Before he scored gigs in a concert version of “In the Heights” and the original production of “Hamilton,” Anthony Ramos was ready to abandon his acting ambitions. “I wanted to quit a few times,” the actor said an interview this week. “I didn’t feel like there was a space for me, like anyone was going to give me a shot. Nobody’s in a rush to write a leading role for a barely 5’9, 150-pound Latino dude with freckles. Nobody out here was like, I can’t wait to write the next lead role for that guy. Shows like ‘In the Heights’ and ‘Hamilton’ changed that rhetoric.”
The past decade has given the 28-year-old actor and songwriter plenty of reasons for confidence. After originating the roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 Broadway sensation, Ramos was cast as the lead in John M. Chu’s snazzy big-screen adaptation of Miranda’s earlier stage hit “In the Heights.” Warner Bros. initially planned to release the movie this June, but delayed the release by a full year after theaters shut down.
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Nevertheless, Ramos has plenty of opportunities to celebrate his achievements on the stage and screen alike: On July 3, Disney Plus will premiere a production of “Hamilton” recorded in 2015 with the original cast, all but guaranteeing a new phase of appreciation for Miranda’s musical talents in advance of “In the Heights” getting out in the world.
“I wanted it to come out this year, but at the same time, there’s no rush,” Ramos said. “I think the creative team wanted people to see it in theaters. Hopefully, next year, that’s what people will have the opportunity to do, and then it’ll be on digital for the people who don’t want to go. At least the folks who want to experience that on the big screen, feel the speakers blasting, they’ll have that — and I’m so excited for them.”
Ramos has crammed in a number significant film roles in recent years, from Lady Gaga’s best friend in “A Star Is Born” to Mars Blackmon on Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” and the voice of King Trollex in “Trolls World Tour.” His first album, “The Good & The Bad,” came out last year.
Nevertheless, two roles continue to define his stardom, and he speaks about them in prolonged bursts of enthusiasm, as if his entire existence were pinned to the representational power of “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” alone. Seeing an early production of “In the Heights,” he said, changed his understanding of what was possible for his own career. “The characters looked like they live around the corner from where I grew up,” the Brooklyn native said. “It wasn’t like watching ‘Shrek.’ You can always find characters to relate to, but there was something deeper for me in this show.”
And the new movie puts him at the center of it, as bodega owner Usnavi, who sings and dances around his way through Washington Heights alongside a sprawling ensemble. “I hope not only Latinx people around the world feels this but that everybody does and can get a small sense of that heartbeat, that electricity that Latinx people have around the world,” Ramos said. “The passion, the love, the family — all the things that we know in our homes and see on the daily, the world can now come in and be a part of that, feel that with us.”
He compared the potential cultural impact of the movie to “Black Panther” and Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” suggesting it could have equivalent resonance for the Latinx community. “These are movies that feel like they’re shaking the world and open the doors for a group of people,” he said. “I call these movies for the culture. I don’t know what it’ll be like when ‘In the Heights’ comes out, but I know what it felt like, and it felt like a movie for the culture.”
He doubled back on an earlier observation about the lack of such visibility in popular culture during his formative years. “Latinx people around the world will watch this and be able to have a movie that I wish I had growing up,” he said. “All these countries within the Latin community have never really had their moment in mainstream Hollywood in this kind of way. This is that movie.”
Ramos acknowledged that the dramatic circumstances facing the world this year — from the pandemic to economic unrest and Black Lives Matter events — would have yielded ideal circumstances for “In the Heights” to hit the zeitgeist. “The movie definitely would’ve hit if it came out now, as far as the topical things in the film,” he said, “but honestly, I don’t know where we’ll be at next year, but the things we’re going through aren’t things that are going to be solved tomorrow.”
Ramos has much to say about the protests against police brutality, but it’s hardly the first time. As one of the leads in 2018 Sundance hit “Monsters and Men,” Ramos played a troubled character who records an unlawful police killing and wrestles with the moral conundrum of putting it out in the world. The climate has shifted since then. “I’ve been to some protests,” Ramos said. “In my entire life, I’ve never seen protests so diverse, so many people standing in solidarity or just standing up for what is right.”
He was disheartened by the contrast between media reports and the experiences he had on the ground. “Certain news outlets only show you the insane parts of protests, someone getting beat down or shot by a rubber bullet or tear-gassed,” he said. “It’s easy to show that for whatever reason. But I’ve been out there a few times now and I’ve seen so much love, so much unity, so much passion.”
That led him to consider the national mood that might greet “In the Heights” 12 months from now. “I pray to God that this movie is like a microcosm of all the beauty in protests,” he said. “That’s what it felt like when we were shooting it.”
He acknowledged that racial inequality wasn’t going away anytime soon. “This movie is a celebration for victories that hopefully will be had in the next few years,” he said. “The work is never over, but let’s sit for two hours and 20 minutes to watch a movie that can make us feel good and be a celebration of progression, culture, unity, love. We’re seeing a lot of that now.”
Sitting on the roof of his Brooklyn apartment where he lives with his fiance, former “Hamilton” co-star Jasmine Cephas Jones, Ramos considered the uncertainties of his early career. The industry continued to face an uncertain future, but he struck an optimistic note. “It was a hard journey to get in here,” he said, “but I’m in now, so I’m going to go hard. I’m going to make shit that makes me proud. And if I never make another movie or album again, at least I’m proud of the ones I made.”
“Hamilton” comes out on Disney+ on Friday, July 3.
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