This was a first. I mean, when you are talking about In The Heights there are already a lot of firsts to chart. It’s the first movie of its size and platform to be made not only with a majority Latinx cast, but also a Latinx writing and producer team (the incomparable Lin Manual-Miranda, whose bio basically writes itself at this point, and the Pulitzer Prize winning Quiara Alegría Hudes who wrote the book of the Broadway musical and now returns as scriptwriter). For an incredible 96% of moviegoers, it’s expected to be the first film that brings them back to theaters. But those are not the firsts I’m talking about.
No — In The Heights marks the first time I’ve been requested to do an interview in the middle of the night. And on a Saturday.
Ok so “middle of the night” is slight literary license, but I dare you to put on a full face of make up and a bra at 7:30pm on a Saturday night after a year that’s been most defined in terms of “no hard pants” and tell me that it doesn’t feel like the middle of the night to you! But I’ve loved Daphne Rubin-Vega since I was a tween memorizing the orange liner notes of the Rent soundtrack after school (and if you’re gay and love musicals and grew up in the 90s, chances are high that you were right there with me – legend does not begin to cover it). Stephanie Beatriz, a modern bi-con, is beloved by queers one and all. Daphne and Stephanie joining forces together as an everyday gay Latina couple, in the biggest movie event of the year? Worth putting on a bra for.
Daphne Rubin-Vega is Daniela, the pint-sized ruler (with a massive-sized voice) of In the Height’s Washington Heights block. Perched from the top of her five-inch tacones as she delivers hot gossip and a loving touch in equal measure. In the original stage production, Carla (Beatriz) is Daniela’s comedic sidekick, working alongside Cuca (Orange is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco) in Daniela’s beauty salon. In the film, Cuca and Carla’s antics remain, but Carla is also re-developed as Daniela’s romantic partner with quiet, lived-in moments across the week of one block’s summer heatwave.
So the three of us got together as the sun was setting on the East Coast to talk about the history of Latinas and lesbians in musical theatre, welcoming the ancestors into our space, and finding love in the small moments of the everyday. (We talked over each other a bunch, but if you’ve ever sat across from a table of your tías and primas on a Saturday night in the summer, you already know the vibes.)
Carmen Phillips: First of all, I just wanted to say before we got officially started, I mean, I’m just beyond myself to be able to meet both of you! It means just the most to me. Daphne — I saw you in Rent when I was 12 years old and it was something that changed my life, which I’m sure you hear all the time and it’s not unique anymore, but it did.
Daphne Rubin-Vega: [brings hands together] Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
Carmen: Hi. Okay. We can start!
Stephanie Beatriz: Carmen. I’ve literally done the same thing to her. I feel I might’ve done it on the first day I met her. I was just… [is at a loss for words]
Carmen: I feel probably lots of people tell you that, but I will never get a chance to tell you.
Daphne: No, you’ve gotta tell me! Yeah.
Carmen: Thank you.
And obviously, Stephanie. I mean, you’re a huge… Autostraddle is just a very big fan, all the time, so you already know that. Thank you both.
I wanted to start this interview at sort of the beginning of the process. I’ve been trying to read what you have said thus far about playing Daniela and Carla but I haven’t seen anyone ask this.
Obviously both characters are presumed straight in the original stage production of In the Heights. When you auditioned or otherwise introduced to the roles, were you already aware that they were being re-imagined as queer women? Or was that something you found out after? What was that process like?
Stephanie: I found out after!
I found out that it was even on the table — it was, “This might happen” — And I was so excited! And I voiced how excited I was IMMEDIATELY! I was like, “I think this is a great idea. I absolutely support it 100%. If you try to do that, I’m 100% in support.”
Daphne: Yeah. Yeah. For me, I had already gotten the role and so Daniela’s sexuality didn’t factor into a performance at all. Her humanity certainly did.
So after I got the role… Quiara [Alegría Hudes] called me and said, “How would you feel if Daniela… Instead of Carla just being her business partner, she’s her life partner as well.” And I remember being jolted by the change and thinking, “Yeah, fuck yeah. Of course.”
Quiara never ceases to amaze me with her elevation of the storytelling and humanity in its different incarnations.
Carmen: I think this really brings me into this next question. Daphne what you were just saying — for you, it was about elevating this humanity. And in one of the interviews I’d been reading, Stephanie had the chance to talk about [the relationship between Daniela and Carla], and she said “So much of the film is about where home is. And for Carla, Daniela is home.”
