The first time actor Antony Ramos saw In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway production about a Latinx community in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood, he was floored.
"The pulse of this musical, it feels close to me," he says. "I hadn't felt that watching a musical ever. ... Watching In the Heights, it just gave me this hope, like, wow, this is what a Broadway show can be."
Now Ramos is starring — and singing and dancing and rapping — in the film adaptation of In the Heights. He plays Usnavi, a young man who runs a corner bodega and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, which he left when he was 8.
Ramos says the neighborhood portrayed in the movie reminds him of the projects of Bushwick, Brooklyn, where he grew up.
"There were moments of trauma and stuff like that," he says. "But at the end of the day, there was so much good, too. ... I'm grateful that we have a movie about a neighborhood like Washington Heights where we see ... this diverse cast together and celebrating not only the community, but where they come from, and celebrating life. ... There's good in every hood."
Ramos had a dual role as abolitionist John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the Broadway production and film version of Hamilton. Ramos is now in the new season of HBO's In Treatment, as Eladio, who has mostly virtual sessions with a therapist played by Uzo Aduba.
On feeling represented by the Broadway production of In the Heights
I sat and watched this show, and I just saw all these characters on the stage. ... And I felt like I'm watching my cousins and my aunts and uncles on the stage right now, like friends that I grew up with. And these people are speaking vernacular that's familiar to me. ...
I grew up in Bushwick with my mom and my two siblings, my older brother, my younger sister, [in a] predominantly Latino neighborhood — Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans. It was what we call a barrio. It was rough. But, it's funny, Washington Heights, the pulse of that neighborhood, the music and the food and just people yelling from their windows out to someone downstairs or the kids opening the fire hydrants — there were all these similarities between the neighborhood I grew up in and Washington Heights.
On how a high school drama teacher helped him land a college scholarship
All my applications got withdrawn because I missed the deadline for the financial aid forms. And she was like, "Hope is not lost," — because I was feeling hopeless. I was thinking about going into the Navy. She was like ... "You need to audition for this one school called AMDA [American Musical and Dramatic Academy]." ... [I said] "All right, I'm going to audition."
I get in, [but] I couldn't afford it. ... She said, [apply to] the Jerry Seinfeld scholarship ... I said, "Do they know what my grades are like?" She's like, "Yes, it's OK. They still want to meet you." ...
And I sit with this woman ... and I just told my story and I basically said ... "I need a shot. I just need somebody who's going to give me a chance. My grades are not ... a reflection of who I am. I just need a chance." We got emotional and I shared things about my life, how I grew up. And then I left and the school's calling me for this crazy loan. I couldn't afford it, and I asked the guy to give me one more day. ... Two hours later, [she] called me and said, "Hey, Anthony, we don't usually get the scholarship to people with these grades, but we want to pay for your school for all four years."
On getting appendicitis right when Hamilton opened on Broadway
It was in between shows. It was a two-show day. I'll never forget it. I was in excruciating pain. I was sitting in my dressing room, and I was like, let me at least try to take a nap or something. I was trying to eat lunch, couldn't do it. I was like, all right, let me lay down. Pain was so bad I had to call out. I just told my stage manager, "I can't do it. I'm so sorry." I couldn't. I was in so much pain. ...
[My brother and I] went straight to the hospital. I think it was Mount Sinai. And they're like, "Yo, you have appendicitis, bro. ... You need surgery." I literally said, "Can we do this next week?" "No, we have to do this now." ... They take me into that room. They take my appendix out. I was crazy. I was on all these drugs. ...
Then the doctors said, "Yeah, you gotta be out of your show for a month." I'm like, "Bro, if I'm out of the show for a month, I don't get paid!" We just got to Broadway, [I'm] broke! Think about it: You're going through this life-or-death situation ... and the thing I'm thinking about is like, yo, I gotta pay my rent, bro. ... I was supposed to be out of the show for a month and, you know, we cut it down to two weeks. They modified the show a little bit for me. ... Then we recorded the cast album. We recorded the cast album shortly after I had this appendectomy, and I had to sit on a stool in the studio in between takes. I would stand up, cut my vocal, and then I'd sit on the stool.
On becoming a Calvin Klein underwear model
I still got to wake up some days and be like, yo, my man, you're good enough. You still have those days where you're like, man, my ears are big. My eyes look like this. I got this one strand of hair that won't go down. ... I was so surprised. I was like, What? Do they have the right person?
Lauren Krenzel and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Anthony Ramos, stars in what's expected to be one of the big summer movies, the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning first musical, "In The Heights." Ramos is in the role Miranda wrote for himself and played on Broadway. In Miranda's musical "Hamilton," Ramos was in a dual role, playing both the abolitionist John Laurens and Hamilton's son Philip. "In The Heights" is a very kinetic film, and Ramos sings, raps and dances, including in some exuberant, big production numbers.
In contrast, Ramos is also one of the stars of the current HBO series "In Treatment," in which each of his episodes consists of him talking in a Zoom therapy session with his therapist. The fact that he's great in both roles shows how versatile he is. Plus, he has a new album coming out June 25 called "Love And Lies." Earlier, Ramos co-starred in the Netflix adaptation of Spike Lee's film "She's Got To Have It" in the role Lee played in the film, Mars Blackmon. In Bradley Cooper's adaptation of "A Star Is Born," he played the best friend of Lady Gaga's character.
Anthony Ramos grew up in the projects in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. "In The Heights" is a love letter to the Latinx neighborhood Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up in, Washington Heights. The story is about two generations of people, the older adults who came to America with a dream, which typically was never or not quite fulfilled, and the young adults who grew up in New York and have their own dreams. Ramos plays Usnavi, who owns a corner bodega and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, which he left when he was 8. "In The Heights" opened in theaters over the weekend and will be streaming on HBO Max for the next month.
