Robin De Jesús remembers when he first found out Rent album actor while sitting around with his theater enthusiast friends as a freshman in high school. “I saw a bunch of black and brown faces integrated with white people on the cover and thought, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know there was space for me here,'” the actor said. CHEAP. About 10 years later, De Jesús went on to appear in Jonathan Larson’s indelible rock opera on Broadway, about the power of love and youth in rebellion.
Now, the three-time Tony nominee is co-starring Andrew Garfield in director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of the film. Clap, clack… Boom! for Netflix. The musical is Larson’s autobiographical account of his relentless struggle to break through as a composer, and it was written just a few years before his sudden death on the brink. Rentsuccess of the escape.
De Jesús plays Michael, Larson’s best friend, who has given up a starving artist life to become an advertising executive in a corner office. Although he is often the voice of reason, Michael understands Jonathan, and his artistic aspirations, on a profound level.
De Jesús, who appeared with Miranda in the original Broadway cast of Miranda’s first musical, In the heights, delivered Larson’s message of a life without regrets. “I like to live the way I feel, if I died tomorrow, this would be perfect – nothing unfinished.”
De Jesus spoke to CHEAP about his personal connection to Clap, clack… Boom!the often uncanny experience of bringing Larson’s story into the composer’s life and lasting legacy.
Your character, Michael, was also an actor before he got into advertising. Are you involved in the struggles he remembers trying to break the business?
Oh, that’s right – the monologue about waking up early and going to Equity, that life of deprivation and living in despair the whole time. … There’s a hierarchy to our business, and when you don’t go any further, there’s a lot you have to do to get people seen. Sometimes you just can’t help but show how desperate you are. It’s a lone, negative energy space to be in. It really takes persistence to stay in this business; you really must have a strong sense of self. You must know what your intentions are. If your intention is to become a star, then I wish you the best. My intention with my creativity is to do really great work. I want to go to work.
Is making this movie like telling a ghost story?
If anything, it felt like a calm. There is such an organic divinity. All of us in the cast are so spiritual, and so is Lin, we feel like we’re calling Jonathan in. There’s this wonderful thing that happens sometimes when it feels like he’s there.
We were supposed to film the street argument between me and Andrew – it’s the scene I’m proudest of of all my cinematography – on the night of filming. We didn’t touch it from March until November, so there was a lot of build-up on it. I remember feeling very prepared because I knew the scene inside and out. But I also felt very present that day because I woke up and said, “Hey, Jonathan, I could really use you today. I did my job, and I’m good. But I did experience insecurity. So if you want this good, I think you should show up.”
On that day when we got to that scene, Andrew and I looked at each other, and it was like something had entered the room. It happens often, and no one has to name it when it happens. We can see in each other’s eyes; we’ll get goosebumps and just keep working.
How do you hope that this drama will continue Jonathan Larson’s legacy?
I hope the film inspires people to do what they love in the present moment. Thematically, Jonathan is always full of allegories, and if mistaken it can be cheesy. But to him, it’s just people and truth. And you feel it. When I think about the lyrics from Rent – “Only us, only this / Forget about regrets, or life is yours to miss” – he told us to stay away from the past, stay away from the future. What is happening at the moment? Are you loving who you are? Because all his works are community oriented.
I also hope that people can see the love between the characters. In fact, you’re seeing me, a gay man, playing a gay character. … Honestly: It’s rare in a movie of this size that a gay man of color can play a gay man of color. And that my character has a real, close friendship with a straight man.
There are other aspects to the character or story of Clap, clack… Boom!that you feel have a special personal connection with?
One of the things I’m most proud of about the film is that I’m a strange man, Puerto Rican, from a working-class family, and growing up, I didn’t feel like I had grown ups. gay age. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized that the reason I didn’t see my elders was because they were lost in the AIDS epidemic. I never took it personally, to the point of missing out on people who would mentor and teach me to be the kind of man I wanted to be.
Besides that material loss, I also lost those elders in narrative form. Because, as we know, a lot of HIV stories revolve around white gay men; we lost blacks and browns, we lost women. There are a lot of stories that we haven’t touched on yet, and I feel like I’m in this movie, set in this period, like a pinch of some ancestors that I’m grateful for just met.
You’ve been nominated for a Tony Award and you’ve also worked in musicals in the past. Do you approach your preparation and character development differently for stages and screens?
My process is pretty much the same for both. The only big difference is that when I do a show, I have to rehearse with a cast for a long time, and that doesn’t always happen with movies. But it’s funny, I got that luxury in my previous two movies, The boys in the band [adapted from the Broadway production] and now Clap, clack… Boom!.
I always wanted to finish the book as quickly as possible, to focus on understanding the characters and shaping the plot. i think it is [actor] John Cazale, who once said something that really struck me, that he wanted to know what his character’s sadness was, what their pain was. Because it shapes how you react to things. So that’s really important to me.
But honestly, what’s important to me in this case is the spirit. With this movie, I knew we were going to bring in some ghosts. I’m calling out to my blacks, gay people, who don’t get their moments in stories like this. I think that’s why I lean towards mysticism – and call it Jonathan – so I can feel prepared to let difference have space to infiltrate.
The edited interview is long and clear.
This story first appeared in the December issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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