Carmen: That got me thinking about what a moment this is that you’re both of entering into.
I did some research in our database and from what we can tell, in all of film history, there’ve only been 18 movie musicals that have had lesbian or bisexual characters. Period. Not even 20!! And of course, when you start thinking about…
Daphne: I was in three of them.
Carmen: Oh You sure were.
Daphne: Oh, whoa.
Stephanie: That’s… I just…
Carmen: And there’s nothing like In the Heights, when we shift our focus to think about the history Latinx film. And I’m sure you all know, the entire community’s buzzing, right? My mom is going, it’s the first movie she’s going to see in a movie theater in 18 months.
People are just dying for it, and I think going back to the conversation about what home is… I’m wondering what it feels like, for both of you, to be kind of sitting in this historic intersection, right?
This is going to be a film that really is going to exist on a planet of its own. And we’re going to see queer Latinas represented in that moment. I wondered if that’s something you’ve thought about? Or if it’s not even a thing that’s on your plate at all.
Stephanie: I’ve thought about it a lot!
I’ve thought about how this moment means something — but it will be so much more meaningful in 5, 10, 15, 20 years, when even more titles are in that database. Even more of these films have been made, even more of these stories have been told. Even more of these characters have been represented on screen, in television, in film, in all types of media.
It’s very exciting to think that we could possibly be a part of… a moment of someone looking at these performances or this film and going, “Oh, of course. Oh yes, yes. Of course. Why not? What was I thinking? Of course that exists in the planet.”
That’s a really thrilling thing to have the privilege of being a part of.
Daphne: Yeah. I fully agree. I mean, as an actress, it’s what we do. It’s my calling to embody characters that are not like me, to represent the humanity of who they are. And I think, that’s a really loaded thing for me, in my culture [Rubin-Vega is Panamanian]. Not my culture, in Latino culture, in particular.
In my country of origin, I find it’s struggled very much with homophobia and racism. Colonization, it changed the entire country, right? That’s our history. So without putting judgment on it, I think it’s really incredible, what we’re able to do here.
And Stephanie said it before, how queer stories, or stories of people who were marginalized, are made to be othered in certain ways. The stories of those who aren’t centered are then either shown as dramatic or traumatic, she said.
And in this instance, it’s neither dramatic nor traumatic! It’s so regular, it’s so basic, it just is. It’s just… “Yeah.” Yes, and it’s really not that deep and so we’re not playing queer characters, we’re playing human.
Stephanie: Also queer.
Daphne and Carmen in unison: Yeah!
Stephanie: There are people who miss it, honestly! I’ve definitely had the experience where I’m perhaps reading a review or I’m listening to someone’s experience about watching the film and they’re not even… They’re not even… [gestures like a plane flying overhead]… “Whoop.” It just flew by their face.
Whereas, for those of us who were paying attention because we’re trying to find ourselves on film, we see it immediately.
Carmen: I mean, this interview will run the day movie comes out, so I don’t want to reach too far into spoilers. But there’s a scene! It’s before the opening number, right? It’s before “In the Heights” begins. It’s intimate, playful. And I zeroed in right away, I was like, “Oh, we’re really here.”
And I think… so much of the movie is moving in ways you don’t expect, because it is so the everyday. But we never get to see OUR every day on screen. You know what I mean?
Carmen: The entire movie is just… it’s crazy that we’ve just never seen it. And I think particularly, for someone like me, I’m Puerto Rican, my family’s from Brooklyn, New York.
Carmen: That is what my summers looked like. You know? And it was so moving, in ways I did not expect. And I have gone… [mumbles to self] off interview… but it really touched me so much.
Daphne/Stephanie/Carmen: [Everyone starts crosstalking excited at once]
Daphne: It reflects how much the absence of it matters.
Carmen: So much! Because there’s two things that are happening right now with this movie.
One is that it’s going to be, I suspect, a massive hit, right? It is this major movie musical, a multiple Tony winner — In the Heights was already one of my favorite musicals — and it is starring this incredibly talented-Latinx cast. It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s the whole thing.
So it’s already very big, but it’s also very small.
