“Tell me something I don’t know,” salon girls Daniela, Cuca, and Carla trill while trimming bangs, painting nails, and waxing mustaches in this year’s splashy In the Heights. While it may seem like they’re combing for gossip, the women, played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, Dascha Polanco, and Stephanie Beatriz, say their business is far more than a café con leche klatch. “It’s about what we bring to the community,” says Polanco. “There’s nothing wrong with a little brush of the hair, and the confidence that comes with it.”
Directed by Jon M. Chu and based on Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Tony Award–winning musical, In the Heights—a film that is “the perfect vax summer treat”—is finally getting the big-screen treatment after being shelved for a year due to the pandemic. “This movie has medicinal properties,” says Rubin-Vega. “That unbridled joy just pops out at you.”
Throughout the musical, Rubin-Vega, Polanco, and Beatriz are hardly seen without each other—or their characters’ signature crop tops and belt bags, for that matter. “These three people know that they function better together than separately,” says Beatriz. And that connection seems to have seeped into real life, too, with all three actresses sharing stories and inside jokes with Vanity Fair over videoconference on a weekend in June. “We’re like a really balanced triple threat,” says Polanco.
Vanity Fair: What was your relationship to In the Heights before joining the cast?
Stephanie Beatriz: I have known Quiara [Alegría Hudes, the playwright] for a long time. The first professional play that I ever did was a Quiara play. We were young in New York together, and I remember her saying to me, “I think I might write the book for this new musical by this guy named Lin.” I saw the original workshop production, where half of the blocking was just people sitting in black chairs on the side of the stage. I was so moved because I had never seen anything like it before—it was incredible to watch a musical and see people that look like you up there.
Daphne Rubin-Vega: Fun fact—I was actually the voice of the DJ on the radio at the top of the show during the first incarnations off-Broadway, and then on Broadway. I was the DJ who warned you that it was going to be a scorcher!
Dascha Polanco: I didn’t get to see it on Broadway. In my community, financially it’s not a thing we have the chance to take part of. I knew that it existed and was like, ‘Oh, that’s amazing. One day.’ And then my ‘one day’ turned into being a part of the film.
I’m an immigrant and an example of coming to New York City and having a dream. The dream you have is not necessarily believable or supported, because it just doesn’t happen for us so often. You need security—be a doctor, a lawyer, go to school and do what you’re supposed to do. You don’t have time to dream of these fantasy careers. There were so many emotions that came into play about life as I was shooting. It’s like this parallel universe where you realize that you’re not alone.
The movie adaptation of In the Heights has been a huge deal since it was announced all the way back in 2008. What was your casting process like?
Rubin-Vega: I think the whole Latino acting community on the planet knew that this film was going to be made. We all auditioned. I waited as patiently as I could. People thought that because I knew Quiara and Lin, or that I had theater experience, I knew something others didn’t. I was like, “I got nothing. I’m just sitting here waiting.” I’m not going to lie—it was an opportunity of timing and incredible luck. We are very fortunate to be here, because there are a lot of wonderful actors out there.
Polanco: I had never seen an audition room where everyone was a reflection of my family. I was like, ‘Oh, shit. This is a first.’ It didn’t become a competition. It wasn’t ‘I hope this bitch doesn’t get it,’ or anything like that. It was more that we all want to have the opportunity to audition for something, and regardless of the outcome, look at what’s happening. I had never seen such a diverse auditioning room.
It looks like you had so much fun filming, and the three of you seem to have such a tight bond. Was there anything you did to solidify your trio’s dynamic?
Rubin-Vega: Well, we had our own boot camp. In April, we met, learned the songs, and sang together, and in May, we were together every day in the studio rehearsing the choreography. We were really marinating and living together, so that by the time we were shooting in June, we were locked, loaded, and prepared. When we weren’t together, all we did was sleep! But every moment that we spent together was truly charged with magic.
Polanco: We all have qualities that balance our trio. It’s like the yin and yang: I’m the black, Stephanie is the white, and Daphne is both of the dots. I learned from Stephanie and Daphne. Being in the studio was the first time telling the world I love singing. Everybody had to be there while we were recording—Lin, the producers…and then Stephanie walked in with a voice humidity oxygen mask.
