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Interview – Cast of “In The Heights” – Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera

Interview – Cast of “In The Heights” – Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera
July 07
10:47 2021

“In The Heights” is a musical set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Based on the stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda and screenplay developed by him and Quiara Alegria Hudes and directed by Jon M. Chu of “Crazy Rich Asians” fame, the film is the story of Latino immigrants in America, their struggles, joys, dreams and fears.

Melissa Barrera plays Vanessa, a young woman who works at a nail salon and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She is also the love interest of Usnavi, the central character who runs the corner convenience store and has his own dream of opening a beachside restaurant in his native Dominican Republic. 

Leslie Grace plays Nina, the high-achieving daughter of Rosario, the car dealership owner. She tries to fulfil her father’s dreams by going to a top university, Stanford, but feels out of place there because of her background and to top it, her father has trouble paying the high tuition fees.

Corey Hawkins plays Benny, Nina’s boyfriend. Benny is not Latino; he is African-American, and is good friends with everyone in the neighborhood.

Here are excerpts from the interview with the three cast members that was part of a press junket in which India Post participated in.

San Diego Red: What is the thing you are most proud of, of your participation in this movie?

Corey Hawkins: I have to say, I am probably most proud of just the representation in this film and also that this film is created, conceived, produced by all people of color. It’s just so rare! 

And for it to be done and done so well, this is the level we operate at and proud of it. And I am just now, after seeing the film, proud to have something that we can pass on to our children and children’s children, and it’s a dream that I think will continue to live on because it’s a beautiful, beautiful film.

India Post (IP): What was the most fun experience you had while working on “In the Heights”?

Melissa Barrera: Wow, that is not an easy question to answer because we had so much fun on set. It’s hard to pick a single event or a single day. 

I remember distinctly, when we were shooting “96,000”. It was a long number to shoot because it was raining and, so, we had to wait for the rain to stop and it was cold and it was, like, lightning storms and we couldn’t be in the water and so, it ended up being more days than we were supposed to be there. 

And it was cold and there was one point where we were shooting that really impressive part where you are under the water and you come out and everyone explodes out of the water and it’s all the dancers jumping. And the actors, the characters who were not in that part of the dance, so we were all on the sidelines behind the cameras like cheerleaders on the bleachers, cheering everyone on and yelling and… keep everyone’s spirits up because they were all freezing! So, I remember that day and I remember it very fondly and I think it was very special.

India Post (IP): Did your character teach you something?

Corey Hawkins: It’s a beautiful question and as an actor, you look for roles, even if it’s subconscious or conscious or whatever. I had a lot of reasons for signing on to this project, but I remember seeing Chris Jackson so clearly in the original Broadway production of it. And again, for me, it was my first musical. But Chris, I just remember, and his portrayal of Benny and Benny being this outsider who’s also an insider, you know, who loves this community with all his heart. 

You learn little things from every character but from him, I learned just empathy and also, and just the beauty between his relationship with Nina and being able to love her so much that he encourages her to go back and fulfil her dreams. It’s really something beautiful about that (laughs) and hard to kind of wrap your mind around, but also, I think he’s just an incredible hustler, he’s a go-getter and he just also loves to remind people that home can be wherever you are, and you can carry that with you no matter wherever you go. And he feels like an anchor in that community, I think, and I just carry that with me. It was one of the… sort of better lessons of playing this character. 

8Asians.com: What did you resonate with most with your character?

Leslie Grace: Oh, man, so many things! Being first generation Latin American, I think, for me, again, I think it was the first time that I saw the potential of me playing someone that had a story that I knew, that not only I felt I related to, but I knew so many people in my family and people in my community would relate to that I had never seen on screen. 

The balance of, you know, figuring out, “Am I Latina enough? Am I American enough?” This sentiment that a lot of us first generation kids feel no matter where your parents have come from and I think that’s a story, that’s an untold story, rarely told story that I think, that there’s a whole generation out there waiting to, you know, feel seen and I definitely related to that a lot with Nina.

Also, the responsibility of carrying your parents’ and previous generations’ dreams on your shoulders. I think we all feel that. We want to put our best foot forward for the family and that’s a sentiment that hit very close to home for me for sure.  

Melissa Barrera: My connection to Vanessa, I felt from the moment that I saw the Broadway show. This idea that I need to get out of my hometown to pursue my dreams and to grow, to fulfill my dreams and feeling stuck, feeling like wherever you are from and wherever you grew up is too small for you. I feel like a lot of people feel that. And Vanessa very clearly feels that she’s not going to achieve success in Washington Heights. She needs to go not too far – downtown. 

But I know that for me, I left my hometown of Monterrey right off of college. Right off of high school, I went to college and then I went to Mexico City and now I am in LA and I just kept hopping, this search of, “Where can I keep growing?” And I think that’s such a universal feeling. So many of us go away, you know, go away where we think the opportunities are. 

And what I love about Vanessa’s journey is this unexpected ending of coming back home and realizing that “Actually, I don’t need to go anywhere else to be happy. I don’t need to go anywhere else to find inspiration and to grow.”

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