Reflecting on representation, actress Leslie Grace (who plays Nina Rosario in the film) notes that it feels amazing to be part of a cast with so many different backgrounds. Similar to the way Miami has its own cultural melting pot of Latin flavor, the film's characters are a diverse mix, all living in Washington Heights.
At a recent press event in Miami, Grace, alongside actors Jimmy Smits and Olga Merediz (who play her father Kevin and the neighborhood abuela Claudia, respectively), dove into what it meant to work together on In the Heights.
"I'm sure for Jimmy and Olga, they're like, 'It's about time,'" Grace tells New Times with a laugh, as Merediz's eyes playfully widen at the assumption. "But, even for me, this is a movie that I had wished happened while I was growing up and always watching the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon."
Merediz interjects, joking that she's still growing up, before Grace continues: "I was trying to see, you know, maybe I could do that," she explains of becoming the representation she sought. "I can now find somebody that looks like me in a musical movie, and it's pretty cool to be a part of that."
"And the flourishes that [director] Jon Chu has added with regards to what people perceive a Hollywood musical to be about, only amps it up to another fucking level," he says of the way Chu makes every number and narrative uniquely pop on screen.
"These characters are so real that it doesn't matter where you're from, if you're Latino or not, I think people will relate to these characters," Merediz puts in. "People relate to a father wanting the best for his daughter, or a daughter dealing with the crisis of going back to college, or a matriarch that is there for you. These are people that are dreaming and want a better life for themselves, and that's universal."
Most of the characters in In the Heights have a close-knit relationship with those who inhabit the block on which the movie takes place, and the actors felt that connection off-screen as well.
"Look at who I'm sitting with," Leslie Grace passionately notes about Smits and Merediz. "I feel so blessed, and I was aware from day one that I was walking into the best school that I could ever walk into and an anomaly of a first experience."
Smits and Merediz — who have been around on stage and screen alike longer than Grace has been alive — are modest about their accomplishments, but the actress insists that working with them for her first major role has spoiled her for life.
"Yes, she has the opportunity to have this wonderful material, but she has a golden voice and stepped up with the musical-theater skills and kicks ass on so many different levels with her acting chops," Smits counters. "She really opened up her heart, and there's some intimate scenes between her and [Corey Hawkins'] character [Benny] that had blown me away. There was a real bonding between her and the other actors that really comes across in every frame of the film."
"We love each other. Can you tell?" Grace jokes.
The trio look as much like a family off-screen as they are on it.
"It's part of what we have to do, you know?" says Smits. "You have to try to find ways to bond quickly if you want to do something good. Sometimes you can make sparks with drama because people don't like each other, but there's something about being together for two months before even shooting that has everyone start depending on each other. And it's there on film."
In the Heights. Opens theatrically and on HBO Max on Friday, June 11.