When the film starts, it's a hot summer day. In the opening song, we meet Usnavi and some of the other people in the neighborhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")
ANTHONY RAMOS: (As Usnavi, singing) I am Usnavi. And you probably never heard my name. Reports of my fame are greatly exaggerated, exacerbated by the fact that my syntax is highly complicated 'cause I emigrated from the single greatest little place in the Caribbean, Dominican Republic. I love it. Jesus, I'm jealous of it. And beyond that, ever since my folks passed on, I haven't gone back. God damn, I got to get on that. Fo (ph) - the milk has gone bad. Hold up just a second. Why is everything in this fridge warm and tepid? I better step it up and fight the heat 'cause I'm not making any profit if the coffee isn't light and sweet.
OLGA MEREDIZ: (As Abuela Claudia) Ooh, ooh.
RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Abuela, my fridge broke. I got cafe but no con leche.
MEREDIZ: (As Abuela Claudia, speaking Spanish) Try my mother's old recipe, one can of condensed milk.
RAMOS: (As Usnavi) Nice. Oh, hey, your lottery ticket.
MEREDIZ: (As Abuela Claudia, speaking Spanish).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAMOS: (As Usnavi, singing) That was Abuela. She's not really my abuela. But she practically raised me. This corner is her escuela. Now, you're probably thinking, I'm up [expletive] creek. I never been north of 96th Street. Well, you must take the A train even farther than Harlem to northern Manhattan and maintain. Get off at 181st, and take the escalator. I hope you're writing this down. I'm going to test you later.
I'm getting tested. Times are tough on this bodega. Two months ago, somebody bought Ortega's. Our neighbors started packing up and picking up. And ever since the rents went up, it's gotten mad expensive. But we live with just enough.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As ensemble, singing) In the Heights, I flip the lights and start my day. There are fights, endless steps and bills to pay. In the Heights, I can't survive without cafe.
RAMOS: (As Usnavi, singing) I serve cafe.
GROSS: Anthony Ramos, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on all these new projects. It's great. So what did "In The Heights" mean to you when you first saw the show?
RAMOS: Well, thanks for having me on the show. And "In The Heights" means a lot to me. First time I saw it on Broadway in my last semester of college, I started auditioning already for shows. And I was going to open auditions, open calls, waking up really early in the morning, getting after it. It was really difficult, like, starting out because you see people looking at you like, we don't know what to do with this guy.
GROSS: Because you were Puerto Rican?
RAMOS: Yeah. I don't know why. You know, I think it was, I mean, he's Latino, but the role needs to be white, or the role needs to be, you know. And then they hear me speak. And they're like, but, he sounds New York. We need somebody to speak with a more neutral dialect. And I'm like, all right. Well, cool. You know, I can work on that for the piece, whatever it is. But I think it was just like - it was - I was running up against wall after wall after wall.
And finally, I, like, sat and watched this show. And I just saw all these characters on the stage. And they - like, they just felt like my - like, I was like, yo, I feel like I'm watching my cousins and my aunts and uncles on this stage right now, like, friends that I grew up with. And these people are speaking vernacular that's familiar to me. And these - you know, this music feels familiar to the music that I grew up listening to. And this - the pulse of this musical, like, feels - it feels close to me. And I hadn't felt that watching a musical ever. You know? I didn't even grow up watching musicals because I was - I just - they - you know, we just didn't in my house. But I think, watching "In The Heights," it just gave me this hope, like, wow, this is what a Broadway show can be.
GROSS: In the movie, there are some really big production numbers in which, like, there's dozens of people, like, dancing and singing in the streets. And I know that early in your career, you were supposed to be in a Radio City Music Hall production with the Rockettes. It was canceled before it opened, but I'm assuming there were rehearsals. And I'm wondering, did you learn anything about dancing and being synchronized when you worked with the Rockettes that was helpful in doing "In The Heights"?
RAMOS: Yeah. I mean, I call Radio City musical theater boot camp. I did the "Christmas Spectacular" in 2012. And Linda Haberman was the director at the time. And Linda had - well, they emailed from Radio City on behalf of her and said, yo, she wants you for the spring show that they're - they want to bring the spring show back. This is a thing we did, like, in the '80s. It was the equivalent of the "Christmas Spectacular." So this show, they want to do one in the spring and then one during the holidays.
And I came back to New York. I was doing it. And it was crazy, like, doing that show and the precision. Like, yo, the Rockettes are - they are unbelievable. Like, these women are - they're like superheroes. I'm telling you. I mean, to watch them go out there every night when I was doing that show and to see them. Like, the singers are onstage, for only, like, eight minutes, or something like that. And man, those women, they get out there - and I'm talking, that show was an hour and a half, each show. And sometimes, you know, we'd have four shows in a day, three shows in a day, you know. Some weeks especially, you know, when we started getting close to Christmas and you started getting close to New Year's Eve, the shows, they start packing them in. And we'd had some weeks - we were doing 16 shows a week. You know, these women were out there getting after it, every single show.
GROSS: So it sounds like you were singing in the show. But you weren't, like, doing line dances or kicking (laughter) with the Rockettes.
RAMOS: No, I mean, I wasn't kicking with the Rockettes. But I'm talking, like, if you were off your mark by a hair...