Beatriz: Yeah, man. That was rough. I was so nervous.
Polanco: And then Daphne was singing, and I was like, My underarms are sweating. These bitches are really prepared. I’m in here with my nerves and I don’t know how I’m going to do this. But once the lights dimmed, it just became a vibe. I felt like I wasn’t in this by myself. They have my back and I have theirs.
Beatriz: I think it really speaks to the kind of people Jon, Lin, Quiara, and our producers work with, because it all starts from the top. They brought us all together, and we respect that we have different ways of working as artists—but that by collaborating, we could find stuff to bring spark and magic into scenes. I think you can particularly see the three of us functioning as a trinity in the Carnaval scene.
That trinity reminded me of a Greek chorus, or the Schuyler sisters from Hamilton, or the narrators from Little Shop of Horrors. How did you all view the relationship?
Rubin-Vega: I felt like we were the witches with a cauldron, stirring the pot.
Beatriz: I saw it as Daniela [Rubin-Vega] is the de facto head priestess, with the two of us there to support her and the community. When you join forces, the thing that you’re making is ultimately going to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Rubin-Vega: Absolutely. We’re the chorus—we advocate for and protect the community. We spill the tea, we provide the childcare, we take care of the grooming. Also specifically in the Latino communities writ large, the touching of the head is so sacred, and most people don’t do it well unless they’re a part of your community. That’s a huge point that is not really taken lightly.
A lot of gossip takes place in Daniela’s salon too.
Rubin-Vega: “Gossip” is a word that feels loaded and judgmental. I’ve been known to spill some tea and speak honestly. If you tell me something in confidence, it is confidential. That said, if somebody is unkind, I will let the world know. But gossip for gossip’s sake? I’ll keep my mouth shut and let other people talk.
Beatriz: There’s a saying I love: “Sit straight and talk crooked.” It means sit with your friends, but talk shit. I think a certain amount of gossip is healthy. Listen, I love Real Housewives. It’s hilarious to me. Any time I fly, I take an Us Weekly and a People magazine. I love that kind of stuff.
Polanco: I think we all like to know certain things that are spicy. I love spicy information.
What was your favorite scene to film?
Beatriz: Carnaval was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever prepared to do, and it was also one of the most rewarding because it was so collectively joyful. It was such a special day, but it also involved me waking up at 5 a.m. for three weeks and going to the gym to try to remember all of the dance steps. It was hard for me—I’m not a professional dancer! Dascha, do you remember when Jon was like, “This choreography is really complicated. Do you guys want to stand in the back?”
Polanco: I was like, “Absolutely not! I’m doing this.” There’s something about that scene—everyone worked so hard. There was a day during one of the practices that I literally ran to the bathroom and threw up. I would wear leg warmers because I thought I was a real dancer.
Rubin-Vega: We had been rehearsing in a controlled environment—A.C., floors with suspension, and everything. And then we get to this uneven concrete floor with stairs, hundreds of dancers and 100 degree weather. I remember at one point saying to Lin, “I am drenched!” And he was like, “It’s the hottest day. Of course you’re drenched!” And that’s what we want—we used it.
At one point during the scene, I told Jon that it bothered me that there wasn’t a Panamanian flag in the scene. He told me, “There’s a lot going on, but don’t worry, we’ll CGI it later.” So when I saw the movie and the flag of the country where I was born was represented, the feeling in my body was amazing. My mother came to this country to get a better life for her and hers, and that’s why I’m sitting here today.
How did you spend your time in Washington Heights when you weren’t filming?
Polanco: I got my nails done for the movie at a salon in the projects in the Bronx. I recommended her to all of the dancers too. We shopped a lot at the small businesses around—restaurants, $10 dress shops…
Rubin-Vega: Low-key the best hair products are in Washington Heights.
Beatriz: Yeah, there was a lot of shopping going on.
Lastly, we have to know: What’s your bodega order?
Rubin-Vega: A coffee and an empanada.
Beatriz: Egg and cheese on a roll, with a can of Diet Coke.
Polanco: Let me get a chop cheese, a café con leche, and an avena, thank you very much.
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