Tick, Tick... BOOM! Star Robin De Jesús Knows What Makes A Good Movie Musical [Interview]

Robin de Jesús began his theatrical career in one of Broadway's longest running and most beloved shows: Jonathan Larson's "Rent." Just three years later, he was back on Broadway in Lin Manuel Miranda's "In The Heights." So you can imagine the joyous serendipity he would feel about a decade later, when Miranda decided to adapt the work of Jonathan Larson into a musical biopic. Who better to join the project than de Jesús, in what would become a wondrous full circle moment?

Sure enough, Robin de Jesús was happy to hop aboard for "Tick, Tick... BOOM!" an adaptation of Larson's "rock monologue" of the same name. This time around, de Jesús was working with Miranda in an entirely new capacity — rather than being his fellow castmate and the writer behind the material, Miranda was also his director. Of this, de Jesús shared, "It was like watching your friend grow up, you know? I know Lin a certain way and then to see him in this is like I got to see him in this whole other way, which is so inspiring."

I got the chance to speak with Robin de Jesús about his big full circle moment, and the intensity of the musical sequences his character, Michael, gets to lead. In my favorite part of our conversation, he also shares his thoughts on what makes the best stage to screen musical adaptations — and his very valid point might be just a little controversial for the theater kids in the room. You can read our full conversation below.

"It was like watching your friend grow up."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but "Rent" was your first Broadway role, right?

Yeah, yeah it was.

So was this like a full circle moment for you? To come back to Jonathan Larson?

Hundred percent! And full circle in lots of other ways too. Like, aside from being a show that he's written, it was like thematically full circle. Where I was as a 21-year-old kid in that show, was discovering what it meant to be present for the first time and a lot of that was due to Jonathan's lyrics when he said, "there's only us, there's only this / forget regret or life is yours to miss." Like all about that. Just staying in this present moment. And I needed to relearn that in this, and Jonathan's version of that in this is "fear or love." What are you choosing? And I find that when you're not present it's because you're leaning into that fear. But when you're leaning into the love, you stay rooted, you're tethered. You're feeling that firm ground.

Of course.

I needed that.

Had you been involved with [other] productions of "Tick, Tick... Boom!" Were you super familiar with this musical?

I'd only seen the show once and it was in, I think 2014 when Lin Manuel had done it at Encores. I knew the score because I listened to it all the time. I'd done songs for it at benefits but when I saw Lin do it, it was when I was 31. Maybe I got that math wrong because I feel like I just aged myself more than I am. I'm 37, so whatever it is. But I remember 29 had been a rough year because I was so fearful of that round number 30 and what it meant. And did I achieve enough or why didn't I have it? I'll never forget walking through Fort Greene through Clinton Hill into Bed-Stuy crying because I was telling myself that I was 30 and I hadn't done enough, [laughs] which was just crazy. It was a case of sabotage. And then when I saw Lin's production, it was like whew, I was so aware of the level of bullying that I did to myself.

It's funny that you say that and then in this movie, you're playing the character that's looking at Jon and saying, "you're being insane. Calm down."

[Laughs] Yeah. It was actually kind of nice to be that person, finally. I feel like typically I am the other person. And so now to be the one whose like, yo, I'm going to root you. That's also a capability that I have in my real life but I don't get to show that. So it was really cool to grab him and be like, "Hey, come back down to Earth."

You were talking about this being full circle for a couple reasons and ... there's also working with Lin again, years after "Heights" and this being his directorial debut, what was that like?

What was it like, Lin's directorial debut? I keep saying it was cool, so I was trying to find a new way of saying that because... It was just so much fun. It was like watching your friend grow up, you know? I know Lin a certain way and then to see him in this is like I got to see him in this whole other way, which is so inspiring. And I want to do that. That gave me permission to think ... I've had this thing recently where I got some ideas I need to start writing. Why would I think that I should not be allowed to explore that talent as well? So that permission was really beautiful to take note of but it's also full circle because for Lin, he got that permission from Jonathan.

"That sh*t ain't easy. That was real, real rough."

So one of the things that I think makes Michael so interesting is he gets this life-changing news and he's having this transformative moment, but we don't know that until Jon knows it. So I'm curious what it was like for you to play all that out.

It was so much fun. The analogy that — and I use this with my students all the time too. I feel like I got to shake a two-liter soda bottle but then not open it and experience what it's like to have all that pressure on that cap and how do I contain that? And normally I am the person who gets to just explode into confetti. But with this, it was so fun to explore that and see how much can I push here? How much can I push there? But not give away too much.

And I remember Lin said something to me once that gave me great comfort. Because there's also that thing as an actor where you're like, man, but if I get to have this moment, like ... I could have been more self-indulgent with this character but Lin affirmed for me that it was more interesting not to go there. And what did that was when we had a discussion about how much more fun it would be for people to watch the movie the second time and then look at my scenes with Andrew and go, ohhhh. It's kind of like when you watch Allison in "Get Out." [Laughs] And then you see, oh, that was there. That was there. That was there. It's fun.

Can you tell me about "Real Life"? That feels like, it's right after their fight, but that's the moment where everything is coming out. Can you tell me about singing that song and shooting that sequence?

"Real Life" was cool because ... there's a full song that's more than just those lyrics in the stage version, but we had to cut it for the film. But Lin had this idea of, even before I was cast, where he thought, "is this real life?" Can we use that phrase over and over on loop but then do it in different ways? And so we never knew what that was. I had rehearsed with our musical director, Kirk Crowley, who I love. And we just kind of figured out playing a C, D, Q? What are the different ways this could go? Cause we didn't know. And then we got to the studio and they just looped to the music and I just kept singing it in different ways, exploring different things vocally, exploring different things dramatically.

