With 'In the Heights,' Anthony Ramos finds stardom on his own terms
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With 'In the Heights,' Anthony Ramos finds stardom on his own terms
Anthony Ramos, second from left, with his “Hamilton” castmates Lin-Manuel Miranda, left, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan and Daveed Diggs at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York on July 11, 2015. Ramos’ exuberant lead performance in the film version of “In the Heights” may be his breakout moment. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Dave Itzkoff

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” that classic dance-floor ode to doing whatever it takes to keep your head above water, was playing in a coffee shop in Brooklyn when Anthony Ramos sidled in one chilly April morning.

Ramos may not be a celebrity to you yet, but he was easily made by the barista in Park Slope, who turned out to be a courteous fan. Along with his latte, Ramos was given a few stickers promoting the drag queen persona of his admiring server and some kind words of congratulation on his recent success.

Ramos received his tributes with humility. He respected a fellow hustler when he saw one.

This just might be the summer of Anthony Ramos, when this Brooklyn-bred actor — who has already parlayed his freckled face, built-for-Calvin Klein physique and founding role in the Broadway cast of “Hamilton” into a prolific screen and recording career — takes his place in the Hollywood firmament.

If he does, it will be largely on the basis of his exuberant lead performance in the film version of “In the Heights,” which is adapted from the Tony Award-winning musical about the interlocking lives of an Upper Manhattan neighborhood, and which, after a year’s delay, will be released June 11 in theaters and on HBO Max.

That Ramos, 29, even finds himself in this spot, singing, swinging and charming his way through bodega aisles as the film’s irrepressible hero, Usnavi, is the result of a life spent chasing down every opportunity with maximum tenacity and plowing lanes for himself where none previously existed.

He has had to learn some lessons, too, about what to do with himself once he got those breaks. “The work ethic wasn’t always there, you know?” Ramos said slyly over a piece of strawberry rhubarb poundcake. “I’d be lying to you if I said I was always a hard worker.”

But knowing how hard he has had to kick to get doors to open even slightly for him, Ramos is determined to take his talents as far as they will get him. “This is the gift of gifts,” he said. “It’s like getting a Ferrari. You’re not going to drive it? I’m burning out all the miles on it.”

The arrival of “In the Heights,” with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, will also test whether mass audiences will turn out for a movie musical led by a cast of relatively unknown, mostly Latino performers and will embrace the qualities that its creators see abundantly in Ramos.

As Jon M. Chu, the director of “In the Heights,” told me, “In every ounce of his body, he already exudes a movie-star quality. But he looks different than any movie star you’ve ever seen. He literally has it all, and we’re all looking for, what does the new leading man look and feel like? Anthony Ramos fills every box.”

Even as he has waited patiently for its release, the film has already paid unexpected dividends, and now Ramos is just holding on to see where its trajectory takes him. “It’s been an exciting storm,” he said. “But a storm nonetheless.”

Ramos was ready for the early start this morning — “I be up, I be up,” he said eagerly — despite a late night watching the Oscars for the debut of a new “In the Heights” trailer and excitedly sharing reactions in a group text with castmates and colleagues.

At a time when moviegoers are getting reacquainted with the idea of returning to theaters, Ramos said he was hopeful that “In the Heights” would supply some of the uplift that he felt has been missing from releases in recent months.

“We don’t have enough movies right now that feel like a celebration of life,” he said. “We need movies that are telling real and honest stories in a raw way that are hard for people to watch. But also, like, we need to feel happy. There’s also joy. That’s like a thing that exists.”

Only a few miles from here, Ramos had experienced a less sunny coming-of-age in Bushwick. Raised by a single mother in Hope Gardens, a public housing development, he was the middle of three children in a family where money was often scarce. For a few years he also lived with his aunt and cousins in Bensonhurst.

Baseball might have offered him a way out, but one day, at the age of 17, “I just stopped showing up to games,” he said. “I had a moment on the field where I was like, yeah, this ain’t it. I didn’t belong there anymore.”

