'For the culture!': How Anthony Ramos rallied 'In The Heights' cast to joy even on the hardest of days
Director Jon M. Chu credits star Anthony Ramos for instilling radical excitement onto the set of the "In The Heights."
Shooting in June 2019 at Brooklyn's Highbridge Pool and Recreation Center, cast members and 90 swimming dancers shivered in the unseasonably cold conditions for the mega-scale Busby Berkeley-inspired water musical number to "96,000."
"It was raining. The sky was mad gray, everybody's freezing and miserable. People were like, 'Yo, I got hypothermia,'" Ramos recalls, speaking over Zoom. He knew he needed to step up for one more take. "I just was like, 'YO, LET'S GO! This is for the culture. Let's go!'"
Ramos' recurrent cry enlivened the film adaption of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning "In The Heights" (in theaters and on HBO Max Friday) – transforming the landmark Latino story with a predominantly Latino cast.
The moment also demonstrated the sheer charisma of the ascending force that is Ramos, the 29-year-old actor of Puerto Rican descent who plays the central character, bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega.
"Everybody was yelling and screaming. We had this moment and that take made it into the commercial," Ramos says proudly. "It was like, this movie is way bigger than any of us. No cold water is gonna stop us from doing this and going hard."
Says Chu, "It was like 'Braveheart' out there, and everyone responded. The guy knew how to be a leader of a revolution."
Which is not far off from what Ramos, a freckle-faced Calvin Klein model and recording artist, is riding with "In the Heights." Raised by a single mother in a public housing development in neighboring Bushwick, the future "Hamilton" star saw limited opportunities for an acting career, much less stardom.
"For Latinos there was like, 'Man of La Mancha,' and like half of 'West Side Story,'" Ramos says. "I mean, in the original 'West Side Story,' The Sharks weren't even Hispanic. Me being of Puerto Rican descent from New York, I'm like, 'Yo y'all, couldn't find no Puerto Ricans to play these roles?'"
In 2011, Ramos nabbed student tickets to Miranda's Broadway production of "In The Heights," and had an epiphany.
"I watched all these people on stage singing, dancing and speaking like people I know from my neighborhood, talking about the food that I grew up eating," Ramos says. "I was like, man, maybe there is a space for me here."
Four years later, he landed the dual role of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton alongside Miranda in the runaway Broadway hit "Hamilton." Ramos was punching the accelerator.
"You know that Dom Toretto moment where he hits the red button in 'Fast & Furious'? That's what it felt like," Ramos says. "I was like, 'Hold up, let me just make sure I'm strapped in.'"
The stint brought accolades, a Grammy award for best musical theater album, forged a key relationship with Miranda – and even brought Ramos together with his future wife, "Hamilton" star Jasmine Cephas Jones. Ramos announced the couple's engagement in 2018.
"'Hamilton' is the gift that keeps on giving," says Ramos,who also starred in the Disney+ adaptation. "That ride has been crazy."
Playing the supportive best friend Ramon to Lady Gaga's Ally in 2018's "A Star Is Born" was just one prudent move Ramos made in the road to Hollywood breakout success.
It also helped to absorb advice from Gaga as Ramos landed his first record deal.
"She said something like, 'You're swimming with the sharks now, kid'" Ramos says. "I would try to soak in everything she was saying."
As a producer, Miranda aged out of his original Usnavi role for the 13-year delayed film adaption of "In The Heights," and the crown was passed to Miranda's hand-chosen successor, Ramos. The actor identifies with the hustling character who toils while longing to return to his native Dominican Republic.
"Usnavi feels like a dude I've met before. There's so many Usnavis out there. This character just resonated deeply with me," Ramos says. "His struggle, his love, his family, his dreams of moving to paradise and getting in touch with where he's from."
Ramos is continuing to hit the accelerator. While filming Season 4 of HBO's "In Treatment" (now playing), Ramos spent every free waking moment working on his second album, "Love and Lies" (out June 25).
"I'd be learning my lines in between writing song verses and cutting vocals," he says. "I love it. It's 12 songs that make me feel incredible. That's what I wanted. People want to feel good right now."
Next, Ramos will return to the Montreal set of "Transformers 7," which he leads with"Judas and the Black Messiah" star Dominique Fishback. He vows the new installment will have "unbelievable things never seen before in a 'Transformers' movie." Including the two main stars.
"This Puerto Rican dude and an African American woman, both from the hood, we're playing these lead roles in this crazy, multi-million dollar franchise," Ramos says, beaming. "You know, sometimes even saying that out loud right now, I'm like, that's crazy."