Out gay actor Robin de Jesús steals his every scene in “tick, tick…Boom!,” the new film version of a musical about “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Andrew Garfield plays Jon, a composer who recounts his efforts to quit waiting tables and produce his long-gestating musical theater production, “Superbia.” However, he needs money, a big break, and the patience of both his girlfriend, Susan (Alexandra Shipp), and his gay best friend, Michael (de Jesús). As Jon prepares for a workshop that he thinks will advance his career, he threatens to destroy everything around him.
De Jesús gets both a fun musical number, “No More” — about moving into a fancy high rise — as well as some emotional moments in the film. The actor recently chatted with Gay City News about Larson’s legacy and making “tick, tick…Boom!” before the film hits Netflix on November 19.
GARY M. KRAMER: You appeared in “Rent” on Broadway, so “tick, tick…Boom!” must have been like a homecoming for you. What are your impressions about Jonathan Larson?
ROBIN DE JESÚS: Even though I never had the fortune of getting to meet Jonathan, I feel like I’ve known of him since I was a freshman in high school. When I was 21, I made my Broadway debut in “Rent,” and as much as I knew “Rent,” I didn’t clock the importance of so many of these themes because I was so young. He presented himself in my life as an adult in the lyrics of, “There’s only us, there’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss.” As an actor, your job is to be present, but you can’t always do that in life. Jonathan provided those reminders. He influenced so many of us. It’s crazy to think that I made my Broadway debut in “Rent,” and the follow-up to that was “In the Heights,” with Lin, and Lin [said] having seen “Rent,” Jonathan gave him permission to write “In the Heights.” So now, 20 years later, to be a 37-year-old man and connect with Lin in this other thing that is Jonathan-centered — Lin and I might not have met if not for Jonathan.
KRAMER: What observations do you have about transferring Broadway shows to film? “tick, tick…Boom!” is a good example, but so is the stage and screen revivals of “The Boys in the Band,” both of which you appeared in, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” earlier this year, where you did the stage show only.
DE JESÚS: Having been in an adaptation where I was in the show, and one where I wasn’t, I can tell you that making “Boys in the Band” gave me the sense of relaxation because I knew the play inside out — but I could still be open, in a new medium, to new moments that could come up. With “tick, tick,” there was a familiarity, but there was also a lot more work I had to do to really find the character and dig prior to filming. But that’s also the fun part. That said, the difficulty of learning the choreography for “No More” was really challenging but also really frustrating at times. There was the energy of Lin and Andrew, and the quality of material was so good, so that buffered it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to do [the film of] “In the Heights,” which was so big. As for the moment of all these adaptations, I think it is the accumulation of “Glee,” Ryan Murphy on Broadway, the success of “Hamilton,” and the fact that there are people like Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, and John Legend writing. It’s in the zeitgeist. It is cool to be on Broadway again. I hope it’s not just a moment and will go on forever.
KRAMER: How did you identify with the character of Michael? He saw himself as a mediocre actor who sells out because he wants to enjoy life while he can.
DE JESÚS: [Cackles] That was so concise and so hurtful! I have had moments in my career and my life where I’ve been frustrated. I understood where Michael came from prior to his decision [to quit acting] — I obviously didn’t follow through on that the way he did. But I know that what I connected with most — as someone who is a big personality and takes up space — sometimes it’s easy to assume that I’m not also, at times, a quiet, introspective person. I’m a homebody who likes a lot of alone time. I really wanted my follow up to “Boys in the Band” to be a subtler performance. What got me with Michael is an aspect that comes up in my relationship with my friends: I am a bit of a therapist or bring that divine feminine caretaker energy. That was where I connected with Michael. There are certain people in my life where I am the one who says, “Calm down, honey, you’re going to be fine.”
KRAMER: Do you tend to feel typecast, or only play roles that align with your ethnicity or sexuality?
DE JESÚS: All day and every day. I am very intentional, and with age I’ve gotten even more intentional. I know what I like, and I know what and want, and I know what serves, and what is healthy for me and the culture and what I attach my name to. Emory in “Boys in the Band” was amazing. He is such a well-written character. When I did that role, I thought, this is brilliant. I will start the show being what everyone typically thinks of me and how they typecast me and then I will sucker punch them with that beautiful monologue and bring me into a new light for certain people. And with this [“tick, tick…Boom!”], it is completely different than what others have seen me do before.