How did you prepare to play Usnavi?
In some way or another, I’ve been preparing for this role my whole life. Being born in the Bronx made hip-hop the soundtrack of my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I grew up with the same fusion of hip-hop, R&B, pop, salsa, merengue, and bachata that In the Heights beautifully showcases. Our show is set in 2008, so I shared with the cast a playlist of the music I remember listening to in New York around that time. It was over 100 songs and almost eight hours long! I’ve also understudied the role of Usnavi in past productions, and that provided me the opportunity to learn from brilliant friends and collaborate with incredible directors, choreographers, and musicians.
What, for you, is the most fulfilling aspect of your life as an actor?
The most fulfilling part of what we do is making everlasting bonds with the people we work and play with. I’ve made so many lifelong friends while doing shows. I’ve found writing partners and collaborators while on contract, and so many constant sources of love and support that reaffirm my belief that we’re always right where we’re supposed to be.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Never stop growing! Never stop learning! Keep challenging yourself in your work. As artists, we push ourselves out of our comfort zones to find new ways to tell stories. Try to find the stories that speak to you and that you connect with. If you can’t find them, then write your own and find people to collaborate and share with — make every excuse to create!
In this business, we meet and get to know so many people. I’d encourage you to find or create a friend circle. Not one of exclusivity but one built on trust, sharing ideas, and supporting each other on the journey. Surround yourself with people you admire and who admire you.
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
Mistakes are going to happen, especially in live theater. Everyone knows it’s not about the mistake but how you bounce back from it. The first rule of show biz is “the show must go on,” and it’s always best not to dwell on a flub. An actor’s main responsibility to any piece is to live in every moment as truthfully as possible. As long as you work with that goal in mind, then there is truly no such thing as a mistake.
Do you get nervous before a performance? Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Not as much as I used to. I just focus on the preparation and try my best to trust it. There’s always some form of vocal warmup, and its usually equal parts rapping and singing. Water and tea are my preferred pre-show fluids. If there’s time, I’ll usually steam my voice or phonate through a cocktail straw to expand my breath support. And I always save some time to be alone with my thoughts and center myself before I’m ready to go.
How do you rehearse? What does a typical session entail?
It depends on what we’re rehearsing. If it’s for a scene, we usually read it a few times with the director and talk about it to get ideas out and start the conversation about what we’re trying to accomplish. Then, our director will give us the blocking for how they want the scene to look. We practice it over and over to figure out how to live it honestly while delivering the text truthfully. It takes some time, but the process is so rewarding.
If we’re rehearsing a musical number, however, it’s much more involved. The choreographers and dance captains deliver information to the ensemble; the music director crafts the song and sounds with the vocalists; and the director makes sure all the parts are moving in harmony. I love it.
With the proliferation of digital everything, why do you think live theater must live on?
Live theater has to, and will, live on because its legacy is too rich to let die. From Ethel Merman and Rita Moreno to Audra McDonald and Lin-Manuel Miranda, we have to continue these stories for the generations to come. I found the thing I love to do most, and I don’t think we should rob kids in the future of the same opportunity.
Actors try to bring worlds to life around you and benefit from having you present while we’re doing it. You’re out of your home, off your couch, actively participating in make-believe. Especially in this day and age, we devote so much attention to our phones (which I’m guilty of as well) that we have to engage in activities to counteract that behavior. Live theater engages us in critical thought and conversation more than TV and movies because we experience it together. If those aren’t reasons enough to make sure live theater lives forever, then I don’t know what is.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of being an actor?
The most challenging part of being an actor, in my opinion, is letting go. We spend so much time training and preparing that we forget to just trust all that work and be free, open, and vulnerable when we’re onstage. There’s so much technique involved in our craft that we often forget to go out there and play. All the greatest rewards and best moments onstage come when we’re really playing and living in the moment. Sounds easy, but it’s one of the hardest things.
Artslandia’s theme for the 2019–20 season is “A Night Out.” Describe for our readers your perfect night out.
My perfect night out consists of good music, good food, and even better company. If I go out, it’s either downtown to Escape The Room NYC or to the AMC Magic Johnson in Harlem to catch a new movie. But oftentimes, I love to just stay in with my girlfriend, our dog, and friends from past productions to play board games and Nintendo.
In the Heights: August 31 – October 13, 2019 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory
Winner of 4 Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, Best Orchestrations
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (Hamilton) Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical takes us to New York’s vibrant Washington Heights, where the air is filled with the sounds of salsa, merengue, soul, hip-hop, and R&B. It’s a community on the brink of change, where a tightknit group of friends and neighbors struggles to achieve their dreams.