At only 26 years old, Leslie Grace Martinez – who bears the stage name Leslie Grace – received three Latin Grammy nominations and a leading role in a feature film. The singer-songwriter has collaborated with top Latin artists such as Becky G, Maluma and CNCO, but nothing could have prepared her for this next big career change. Announced in April 2019, Leslie Grace took on the role of Nina Rosario in Lin-Manuel MirandaThe Tony Award-winning musical In the heights. Cast members include Corey hawkins, Anthony ramos, Dascha Polanco and Stephanie BÃ©atriz.
“This is the most exciting thing that is happening in my life. Every day something else exciting is happening with this project and we just got to savor it even more, looking back on the extra year. Â», Grace told HYPEBAE during our interview, which took place before In the heights‘first. She said enthusiastically that she was able to bombard group chats with her anticipation for the film, and was able to gauge some reactions from friends and family ahead of the film’s official release.
With movies like In the heights that make her feel seen and heard as a Bronx Latina, Grace enjoys knowing that she represents her community and that she is a positive role model for generations after her. “We all feel there is a sense of responsibility and pressure, but I like to call it responsibility and opportunities to create new paths for the people we know and love,” she explained to us. of lasting impact on those who admire it. “To see something they have never seen before and dream bigger, and discover dreams that are inside them that they maybe haven’t seen from the outside and that they feel of not being able to accomplish. They just need to see someone do it. This is what feeds me. I grew up in a family that [believed in] work hard all the time, and i want that word to mean something.
As critics noted, the film faced backlash on the lack of black and afro-latinx representation, especially darker skinned prospects. While Miranda took out an official statement via social networks Noting its dedication to âlearn and growâ, conversations around the film can be seen as a way to hold TV shows and films accountable for equity and inclusion. HYPEBAE met Leslie Grace about her role as Nina Rosario in In the heights, her upbringing in the Bronx and how she feels portrayed in the film.
In the heights hits theaters on June 11 and is now available to watch in theaters and on HBO Max.
This interview was conducted and written before the colourism controversy and backlash from In the Heights.
How excited are you In the heights? Tell me about the moment you found out you had booked the role.
When I found out that I was chosen for Nina, it was so crazy. It was the best thing because it was actually my birthday, and no one knew it. Lin didn’t know – he called me. I was in my mom’s old salon at home in Florida and she was doing my hair, getting me ready for that little birthday situation I was going to have. We have been waiting for weeks to possibly hear the news potentially or not. I was like, “Oh, it’s probably gonna be after the holidays.”
My mom kept saying, âMaybe they’ll call a special day, like Christmas or New Years.â I was like, âMom, no. That’s not how it works. We had been speculating for weeks about when we would potentially hear âyesâ or âno.â As I sat in her chair and she was halfway through my hair, Lin called. get a random call from a number “917”. I obviously didn’t have Miranda’s number so I didn’t pick up. My mom was in the middle of my hair and it was FaceTime on top of that. We don’t do no cold calls. Then the same number texted me, and he said, “Hey, it’s Lin, can you pick up real quick for a few minutes?
I think my team already knew he was going to call me and update me. They were trying to contact him to let him know it was my birthday, and he never heard back. It was pure coincidence that he decided to call me and share the news with me that day. It was the greatest full circle blessing ever and it was awesome. One of my best friends was in the room. My mother, who was crying ugly, and one of my cousins ââwho had read with me before the tapes and before I was really good were also in the room. It was really special. It was really a loop moment.
How did you bring the character of Nina to life and what life experiences did you draw from to make this as relevant as possible to you?[I’ve felt in my life] a lot of things that are Nina’s feelings in her story. No matter where you come from, where you grew up, and where your parents are from, we may all go through some point in our lives when we are at a crossroads. We try to accomplish what our parents might want for us or what we think we want for ourselves. Then we find out that we want something different, what you really want to do or what you are made for. Are you worthy of the dreams you have for yourself and that others have for you? Nina is grappling with all of this.
