In Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights (written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the Broadway show by her and Lin-Manuel Miranda), we’re supposed to be on the side of Nina (Leslie Grace), who wants to leave Stanford to follow her dreams. But her dad, Kevin, is played by Jimmy Smits and Smits has long had a screen presence where it’s very difficult to discount what his character, any character, says. From Victor Sifuentes to Bobby Simone to Matt Santos to Bail Organa and now Kevin Rosario: As a viewer, it’s hard not to look at Smits and think, look, he knows what he’s talking about and he makes some good points.
Smits has obviously been thinking about In the Heights a lot – and what it means, now, to people trying to get back out in the world and what even is that world now. Not just the pandemic, but everything else that’s happened over the last year. Can a movie like this help? Bring a little bit of joy to communities that need it?
Ahead, Smits explains why In the Heights resonated so much with him, reminding him of his family, well-meaning as they may have been, not quite convinced about this whole acting thing. (Namely, hearing things like, if he’s so good of an actor, why isn’t he in a Pepsodent commercial?) Also, he talks about his time on The West Wing, namely the live debate opposite Alan Alda, which to this day is one of the things he’s still most proud of. But, also, politically, we are very far today from what that episode was trying to say. And Smits every so gently hints at what the Star Wars universe still might have in store for Bail Organa.
One of the movies we re-watched recently was Running Scared. It was great to see you in that.
It was fun! It was fun to do at the time.
So in In the Heights, your character is adamant his daughter, Nina, needs to go to college. I know I’m getting older because I found myself siding with that for a while.
But what about when the adult realized that she had a point?
You took me with you on that.
But my first reaction was, “You know what? This guy knows what he’s talking about.”
That was a nice little flourish that I think was added when Quiara and Lin realized time had passed, and how could they make the script more current? And touch on some other issues and kind of universal themes? And Jon, he talked about that a lot. The hope that your offspring or the next generation, after working hard, the next generation will benefit from what the society and the country has to offer. And with hard work they’ll persevere and all that stuff. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to take the job, because I felt like they could bring something to the party with regards to those kinds of emotional tenants that were there on the scene.
His heart’s definitely in the right place. I guess that’s what I mean.
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Totally understanding having gone through it myself: Nina’s perspective about having the pressure that we came to this country to do good and all that, and where do you fit in, and those expectations of your family and the larger family, and even the community. That song, “Breathe,” which is one of the earlier songs in the film that really makes you realize this is not just going to be a song and dance. It destroys me in a lot of ways.
Well, that’s interesting, what you just said going through it yourself. Did you get the same kind of pushback from your family when you wanted to be an actor?
No, it wasn’t pushback in the sense of, “No, you’re not going to do it.” Because they weren’t authoritative in that kind of way. But it was that I could see disappointment and a hope that I would find my way. So in other words they would say, “Oh, so you could be a teacher in high school that means, right?” Or when I decided to go to graduate school, “Oh, so perhaps you could maybe be a professor? Is that what this is? What do you have to fall back on with this other thing? These plays that you make us go, where everybody kind of talks funny, that this is called Shakespeare?” You know?
Because, yeah, their perspective was I didn’t come from a theatrical background, and even going to the movies was something that was a special occasion type deal. It was more coalescing around the television set.
To that point, when was the first time they stopped talking to you about the backup plan? Was it when you got L.A. Law? When were they like, “Okay, we think now you’re doing okay with this?”
Yeah, it was probably L.A. Law. Because even during my work Off-Broadway – and I was doing regional theater around the country at different places, and supporting myself in New York. They have these things called under-fives where you do kind of work on soap operas to sustain yourself if you’re doing a play or something like that. I mean, they would kind of giggle and be happy, but it’s like, “When are you going to do a Pepsodent commercial?” I’m not really that Pepsodent commercial kind of guy!
Wait, wait. Why Pepsodent? Of all the products, why Pepsodent?
Because Latinos… Hey, Mike, if you know anything, Latinos are brand loyal, man.
Like Tide. If you go with Tide, it’s Tide forever.
I didn’t know specifically Pepsodent was one. Okay. That’s good to know.
[Laughs] I’m actually joking because we were a Colgate family.
Okay. Well, now we’ve gotten to the truth.
I just like the way Pepsodent sounds. All cool like.
So you’re reading this script for In the Heights, are you thinking, oh, this is me. I had to do very similar things to what we see in this movie?
