Robin de Jesús received both critical acclaim and his third Tony nomination for his show stealing, hilarious yet soulful, performance as the fabulously flamboyant Emory in the Ryan Murphy produced 2018 Tony-winning Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play The Boys in the Band. He’s now reprising that role, alongside his all-star, all publicly gay identifying, ensemble cast in the Joe Mantello directed screen adaptation of his stage production, featuring Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannells, Charlie Carver, Brian Hutchison, Michael Benjamin Washington, and Tuc Watkins.
The performer was first introduced to film audiences back in 2003 at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals with his memorable turn in Todd Graff’s musical theatre teen comedy Camp starring a young Anna Kendrick. His many stage credits include the 2016 world premiere of Jordan Seavey’s Homos, or Everyone in America opposite Michael Urie, the original 2007 Off-Broadway production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, for which he received his first Tony nomination, and La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway in 2010, which saw him nominated for a second Tony.
Ahead of the global premiere of The Boys in the Band movie on Wednesday September 30th on Netflix, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Robin de Jesús about avoiding watching the original William Friedkin film on TV, overcoming an initial block in playing Emory, being able to go even deeper with the character when reprising the role on film, the pride he felt in being part of a gay ensemble cast, his experience of being an out performer, the sage advice Whoopi Goldberg gave him on embracing his first Tony nomination, and why The Color Purple had a lasting impact on him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What was your relationship to the play and the film before you got the call about doing the 2018 production of The Boys in the Band?
Robin de Jesús: “My initial experience with the movie was when I was in elementary school. I was sitting at home on the couch watching TV and I flipped to a random channel and there was this film. I saw these gay men in what looked like a period piece dancing on a rooftop and I was so fascinated by their existence in that time period. But then I immediately freaked out and looked around to see who was about and thought I’d better change the channel before someone finds out. Then I avoided that movie, but the visual of it always stayed with me. It wasn’t until years later, when I was doing a play Off-Broadway called Homos, or Everyone in America, which was a very socio-political play about all sorts of gay things, and The Boys in the Band was referenced in it. And I thought, ‘Hmmm, I wonder… I’ve never watched that movie…’, but I didn’t connect the dots. When I finally ended up watching it, I just freaked out. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is that movie, this is that thing!’ And then towards the end of that run of Homos, Joe Mantello our director on The Boys in the Band offered me the reading. So random.”
Tell me about collaborating with Joe Mantello to pitch Emory, in a way that brings light and shade to the character without losing any of the humour. There’s so much depth and nuance in that phone call sequence, but you manage to bring a lot to him throughout.
“I mean, here’s the thing, I didn’t have to think twice about playing Emory, when I read the script. I was like, this is what I’ve been waiting for! I’ve been wanting a role this nuanced and layered with a sucker punch monologue for a very long time. And I felt like I deserved that in the way that so many other talented people in my community are deserving of that. And for whatever reason I was being given that opportunity. So I wanted to take advantage of it. What was interesting going into the Broadway run was that I had this insecure moment. I knew my history, I knew my resume, I knew my worth, but just something with this character became really difficult for me to pin down. I knew him intellectually, I understood the period, I understood the oppression, I understood the shame, but it just wasn’t clicking. And the beauty of Joe Mantello was that he would give me love here and there, but he also wanted me to find it, he wasn’t going to coddle me through and honestly, it was the hardest character I’ve ever had to find. What it came down to was an acknowledgement of the privilege that I get to live with. Yes, there are obstacles in my life as a gay Latinx man, but it was a lot harder back then, and I didn’t fully receive that in my body. Then once I did, the coin dropped, and I found my Emory.”
There was about a year between the final curtain on Broadway and your first day of shooting on the film set wasn’t there? So that’s quite a long time for a character to marinate. I know you were doing other things in between, but what was it like coming back to Emory and do you feel you were able to bring anything different to your portrayal?
“It was so much fun because like I said that that initial experience on Broadway, it weighed on me. Up until the moment where I found Emory my shoulders were just up all the time, I was so tense. So to get a second chance at him from a relaxed place, from a place where it was only about the work and not my ego, to just really have fun with Emory and have fun with my cast was incredible. What’s also really cool is that the movie enabled me to go even deeper in terms of being present with the people around me, and that was just tasty, it was so good. Ultimately what I got out of it was Emory’s pride, I think I needed to lean into that more as a gay man myself, and so he he taught me that.”
What helped you to be more present with the people around you on the film set compared with on stage?
“What’s funny is, I actually felt very present on stage on Broadway, and anytime I had a moment where I was lacking stimulation I always knew I could turn to another corner, and I could make eye contact with someone. But by the time we got to the movie, I could go even deeper, sometimes there’s just more room than you thought. I think what helped too is that with a movie you look in this one direction, you don’t have everyone else there, they’re probably stepping away getting coffee or something, while you get this certain angle right, and so you just find new things.”
