Ticking His Way to the Top
Robin de Jesús starred in Broadway’s ‘Rent’ in 2005. Now, he has a memorable role in the new film about its creator.
It’s a Jane Fonda kind of day for Robin de Jesús. The 37-year-old actor says so on Zoom, where he appears from Beverly Hills, his face beaming in that Fonda light, for a day of press to talk about “Tick, Tick… Boom!”
The film has earned positive reviews for its story about Jonathan Larson, the creator of “Rent” who wrote the music and book for “Tick, Tick… Boom!” –– first performed in 1990 –– as he was desperate for his major musical-theater breakout hit as a struggling artist in New York City’s SoHo. He’s got great friends, some queer. Less great is his apartment, but hey, it’s NYC and you do what you have to if you want to be a star playwright. The film is set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis that tore through the LGBTQ+ community, ruthlessly killing some of the people Larson loved most.
Larson did, of course, eventually become a star thanks to “Rent,” but died the morning of its Off-Broadway preview performance, on January 25, 1996, after suffering an aortic dissection. He was 35.
Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda with a screenplay by Steven Levenson, the film adaptation of “Tick, Tick… Boom!” –– in theaters and on Netflix –– finds Andrew Garfield in deep as Larson, and delightfully so. His embodiment is simply radiant. But as his best friend and roommate Michael, Jesús meets Garfield at his level. The film is Jesús’s second for Netflix that started as a stage production. He played Emory in both the star-studded Broadway revival of “The Boys in the Band” in 2018 and last year’s Netflix film adaptation.
Here, Jesús talks about the rare opportunity to depict a loving relationship between a straight man, Larson, and his character; how he’d definitely be game for a sequel to the 2003 queer cult film “Camp,” where he played a gay teen, and also almost giving up on acting altogether because he wasn’t happy about the LGBTQ+ roles he was being offered.
I watched “Tick, Tick… Boom!” twice in 24 hours. It moved me deeply. Did it feel the same way for you as it might for the audience?
Yeah. I think growing up, being a kid who was a nerd and loved [the musical] “Sunday in the Park with George,” a story about a writer and his relationship with his creativity and how he navigated that, I always said to myself, “I hope I get to have a story like that someday.” And that’s very much what this is. It feels very personal for us, because everyone in the cast knows what it’s like to negotiate all of these questions.
Yeah, I was thinking about that. I also was thinking about the fact that you got your start on stage in “Rent” on Broadway in 2005.
Ain’t it weird?
I don’t know. You tell me.
It’s weird that it’s not weird, if that makes sense? It’s weird that I’ve been in this business 20 years now, which means that there are certain relationships that I’ve had time to marinate, so that when I dip back into them, they’re so much richer. They’re so full-bodied, and that’s what this was, because if I was havin’ a rough day, or struggling with something, there was always the reminder of, like, either a parallel to “Rent,” something I was going through, or just the gratitude that I was feeling that I got to touch this man’s words again, ’cause there’s something very special about Jonathan. Jonathan’s simplicity allows his very, very human themes to come out, because it’s never like, “Oh, there’s some bad guy.” It’s: “It’s life. It’s complicated.” It’s people establishing boundaries that are healthy for them, but might not be healthy for you, even though I love you. [Laughs.] That to me is so much more human.
How much did you learn about Jonathan that was new to you while doing the movie?
There definitely were new things, but the thing that was the coolest was to have Jonathan’s sister, Julie Larson, on set, ’cause she’s one of the executive producers on the film. Even just having her presence provided different information, like knowing that’s what his sister looked like and that she had that relationship with him. There’s something about her presence that was very grounding, and really cool.
How deep did you get into Michael and his backstory? Did you have to do a lot of research?
It’s funny, because with this, it was very different than other things, because Steven Levenson wrote such a great screenplay. There was so much meat on my character; there was so much there. So many layers that I felt like the script alone gave me so much. Of course, I did research — more research on the periodness of it all, reminding myself of the AIDS epidemic and how it affected the climate of New York City at that time. But the big thing I needed to do was just get to that open, vulnerable place. Having played so many big, big characters, this for me was a much more subtle performance than people might be used to from my previous work. So, I wanted to make sure that that emotional availability was ever-present.
You mean, more subtle than Emory in “The Boys in the Band”?
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. Exactly!
I was thinking about what it would be like to have Emory and Michael in the same room.
[Laughs.] Oh, that would be so funny. I actually feel like they would get along. I love the idea of two queer Puerto Ricans living in New York City in different periods just, like, sharing stories.
Did your involvement in “Rent” have anything to do with your involvement in “Tick, Tick… Boom!”? Was that important to Lin?
I don’t know that it affected Lin casting me, but I do know that he clocked it. After he saw my audition and pieced that together, I think it allowed him to receive that as affirmation that I was the right choice. I think it let him know that I was gonna come in devout to Jonathan, and that I was gonna come in devout to the story and just leave it all on the table.
On a scale from zero to Jonathan Larson, how eager were you to leave your mark on musical theater when you first got your start in the business?
