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Plenty of people have heard Leslie Grace before—after all, she’s a Grammy Award-nominated singer whose two albums have rocketed up the charts—but she’s never been seen on the big screen until now. When In the Heights, director Jon M. Chu’s big, bright film adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, opens in theaters and on HBO Max on June 10, Grace will make her big-screen debut playing Nina Rosario, a Washington Heights native home visiting from her studies at Stanford—which are not going as well as she had hoped.
On screen, Grace appears alongside film and theater veterans like Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jimmy Smits, Corey Hawkins, and even Heights co-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and more than holds her own. Her Nina is a struggling to find a place in the world and grappling with a relationship that might have run its course, but Grace’s magnetic performance keeps audiences focused on the possibilities that exist for Nina and not the problems she’s facing.
Here, the actress talks to T&C about landing the role, her most challenging day of filming, and why Broadway just might be her next stop.
Were you a fan of the musical before you booked your role in the movie?
I knew about In the Heights—I never got to see it on stage, but I fell in love with the soundtrack. I wasn’t a big Broadway person, the closest I got to that was Rent or Wicked, so I didn’t have a lot of experience going to the theater, but my manager was like “you’ve got to see this show, you’re going to feel so seen by it.” I never got to see it but fell in love with the music. Years later, when word got out that they were casting the movie, I was like, “I need to be a part of this.” I was really new and really green, so this was my first in-person audition for a movie in L.A.; I was learning even about the process of auditioning through this experience, but I was so excited about potentially being part of this story that felt so close to home.
What about the character of Nina spoke to you?
Nina is so beloved from the musical and we get to know her in a deeper way [in the film], which I feel so privileged to be able to be part of doing. I feel so seen through Nina; I’ve experienced a lot of things that echo in her story, and more than anything I was really happy that in this version of the story you get to hear the experience of feeling fragmented, like you’re not enough of one thing or another to fully claim your identity and walk with pride. She’s struggling with a feeling of guilt about admitting fear of pursuing something bigger than her family members have done in the past. She’s doing this thing, going to Stanford, that people have cheered her on for her whole life but then she’s coming back to her neighborhood and saying it’s not all coming up roses over there. To fit into that place, she almost has to forget where she comes from. And I hope we get to see more of those stories.
Not only was this your first movie, but it has some serious singing and dancing, including one scene on the side of a building. What was the most challenging part of filming for you?
It was not an easy job! And when you know that you’re a part of something that can be so special, you don’t want to be the one to mess it up. It’s a big responsibility and it takes a lot of hard work and heart. We had 10 weeks to get all of this done, which sounds like a long time but felt short because of the huge undertaking to do these numbers as big as Jon had dreamed. The hottest day of summer in the movie was actually the coldest day of summer in real life—every dancer and Jon was in the pool freezing and getting rained on. A lot of work went into dancing on the sides of the building; these were big numbers you want to get right, so you give it your all and bust your ass.
Is there a scene you have the best memories of filming?
For me, the most special thing was the dance on the side of the building. The heart of that moment is [Hawkins' character] Benny and Nina’s last moment before whatever the future might hold—maybe they’ll be right for each other, maybe not, but they love one another. There’s this huge number that they have, and the heart of it is that they’re going to bend the world to what it can be when they’re together before they both fly away. It’s such a huge cinematic moment. Corey always says that they might not know who Fred and Ginger were, but in that moment it’s who they are. Conquering that was really hard, but to see that we were able to make it come through makes me really proud.
Does making a film like this inspire you to work on Broadway?
Oh, yeah. I went into this feeling like I come with musical experience—this is my first film, but it hasn’t been an overnight thing—but I felt some of that imposter syndrome because other than auditions I had no other acting experience. The beauty of being able to collaborate with people like Corey or Daphne or Jimmy, who have experience in theater, is that it gave me that bug to want to experience that. I’d definitely love to do that in the future.
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