Ramos, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was already a singer and performer — the kid who recorded his own rap tracks on a rudimentary Dell computer using beats he had lifted from LimeWire and who crooned Temptations songs at class assemblies. He wore a blonde wig to play Jack in a student production of “Into the Woods” and was cast in another homegrown musical as a love-song-slinging Zeus in a cardboard crown.

By his own admission, his grades had been poor and his college prospects dimmed after he quit sports. But one of his teachers at New Utrecht High School, Sara Steinweiss, encouraged him to try out for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan, helping him with his audition and paying the application fee he couldn’t afford. After Ramos got in, a scholarship established by Jerry Seinfeld covered the cost of his tuition.

Formative experiences like these, Ramos said, ensured he would never take any opportunity for granted but also left him expecting that the bottom could drop out at any moment.

“I get in a studio, I’m hungry,” he said. “You know I’m writing like I’m never going to be able to write a song again.” More soberly, he added, “You get a million dollars, you know that could go tomorrow.”

To this day, he can instantly summon up the 2012 email informing him that he’d earned an audition for a production of “In the Heights” at Pioneer Theater Company in Salt Lake City, which cast him as Sonny, the young cousin and sidekick of Usnavi, and got him his Actors’ Equity card.

But he bombed his audition for the show’s national tour and, having spent the time in between on gigs like a cruise-ship production of the “Saturday Night Fever” musical, he was hardly familiar to the show’s creative team when he came back to them in 2014 to try out for “Hamilton.”

“The casting director was like, “Have you been in for ‘Hamilton’ yet? And he went, What’s a ‘Hamilton’?” Miranda, the show’s creator and star, recalled with mild exaggeration. “He was auditioning for a commercial in another room. That’s how much he wasn’t known.”

When he tested for the dual role of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton, Ramos was already committed to “Heart and Lights,” a Rockettes show planned for Radio City Music Hall. But when “Heart and Lights” was abruptly canceled, Ramos was snapped up for “Hamilton” and he never looked back.

“I lost my job at 1 o’clock and then, boom, got the job that would change my life at 4,” he said.

“Hamilton” became a phenomenon, winning 11 Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016, and substantially elevating the profiles of its performers. Ramos used some of that newfound recognition to put out an independently released song collection, “The Freedom EP,” and a full-length album, “The Good & the Bad.” He also leapt into roles in the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga remake of “A Star Is Born,” the series “Will and Grace” and Spike Lee’s Netflix adaptation of “She’s Gotta Have It.”

Lee, who saw “Hamilton” nine times in its off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations, cast Ramos as a latter-day version of Mars Blackmon, the character the director played in his original 1986 film. Lee said he was impressed by the actor’s determination and his devotion to his Brooklyn roots.

“He was not handed this artistic life,” Lee said. “He had to put the work in. Some people, they’re going to get out of New York, the first plane they can catch, the first big check. He’s never going to forget where he came from.”

Getting Ramos and his “In the Heights” co-stars — including Melissa Barrera, Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace — into those marquee positions was another lengthy tactical effort. For years, the film adaptation languished at studios like Universal and the Weinstein Company, in part because executives wanted established pop singers in its cast.

As Miranda, who is a producer of the film, recalled, it was “that self-defeating cycle of, we don’t have the Latino stars to make this movie. I was like, wait, I thought we were making Latino stars?”

Chu signed on to direct in 2016 and two years later he made “Crazy Rich Asians,” a box-office smash that made its then-untested star, Henry Golding, into a leading man. As Chu sought out his Usnavi, he said, Ramos was on his list of candidates, but he hoped for an actor who had no prior connection to “In the Heights.”

“I wanted to find someone who wasn’t related to the show,” Chu said. “That was my initial instinct. So it was almost too easy that he was there.”

While Warner Bros. acquired the project from the collapse of The Weinstein Co., Ramos continued to advocate enthusiastically for himself. So, too, did Miranda, who had played Usnavi in the original off-Broadway and Broadway runs of the show. Miranda had seen the younger actor play Usnavi in the Kennedy Center’s 2018 production of “In the Heights” and felt that the role belonged to Ramos more than to himself.

Miranda said that he had more in common with a character like Nina, a woman trying to do right by her Washington Heights community and uphold its values while she struggled in her first year at Stanford University.

“I had Black and Latino friends growing up, and then I suddenly started getting shipped off to the Upper East Side to go to school,” Miranda said. “So that disconnect, that code-switch, started very young.”

Ramos, he said, had the striver’s soul of a true Usnavi. “Anthony grew up repping his neighborhood hard,” Miranda said. “You can’t talk to him for five seconds without hearing about Bushwick. He’s born to play that role and it requires putting on nothing for him to do it.”

Chu said he was convinced that Ramos could carry the film after sitting down with him one-on-one, hearing his life story and becoming captivated by his energy.

“The moment I met him is the moment the whole movie wrapped around him, not the other way around,” Chu said. “He wasn’t coming into our movie — we were coming to him.”

He added, “He is a tone. I’m trying to use his whole being and spread it out to the world.”

The movie was filmed in the summer of 2019, using the streets and settings of Washington Heights for many scenes, giving it an immersive authenticity and helping to remind the cast exactly who they were making it for.

Ramos described one late night filming the musical number “Alabanza,” an elegy for a character who has died. “It’s this emotional-ass scene,” he said. “Everybody’s outside with candles, we’re crying. They call cut and all of a sudden, out somebody’s window you hear: ‘This better be the last take!’ ”

With a chuckle, he added, “That pulse, that vibe, you can’t make that up.”

Not that any heckling could ever discourage Ramos, who became a spirited, self-appointed leader of the “In the Heights” team.

“If there’s any catchphrase from our set,” Miranda said, “it’s Anthony screaming, ‘Let’s go! For the culture!’ He really embodied the belief that we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams and we are getting to tell their stories.”

Bringing “In the Heights” to moviegoers took longer than expected when the pandemic required its release to be pushed back a full year. But Ramos said this did not particularly unnerve him.

“People were like, you must have been heartbroken,” he said. “Heartbroken? I’m chilling. I’m good, man. I was still boom, boom, boom — moving, moving, moving. I’m not waiting on this movie to come out.”

While biding his time on what everyone has assured him will be his breakout performance, Ramos has filmed lead roles in “Distant,” an upcoming science-fiction movie, and the new season of “In Treatment,” playing a troubled patient in that HBO drama. He has been releasing his latest tracks from a forthcoming album on Republic Records.

On the strength of “In the Heights,” Ramos was also chosen to star in the next installment of the “Transformers” franchise, which is filming in Montreal.

This abundance of prospects is a far cry from what Ramos faced when he first entered the business and was encouraged to conceal his distinguishing characteristics.

“I had teachers tell me, grow your hair out, change the way you speak, so you can be more ethnically ambiguous,” he said. “And I was like, why do I need to be ethnically ambiguous? Why can’t I just be Puerto Rican?”

Back then, he said, “I started taking dance classes like an animal because I was like, if I can dance, I could be, like, the token Latino in the ensemble.”

A decade later, Ramos said that in his experience, film and television continue to lag behind theater in their efforts to cast diverse performers, and even Broadway, despite occasional innovations like “Hamilton,” was still too homogeneous.

“Why can’t we all do it?” he asked. “Why can’t you have the white girl, the Black guy, the Latin guy and the Asian girl? We ain’t in 1930 no more.”

But as he has also learned, time has a way of organizing events to his advantage and bringing new priorities to the forefront. And some goals that once seemed very far off for Ramos are now suddenly looking very attainable.

As he said triumphantly, “After this year, I’m going to buy myself a house.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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