Javier Muñoz has embodied many roles throughout his career. He’s been Hamilton’s “sexy Hamilton” and In The Heights’ Usnavi. As an HIV+ gay man and cancer surivor, he’s also stepped into the role of advocate for countless causes in his life. The actor has even taken on 2016's OUT100 Breakout of the Year, but it’s his next role that may be his most impactful—and his most casual.
Later this year, Muñoz is taking a seat at the table of a new, weekly dinner party, called Man Enough, that will explore what it means to be a man today. The new show, moderated by Jane the Virgin’s Justin Baldoni, will feature Muñoz alongside a rotating cast of men who’re opening up about issues men have long repressed, with conversations about manhood, masculinity, feminism and body image taking center stage at the dinner table.
For Muñoz, it’s a perfect fit after decades of interaction with masculinity in all forms. From his childhood in Brooklyn's violent Linden Projects and New Jersey's farm country to the high school theater and '90s gay New York, he’s seen it all and still endured. Ahead of the show's debut later this year, Muñoz called us from his Toronto hotel room to discuss toxic masculinity in his youth, self-discovery in his high school theater class, and how Lin-Manuel Miranda helped him rewrite what it means to be a leading man on Broadway.
Photo: Justin Baldoni and Javier Muñoz
OUT: You grew up in the Linden Projects, where it was very violent. What kind of toxic masculinity did you experienced at that time?
Javier Muñoz: I was born and raised there, and was 12 years old when we moved out of that neighborhood, so the building blocks of my understanding of masculinity start there. It was a violent and aggressive neighborhood—one where emotion was not welcome. Leaving my apartment and going to school and going about my daily life was about aggression, no expression and certainly not joy, [so] masculinity immediately was defined to me by being emotionless. It was about not expressing what you felt unless what you felt was aggression, anger or power.
Did that understanding shift when you joined theater in high school?
It actually started to shift slowly in junior high school. When we moved out of that neighborhood, my family bought a house in New Jersey for a short time in farm country. It was a total turnaround. That was the beginning of my understanding that what I had learned was not the only way to be. The New Jersey area we lived in was a military area, so I was meeting military men and it was another version of masculinity. Even though they were different examples, there was still that energy of not expressing a lot. It was almost like there was a valve on your masculinity.
In high school, when I discovered the theater program, I finally started to understand how different it could be. Theater gave me this freedom to literally be myself and that’s when all the real discovery happened internally. Not just creatively and artistically, but as a young teenager in those years, I was finally able to discover myself through being an artist.
How does masculinity and femininity interact in your life today?
I think you can’t have one without the other. Both exist in everyone to varying degrees and it’s about a person’s own willingness to accept those parts of themselves and enjoy them. Both are beautiful, powerful and necessary. The more we embrace that, the more complete we are as people.
Photography: Gavin Bond
As an openly HIV+ gay man, how have you grappled with masculinity in our own community?
It’s really interesting. I grew up in New York and my teenage years were in the ‘90s. There were so many dynamics happening at that time amongst gay men. In the ‘90s, masculinity as a gay man was defined by your physical body. You were masculine if you had muscles. That was so confusing to me because I’m not built—I’m a very slender guy and I’m a dancer, but I consider myself completely masculine. It was nonsense to me. I felt like it was laughable. Just because you’ve got muscles doesn’t make you masculine.
It was also a time when we were coming out of the ‘80s and the impact of AIDS. There was definitely a stigma attached to being skinny and thin as a gay man. That was very real and there’s a whole generation of men in my life who were mentors and friends and helped me become the gay man I was going to become. They were my guides and angels and they’re gone, so I understood that there was an element of gay men needing to prove that they were healthy.
How did that affect your acting?
I found it necessary at the time to prove that the way people were defining men and masculinity was not the only the way to define it. I will say, the greatest turnaround for me was meeting Lin-Manuel Miranda and creating Usnavi [for In The Heights] together. At the time, leading men on Broadway had to be these buff guys and that’s not who Lin was—Lin and I were both slender. Here we were creating this character who’s going to be a slender dude. That was a breakthrough and it was very empowering to create this character who’s breaking the mold of what leading men looked like at the time.
It was great and wonderful and, amongst all that, there was the element of being HIV positive and knowing that I was always going to be out about that. To this day, there are people who want me to be silent about it. I still get people on social media who ask why I’m proud of that and I’m like, Because it’s me and why are you scared of it? Let’s talk about your fear. It’s amazing that I still have to be aggressive about that, but it does filter into my definition of masculinity. To me, masculinity is a person’s inner strength, their power and their fire. That manifests in all sorts of ways, but I don’t believe that it’s gender specific. It’s about the human being.