One block. One week in the summer. You know what I mean? It is “what they got on the corner?” and Timbs on the concrete and it’s just…
Okay, I know I have very little time left. But I’m going to ask a question for Daphne and one for Stephanie.
The question I have for Daphne — there’s a scene in “Carnaval del Barrio” [a large ensemble number in the film]. And it ends with you kind of lifted almost above the crowd! You’re standing on this table, above everyone.
And it was really moving for me because when we think about histories of Latinas on Broadway, you’re just in such storied company. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Rita Moreno, and Chita Rivera and you. It’s….
Daphne: Priscilla Lopez, and Karen Olivo.
Daphne/Stephanie/Carmen: [There’s even more excited crosstalk]
Carmen: Okay! That’s true, Yes!
Carmen: I wondered what it felt like for you to be able to play this really iconic role in Daniela. It felt like such a perfect role for you because she is so revered in her community, and you are so revered in ours.
Did you feel any of that emotional connection? Because watching you, I felt it. And I was like, “Oh, I’m so glad she’s getting this moment on this big screen.”
Daphne: Thank you. I appreciate that very much. Yeah. I did feel it. There’s a sense of… in certain spaces, we really recognize our ancestors.
Daphne: We recognize our ancestors in the space.
And so, to go back to the fact that I am an immigrant and my mother was an immigrant. And my mother is not here on the plane of earth to witness the film in the way that living people are. I could feel my mother’s and my ancestors’ presence through Daniela and through whatever message it is that I had gotten in the past about being “a little bit less than” or needing to pull it in. Some form of diminishment, the microaggressions that happen in the world that we live in.
To really be in a moment where I could fully inhabit and celebrate all those things that we call limitations. Or let me say that better, what we perceive of as a limitation, being an incredible source of strength. I love that.
Carmen: And Stephanie, the question I wanted to ask you is, obviously you are very aware of how, again revered — which is why I say these last two questions for last! — you are in queer women’s communities. There’s the iconic Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And I think one of the things that everyone, at least everyone I know, is really excited about is to get to see you play a queer Latina again.
I was personally excited because it’s just a different way to use your comic timing. Carla’s very different from Rosa. I was very curious about what that felt like for you to create these two really distinct queer Latina characters.
Stephanie: That’s really kind, first of all. So thank you for saying that.
I think, one of the things that’s been really fun for me about the process of shooting In the Heights — and creating my iteration of that character — was that it brought me back to the feeling that I used to have in Repertory Company, when I did a lot of theater. And I’d have a season where I was playing a bunch of small roles in a funny, new comedy by Culture Clash. And then I also was playing Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Stephanie: And then maybe the next season I was Isabella in Measure for Measure and also playing another… I mean, Rep Company really teaches you… It can teach you how to use yourself in all of these different kinds of ways. And it’s one of my favorite things about being an actor is kind of using different facets of myself to help create these characters and bring them to life. And turning up the volume on certain parts of my personality and turning it way down on other parts, right?
I’m really excited for audiences to see me in a different way, I guess, it’s cool.
And I’m pumped at the confusion factor that comes along with that, right. Because I think people get confused when they meet me in real life sometimes because they expect Rosa Diaz.
Stephanie: And I’m excited for the confusion factor that will come with, “Wait, that can’t be the same person that plays that character, right?” I love that, I live for that. I live for the confusion of, “Wait a minute, what?”
Carmen: I knew you were going to kill it. When I heard you got cast as Carla, I was, “Oh, that’s perfect.” Because, I mean, I really think your gift for comedic timing, it’s unparalleled.
Stephanie: [mumbles to self] Thank you very much.
Carmen: And Carla’s a small part that, I mean, is already memorable. It’s a small part with a big bang. You know what I mean? Like that is… [Carmen and Stephanie crosstalk, there’s never enough crosstalk].
Stephanie: I’m lucky, I’m very lucky.
Carmen: So I’m going to go ahead and just wrap us from here! I wanted to say again, thank you both so much. I know press days are very long and you guys have had a lot of them, I’ve seen them on your social media! Thank you for making this time for us.
Stephanie: Thank you, Carmen. This was a really awesome interview, one of the best of the night.
Daphne: Yes. Thank you, Carmen.
Carmen: I wish you both a good night!
Starting this very day (!!), In the Heights is now streaming on HBOMax and playing in theaters. If seeing in theaters, please follow appropriate COVID-safe protocols.