Well, yeah. I mean, I could relate to it, certainly. Kevin talks about shining shoes in Arecibo. And when I had a reverse migratory experience – because my family decided to go and live in Puerto Rico for a couple of years, and just pluck us out of New York City school system. And it was like culture stopped for me. All of a sudden I wasn’t listening to Motown, and R&B, and the Beatles, and Ed Sullivan. It was I could name four or five different Latinos that you know: Trio Los Panchos, and Machuchal, different comedians. And it was a traumatic kind of experience, but I remember shining shoes in the town square with my cousins, just like Kevin Rosario did, so there were things that I definitely, definitely related to.
So you’ve seen the movie, right?
I know in the current age we live in sometimes it’s hard to see, sometimes it’s not.
But I haven’t seen it with like a group of people.
I only saw it with ten people. It was one of those things where I was like I wish I was in here with 200 people.
Watching this movie, people dancing in the streets of New York City… As you know, a year ago it was so rough here. It was so scary.
Watching this was just like this feeling of like, okay, I think we made it. I think we’re going to make it through. And I don’t know if it makes sense what I’m saying.
No, absolutely. A hundred percent. First of all, even with ten people, it’s the whole thing about the communal experience where people that you really don’t know, that are all of you in a dark theater, sharing something and feeling the sniffles when they come on, or the laugh.
Hey, listen, just like what you said, Mike, and especially in New York, I mean, talk about going through the wringer in 14 months. And then the time that the other things that happened besides the health-oriented issues in our society, with all of these social things that have gone on: keywords being used as political footballs, and LGBTQ. I’ll rattle off all the letters: BLM, the whole immigration issue.
It’s forced us to kind of rethink, or think about things in a different kind of way. And as we’re coming out of this, the delivery system is the musical, which is about joy and uplifting and all of that stuff. Hopefully, it’s our little contribution of joy to the society, and things happen for a reason. We were all depressed last year not only because of the lockdown, but the film wasn’t going to come out, and then it was going to come out just on streaming, and what does that mean? That kind of thing like, “What’s wrong with it?” Hey, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s like bottom line: it’s good. And, yeah, I think that stuff happens for a reason.
What you just said made me think about something I actually think about a lot, and I’m wondering if you think about it. When you were on The West Wing, that live episode debating Alan Alda. And Alan Alda’s whole thing is he’s a Republican but, look, he just disagrees with Matt Santos on some issues and that’s it. “We’re not all that different.” We are so far from that now, even in a West Wing heightened TV show version of it, it’s like you couldn’t even do that show anymore the way you guys did it then.
I think about that all the time. And then you mentioned that episode. It’s probably on the one hand counting of the five most significant things artistically that you feel… that live debate episode was just awesome. We rehearsed that as if it were a play. And Bradley, and the work that Alan. And Lawrence O’Donnell actually wrote that particular script.
Oh yeah. It’s incredible.
So, yeah, that was slick. We’re not having that right now, not in our present political dynamic that’s going on.
We’ve got some work to do, man.
Before we run out of time I do want to mention that when you show up in Rogue One, it’s one of my favorite Star Wars moments. You appear from out the shadows as the score swells. I remember the crowd went nuts.
You had to know that would be a crowd-pleaser.
No, absolutely not. No, no. It wasn’t like that at all.
Well, people were very excited to see you back.
Oh, thank you. Thanks. Thanks very much. You know, Disney is monetizing the franchise as much they can, so … we’ll see what happens down the line.
Anyway, I’m so glad In the Heights is coming out finally. And like I said, especially as someone who was here during the worst of it last year, this movie is a godsend. It really does hit you.
I really appreciate you saying that, Mike. I know it was tough. Listen, I’m going to get to see my family for the first time in 14 months.
Oh, that’s great. I still haven’t. I’m from Missouri originally. I haven’t been back. I need to get back.
You’re from Kansas City, right?
Yeah. Wait, how do you know that?
Because I do my research too, bro.
Yeah, I have to get back to Kansas City to see my mom. That blew my mind you knew that, anyway.
That’s good. That’s going to be a very emotional thing for you. Just in my Zoom calls with my kids, it’s like I have to walk away when I know we’re ending the conversation. And I’m not even thinking about six months ago when it was like, ooh, really scary. But even now, I just have to… I can’t even say goodbye sometimes. So it’s going to be very emotional that we’re going to get to be in New York together again, and see the film, and think about all that as well. I appreciate your words, man. Thanks so much, man.
‘In The Heights’ is now open in theaters and streaming via HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.