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In the Heights, the movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, tells the story of a Latinx-Caribbean community in Washington Heights chasing their sueñitos, or little dreams. It’s a story that hits home for Nuyorican (New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent) Gregory Diaz IV, the teen actor who plays Sonny in the movie, out June 10.
"That's really why I fell in love with the story in the first place,” Gregory tells Teen Vogue over the phone ahead of the movie’s release. “Because reading about it and listening to the soundtrack, I felt this immediate connection I had between hearing the music that I heard every day on the street, but also reading a story that I kind of felt was about me.”
With In the Heights, the 16-year-old achieves a new peak in his own career; it’s his first named role in a major motion picture. But his success has been years in the making. Since the get-go, Gregory has gone for his dreams and manifested them. As a kid, he was introduced to theatre when his dad took him to see Matilda the Musical. That proved to be the magical spark that lit the fuse of his acting career, and he starred in the Broadway musical in 2016.
"Seeing kids my age on the stage gave me the feeling of just wanting to do that and believing that I could," Gregory says. "That was really the first goal that I had set for myself in my young career, to be a part of that, and fortunately enough I was able to do that."
Though he is only a few years into his burgeoning acting career, Gregory’s resume is already filled with projects that highlight Latinx representation. One of his most salient roles was in 2018's Off-Broadway production of Pedro Pan. The musical by Rebecca Aparicio was based off Operation Pedro Pan, a period in the early 1960s when Cuban parents sent their children, an estimated 14,000, to the U.S. in fear of indoctrination under Fidel Castro's communist regime.
"I actually sat down and met with someone who was a part of Operation Pedro Pan," Gregory recalls. "Even after shows, having people come up to me and explain to me that either they themselves were part of Operation Pedro Pan or they had parents that were a part of it and just how much it really meant to them, that was an amazing experience."
Last year, Gregory starred in the Netflix comedy-horror film Vampires vs. the Bronx, which tackled the theme of gentrification through the supernatural premise of vampires taking over the borough. With an all-Latinx cast, it was proof that the community has more stories to tell that aren’t limited to the traumas in the culture. At the same time, with Black and brown Latinx actors leading the action on screen, it was a show of representation, especially for those who grew up in the Bronx.
"Maybe the main staple of it wasn't representation, but at the same time it was still something that was there," Gregory says. "[Playing that role] was like a love letter to my dad's side of the family that grew up in the Bronx and being able to show representation out there and the community." With a laugh, he adds, "And also being able to fight vampires was cool!"
Lin-Manuel Miranda is another Nuyorican artist like Gregory. Though he was a creator of In the Heights, in the movie, he takes more of a backseat role as Piraguero, the Piragua Guy who sells the Puerto Rican shaved ice dessert on the street. As a theatre star turned force in Hollywood, Miranda is at the forefront of Gregory's mind as someone to aspire to be.
"Lin is just such a huge inspiration of mine," he gushes. "He wrote himself into the narrative. He didn't see roles for himself and he wasn't going to wait to find those roles. He took the authority and wrote himself into those roles, not only for himself, but for the entire community around him, in creating these roles for us to really be ourselves and help push out these beautiful stories."
Helmed by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu, In the Heights is not just Latinx representation, but the movie also focuses on the culture of Latinx New Yorkers who are of Caribbean descent, from places like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Bodegas, the convenience stores originally run by Latinx-Caribbean folks, are very much a part of that culture. As the wise-cracking but well-intentioned Sonny de la Vega, Gregory helps Anthony Ramos' Usnavi, run a bodega in Washington Heights. In one of the biggest scenes during In the Heights, everyone at the local pool is trying to figure out who bought a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000 at the bodega. As a singer and rapper, Gregory has his shining moment during the "96,000" performance.
"'96,000' was my favorite, and not even just because I got to rap," Gregory says. "It was more so the environment as a whole was so hyped-up and the energy was so high. We had 500-plus extras on the set. It doesn't get any better than that. It honestly felt like a real pool party off of the camera."
As Sonny, Gregory also represents the undocumented community, which is a new revelation to the character for the movie; it’s another reality for Latinx families in the U.S. that's now represented in In the Heights.
"That was something they added on after the first script," Gregory reveals. "It was a conversation that we had just wanting it as not something that defined him, but it does exist there and does put regulations on his life because ultimately Sonny just wants to be able to grow up and do big things. As an actor playing this undocumented person, it was something that I wanted to help uplift and show in a positive sense."
With In the Heights sure to heighten his profile, Gregory is currently auditioning for new roles. "I want to do it all. I want to help tell more of these meaningful stories. But I also hope to maybe play a superhero one day or be a part of a comedy," he says.
When asked about his own sueñito à la In the Heights, he confidently adds, "Honestly I'm living in it right now. When I was younger, I dreamed of being an actor and I get to do that now. I'm living in the dream everyday."
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue