Jimmy Smits on Finding His Voice in In the Heights

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Photo credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s been called the song of the summer. No, not Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u”—which, admittedly is a bop—but rather, Jimmy Smits singing just three words in the In the Heights opening number. “Good morning, Usnavi!” he croons, approaching the bodega register to purchase a lottery ticket alongside his pan caliente and café con leche. He's feeling lucky. After all, his daughter Nina flew in at 3 a.m. last night from Stanford.

In Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical, Smits plays Kevin Rosario, the owner of a taxi cab service in Washington Heights, who's trying to make ends meet while putting Nina (played by Leslie Grace) through college. Smits, whom some might recognize as Senator Bail Organa from Star Wars, President Matt Santos from the final season of The West Wing, or Detective Bobby Simone from NYPD Bluer, has had a long and varied career, but he isn’t known for his pipes—until now.

“Warner Brothers would go to my agent and say, ‘Must he go to four different vocal coaches, on two different coasts?’” Smits recalls, but he says the extra training was essential, even if the part “wasn’t heavy lifting vocally.” “I had to do that because I wanted to be on point.” Being part of a movie musical, he explains, and especially this movie musical, one that showcases the joy of a Latinx community, is something he “wanted to check off the artistic bucket list.”

So the coaching was worth it.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Here, Smits talks with T&C about what initially drew him to the role of Kevin, the impact seeing In the Heights in theaters, and one similarity between this project and The West Wing.

In the Heights will be the first movie that many people can see in a theater after more than a year of the pandemic. What do you think about that?

The universe aligns for a reason, I think. We were frankly all depressed last year, not only because of the lockdown and the pandemic first and foremost, but also thinking, ‘Will the film even get released?’ I'm excited that it worked out this way because I think that people are mindful of what's going on and what we're coming out of with regards to the health issues, but people want the communal experience of going to a movie theater.

And because the film, the delivery system, is a musical, there's a joy and a positivity in the messages conveyed. Every frame in the film is so positive. This is the perfect movie, and even if I wasn't in it I would feel that. You have all those flourishes, reminders of old Hollywood—and then you have these very intimate moments in the film that resonate on so many different levels, and issues that are very current, that we've been contemplating over the last 14 months: social issues about immigration and BLM and LGBTQ, all of those things are touched on in a way.

Photo credit: Macall Polay
Photo credit: Macall Polay

What drew you to the role of Kevin?

I had been a fan of the show; I had seen the show off-Broadway; I saw iterations of it on Broadway. I saw it lauded and got to know Lin while I was working in New York. I'm just amazed thinking about what he represents, in terms of the new wave and how he changed the landscape. Films go through the process of production, and all of these years passed by, and I read the script and saw the changes that [screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes] and Lin made, and the addition of Jon Chu and what he wanted to do. It opened up in a way that I felt I could make a contribution as an actor.

I talked to Jon about what Michelle Yeoh did in Crazy Rich Asians, and bringing a kind of gravitas and reality and an emotionality to the character that I understand, because I'm channeling my uncles, my tíos. I understand because I have felt that as a father, the wanting your offspring, the generation that's coming up, to do better in this country. That's what my parents implored to me: “We have to do better. You have to go to school, you have to continue.”

And then I understood it from Nina's point of view, because that's what happened with me, being the first of my extended family to go to university and to even contemplate going to graduate school. All of those things made me feel like I could bring something to the party here.

Photo credit: Macall Polay
Photo credit: Macall Polay

You're set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. How does that feel?

I'm very privileged, humbled, I don't know what to say because of the permanence.

So many people watched or rewatched your performance in The West Wing during the pandemic. Why do you think it still has such a resonance today?

It's like In the Heights—the stuff is on the page. Aaron Sorkin is a genius in terms of his ability as a writer and what he's able to convey about character and the way the story was constructed to show the inner machinations of the group that supported the head of government. That was something that was fascinating for audiences. I wasn't there when Aaron was there, I was on for the last couple of seasons, but I felt really ecstatic, being a fan of the show, to explore the campaign process, and the dynamic between the people who are involved.

I think back to the live debate episode that we did, which we rehearsed as if it was a play, and we did it live two times, once for the east coast, once for the west coast. And that experience that I had with Bradley Whitford and Alan Alda, I will never ever forget that. It was a little contribution made to the acceptance of a candidate that you might not think would be the candidate.

You Might Also Like