Anthony Ramos has taken off. The Brooklyn native has been putting in work for years and is now well on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men. Most people recognize him for his Hamilton success or for his role as Mars Blackmon in Spike Lee’s 2017 She’s Gotta Have It series on Netflix. [Ed note: They may even remember him as the Crown Royal guy.] The actor is now ready for the world to see him in his first-ever role as a leading man in this summer’s In The Heights—a movie based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Broadway show of the same name. There’s really nothing Ramos can’t do artistically. He raps, he acts, he dances, he sings, and he’s charismatic. The best part? He refused to change the core of who he is to get this far. Witnessing certain actors in action for the first time is enough of an indicator to know if that’s their calling or not. Any project Ramos has acted in since Hamilton is proof that he was meant to do this, yet the lack of diversity in Hollywood almost robbed viewers of the opportunity to see his talent come to fruition.
During a virtual trailer event for In the Heights in March, Ramos revealed that he almost gave up on his acting dreams until he watched the musical when he was in acting school. He wasn’t having much luck with auditions, and he wondered if there was any room for him in this industry. The actor recalled that his teachers recommended that he grow out his hair to be more “ethnically ambiguous” and changed his Nuyorican dialect so he could land more roles. Seeing people who looked and sounded like himself on a Broadway stage was all it took to reignite his fire to continue on the path forward to becoming an actor without having to compromise who he was. It’s no secret that Latinos are severely underrepresented in Hollywood, and study after study shows how rare it is to see a show or movie with a Latino lead. Ramos knows how special it is for him to be able to be a beacon of hope for young girls and boys who, like him, struggle to find themselves on screen. You can’t be what you don’t see. For many young Latinos, Ramos’ portrayal of Usnavi de la Vega in In the Heights will be the first image they see of themselves in a production of this magnitude. Isn’t that something? Ramos spoke to Complex about the massiveness of this moment and what it feels like to know that audiences worldwide are about to see his debut as a leading man.
“It just feels good to be able to be trusted. It just feels good to have that opportunity and to really dig deep and to really dig into a character top to bottom, and this is who the story’s centered around is this person. Or rather, this person is telling the story through their lens. And that for me is exciting,” Ramos told Complex. “I’m just grateful to be a part of a piece that will hopefully do that. Just like all these characters in this movie, Abuela, Nina, Sonny, there are so many characters in this movie where you’re like, ‘Man, that’s what’s up.’ The piragua guy, these are the everyday people that we see all the time, and it’s cool to have characters like these.”
“Hollywood has this stereotypical leading man or leading lady, but it’s amazing that this film runs the gamut. It’s every kind of person, Latinos, every different color, from all different countries, right? Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Colombian, everybody’s from everywhere,” he added. “It’s just amazing to be a part of a piece that encompasses all of that. When I can watch, and hopefully the kids can watch, they can look back, and it’s not just kids from New York. Kids around the world can hopefully watch this film and be like, ‘Yo, that’s crazy. That dude looks like my cousin. That woman looks like my grandmother. She looks like my aunt. He looks like my uncle. He looks like the guy on the corner that always tells stories.’ What I’m most grateful for is to be a part of a piece with all those kinds of characters in it and being able to have this as a reference because the little kid in me is so hyped and grateful. I’ve watched this film a few times now, and just as a fan and an audience member, I’m just like, ‘Man, thank you God that we have this.”’
In the Heights has already opened doors for him. Before this film, the actor had supporting roles in films like Monsters and Men, White Girl, Honest Thief, and A Star is Born, and he has since added two lead roles to his resume with Distant and the upcoming Transformers movie. “I’m just grateful that now, as a result of this film, there are more lead roles. I’m doing this space film where I’m the last person on this planet, and I’m stranded on this planet, and it’s just me for two-thirds of the movie. And then now Transformers.
