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Robin De Jesús remembers when he first discovered the Rent cast album while sitting around with his theater-nerd friends as a high school freshman. “I saw a bunch of Black and brown faces integrated with white folks on the cover and thought, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know there was space for me here,’ ” the actor tells THR. Some 10 years later, De Jesús went on to appear in the long-running Broadway production of Jonathan Larson’s indelible rock opera, about the power of love and youth in revolt.
Now, the three-time Tony nominee is starring opposite Andrew Garfield in director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of Tick, Tick … Boom! for Netflix. The musical is Larson’s autobiographical account of his restless struggle to break through as a composer, and it was written just a handful of years before he died suddenly on the brink of Rent‘s runaway success.
De Jesús plays Michael, Larson’s best friend who has given up the starving-artist life to become a corner-office advertising executive. Though he often is the voice of reason, Michael understands Jonathan, and his artistic desires, on a deeply intimate level.
De Jesús, who appeared alongside Miranda in the original Broadway cast of Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, has taken to heart Larson’s message about a life without regrets. “I like to live in a way where I feel like, if I died tomorrow, this would be perfect — there’s no unfinished business.”
De Jesús spoke to THR about his personal connection to Tick, Tick … Boom!, the often uncanny experience of bringing Larson’s story to life and the composer’s enduring legacy.
Your character, Michael, was also an actor before he went into advertising. Did you relate to the struggles he remembers of trying to crack the business?
Oh, yeah — the monologue about waking up early and going to Equity, that life of scarcity and living in that place of despair all the time. … There’s a hierarchy to our business, and when you’re not further up, there are a lot of things you’re forced to do in order to just be seen. Sometimes you can’t help but showcase how desperate you are. That’s such a lonely, negative energy space to be in. It really takes fortitude to stay in this business; you really have to have a strong sense of self. You have to know what your intentions are. If your intentions are to be a star, well, I wish you the best. My intention with my creativity is to do really great work. I want to go where the work is.
Did making this film feel like telling a ghost story?
If anything, it felt like a seance. There was such an organic divinity. All of us in the cast are very spiritual beings, and Lin is too, and we felt like we were calling Jonathan in. There was this beautiful thing that would happen sometimes when it felt like he was there.
We were supposed to film the argument in the street between me and Andrew — which is the scene I’m proudest of in all of my film work — the night of the shutdown. We didn’t touch it from March until November, so there was a lot of buildup to it. I remember feeling so prepared because I knew that scene inside and out. But I also felt so present that day because I woke up and said, “Hey, Jonathan, I really could use you today. I did my work, and I’m good. But I’ve been experiencing insecurity. So, if you want this to be good, I think you should show up.”
On set that day when we got to that scene, Andrew and I looked at each other, and it was like something entered the room. That happened often, and no one had to name it when it did. We could see in each other’s eyes; we’d get goose bumps and just keep working.
How do you hope that this film carries forward Jonathan Larson’s legacy?
I hope the film inspires people to do what they love in the present moment. Thematically, Jonathan has always been full of allegory, and in the wrong hands it could be cheesy. But with him, it’s just human and honest. And you feel it. When I think about the lyrics from Rent — “There’s only us, there’s only this / Forget regret, or life is yours to miss” — he’s telling us to stay out of the past, stay out of the future. What’s happening at this moment? Are you loving on your people? Because all of his works are about community as well.
I also hope that people can see the love between the characters. The fact that you’re seeing me, an out gay man, playing a gay character. … Real talk: That is a rarity in a movie of this size, that an out gay man of color gets to play an out gay man of color. And that my character has a real, intimate friendship with a straight man.
Are there other aspects to the character, or to the story of Tick, Tick … Boom!, that you felt an especially personal connection to?
One of the things I’m proudest of with the film is that I’m a queer, Puerto Rican man from a working-class family, and growing up, I didn’t feel like I had gay elders. It wasn’t until well into my adulthood that I realized the reason I didn’t meet my elders is they were lost to the AIDS epidemic. I had never personalized that, to the point of missing the people who would mentor me and teach me to be the kind of man that I want to be.
On top of that physical loss, I also lost those elders in narrative form. Because, as we know, there are so many HIV stories that just center on white gay men; we lost the Black and brown folks, we lost the women. There are so many stories that we haven’t touched upon, and I feel like me being in this movie, set in this period, is like an insertion of some ancestors who I’m so grateful new people get to meet.
You’ve been Tony Award-nominated, and you also have previously worked in movie musicals. Do you approach your preparation and character development differently for stage and screen?
My process is pretty similar for both. The only major difference is that when I do a show, I have the luxury of rehearsing with a cast for a long time, and that’s not always the case for film. But it’s funny, I have had that luxury on my past two films, The Boys in the Band [adapted from the Broadway production] and now Tick, Tick …Boom!.
I always want to get off book as fast as possible, to focus on learning the character and forming the backstory. I think it was [actor] John Cazale who once said something that really resonated with me, that he wanted to know what his character’s sadness was, what their trauma was. Because it shapes how you react to things. So that was really important for me to figure out.
But honestly, the big thing for me in this case was spirit. I knew with this movie that we were going to be bringing in some ghosts. I was calling in my Black, queer folks who didn’t get to have their moments in these types of stories. I think that’s why I leaned into the mysticism — and to calling in Jonathan — so I could feel so prepared that otherness would have the space to come in.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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