In the Heights, the new Jon M. Chu film adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, is the movie of the summer, largely thanks to its massive musical numbers and impressive cast. One member of that cast is Corey Hawkins; best known for theater and projects like Straight Outta Compton and 24: Legacy, Hawkins shines in this film as Benny, the friendly radio dispatcher and Washington Heights homebody.
I had the chance to talk with Hawkins about his favorite parts of the film, his connection to Benny and the Heights, and the well-timed release of this vibrant summer hit.
Taryn Allen: I’m curious if you saw In the Heights as a stage musical before making the movie.
Corey Hawkins: Funnily enough, In the Heights was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway. So full circle moment.
Meant to be!
Yeah, I got to watch Chris Jackson do his thing as Benny, and I just remember being like, Whoa, this is what Broadway musicals are. And then I saw a few that . . . didn’t quite add up to In the Heights, that weren’t quite as groundbreaking I should say. But yeah, to now be a part of this is just dope. It’s special.
Was that a strong enough memory that you were pulling things from that show, or from Chris’s performance, when you did this?
I mean, I remember Chris’s performance vividly. I remember, there’s one particular, like, dance move. [laughs] I don’t know. Chris just had swag. And I wanted Benny to have some swag too. I think Benny has that. But Chris also can just sing his ass off. Chris Jackson is just incredible. I remember seeing him at the Tonys a few years back and just being like . . . kinda starstruck, you know? He’s cool now. But I was just in awe of him. And you know he got to be in this film too, which is great.
How much knowledge did you have about Washington Heights and about New York City immigrant culture before you did this film? What did you learn from the people that you worked with?
So because I went to school there, I actually lived in the Heights for a short period of time. Just off of 168th, that was my train stop. And then I moved further up town, to Inwood, and then ultimately sort of settled in Harlem. So I sort of ran the gamut from the upper west side, downtown, also in Brooklyn.
But yeah, it just . . . wasn’t even a thing, like I never felt outside of it. I never felt unwelcome, you know? Because I was walking down the street and I honestly saw people who look like me—Black and from the Latinx community—and we all were just trying to get through together. And particularly, those Sunday mornings where you wake up and it’s the “mm mm mm chicka mm mm mm,” like the window’s open and the hydrants are open . . . You know all of that was just a beautiful memory for me, living there, because those were some of my formative years, as I was shaping who I was as an artist. And then to be able to work on this movie with this incredible cast who I now call family. Just the gift, you know. They call me an honorary Latino, and I’m like, I don’t know if I’m worthy, [laughs]. But I take it and I’m grateful. There’s just a ton of gratitude.
You really get that sense from watching the movie—I feel like it captures that pretty well. I’ve never been to New York City, and I’m white, but I watch it and I’m like, “Wow, I just feel like part of this neighborhood.” It’s really cool!
You’ve never been to New York!?
No, I grew up upstate but I’ve never been!
Whoa! We gotta get you to New York, Taryn!
Yeah, I know!
Well, you been there because you watched In the Heights [laughs].
The film was obviously made before the pandemic, and before this global reckoning for Black Lives Matter, and the musical was written a while ago. But how do you feel like a release this summer is going to land, in this moment?
Everything sort of happens in its own timing. And everything happens for a reason. I’m a strong believer of that. Getting out of the way and allowing the universe to sort of do its thing. This movie was talked about being produced and made years ago, years ago. Right after it’d won Tonys on Broadway [in 2008]. And for whatever reason, it didn’t happen then. And then we finally shot it in that beautiful summer [of 2019]. And then the pandemic.
You know, we were starting to ramp up for press, and then the pandemic just leveled us. And I think we all just took a collective breath and we were wondering—I think Warner Brothers was also wondering—how to release it, whether or not we should wait, and [director] Jon [M. Chu] and [creator] Lin[-Manuel Miranda] and [screenplay and book writer] Quiara [Alegría Hudes] were all on board to just wait. You know, the Broadway show still resonates to this day, so the movie is gonna resonate a year later. And that’s a testament to the film, too, because it’s resonating now just like it would have last year, just like it will 20 years down the line, 50 years down the line, whenever.
Especially going through what we went through—we watched this country sort of cry out, and we watched people stand up and try to be seen, and again the pandemic was the great leveler. We all had to sit at home, and sit with ourselves and think about who we are, and where we are, and how we operate as a country and as people, when we finally come back together.
