get to where she’s at.

But she never took real ownership of it until she comes back home. She sees who she’s really doing it for. And so, yeah, that’s Nina.

Melissa

Vanessa starts the movie with like, she’s had this dream of leaving Washington Heights, and so she constantly tries to distance herself from the place that she grew up in and she wants to leave. And at the beginning, she thinks she’s like a step away. She’s like, “I’m ready. Like, I got the viewing of the apartment, like, I’m done. I’m going to get that. I’m going to say adios, amigos.”

And very quickly, that doesn’t work out in her favor and she gets very frustrated. Her journey is one of a very common journey, of people that feel stuck at home and that feel the need to leave their hometown to be able to grow and make their dreams come true. But it’s also a journey of like opening your eyes to the blessings around you, because sometimes when you have your mind set on one thing and like, “I have to get out, I have to be the girl that made it out and found success”, like small town girl moves to a big city and makes it.

But that energy, focus on that, keeps her blind to all the people that love her and that see her for who she truly is and that inspire her art, and that and that lift her up. And I think that’s her journey in the movie, it’s one of like finally seeing the beautiful place that she’s from, and the inspiration that she can find and it, and how she doesn’t necessarily have to get out to be happy.

What was it like filming in the place where years prior Lin-Manuel walked and jotted down his notes and created this story? And do you have a favorite memorable take away from working on the film overall, like filming there and filming a musical in general?

Leslie

I’d say just for your first question, it felt like home. And I’ve been saying this, we’ve all been saying this. I think for all of us, it felt like just returning to a space where you felt so yourself, and so seen for many reasons, but a lot of them being because the people involved really put a spotlight on everybody feeling welcome. Also, because a lot of us really know this neighborhood. And if we don’t know this neighborhood firsthand, we know a neighborhood like it.

And I personally, being New York born and having family in the Heights, being a Bronx born, it really was like coming back home. And it was beautiful to be able to experience that on my first occasion doing a movie, because it’s this new like, very big, scary lots of pressure experience. But you don’t want to mess up and you feel like, you know, “I’ve never done this before. So I hope, you know, like it’s kind of like the first day of school, like, I hope I fit in,” and I don’t know I might not know everything that everybody else knows.

And when you get to do that in a space where you really are home, you feel like home and you have people, a memory, I would say, is that I have like my aunt and my cousin, like stumble upon set, and they were on their block, you know, and they were like, “Oh, stop, wait, they’re shooting here. Like, my niece is here. Hold on. You got to let me in my niece is here!” Those things, those things like gave me life and reminded me that I was home.

And it was very, you know, almost like art imitates life, life imitates art paths crossing in a way for myself and Nina in the sense that, you know, she’s looking for home again and wanting to feel that again and so that it was beautiful. And also having Lin come, we were in his neighborhood. So he would be walking down and just seeing us with his kids whenever we were shooting any number on the block. It was beautiful.

Corey

Yeah, we’d see Lin taking his kids to school and have to walk through the park, you know, and we’re like, “Oh, you hear to [work]?” He’s like, “Nah, I gotta take my son to school.” There were so many beautiful memories. I remember when I was shooting “Straight Outta Compton”, people would bring their families and they would sit on top of the rooftops while we were sitting, and people would just come and gather and bring food.

And that was their way of showing love. That happened on our set as well. And people would literally be like, you know, making food and they would bring it downstairs. And that happened like twice on set. And the neighborhood would just gather, and people you see in the film, you know, maybe walking by, it’s like the neighborhood, like people waving. And, you know, it’s important to also get the trust of the neighborhood.

But when it’s people who grew up there, when it’s people who are making the film, who grew up there, who know the community, then it’s all love, I think. And it was.

Melissa

Yeah. And it was incredible that [for] Lin, it was so important to him to shoot in Washington Heights because it would have been so easy and probably cheaper to go somewhere else in another city and fake New York. But we were in the area where the story takes place, where it’s meant to take place, with the people that are locals to the area. And so automatically for us as actors, you feel the energy and it helps you get into character, and it helps you tell the story.

And I think that was an incredible experience. And I’m so happy that John and Lin were so adamant about shooting on location as much as possible, we were there for like, what, seven weeks? We were in Washington Heights, like most of the time. So it was a really special thing and a gift to be able to do that.

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