“I just never thought that...” Ramos began. “The moral of the story is that I wanted to quit. I was like, ‘Who’s going to give me a lead role? Nobody is in a rush to give me a lead role. ‘He talks like this. He ain’t tall enough. He ain’t this enough. He ain’t that enough.’ I’m like, ‘Where do I fit in?’”
One look at his recent magazine covers, from TIME to The Hollywood Reporter, to every interview on daytime and late-night talk shows he’s done so far, and it’s hard to believe he ever felt that way. Ramos already is a star. There’s no doubt about it. He has not only the looks and the talent but has a charisma that’s hard to come by because it’s real. Everything about him is authentic and genuine, and it makes you want to give Hollywood the side-eye, because what the hell took so long? Hamilton, Spike Lee, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are deserving of so much praise for creating a space for people like Ramos to share their gifts with us. Regardless of how long it took, though, Ramos is grateful that In the Heights is the vessel that is launching him into even more immense stardom. “Thank God for this piece. Sometimes the piece finds you. It’s just like when you keep going, and you don’t give up, you just keep going. Sometimes the thing finds you as opposed to you finding it. I truly believe that this project found me, man,” he told Complex. “I’m grateful that Lin wrote it, and I’m grateful that it came out of his mind and it came out of his spirit and his heart because—and I’m sure it was probably from a similar place as where I was—Lin wrote this part for himself. He was like, ‘No, they’re not going to give me a lead role, I’m going to write that shit on my own.’”
Ramos is aware that he plays a part in Hollywood’s latest push to tell more diverse stories, especially for Latinos who have been shortchanged for so long in terms of movies and TV shows. “Hopefully, that creates more opportunity now for more diverse leading players in these movies,” the actor added. “It’s already happening, but I’m just grateful that I can be a small part of this wider movement of diversity that feels like is happening in Hollywood.”
In the Heights tells the story of Usnavi, a young bodega owner in Washington Heights who yearns to one day return to the Dominican Republic. As the story unfolds, viewers get to know the people who live in his barrio and the struggles they face as they work toward making their dreams a reality. While those stories are relatable to any first-generation American or to anyone who immigrated to the United States, the real magic in the film is showing how tight-knit Latino communities like the Heights are and the comfort they provide for the people that live there. While some are eager to leave and start fresh elsewhere, others travel far and wide just to realize there’s truly no place like home. While the details in the film are so specific to the neighborhood’s culture, from the queso frito and salami in one scene to seeing the piragua guy on a hot summer day, the stories it tells are universal.
“Everybody’s got a dream. Everybody wants something. Everybody longs for something. We all want love and we all want to achieve something that we dream to achieve. Those are the things that we have in common as humans. We get so wrapped up in where this person’s from or where that person is from, or this person’s white, this person’s Black, this person’s got an accent, this person don’t speak my language. We get caught up in those things, and we forget that we’re all human. That is the thing that connects us. That the connective tissue is humanity,” the actor says. “It’s the same thing that connected people to Black Panther, the same thing that connects people to Crazy Rich Asians. We’re all humans, right? That is what bonds us, humanity. Just because we listen to bachata, merengue, salsa, and reggaeton, and we eat ropa vieja, arroz con habichuelas, whatever. We may eat different food, and we may listen to different music, or we may all look different, but we’re human beings.”
He added: “I’m just grateful that this piece [is] told through the lens of a Latino community, but we’re humans at the end of the day. We’re all trying to pay the bills. We all trying to tell the person that we’ve never had the courage to say ‘I love you,’ we’re all trying to get the courage to tell them that. We all want to find our little sueñito, our paradise, our little dream, the place that we can go to and have peace. No matter where you’re from. So, that’s what’s so ill about this story. What makes it universal is that these are universal stories. Stories about people getting by, people going through life, and we just see people doing life, and they just so happen to be singing and dancing about it every now and then.”
In the Heights is directed by Jon M. Chu from a screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes. The film will hit theaters and HBO Max on June 10.