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Dominican-American singer Leslie Grace released her first album at 14. In 2012, her bilingual, bachata-style cover of The Shirelles hit “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” — from her self-titled follow-up album — put her at the top of the Latin music charts. Even with that success, Grace, now 26, had to audition twice for her feature-film debut in the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights.
Grace was first cast in 2016 when director Jon M. Chu boarded the long-in-the-works project. But just when production was about to begin, the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and the Weinstein Co. film was auctioned off to Warner Bros., and Grace had to re-audition.
Chu calls Grace’s part as Nina Rosario — the first person in her family to go to college — “a huge, huge role” because “so many people have such relatable feelings to Nina … [s]he’s the most accessible character, in a way.” Though he says he knew Grace had it in her, he wasn’t sure if she was ready when he initially cast her. But when she tried out the second time, “she came in and something changed in her. She had this depth, this gravitas, that I hadn’t seen before. She was Nina.”
The performer was born in the Bronx, but her parents moved the family to Florida when she was 10. The transition, from diverse New York to a primarily white suburb of Miami, wasn’t easy.
“We don’t have enough internal education about being first-generation. In a way, it’s an erasure,” says Grace, who recalls feeling guilty for being “too American” at times but also feeling “not Latino enough” to hang with her family because she didn’t speak Spanish as well. “You almost can’t connect as much, but at the same time, you’re not being accepted for who you are.”
She recalls how on her very first day of school, a little boy asked her if she was Black. “It was the first time that I had to question what I am,” she admits. “Within our own Latino community, we often omit the Afro-Latino experience. So much so, that at 10 years old, I had never had that conversation with my own family of ‘Am I Black?’ “
Well aware of the lack of representation of the Latino community in Hollywood, and even more-so of the lack of roles filled by Afro-Latinos, Grace begins to choke up when speaking about a scene in In the Heights. Along the side of a New York brownstone, she and Corey Hawkins dance and glide, flowing as elegantly as a couple in a classic MGM musical.
“When we saw it, I couldn’t stop crying because I’ve never seen people that look like us have a Fred and Ginger moment in this way,” says Grace. “We poured our hearts and souls into that scene because we knew this would be a moment that was bigger than us.”
This story first appeared in the June 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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