I have certainly felt this pressure throughout my life, especially as a Latin American, first generation Dominican. I come from a family that says to itself, âGo ahead, do your best and never stopâ. There is a strong work ethic in my family, and they’re all entrepreneurs, so I grew up with that in my head – never thinking about giving up, and failure was not an option. You have been granted so much because of our sacrifices that everything is already prepared for you, so there are many people’s dreams on your back, and many seeds of love and support on your shoulders. The least you can do is achieve whatever dream you choose.
Nina feels it in her community. She feels like, âDang, like I’m going to Stanford. No one in my family has ever done this. The people I know in my community don’t even think about going to college. I understand. It’s my thing and I’ve been in line to do it, but it can feel really lonely. When you go to a place that no one you know has ever been to before, and there is no clear path for you that you can follow, you have to create it for yourself. Now she rides the fence of “Am I worthy of this?” Do I have to forget who I am to be what I’m going to be? and, “Should I conform or should I assimilate and represent?” What does that mean? âI certainly felt that, and I think a lot of people have felt a lot of these things in their lives.
I see you were born in the Bronx. I was born and raised in Brooklyn and totally agree that sometimes in the neighborhoods where we grew up a lot of people around you don’t think about college or the long term future. . How has your upbringing really put the battery on your back and how does it feel to watch where you came from and where you are now?
I totally agree with what you just said. My education mainly fueled me – what I saw was overcoming anything to be successful in your mind that you had never seen before, because you are part of a bigger picture. I think that’s what Nina finds out when she first goes to Stanford, at least the way I saw it, because I just experienced it in my own career. I did not go to college. I was disconnected from high school, but I was entering my career as if it was college. I was going out into the world to be presented as this artist in an adult world, and I didn’t really know who I was yet. I was expected to know a lot, and I’m still finding out a lot about myself and what I really want for my life.
Nina goes to Stanford and she has no one to admire. She has this thing in her head, that “I’m the one everyone has told me all my life. That’s what you’re made for. You’re the little genius, you’re gonna be okay. Nobody’s doing it. don’t worry about you because you’ve gotten A rights your whole life. You’re the least of our worries. That kind of pressure, to keep it up, is so important. She thinks about it all first. ‘almost prevents her being able to own her dream for herself. This is more true for everyone.
She comes back in the summer and throughout the summer she starts to figure out how that path to get to Stanford makes her meaningful, what about her goal. [She also thinks about] what she means to her community and how much it blossoms her, what it means to her and what her parents did for her that gave her the same opportunity to dream. I know I’m rambling all over the place, but it’s very parallel to what I see in my lens.
We hear the word ârepresentationâ all the time, but it is often not implemented as it should. As a woman of color, especially as a Latin woman, what attracted you to In the heights, and why is it so important for young girls of color to see women like you in this role?
This is what I wanted to see when I was young. Every time I think about it I get emotional because I didn’t even realize it until halfway through the shoot – I realized that more and more every day as I talked about the project I was seeing rarely [women that look like] myself on screen doing the things I had hoped for for myself. [When I was 10 years old,] I had to imagine myself being like Demi Lovato in Camp rock, or as Britney Spears. A lot of young girls to this day still feel like, “What I look like and where I come from, all of these things go hand in hand with these kinds of dreams, because I’ve never seen anyone look like me.” do that. thing?”
I could cry every time I think of In the heights. It’s beautiful – it was the first time I experienced this, even on the music side [as someone] coming from the Latin music industry. Feeling so well seen and so beautifully celebrated, not just talking about it in the sense of âYou are underrepresented and we talk about this fight all the time,â but we are also celebrated. We start to walk the set as ourselves, not a version of ourselves in order to fit in. You see it in the story, you felt it on set. I think you see him in our cast. On a daily basis, we all felt blessed. Each person felt so blessed to have lived the story of In the heights since its inception and to be part of the 12 plus years it took for this moment to happen.
D’Shonda Brown is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance cultural journalist, speaker, and mental health advocate who is passionate about mental health, social justice, and uplifting the black community through her writing. As a mental health advocate and suicide attempt survivor, in 2019 D’Shonda became certified in Mental Health First Aid for Adults and Children, and graduated from the National Advocacy Ambassador Program. Alliance on Mental Illness. D’Shonda is a proud graduate of Spelman College and has interviewed notable names from Angela Rye and Soledad O’Brien to Chloe x Halle and Justine Skye.