RAMOS: ...Either our director or one of the dance captains, somebody was down your throat about, you need - you're off by 3 centimeters. And I'm like, how do you even see that? But it's like, that is - that's the precision in that show. Like, I mean, if your arm - if they're like, your arm needs to be stretched at this, you know, 45 degrees and your arm is at 47 or whatever, they're like, yo, you know, you got - two clicks down. Like, it was crazy. It was crazy.
GROSS: So you know, "In The Heights" is a story about a block and the people who live and work on that block. And it's a really tightknit community. This is like a very idealized version of where Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up. Compare that to your neighborhood. You grew up in Brooklyn in the projects.
RAMOS: Yeah. I grew up in Bushwick with my mom and my two siblings, my older brother and my younger sister, predominantly Latino neighborhood - Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans. It was what we call a barrio. Like, it was rough. But there would be - you know, it's funny. Washington Heights, the pulse of that neighborhood, though - the music and the food and the, you know, like, just people yelling from their windows out, you know, to someone downstairs or the kids, you know, opening the fire hydrants - it was - you know, there were all these similarities - right? - between the neighborhood I grew up in and Washington Heights. And I lived up there. I lived up there after college for a little bit.
GROSS: So you describe your neighborhood as being rough. Who were you in the neighborhood? What were you known for?
RAMOS: I was always playing sports. I was always trying to keep myself busy. I was - you know what I'm saying? I mean, I wasn't the best student. I just had problems focusing in school. But I was always kind of outside. I always wanted to be outside. I was always trying - baseball was my thing, though. I think baseball was, like, my lifeline. I loved playing ball. Like, that was my thing. You know what I'm saying? I didn't really get into trouble. I'd get into trouble sometimes, but it was like, you know, thank God I didn't really - I didn't really find myself too many times running around with the wrong crowd. Every now and then I'd be like, dang, yeah, now we definitely getting in trouble for this, or I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time right now. Or - you know, there was a lot of violence and drugs in my neighborhood - alcohol, people selling drugs, gangs. You know, it was a thing, you know. But, you know, I thank God for my mother. You know, she was very - and she was very, very, very protective. You know, she was always - you know, even though she knew she couldn't really - like, we were going to do whatever anyway, but she was very - as protective as she could be.
GROSS: In spite of you (laughter), yeah. So your mother raised you as a single mother. What did she do to support the family?
RAMOS: My mom was a medical biller. I think she worked for, like, one or two hospitals. I think she was making like, $30,000 a year before taxes. So - you know, my mom worked at a laboratory on the weekends, too, to make some extra money. And she did what she had to do. You know, she did what she had to do. And that was kind of how she - that was how she put food on the table. I mean, some weeks we knew it was rice and chicken - rice, beans and chicken every day. You know, we had to stretch it out or, you know, whatever was the cheapest thing she could afford that she could whip up that week. But, you know, my mom's a warrior.
GROSS: But you lived with your aunt when you were 12. You moved in with your aunt. Is that too personal to ask you why?
RAMOS: Nah. So I moved with my aunt when I was 12 because I was applying to high schools. And I applied to this one school - you know, my cousin Xavier (ph), my Aunt Emily's son, he's - you know, we were thick as thieves. We were so tight as kids. And I always wanted to play baseball with my cousin. I said, you know, imagine if I get into New Utrecht. Like, if only I could get into the same high school as him, we'll get to be on the same baseball team. It's crazy. That was the only reason I applied to the school. And in the New York public school system, you apply to 11 schools and, you know, usually you'll get picked by the school that's closest to where you live. And New Utrecht was, like, the last school I put on the list, and it was a joke. I was like, yo, they'll never - that school's so far from where I lived, they'll never accept me. And I put 10 other schools on that list, and sure enough, New Utrecht, I got it.
And I said to my mom before I applied, I said Ma, if I apply to New Utrecht and I get in, can I go live with Titi Emily 'cause she lived five blocks away from the school? - as opposed to me having to travel on a train for an hour and 15 minutes. My mother was like, if you get in, yeah, you can ask. I got in. I looked at my mom. I said, yo can I live with Titi? She looked at me. And she goes, well, you got - if you want to live with her, you got to ask her. And I was like, OK. And I went and asked my aunt, and I could see the shock on my aunt's face. Like, yo...
RAMOS: ...Did he really just ask me if I'm going to - if he could move in with me? And, you know - and I can see the weight of that and the lack of time that she had to process that all on her face at the same time, like, in that moment. And she said, yeah. And I went and lived with my aunt for three years - you know, my freshman, sophomore and junior year. But then, you know, I was being a little hard-headed, so my aunt politely asked me to leave. So I moved back in with my mother. But at that point, I was so used to not living in my mom's house that I was bouncing around. I mean, I'd stay over friends' houses. I had, like, an itinerary every week. It was like, all right, I stay over Jason's (ph) house Monday and Tuesday. I'll stay Luciano's (ph) house Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then ask Titi Emily if you could at least a one night here. And then you'll go to Mom's house for one night, and then you'll do it - you'll switch the rotation up next week. Like, it was like that. I was like a nomad. I was bouncing around.
GROSS: So let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Ramos. He stars in the new film "In The Heights" and is one of the stars of the HBO series "In Treatment." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Anthony Ramos. He stars in the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning musical "In The Heights." In the current HBO series "In Treatment," he's one of three people being treated by a psychotherapist. He played two roles in "Hamilton," and now he also has a new album called "Love And Lies" that will be released June 25.
Now, so I read you sang Motown songs with a group that you'd formed in high school. Why Motown? I mean, that's not your generation, and I'm pretty sure you grew up with hip-hop and really loved it. So where did Motown come in?
