Robin De Jesus: Anatomy of a Tony Nomination

By Jeff Walsh

When I last interviewed Robin De Jesus in February 2007, it was the afternoon before the opening night of the Off-Broadway run of In The Heights. The show has since shut its doors Off-Broadway, retooled for a proper Broadway run, and has since swept the Tony nominations in the musical category, with 13 nominations including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (for show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda), Best Direction and Best Choreography.

But the nomination that brings us together here is Best Featured Performer in a Musical, for which Robin is one of the five nominees. I've been a fan of Robin's since first seeing him in the sweet movie Camp, where he played a gay teen with a straight crush. I'll be seeing In The Heights the next time I'm on the east coast (the show was dark between its Off-Broadway and Broadway runs when I was there last time).

So, between feeling so happy for Robin and figuring I should jump on any chance to feature a 23-year-old openly gay actor nominated for creating a role in a hot show on Broadway, we jumped on the phone recently to capture his life in this unique window before the awards air on CBS on June 15.

Here's what we had to say:

So, let's start at the beginning of all this... the Tony nominations were going to be announced that morning and you were on Good Morning America...

It was crazy. We got up at four in the morning. Monday was my day off, so I had a reading that day for a musical I was doing. So Tuesday morning, I had to get up at four in the morning to go do Good Morning America, so it was a long, long day. And I had another reading that day later on.

So, we're rehearsing for Good Morning America and we're outside for a while. We were going to perform between 8:30 and nine o'clock. So, right before that, we started rehearsing the little added stuff that we were going to do, like between commercials and stuff?

So as we're rehearsing, someone says, "Oh, they have the Tony nominations." And the nominations weren't supposed to come out until 8:30, but the nominations leaked out early on the Internet by mistake. So someone from Good Morning America had print out the nomination list already. So, I was like, "What?!" So, I ran over behind the camera crew and all the people from our production office happened to be there, because our production office is right around the corner.

So, they all had the sheets and I was going up to them and someone said, "Oh, Robin needs to see that." And I was like, "Why would *I* need to see... I'm not the only cast member here... Why does Robin have to see it?"

My heart started racing and the stage manager turns around and goes, "Yeah, someone should give Robin that. He needs to see that. My heart is just racing. We're in the middle of Times Square, to make it worse, because we're getting ready to shoot.

And I go to the list, and they won't let me see the first page. They insist on skipping to the second page, which drives me more crazy because I'm like, "Why can't I just go from the top?"

So, I go to the second page, and they point to my category and my name was there. And I let out like a moan and a scream of like tears and joy? But then, I immediately went, "Oh, I have to perform." I had to sing a little in the show, and I had been so tired from the morning that I knew if I let myself emotionally go there, that I wouldn't be able to perform.

And it's like the worst thing that I could have done, in that I had heartburn for the rest of the day. I just felt like all this tension was just sitting in my chest. But I had little moments of, you know, turning to my cast, and going 'I got nominated' and freaking out.

But what was really crazy was we recorded Good Morning America in the middle of Times Square, and we were right across the street from the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., where I used to wait tables. And I was *miserable* there, and I was literally 20 feet away from it. And to have been there, for that moment, was just so crazy. Like, life is just so weird and so funny, and it made me even more grateful for the moment, you know?

And the other thing that was crazy is we have a documentary crew that followed us from Off Broadway to Broadway, just filming to see if anything can be eventually used for whatever reason. And they got this crazy shot of me after we recorded and were done with everything, which was like a half hour total. I went behind the camera and I put my head down, and I had my hoodie on, and I just started to cry.

And I realized there was a camera on me and when I look up at the camera's angle, the camera got a shot of me with Bubba Gump's in the background. And I'm just like, "Those bastards, my life is giving you the best shot ever." But it's been wonderful.

The first two days have been rough, but now I feel wonderful.

And did you see this coming at all? Did you entertain the thought that "Wouldn't it be amazing if..."?

I think anytime you originate a role, you know that it can happen, just because you have a role. It's conceivable. However, I don't have a song in the show, and I'm in the musical category, so I just thought that would make it incredibly difficult. And I knew this role that I have, he's so wonderful and his arc is very strong. I know that book-wise I had this great, great character. So I knew if I did my work right it could conceivably happen because the role was so great.

But the two things against me were I didn't have a song and there were star turns on Broadway, like Harvey Fierstein and Tony Roberts. And I thought, there's no way they're not going to get nominated. You know?

I just thought there were too many people in my category to get nominated. So it was crazy to find out.

That was actually the first thing I did. As soon as I saw the nominations online, I scrolled to your category to looking for both your name and Harvey's, before I even saw Best Musical, that was my first stop.

Thank you! And, you know what's been the crazy part, too? A lot of people who see my name don't know who the hell I am. They're actually really shocked, and that's really cool and crazy to me. It's really fun for me to go to these events and people go, "Who the hell is this kid?" I think that's really funny. And I haven't felt like anyone's given me an ungenuine congratulations. That's been the really cool part.

I was talking with Broadway.com, and they said, all the other categories, people kind of knew who was going to get nominated for stuff. But the general consensus is that mine was the sort-of shocker. Like mine is the one where people thought it was really cool that it actually happened. So that's been really great.

The people at Broadway.com said to me, when they were looking down the nominations they were like, "yeah, yeah, whatever, whatever..." But they said that when they read my name, they literally all screamed. And I just thought that was so cool and so sweet. It's crazy.

Well, I couldn't resist getting you on the phone again before the awards. I mean, young, openly gay actor that I know is up for a Tony? I have to milk this...

(laughs) No, please. Milk away. May there be many young gay kids that have the same thing happen.

How does this affect you in the show now? Is there any of this floating around in your head when your onstage for two and a half hours?

Not anymore. There was a moment when we were in previews where I was thinking about the critics and stuff, and it fucks with my performance. It really does. I think the biggest blessing that's come out of this nomination is that now that it's all happened, I feel like, it's done. Now I can just do the work.

And that, more than the nomination, is even more gratifying. It wouldn't have happened without the nomination, but now all I do is focus on the show and there are no other thoughts. There's nothing getting in the way and causing me to pull out because I'm thinking about other things.

Honestly, when we were in previews for Broadway... because when you go from Off-Broadway to Broadway, there's more of a serious tone, and I think there's a reason that plays are called plays. And there was a moment Off-Broadway where, when things started getting serious, I started having really bad shows and I started having breakdowns backstage. And I would think, "Oh my God, I don't remember my lines."

It started because one day, in one of my raps, I just blanked. And no one noticed it, but I knew. And the pressure of it all started making me have freakouts backstage. I was putting importance on things that were not the show, and right now, that's what I need to be focusing on. And, thankfully, I feel like when I'm at the theater, that's what I'm doing.