It’s been a rollercoaster thirteen years for Lin-Manuel Miranda since In the Heights debuted on Broadway. Not content with creating musical smash Hamilton and winning a bunch of awards, he’s starred in movies alongside Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns), written music for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho (Moana) and is currently collaborating with musical legend Alan Menken on the live-action The Little Mermaid, starring Awkwafina and Melissa McCarthy. Not bad for a kid from the heights.
Now adapted for the big screen, In the Heights (releasing in theatres and at home this week) is the story of the residents of a corner block in Washington Heights and they, like Miranda, are desperately trying to bring their dreams to life. Daniela and Cuca just want to move their successful salon to a different neighborhood, then there’s teenager Sonny, who just wants to give back to his community but can’t due to constraints beyond his control.
Through Miranda’s blend of musical stylings and some staggering choreography, In the Heights is a vibrant and exhilarating shot in the arm. Ahead of the film’s release, we sat down with cast members Daphne Rubin-Vega and Dascha Polanco (who play Daniela and Cuca), Gregory Diaz IV (who plays Sonny), and director Jon M. Chu to discuss life on set, their favorite moments, and what they hope audiences take away.
Beatroute: Congratulations on the film! I haven’t been able to stop singing since I saw it. I’ll start by asking what drew you to the project and how much preparation was involved before you went in front of the cameras?
Daphne Rubin-Vega: I think every Latino actor in New York City, if not the world, knew In the Heights was being made. For preparation, I think April was music camp, May was dance choreography and in June we started implementing all that work and started shooting.
Dascha Polanco: It was the first where the director brought you in for a conversation. At first, I thought ‘That’s weird, the director’s calling me in, do I still have a job?’, but he just wanted me to see what he was thinking and what I could bring. That doesn’t happen.
Jon M. Chu: It wasn’t about trying to make a movie version of the stage show, but going back to the root of why musicals exist in the first place. Why do you have to sing in a movie? Because sometimes in this day and age words aren’t enough to express dreams and hopes.
BR: What was it like to shoot on location in Washington Heights?
Chu: I named my son after the experience of being there. It was so moving to me, the idea of looking beyond your window and seeing something beyond the trees and the cityscape, the idea of such hope and joy that I wanted to say the word, and have him hear that word Heights every day of his life.
BR: Jon, with agency and diversity such an important topic right now, how were you able to keep the film authentic?
Chu: Just listen. Whether it’s, “don’t use that sauce” or “show that Dominican dish in the morning”. The director is one of the only people who can stop production so I had to always be available. The fact they allowed me to ask questions was huge because I had so many, even should I be doing this? I think that’s a fair argument to have.
BR: Did you have any reservations about taking on the project?
Chu: After Crazy Rich Asians, I went to Lin and the producers and asked if I was the right person? I wasn’t from Washington Heights but I grew up in an Asian restaurant, folding napkins and making wontons. I felt like I could but didn’t want to get in the way. It always came down to Lin telling me ‘Chill. It’s not just you, we’ll be there with you.’.
BR: The original script was updated to include more timely references to Daca, how important is it to keep these topics on everyone’s mind?
Diaz IV: I remember when I found out that Sonny was a dreamer. I just had to take a moment to sit back and really think about what that added. He wants to give back to the people but being a dreamer applies restrictions on certain things he can do but I didn’t want it to be a burden. As an actor, I wanted to uplift that message and portray it on screen.
Polanco: When we speak about the topic of Daca, it’s the idea of coming here to succeed. Immigrating to a new territory and trying to survive, creating families and communities who may not be biological, but are supportive of the people amongst them. That’s the message of home, the message of dreaming and joy. All that is the true representation of what we all yearn for. Equality, justice, we just want all the equal opportunities and the ability to move forward.
BR: What’s your favorite memory from the shoot?
Chu: My favorite memory was ‘Carnival Del Barrio’. We shot in an actual courtyard in Washington Heights, everyone’s dancing and it’s all dancers from New York. So I called cut and nobody stopped. Everyone just kept celebrating, like it was real. Then we see Lin upstairs and everyone starts chanting his name and everyone just starts crying because he manifested this, he wrote a role for his community, and now here they were. It was just so beautiful. You can ask any of our cast and crew, that’ll affect us all for our whole lives.
BR: What do you hope the audience will take away from the film?
Chu: It’s really not up to me what people take away. All I know is that we tried to tell the truth through empathy as much as we could, but I really hope that people feel the joy and the love. We have no villain in this movie. No guns or knives. The message we wanted to tell, especially to this next generation of kids, is tag you’re it, and hopefully you’ll see something we can’t.
Diaz IV: Of course, we all want the Latinx community to walk away feeling the authenticity and feeling represented and proud of their culture. But at the same time, we also just want everyone to walk away feeling those main themes, like home, community and dreaming because they’re such universal ideas. We’re talking specifically about Washington Heights in New York City, but home can be anywhere.
BR: Thank you all so much for taking the time to talk with us today, I can’t until everyone gets to see the film!
In the Heights will be available to rent June 10 in the Cineplex store for Canadians and will be released in theatres & HBO Max in the US June 11.