RAMOS: I mean, Motown came from when I watched "The Temptations" movie. I saw "The Temptations" movie.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
RAMOS: And I just fell in love. I was like, what is this? This is crazy. What is this music? And I just started going down the rabbit hole. You know, "Cloud Nine" - I was like, "My Girl," "Ain't Too Proud To Beg." "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" became, like, one of - like, the audition song for me. I was singing that joint at every audition, that song. And then when Bruno Mars' "Grenade" came out, then "Grenade" became my song. But it was like, I was singing "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" all the time. And in eighth grade, me and two friends, Kalif (ph) and Lennox (ph) at Halsey Middle School in IS 296 in Bushwick, we came together. And we were like, yo, why don't we start, like, a group? And let's, like, sing songs. And I was like, yo, let's sing Temptations songs because I was obsessed. I was like, let's sing Temptation songs. So at every assembly, this teacher named Ms. Algerian who we had, she could sing. So she would work with us. And we would do, like, little rehearsals in Ms. Algerian's class. And she got us in - like, she spoke to the principal or something. She's like, yo, you should let the boys sing at this assembly. So we'd sing one Temptations song, you know, at the assemblies in eighth grade. Like, they would let us get up there and sing a song.
GROSS: Wow. OK. Great. Those are great songs (laughter). You got into acting school - the American Musical and Dramatic Academy - with the help of a high school drama teacher who was your mentor. And it sounds like she really changed your life. She helped you apply. She helped you, I think, with the admissions essay. She helped you get a scholarship from the Jerry Seinfeld foundation. So what was your admission essay about?
RAMOS: Wow. That is such a good question. I don't even know. I can't even remember what that - what those essays - but I'm sure Sara would remember. I know I had - you know, I had to write about my life. And so I'm sure it was probably something about how I grew up and what that was like. And, you know, I know I did say in the interview, though - I remember interviewing for that scholarship - that, yeah, Sara, she - you know, she was a high school director. She directed the theater guild, right? The school used to have a theater guild. And she was running it.
And, you know, she - I auditioned for what I thought was a talent show, ended up being a musical, because I wanted to sing again. I hadn't sang since eighth grade. I auditioned for this thing. I sing "Ordinary People" by John Legend. And that was my joint, too. And then she goes, OK, read these lines. I was like, I don't do that. She's like, what do you mean? This is a musical. And I'm like, oh, well, all right. Cool. I did it. They gave me a lead part in this show. I'm like, I don't know if I can do this. She's like, I think you can. I did it. And I fell in love. I fell in love. And then fast forward to my senior year, I'm applying to schools. And I was going to go to school to play baseball. That was what I wanted to do.
And Sara, like - you know, all my applications get withdrawn because I missed the deadline for the financial aid forms. And she was like, hope is not lost, because I was feeling hopeless. And I was like, I think I might - you know, was thinking about going to the Navy. She was like, yo, before you make any decisions about anything, you need to audition for this one school called AMDA. And she's like, you should audition. And I was like, all right. I go and audition. I get in. I couldn't afford it. I was like, this is crazy. They sent me the amount of what it was going to cost. She said, gave your name to the Jerry Seinfeld scholarship foundation. I said, do they know what my grades are like? She's like, yes. It's OK. They still want to meet you. I was like, oh, snap.
And I sit with this woman named Kate Fenneman, who's still a friend of mine, good friend of mine. And I just told her my story. And I basically just said, I need a shot. I just need somebody to give me a chance. My grades are not - they're not a reflection of who I am, you know? So I just need a chance, you know? We got emotional. And I shred things about my life and my - you know, how I grew up. And I left. And the school's calling me for this crazy loan. I couldn't afford it. I asked the guy to give me one more day. But, like, two hours later, Kate calls. And she says, hey, Anthony. OK, you know, we don't usually give this scholarship to people with your grades. But we want to pay for your school for all four years.
GROSS: How do you thank people for these kinds of things, you know? Like, these are people who just changed your life...
GROSS: ...Who gave you this incredible opportunity.
RAMOS: Completely. And, you know, it's funny, like, a full-circle moment happened recently where I just gave my first scholarship with Kate.
GROSS: Oh, wow. That's great. That's great.
RAMOS: Yeah. Yeah, to this girl named Najelis (ph) - and special, special, special girl. She lives in the Bronx - special young woman. And it was just a crazy, full-circle moment because Sara and Kate worked together to pick the people who were in the running and then pick, you know, the final two. And then, you know, we all came together. And we picked Najelis. And it was just so wild to think that, like, I'm teaming up with the two women that gave me a shot. They are the ones helping me do that for someone else. And I said, how special was that, you know? And I - you know, I thank them all the time. They changed my life.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Ramos. He stars in the film adaptation of "In The Heights." He co-stars in the HBO series "In Treatment." And he has a new album coming out June 25 called "Love And Lies." We'll be right back after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CLUB")
RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) Damn, this is nice. I really like what they done with the lights. So the hot club in Washington Heights, you might be right. This music's tight. Yo, did I mention that you look great tonight? - because you do. You really...
MELISSA BARRERA: (As Vanessa, singing) Usnavi, relax.
RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) Relax, que relaxed? I'm relaxed.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Wepa, Vanessa.
RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) So you've been here before? I don't go out. I get so busy with the store. (Speaking Spanish) It's a brand-new chore. My arms is sore - no time for the dance floor. But maybe you and me should hang out some more. I'm such a dork. But I...
BARRERA: (As Vanessa, singing) Let's go get a drink.
RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) Something sweet?
BARRERA: (As Vanessa, singing) You know me, a little bit of cinnamon.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Wepa, Vanessa.