And somewhere in there we found this arc. But then somewhere in there we also found this swell and we just... It was divinity. It was like a presence that came in and I was like, okay, thank you. I got direction and I'm going to follow that. And Lin just let me do me. And then it got to the point actually where it was like, I think we got every option possible. And I remember I was like [Laughs] "I can do a falsetto version. And he was like, no, we're good. We have so much material. And now it's one of the more beautiful moments, I think, in the movie. But that's also because I'm biased. [Laughs]

And it's really different from "No More" where I imagine that was a lot of fun. Other than walking up all those stairs.

I'm not going to lie to you. "No More" was fun, especially that last section with the choreography, but "No More" was hard. Hard because in order for us to get that special effect in the choruses, where the lyrics were in real time but the physicality was in slow motion, we had to learn all that choreography in the choruses in double time. So trying to learn choreography, that would be interesting in slow motion, doubled up, find the acting beats and lip sync. That sh*t ain't easy. That was real, real rough.

"It's like ... full musical theater giddiness on display."

What was your, if you have one, what was your favorite song to perform or your favorite number to shoot?

I think that last section of "No More" was really fun. I had a bunch of friends and dancers in the theater community who are the dancers in that number. I remember chilling with Taylor and chilling with Aaron and just having a good time and being so happy that we could be around people unmasked and just be silly and play. And become other people. And it was a hard number but it was joyous, that last section. So there was a giddiness and then there was a fatigue by the 12th take, that then introduced a new giddiness. That real tired, tired giggle that happens. It's irrational.

You mentioned that joy of just sitting together unmasked during that rehearsal. Were there other ways that Covid made the experience especially challenging?

It made it hard socially. We're human beings, we're social people, that's how we're supposed to interact with one another and be touchy, feely and connect with more than just eyes. You know, we deliver messages with more than just our vision, right? So it was just rough, not being able to sing on set whenever you wanted. We're the musical cast but you can't sing big because you produce more droplets. We were privileged enough that we got to shoot this movie in the middle of the pandemic, but that also meant that we had to be devout to those rules, those systems that were put in place to protect us and to allow us to finish this thing. So sometimes it was just that frustration that you couldn't connect the way you wanted to. There was a period where we couldn't even hang out unmasked on our own time, the cast. Because there were five of us that were quarantined together and we had to wear masks even when we were in our hotel rooms. Even though we got to take them off together on set. Which does make complete sense. It was a great rule, but it was frustrating.

I know you weren't in this particular scene, but I'm wondering if you knew what was happening with the big Sunday in the diner scene.

Oh, I knew. I fully knew. I love that number. I love that number. And "Sunday In The Park with George," I love that number in the cast recording of "Tick Tick... Boom!" the Off-Broadway cast recording... And I was so mad that day because Lin had told me I could go on set to watch. But, and I forgot who I had asked, I didn't know that I could have gone whenever I wanted and I kept waiting for someone to give me permission. So I didn't get to actually watch the bulk of it but I caught the end. I caught Andre De Shields. I caught Howard McGillin. I caught Chuck Cooper and I caught the fabulous, fabulous, fabulous and amazing Felicia Rashad.

That's incredible.

Yeah, it was.

It feels like this whole movie is ... and it's been said a million times by now, but like a love letter to musical theater fans. And that's the ultimate scene of it.

Yeah. A hundred percent, hundred percent. It's like ... full musical theater giddiness on display. Unabashedly so. With no shame at all.

"When you're making the adaptation, you have to be okay not treating the original show as a Bible."

And we've gotten a ton of musicals this year. And a couple more to come. For you, what do you think makes a good stage to screen translation?

I'm going to say something that I think might anger some people. I feel like when you're making the adaptation, you have to be okay not treating the original show as a Bible. It's a different medium. You gotta figure out what pops in the new medium. I mean, I think the "In The Heights" movie is so different than the stage show. There are many similarities but the first time I saw the movie was with Joshua Henry, and with Andrew. And Joshua was also in the original company with me. And I remember saying to them afterwards, it's so weird it feels like two different experiences. Like there's no need to compare them because they're so different but they do have common denominators.

I think "Tick, Tick" definitely does that in the way that it's taking from the original and from the...

The original original.

Right. The original original, yes!

Someone the other day was trying to express to me, like fear and trepidation about it being different. They had heard the grapevine about certain songs being cut, or whatever. And I was just so annoyed at their annoyance, because they rolled their eyes about it. And I was like "boo, I'm in the movie!" But then I realized, oh, that's their thing. I think for some people there will be some comfort in knowing that Lin also wanted to honor the version that existed prior to Jonathan's passing. And so, in many ways, there's this deeper connection to what it was initially intended to be.

Did you get that when you first got the script?

Yep. Because I saw Lin's production, which I loved. But for whatever reason, I didn't catch other... And that might have just been me with age and time, that I noticed so much more. I mean, even for me personally, in getting to see Judith Light play Rose the agent. Getting to see Bradley Whitford in that stage version. It's like people double up or not even double, they play multiple characters, you know? And in our version you got to see all these beautiful cameos of all these other folks. That was so cool.

"Tick, Tick... BOOM!" is playing in limited release and on Netflix now.