As Jonathan's best friend Michael, Robin De Jesus is tick, tick...BOOM's Oscar-worthy heart. So why isn't he getting the attention he deserves?
In the musical film, De Jesus puts his entire heart out for the audience to see. It's through his pain, joy, and the love that he and Jonathan (Andrew Garfield) share that Jonathan is able to see why living in the now and embracing the time you've got matters so much. The movie just wouldn't have an impact unless the actor playing Michael was able to capture the hearts of viewers, and that's why it works.
"I'll never forget the feeling of shooting the scene in the street with me and Andrew," De Jesus says. "That argument scene vibrated really intensely, and we knew it was special the moment we got to set. We finished the rehearsal, and Lin (Manuel Miranda, the film's director) said, 'Let's hurry up.' He rushed the crew because he felt there was something in the air and he was worried about losing it. That was the night that was most like church."
De Jesus has been listening to the Broadway cast recording of tick, tick...BOOM! since he was in high school, so when it came time to join the movie, he was ready.
One important decision he made was to focus on Michael as a friend, and not just as the businessman he's normally portrayed as. "I didn't really have an interest in showing executive realness, I was more interested in showing what Michael looks like when he's chilling at home with his friends," De Jesus says. "And so that was a big thing for me, because that allowed me just to focus on the humanity, sometimes the suit thing can take away from that."
Stepping out of the suit also helped he and Garfield realize that the movie is a love story between the two of them, even if Jonathan happens to be straight.
"We're realizing it, but Andrew was the one that actually labeled it a love story, and when that happened, it elevated everything," he says. "That enabled us to have more permission to be intimate and vulnerable with one another as the characters."
While lead star Andrew Garfield is deservedly getting Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations, De Jesus has been conspicuously absent from recent award talks.
Part of the reason has to do with the Academy's reluctance to nominate queer actors, especially for playing queer roles. In fact, apart from Ian McKellan being nominated in 1999 and 2002 for Gods and Monsters and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring respectively, no out gay actors have been recognized on the Oscar stage.
According to Vanity Fair, in the 20 years since McKellan's last nomination, there have been three dozen queer characters whose actors were nominated for Oscars. All of them have been played by cis and straight actors. Olivia Colman, Sean Penn, Charlize Theron, Mahershala Ali, Jared Leto, Rami Malek, and Nicole Kidman have all won Oscars in that time for playing queer roles.
"I think people think that if you're a gay person playing a gay role, that's not acting," De Jesus says. "A straight guy plays straight his whole career and no one goes, 'Oh, they must not be very talented, I've never seen them play gay.' But the inverse is a common belief."
But De Jesus didn't just act in tick, tick...BOOM!, he soared. He pushed himself to the limit, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. For "No More," he had to learn the choreography at triple and quadruple speed to create the special effects. But he was able to do it all by tapping into something bigger than himself.
"There was something that helped me really dig into the role, and I didn't name it at the time, but realized it afterward: it was acknowledging the spirituality of it all and calling in Jonathan (Larson, who wrote the play and died in 1996)," he says. "You're so present and so available that you are humble enough to know that there's something else working through you. And you're a vessel."
"And it's corny when people say it, but it was so beautiful to have Jonathan as a method of accessibility and to be able to just literally, I would just talk to him. If I was having an insecure day, I'd be like, 'Jonathan, I did the work, but I'm feeling messy right now. If you want this to be good, I think you need to show up.'"
And god, did Jonathan show up. The scene shows Michael celebrating the good things he has in his life as he moves out of his dingy and broken-down apartment with Jonathan to a new, fancier one with a doorman and a view. De Jesus says it was his favorite scene to film, and that it felt like a triumph when they finished it.
"I loved 'No More,' as much as it was so hard to learn that choreo, when we shot that final sequence, when we were in the tailcoats and bow ties, and me and Andrew were dancing through the lobby, that was just joyous," he says. "And we were exhausted, but cackling, just having the best time."
He didn't just channel Larson, though, he also channeled all of the people who went before him. "Understanding that I have the privilege of inserting my Latine and Black and brown ancestors who died of HIV, but whose stories don't get told" was important for De Jesus. "I'm calling in on these spirits and these ancestors to now take up their space."
Even if he's not nominated, De Jesus still feels proud and knows that he's made a difference. And he encourages others to keep pushing, no matter how many times they're ignored.
"Be you, be authentically, unapologetically you. Understand that all those 'no's are blessings," he says. "Some of them are just that you might not be right for something, and some of them are coming from a place of ignorance, but do not let that ignorance make you think that you have to be different than who you are."
tick, tick...BOOM! is streaming on Netflix.
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