(SOUNDBITE OF TITO PUENTE'S "JITTERBUG WALTZ")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Anthony Ramos. He stars in the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony award-winning musical "In The Heights" in the role Miranda originated. It's set on a Latinx block in the New York neighborhood Washington Heights. Ramos played two roles in Miranda's musical "Hamilton." He played the abolitionist John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton's son, Philip. Ramos also is one of the stars of the current HBO series "In Treatment," playing one of the three people in psychotherapy that the story follows. His new album, "Love and Lies," will be released June 25.
Let's get to "Hamilton." So what did you do to audition for the workshop of "Hamilton"? Like, what was the audition like for you?
RAMOS: Well, "Hamilton" - you know, speaking of Radio City, I was doing that Spring Spectacular. I was doing that spring show that they were trying to put up. And I was - I had just come back off a cruise ship.
GROSS: Oh, doing a show on the cruise ship?
RAMOS: Yeah, yeah. I was doing "Saturday Night Fever," the musical...
GROSS: Oh. Oh.
RAMOS: ...For Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. I came back to New York. I was like, I got to get my face out there. Like, nobody knows who I am. And I had no agent, nothing. So I was just like, I got to start getting out. So I was going to open auditions. I went to Telsey. This is a casting company that was casting for "Hamilton's Mixtape" (ph) at the time, was the name of it. I went in for something else. It wasn't even for "Hamilton." It was just another show. And I was like, you know, I don't know what - I don't even know what this musical's about, but I'm just going to go and sing a song. So that way, I can get in front of a casting director.
And I'd do these auditions before I went to rehearsal for Radio City. So I had time in the mornings to run to these auditions and did that audition. They didn't call me back for that show, but the casting director says, hey, we want you to audition for this thing called "Hamilton's Mixtape." And I didn't know what that was. And next thing you know, I saw Lin wrote it. I was like, oh, Lin on (ph). Because "In The Heights" - I knew about "In The Heights." And I was like, yo, this is the same team that did "In The Heights." Oh, this is crazy. Woah. Like, I went in and auditioned. Casting director said, I don't know how this is going to work out with this Radio City schedule, but you're really right for this so I'm going to call you back. And I said, OK. She kept calling me back, calling me back. And then four auditions later, I'm in front of Lin, Tommy, the whole team, everybody. And I do the material, and I left.
And I went to Radio City rehearsal, and it was so crazy. I get to rehearsal, and we get a note on the board where you sign in saying, everyone, don't bother signing in. Please come to the large rehearsal hall. And we had a meeting. I was like, I think we're fired (laughter). And then I see a cast member, like, rushing from the left of the wings from the stage, and she's bawling. And I said, oh, we're for sure fired. And I went upstairs and sure enough, there were 77 cast members getting laid off. And I go back to the dressing room because we started partying. We were like, all right. Well, we're going to - at least we're going to go out with a bang. This is it. We're all done. And I get a call, like, three hours later maybe, like late afternoon. And it was Bethany Knox, casting director at Telsey. She says, hey, we heard about Radio City. We'd love for you to be in "Hamilton's Mixtape." And that's how that happened.
GROSS: Wow. What serendipity, what luck. Well, let's hear you from the cast album of "Hamilton." And this is "Blow Us All Away." And you're Alexander Hamilton's son in this role. You're 19. You're a recent graduate of King's College, and you're angry about a classmate who has publicly disparaged your father. So here's my guest, Anthony Ramos, in the cast recording of "Hamilton."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOW US ALL AWAY")
RAMOS: (As Philip, singing) Meet the latest graduate of King's College. I probably shouldn't brag, but, dag (ph), I amaze and astonish. The scholars say I got the same virtuosity and brains as my pops. The ladies say my brain's not where the resemblance stops. I'm only 19, but my mind is older. Got to be my own man, like my father, but bolder. I shoulder his legacy with pride. I used to hear him say that someday I would...
UNIDENTIFIED ENSEMBLE: (Singing) Blow us all away.
RAMOS: (As Philip, singing) Ladies, I'm looking for a Mr. George Eacker - made a speech last week, our Fourth of July speaker. He disparaged my father's legacy in front of a crowd. I can't have that. I'm making my father proud.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As character, singing) I saw him just up Broadway a couple of blocks. He was going to see a play.
RAMOS: (As Philip, singing) Well, I'll go visit his box.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As character, singing) God, you're a fox.
RAMOS: (As Philip, singing) And you all look pretty good in your frocks. How about when I get back, we all strip down to our socks.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1 AND #2: (As characters) Oh, OK.
UNIDENTIFIER ENSEMBLE: (Singing) Blow us all away.
RAMOS: (As Philip, singing) George. George.
EPHRAIM SYKES: (As George) I'm trying to watch the show.
RAMOS: (As Philip, singing) You should have watched your mouth before you talked about my father, though.
SYKES: (As George, singing) I didn't say anything...
GROSS: So that's Anthony Ramos in the cast recording of "Hamilton." My understanding is that you recorded the cast recording sitting on a stool because you had just had appendicitis and were still recovering from the surgery. So when did you - were you, like, on stage or something when you got the appendicitis?
RAMOS: It was in between shows. It was a two-show day. I'll never forget it. I was in - man, I was in excruciating pain. Like, I was sitting in my dressing room, and I was like, let me at least try to take a nap or something. You know, I was trying to eat lunch, couldn't do it. I was like, all right, let me lay down. The pain was so bad I had to call out. I just told my stage manager, I can't do it. I'm so sorry. I couldn't - I was in so much pain, I didn't even go back to Brooklyn. I just stood in my brother's place in the city. He lived pretty close to the theater. And I was like, yo, can I just, like, come to your crib and lay down? He's like, yeah, yeah, bro, no doubt.
