Before he was the star of In The Heights, Anthony Ramos was growing up not far from it.
This June, the 29-year-old Hamilton star, raised in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, will helm the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway musical, setting him up for the kind of breakout stardom that often comes with a summer blockbuster.
While the movie version of shop owner Usnavi de la Vega marks his first leading role, Ramos is no stranger to performing for an audience. Along with more than a dozen smaller film and TV roles over the years, the New York native originated the characters of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Miranda's megahit, Hamilton. But, as fate would have it, In The Heights—which centers on a bodega owner in New York City's Washington Heights—was one of his first stage gigs, having landed the role of Sonny de la Vega in a regional theater production back in 2012.
"[Heights] was the only show I felt like I could have a part in," he recalled to The Hollywood Reporter of landing the role back then, "so I had already learned all the male parts." After all, the show is to this day one of the few musicals to focus on Latino characters.
And by then, the young Puerto Rican performer had already heard suggestions that he should try to disguise who he is.
"Folks would say to me that if you grow your hair out and speak in American Standard, you can be more ethnically ambiguous; you won't be in the 'Latino box,'" Ramos told THR. "I thought that s--t was a box, as opposed to being a superpower and just who I am.
"I believed that [box] s--t for a little bit," he continued, "but I don't want to be hired for being ambiguous. I want to be hired for who the f--k I am."
With In the Heights, that time had come. "It fits him better [than me]. He doesn't have to put anything on," Miranda, who originated the role of Usnavi on Broadway in 2008, told THR. "I think spiritually I'm closer to a Nina than an Usnavi, and watching him embody the hopes and struggles of this neighborhood just felt like a suit that fit him perfectly."