And now, literally, as this movie is coming out, we’re finally coming back together. And this film is all about community. So what better way than a big old, huge musical that’s like, hella fun and just a good time, but also reminds us about how important it is to look at each other and see each other and just feel each other, and understand those differences and the beauty in those differences. So I’m just thankful that it’s coming out right now. Couldn’t be a better time, right? Also to bring people back into the theaters, which is where you wanna see this movie.
Is there a specific scene or aspect of it that you’re most excited for audiences to see? What are you most proud of?
Ahh that’s hard. That’s a hard one. I don’t know. Every scene.
“Carnaval [del Barrio]” was just the craziest scene to shoot because of that energy of the New York dance community—and shout-out to our incredible choreographers, led by Chris Scott, [associate choreographers] Ebony [Williams], Emilio [Dosal], Dana [Wilson], [associate Latin choreographer] Eddie [Torres Jr.], [assistant Latin choreographer] Princess [Serrano]—they all were our rocks. Really the choreography throughout the whole film. The New York dance community, I think that’s a huge point of pride. Because they hadn’t really been seen.
Sometimes it’s just one form of dance, like this form of dance or that one. I mean, we were doing Busby Berkeley in the pool, we were doing hip-hop over here and flamenco over here and a little salsa, merengue, and all these just melded into these beautiful numbers. “96,000” showcased that.
But my favorite favorite favorite to shoot was probably “When the Sun Goes Down,” on the side of a building.
What kind of preparation did you have to do for all that dancing, and for your role in general? So many of those numbers had so many people and so much going on at once.
Yeah it was a big vision from Jon at the beginning. I remember him saying, “No harnesses. We’re gonna actually be on the side of the building.”
I’m like, “Hmm, I can’t wait to watch the doubles do that.”
He’s like, “What doubles, you doing this. You and Leslie [Grace] about to be up there doing it.”
We had rehearsed and rehearsed, and we’d learned whole combinations that never ended up in that piece. The music ended up having to change based on how Leslie and I were feeling in the moment. And again, we’d shoot it all—we would start on the fire escape. As they’re going down, I have to hold my weight as if I’m standing upright, but I’m literally parallel to the ground. But the way he shot it, in VR—he planned it in VR, so he could get his angles and stuff—you’d see VR me dancing and VR Leslie dancing. So we had to be a part of that, which was incredible. And then yeah, the building goes down, you come off of it, and you dance all the way back onto it, and then you slide down—we were sliding down as it was going back up—and the kiss. I mean it was just . . . When I think back on it, I’m like, Oh man, we were Cirque du Soleil!
But it was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Literal blood, sweat, and tears in the rehearsal room, because we felt the pressure to get it right and to do it right, and we felt that we owed it to not only this community, but Lin and Jon and Quiara, and just doing justice to these characters.
Yeah, my brain was like, What kind of movie magic wizardry is happening . . . It’s so cool.
It was great [laughs].
Had you worked with Leslie before? What was it like building up your chemistry for that role?
Leslie and I, funnily enough, the first time we met was on the street, right near Bernie Telsey’s—our casting director, our awesome casting director, shout-out to him, because the way he put this together was incredible. We met right outside of the building, we put our hands on the door. I kid you not, she was coming from this way, I was coming from that way. We were both walking down the street and we put our hands on the door handle at the same time and were like “. . . Hey.”
It’s always awkward before a chemistry read or a test, you know you meet people that you don’t know, but you do know, from their work. Like of course I know Leslie from her music. So we ride the elevator up together, and from then on it kind of felt like we knew. Once we went into the room and read, it was just great to lean on her.
And I watched this movie unfold through her eyes, because it was her first film. So I got to be like, reminded of the magic of what we do. Like sometimes we get so . . . It becomes like work instead of the gift that it is to go to work every day. And I was just thankful for that because she sort of brought that innocence out of me again. To be able to lean on each other was great. Especially in the studio, because I was nervous as hell.
What about this story and Benny’s character do you connect with on a personal note?
I love Benny—he’s just rooted. He’s just a good time. Like I was saying with Chris Jackson, I just remember watching and seeing everybody else wanting to sort of run away from home, and Benny’s sort of standing there like, “Guys, this is home. Where you going?” And Benny, he says it at the very beginning, he says, “When you’re home, everything’s better. And it doesn’t matter where you go, you take home with you. You can go back to Stanford, Nina, but you will still take this piece of who you are with you, when you’re in those spaces, when you feel like you have to code-switch or you feel that impostor syndrome sort of sneaking in.”
So we talked through a lot of those things as we were building the characters and just working through it, but I just love his rootedness and I love that he reminds people that home is where your greatest dreams are. That stays with me, because it is, it’s true. v