And I sit there. I'm just like, yo, this is - this ain't normal. This is different. This pain is different. I don't know what this is. We got to go to the hospital. And we went. And we went straight to the hospital. I think it was Mount Sinai. And they're like, yo, you have appendicitis, bro. I was like, well, what does that mean? They're like, well, you need surgery. I was like, well - you know, I literally said, OK. Well, can we do it, like, next week? He's like, no. We have to do this now. And I was like, what?
RAMOS: And sure enough, they take me into that room. They take my appendix out. It was crazy. I was on all these drugs and whatever. I was like, yo, what just happened to me in the last 48 hours? And we had just opened on Broadway. We just opened, so.
GROSS: Oh, that must have been killing you. This is, like, your big shot, and you're in the hospital.
RAMOS: Yeah, it was rough. And then the doctor's like, yeah, you got to be out of your show for a month. I'm like, bro, if I'm out of the show for a month, you know, I don't get paid if I'm out of the show for a month. I was like, what are we doing? I was like, yo, we weren't making a lot of money off Broadway. I couldn't save money when we were off Broadway. We just got to Broadway. Bro, I'm broke (laughter). I was mad to think about it, right? How you going through this life or death situation with your appendix and the thing I'm thinking about is like, yo, I got to pay my rent, bro.
And yeah, I was supposed to be out of the show for a month, and, you know, we cut it down to two weeks. They modified the show a little bit for me and my part so that some of the more physical things, they kind of - they made some adjustments so that way I could come back early until I was healthy enough to do the show at full speed, which I was so grateful for. But it was like - it was - and then we recorded the cast album. We recorded the cast album shortly after I had this appendectomy. And I had to sit on a stool in the studio in between takes. I would stand up, cut my vocal, and then I'd sit on the stool.
GROSS: Did it hurt to breathe while you were singing?
RAMOS: Sometimes, yeah, yeah. Yeah, it was - I had to really be mindful of how I was breathing. Like, if I didn't need to take a deep breath for that note or whatever, don't do it. Like, it was definitely a chess match with myself. I was, like, I ain't missing this. Y'all ain't making this cast album without Me.
GROSS: So you have appendicitis. You go back in two weeks instead of four weeks. And, you know, as Alexander Hamilton's son, you have a big death scene. Like, you get killed in the duel. Like, your father tells you, fire in the air, be a gentleman, and then you get shot (laughter)...
GROSS: ...And die. So it must have been weird to be playing a death scene, having just come out of the hospital.
RAMOS: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And then that scene - what's crazy is that scene, I'm singing that song in falsetto. And singing this joint in my head voice, and it takes so much breath control to act like you're dying on a table and, like, sing these high notes in falsetto. And I was just like, God, please help me, God. Some days, I didn't - if I didn't even have the notes, honestly, I would just speak them. I would just speak on pitch because if I hurt that much, I'd be like, yo, I can't sing this right now. I don't got - I don't have it. I would just speak on pitch. And I'd just, like, touch the note, and I'm off. And yeah, again, it was crazy. It was crazy. It was wild to navigate that, especially that scene that was so physical. And then, you know, Pippa's - you know, who plays my - you know, who plays Eliza. Pippa be on there - she's, like, crying on me. And Lin is holding me. And I'm like, ah, don't hold me there, bro. Hold up.
RAMOS: Put your hand somewhere else.
RAMOS: I know we're in it. But my man, hold up.
GROSS: (Laughter) If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Ramos, and he's now starring in the new film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning musical "In The Heights." And he's also one of the stars of the HBO series "In Treatment." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Anthony Ramos. He stars in the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning musical "In The Heights." He was also one of the stars of the original cast of "Hamilton." And in the current HBO series "In Treatment," he's one of the three people being treated by a psychotherapist. He has a new album coming out June 25 called "Love And Lies." Some of the songs have already been released as singles.
Let's talk a little bit about "In Treatment." I think you're great in that role, too. And "In Treatment," this is a reboot or a sequel to a series on HBO from a few years ago, which was an adaptation of an Israeli series. But in this new version, Uzo Aduba plays a psychotherapist, and we follow her with three different patients. And each episode is devoted to one of the patients. You're one of the patients, and your episodes are on Sunday nights. So you play Eladio, and you're somebody who's working as a live-in home health care aide for the disabled son of a wealthy couple who's hired you. And you've just started therapy because you have a really bad case of insomnia. You were diagnosed in the past as having bipolar disorder. And what you want is a renewed prescription for lithium 'cause you think that's what enables you to sleep. But you're very skeptical of the process of therapy. And you're not - you are not into it. So let's hear a clip with my guest, Anthony Ramos, and with Uzo Aduba as the therapist.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IN TREATMENT")
RAMOS: (As Eladio) Now, listen, I don't want to waste your time.
UZO ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) What do you mean?
RAMOS: (As Eladio) Last time, you talked about process. You talked about not focusing on results. And I feel you. I do. And I don't mean no disrespect, but I might not be the audience for all this.
ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) Therapy doesn't have a target audience. Everyone can benefit.
RAMOS: (As Eladio) Sure. But all this talking about the past and psychic wounds and [expletive], I haven't slept better since we talked last. I slept worse. In what ways? The last four nights, I've had the same dream - about the snow and the ash. And even though I haven't thought about this guy in years, it was Sikander holding my hand. That was a locked box, and you unlocked it. And I can't afford that. Maybe if this was long term - if we were going to do this for, like, years, then maybe.
ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) Who's to say we can't?
RAMOS: (As Eladio) Dr. Taylor, you and I both know the financial realities that bar that from being the case. This is short term. And it's possible that what I need isn't a therapist; it's a pharmacist 'cause the only thing that's going help me sleep at all is the lithium. And if that sounds bad, I'm sorry. But that's my reality here.
GROSS: That was Anthony Ramos and Uzo Aduba in a scene from "In Treatment." And Uzo Aduba will be joining us in the near future.
So did you customize the dialogue to sound natural to you?
RAMOS: I didn't. What was so wild - I actually I talked to the writer. So this gentleman named Chris Gabo wrote all of my character's episodes. It was so wild. I've never read a piece - I've never read dialogue where I was like, yo, this is crazy. Like, I feel - like, this is how I speak (laughter). And it was really, really beautiful to see a character like Eladio that - right? - speaks - right? - in this vernacular that is familiar to mine. Like, my man is so articulate and so specific and can explain himself in such a clear way. I was like, yo, I wish everything I did was like this. This is incredible. I mean, it was like - it fit like a - it was like a perfect glove.
GROSS: So you play somebody who didn't ask to be in psychotherapy. The people who have hired him as a live-in aide to help their son, they put you in in therapy, and they're paying for it. And the idea of therapy is pretty foreign to Eladio. Was it foreign to you when you were growing up?
RAMOS: It was. It was. until I was 16, you know? At 16, I met with my therapist - his name is Jason Jacobs - in high school. One of my teachers, middle aged Tom Vialet, she was the peer mediation coordinator in school. And she was a Shakespeare teacher. She'd tell me - she'd be like, yo, you need to see Mr. Jacobs. I was going through a lot at home. She said - first, I was resistant. And then I said, all right. All right. Sure. I'll see him. And that was the first time I had gotten therapy ever in my life. And it changed the game for me. It was incredible to be able to speak to someone who doesn't know any - doesn't know me from anything and can just give me sound advice based on, like, facts and science and, like - and just, like, human behavior because this person has studied human behavior, you know? And fast forward, I stopped going to therapy for years after that, after high school. And then I didn't get back in until, probably, two years ago. And it's been a revelation. A lot of things came back up, a lot of things - new stuff, too, a lot of new stuff that I just didn't even know I was going through.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Ramos. He stars in the film adaptation of "In The Heights." He co-stars in the HBO series "In Treatment." We'll be right back after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Anthony Ramos. He stars in the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-award winning musical "In The Heights." He was also one of the stars of the original cast of "Hamilton." And in the current HBO series "In Treatment," he's one of the three people being treated by a psychotherapist.
So this may be too personal to ask. But when you were 16 and one of your teachers suggested that you see a therapist at school, you said there was a lot of home stuff going on. Can I ask about what was going on at home? Or, like, if it's too personal, just say so.
RAMOS: It was - you know, it was hard, right? I think drugs and alcohol were - you know, and my family in general have always just been a thing that has really played a detrimental role, if you will, in communication and progression and the ability for each of us to be empathetic towards one another, I think. You know, and particularly, my father was on drugs. And he wasn't around a lot. And it was difficult. It was just - my mom was going through a lot. So for me, it was - there was just violence all around, in my neighborhood as well. And I wanted - I just - I was tired of living in poverty. I was tired of being broke, you know?
And then what was crazy was I move in with my aunt, which, essentially, is a better neighborhood. But still, like, I'm living this life where I'm still mad broke. And now the kids around me are doing better than the kids that I was living with before, which makes me feel even worse. And I'm, like, living in - you know, I'm living in my aunt's house, you know, with my two cousins and my aunt. She did everything she could to give us a good life, you know? My aunt was the best. But, you know, I wasn't getting money from anybody, though. It was like, she was responsible for feeding us and making sure we were alive. But I didn't - you know, it's like, if I need money then, how old are you? 14. You got to figure out how to get a job. But then I'll go job hunting and nobody will hire me. It was crazy. I was like, why won't anyone hire me?
And plus I wasn't doing well in school. I was having trouble reconciling with the fact that, like, baseball was probably not going to be - you know, I wasn't going to make it to the major leagues. So what are you going to do with your life, bro? And I really didn't want to go back to the house. Like, man, I don't want to fall back. I don't want to live with my mom again. I was like, yo, this is - I feel like I'm moving backwards. What's happening, you know? And when you a kid, everything feels more dramatic than it really is. But at the same time...
GROSS: Well, that's dramatic, though. What you were going through was dramatic.
RAMOS: It was crazy, though, you know? It was crazy. And I ain't even realize I had trauma, you know, as a kid, too. I didn't realize how much trauma I had from some of the things I seen growing up and, you know, I had, you know - or some of the stuff I been through.
GROSS: This all reminds me of something that your mentor who helped you get into college, Sara Steinweiss, recently told The Hollywood Reporter. You had said, you know, that you missed the deadline for college applications. And she said - and she helped you get into acting school. She said that she knew that you weren't lazy. You were just tired from life. It sounds like that's what you're describing.
RAMOS: When I read that, I got emotional. I'm not even going to lie. I can get emotional even thinking about it now. It's crazy, because I was. I was tired. I was so exhausted. I was like, why does it feel like everything I'm doing isn't working? Why does it feel like I'm hitting a wall after wall, after wall. It's like, what do I have to do? I'm like, yo, I can't get a job anywhere. Like, I'm, like, broke all the time. I'm like, yo - you know? And then it was - even junior year, I was tight. Yo, my coach benched me that year. I was like, yo, my man, how - what? So it, I mean, motivated me because in my senior year, I went back. And I started every game. I had the highest batting average on the team. And, like, that drove me. But it was literally hunger, you know? That's how I, like, lived as a kid, you know? But you get exhausted from hunger. You get tired of being hungry all the time.