Oh, are you kidding me? I came out that gate, y’all, like, “I’ma be the next Bernadette Peters.” [Laughs.] I wanted to be a part of that legacy of the shows, and honestly, it’s really, really funny [because] “Heights” gave me that [Jesús starred in “In the Heights” on Broadway during its 2008-2010 run], I remember thinking, “All right. Well, what’s the goal now? You did that thing you wanted to do.” Now, I wanna just tell good stories. I wanna make sure I’m contributing to my people and furthering us, but also, I just want to go to work.
At this point in your career, how do you recognize when a story is a good story?
There’s a feeling. A thing that lets you know. A gut feeling. And I always listen to that, ’cause I feel like when you don’t listen to the gut, it’s just disrespectful. [Laughs.]
So what would it take for you to sign on for, say, a “Camp” sequel?
Oh, all day every day! There was talk of “Camp” becoming a TV show or a movie, and I don’t know what’s happened since, but I’ll come back as a counselor.
That needs to happen. Netflix, are you listening?
From your mouth to God’s ear.
God being Netflix.
[Laughs.] Yes, that. I mean, they are the musical-theater gods right now. Netflix is killing it with this. Netflix really realized, “Oh, we have this whole new crop of theater fans that have come up that want to see these stories,” and musicals are cool again, and hopefully they’re going to stay there. I think we’ll know in a couple years, but I feel like Netflix is the one leading that.
Like your character Michael, did you ever consider giving up musical theater and acting for a career that might’ve been more linear and provided more security?
I thought about leavin’ a couple times, and many things brought me back, but ultimately, it’s like, I have no other talents. Like, there ain’t shit I can do. [Laughs.] This is it. So, I had to figure it out.
When in your career did you consider doing something different?
So, post-“La Cage aux Folles,” I was spinning for a bit, because I found myself only being called in for underdeveloped queer characters who were just reduced to being really, really over the top with no meaning whatsoever. And my thing always is, I love big characters, but flesh them out. Give them depth as well.
So, in my 20s, I said, “You know what you’re gonna do, Robin? You’re just not gonna work. You’re gonna wait for the business to realize, ‘Oh, he’s not doing that,’” and it didn’t always work. I realized, “Oh, I should go do regional theater. I should stay in New York and do the thing that everyone wants me to do. Subscribe to the type casting, get the paycheck, and do this other show. At least I’m exercising my muscles.” And then after a while, I would fight [for] opportunities in New York to showcase something differently. But in that navigation, it was hard, and I was mad at the white supremacy of it all.
What would your great American musical be about if you were to write one at this point in your life?
I felt so inspired by “Nomadland” that I was like, “Yo, is there a world where there is something similar in structure like this, but about the food sovereignty movement happening in Puerto Rico?” They’re just trying to figure out how to be sustainable, since the government is completely corrupt, and no one wants to accept the fact that Puerto Rico is a colony. So, everyone’s just trying to figure out how to do it on their own, and the food sovereignty movement, I think, is gonna be a huge part of that. So I’m kind of curious. I think there’s a story in there.
I think it’s time to get the pen and paper out.
And then say goodbye to the rest of your life.
[Laughs.] Try to be like Lin!
Andrew studied musical performance specifically to prepare for the role of Jonathan. Did he lean into your musical-theater knowledge at all to do this movie?
Yo, he leapt in. Like, Andrew was like, “I’ma just jump. I’ma just see what happens,” and he just fully embraced it and committed to it. You know, he talks all the time about the intimidation of being around people who have been a part of the musical-theater world for years, and I’m sure he did experience that. I don’t mean to negate that, but it didn’t always present that way.
He was really baller and really courageous and was like, “I’m just gonna go for this,” to the point where it was always shocking whenever he finished the first number in the movie, “30/90,” ’cause that last note, it was consistent! It was always there, and it was gut, you know? It was a full-body experience for him singing that last note. It’s beautiful.
To your credit and his credit, your friendship is something to behold in the movie, because you guys have the history of friendship that sometimes just doesn’t translate on screen. I mean, I believed that you were friends since you were kids.
It’s definitely the thing I’m proudest of — being able to model that friendship to other straight males and gay males and, really, to all folks.
That’s a beautiful thought, actually. I’m glad that you mentioned that.
I can’t think of any other film where I’ve really seen that modeled as beautifully as this and as intimate to the point where I think, actually, a lot of people don’t clock it, because it’s just so natural to us.
I’ve had a couple friends say, “Wow, I didn’t even realize. I’ve never seen that before. I didn’t realize what a big deal that was,” and that’s partially because Andrew and I, early on, clocked that we had a love story in the film, as well.
Lastly, why do you think Jonathan Larson’s story, as it’s told here, and even though he was straight, is an important piece of LGBTQ+ history?
So, actually, I kind of want to tie that to what we just said. It’s so cool and so beautiful that Jonathan, a straight white man, wrote these musicals in the ’90s, and he wrote them with more creativity and diversity and thought than a lot of folks now. When you look at all the Black and brown characters that he’s written for us, they’re so fleshed out; there is so much there, there’s so much to play with. And even when they’re messy, there’s no judgment on that. There’s no poverty porn or race porn happening. There’s no exploitation in that way. It’s just: People are complex, they’re human, and they should be allowed to be that way, regardless of their race or ethnicity. It’s like… just damn, Jonathan. Imagine what he would have done if he was still with us.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.
Photo by Netflix