GROSS: I'm wondering what it's like for you being "In The Heights," which is a very idealized presentation of a block and the people living on it, where there's, like - everybody's singing and dancing, and everybody basically likes each other a lot and is there to support each other, you know, even when circumstances get bad. And you grew up in a neighborhood where it was violent. You saw terrible things. You felt traumatized. So can you describe a little bit what it's been like to star in this very idealized version of a neighborhood?
RAMOS: Because the thing about it is - right? - every neighborhood has got its things, right? Like, you hear - it'd be the nicest neighborhood ever, and you're like, yo, that kid just ODed on opium or whatever?
RAMOS: I thought they were fine. He was just in school yesterday. Like, it's like - that's why. Like, everybody's going through something. It don't matter. When you rich or poor, whatever - life still happens, right? And that's why, you know, what I'm grateful for is that there was a lot of good, too - the music, the culture. Where I grew up, it was rich. It was a rich childhood. You know, it was kids being inventive. You know, even if we didn't have cable, like yo, we'd be in the backyard. We playing football. We played sponge ball, baseball. We'd be out there to the wee hours of the night playing manhunt, tag, all of that, like nothing with these phones and social media. So we were actually talking to each other, you know?
Yeah, there were moments of trauma and stuff like that. But yeah, when you live in a neighborhood where everybody's just scraping by, you know, of course. Yeah, people going to rob. People going to steal. People are going to do whatever they got to do. But at the end of the day, like, there was so much good, too. And that's what I love about "In The Heights" because it's like, yo, we've seen the movies about the hood, and we've seen the movies about people shooting and people doing this, selling drugs and doing whatever.
But I'm grateful that we have a movie about a neighborhood like Washington Heights, where we just see people loving on each other and embracing each other and dancing together in the street and singing about where they're from, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and Mexico and Cuba and this diverse cast coming together as celebrating not only the community but where they come from and celebrating life, you know, especially after the year and a half we've had where people haven't even been able to connect with each other. You know what I'm saying? Like...
GROSS: I know what you're saying (laughter). I hear you.
RAMOS: It's a celebration.
GROSS: Yeah. One of the things that you're doing now is that you're in a Calvin Klein underwear ad campaign in these really sexy poses, like, with your pants half down (laughter) and the underwear showing and, you know, bare-chested. And did you ever imagine yourself in that kind of image? Did you think of yourself like, yeah, I'm sexy? (Laughter) OK.
RAMOS: No, I still - I mean, I still got to wake up some days and be like, yo, my man, you're good enough. Yo, my man, nah - you know, like you still have those days where you're like, man, my ears are big. My eyes look like this. You know, I got this one strand of hair that won't go down. You know what I'm saying? Like, there's, like - you know, you got to, like, remind myself, you bro, you OK. You're good, my G. And it was funny - my brother used to say to me - my brother would be like, yo, Ant, you're going to be an underwear model, bro because, you know, I'll be walking around the crib in my underwear all the time, laughing, making jokes, like - he's like, yo, my man, I'm telling you, bro. Work out. Yo, you going to be an underwear model. The Calvin Klein thing came. I was so surprised. I was like, what? Do they have the right person? And it was wild. I, like, wrapped this movie I was shooting in Budapest. And I had to run out of Budapest and travel 21 hours back to Los Angeles to do this photoshoot.
GROSS: Were there any poses you were asked to do where you said no, no, that's just, like, too much. I'm not going to do that, or that just seems silly. I'm not going to do that.
RAMOS: Nah. Anything that I might have thought about not doing made it in.
GROSS: Anthony Ramos, it's just been so much fun to talk with you. I just really appreciate it very much. And congratulations on this time in your life and all of these, like, fantastic opportunities and performances.
RAMOS: Well, thank you. Thanks. Thanks for having me, Terry. I appreciate it. It's been an amazing talk. I've enjoyed this so much. So thank you. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Anthony Ramos stars in the new film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical "In The Heights." He's one of the stars of the current HBO series "In Treatment" and he has a new album called "Love And Lies."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")
RAMOS: (As Usnavi de la Vega, rapping) Me and my cousin runnin' just another dime-a-dozen mom-and-pop stop-and-shop. And oh, my God, it's gotten too darn hot. Like my man Cole Porter said, people come through for a few cold waters and a lottery ticket, just a part of the routine. Everybody's got a job. Everybody's got a dream. They gossip as I sip my coffee and smirk...
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Ashley Ford. Her new best-selling memoir is about growing up Black and poor with a father in prison. Her mother was a corrections officer. Ford was in her teens when she finally was told that the crime her father was convicted of was rape. It was especially upsetting to learn that because she had been raped by a boy from school. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")
RAMOS: (As Usnavi de la Vega, rapping) ...Through the mess, bounced checks, and wonder what's next.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) In the heights, I buy my coffee and I go.
(As characters, singing) I buy my coffee and set my sights on only what I need to know.
(As characters, singing) I need to know.
(As characters, singing) In the heights, money is tight, but even so...
(As characters, singing) Even so...
(As characters, singing) When the lights go down I blast my radio.
COREY HAWKINS: (As Benny, singing) You ain't got no skills.
RAMOS: (As Usnavi de la Vega) Benny.
GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")
RAMOS: (As Usnavi de la Vega, rapping) This is our block.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) In the heights, I hang my flag up on display. It reminds me that I came from miles away... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.