I remember when the cast was first announced and it felt really celebratory. I think it was an important piece of LGBTQ+ representation in itself. Even if people didn’t get to see the production, just seeing that poster and those names and faces on it given the fact that you guys all publicly identify as gay men was very exciting. What was that like from the inside?
“So cool! Oh, my God, it was not lost on us at all! And honestly, I think because from such a young age I have embraced my pride in being Puerto Rican, not that I was ever ashamed of being gay, but I didn’t really lean into that pride as much. Perhaps also because the gay community hasn’t always felt as welcoming to me as a person of colour, and so I just clung on to this other thing more, but being a part of this cast really woke me to that and really helped me find that pride and that ancestral gay power to step into, and to just be even more empowered.”
Bernard is written as an African American character, and with Emory his race is not specified in the original play but he is a Latinx character in this new film. Although it’s a late 1960s set movie, I found so much in it that’s relevant to today, one thing being that it has something to say about the intersection of queerness and race. What did you make of that aspect of the film?
“Oh, that conversation is what I love the most about Emory, it’s what attracts me most to him, and it is what I’m most proud of in the movie. As a very fair skinned Afro Latino man with a very close proximity to whiteness I know colorism, or I know a lot about it. I don’t want to claim to be some expert, because there’s an education there that I don’t have. But having a light skinned brown man say horribly transgressive things to a Black man, but also be someone who is also “othered” within his group of people, it’s very nuanced and very complicated. And it shows the power of white supremacy and anti-Blackness, it’s so real, we’re seeing it everywhere right now and we should be seeing it because it’s a reckoning. We have to acknowledge the privilege that comes from being white, or non-Black POC. I also think that it’s very parallel to how the gay community has treated our trans community. There’s been this thing for years of like, ‘Oh, we’re trying to get our rights, but we’ll drop y’all if that’s what it takes. We won’t always include y’all if you’re messing with us and what we want.’ And so I’m happy to be a part of a generation that is more welcoming of who is deserving of human rights.”
52 years ago, and not even as far back as that, but that’s when the original play was coming together, and at that time the performers’ agents and managers were very cautious about their clients taking on gay roles. And there was some stigma attached to the cast after the movie came out in 1970. What’s your own journey been like as an actor who publicly identifies as gay, and has it been an evolution?
“It’s hard. I mean, the first film I ever did, I was 17 and at that time I identified as bi. I recognised that I was gay when I was 18, turning 19, but at the beginning of my career, I was already out. I was really worried about it. It kind of weighed on me, but also that’s why the theatre community saved me. The theatre community has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to sexuality, and they’ve always been more inclusive. We’ve always been able to have the fluidity to play gay and straight roles, and so I got to rest on that a bit.”
“Looking back, there was a journalist who was interviewing me at the Sundance Film Festival, and I hadn’t said anything publicly, and this person just assumed, and they did it in a way that was very aggressive and very intentional. They wanted to be the one to call me out as being gay. And I wigged, I just felt so triggered, because no one should be robbed of their moment with sexuality and so I called my agent, I said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what to do, because this question is going to come up a lot. What do you think I should say?’ I tried to put the responsibility on her. And she said, ‘Listen, whatever you’re ready for. If you want to come out as gay, I support that, if you want to just hold it down and be on the DL for a little bit, I’ll support that too. But I think it’s important for you to make that decision.’ And I chose to come out by not coming out, but by just existing, you know. And it did effect my career especially because I played a lot of effeminate roles and effeminate gay men are perceived as only being able to play effeminate, and I wasn’t given the opportunity to play straight wasn’t until Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the musical In the Heights. I got to play little cousin Sonny, and I got a Tony nomination for that. People forgot that for years, that I got a Tony nomination for a very straight role. A young dude who loves kicking it to the ladies. And by the time I got to La Cage aux Folles when I played the effeminate maid, somehow that was forgotten. So it does effect things, but you know what? Straight people don’t get criticised for only playing straight. No one ever thinks, ‘Oh, you’re not talented because you’ve never pushed yourself to play gay.’ Whereas being an out gay actor, if you only play gay characters, it’s kind of assumed, ‘Oh, you can’t do anything else,’ as if to say that gayness doesn’t have diversity, as if to say that we don’t have all kinds of stories. And just to tie it back to Mart Crowley, our beautiful original playwright, you look at the nine characters in this movie, and they have more diversity in their personalities than most of the gay characters being written today.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, book, play, musical, artwork, piece of music or person; someone or something that’s resonated with you over the years and made an impact on you and why?
“I’m gonna annoy people, but The Color Purple. The first time I saw Shug kiss Celie and Whoopi Goldberg’s face just lit up it got me as a kid, and still to this day when I watch that movie it will get me. And I think also because that story is so related to spirituality and faith. I think those two things layered together just really comforted me.”
And you had a significant encounter with Whoopi Goldberg in your own life, didn’t you?
“Oh, my God, I love that you know that. Yes! She came through for me! I was doing In the Heights and the Tony nominations came out, and severe passing syndrome came in. I felt guilty that someone like me got to succeed outside of the hood, but so many other equally deserving people who are just as hard working, if not more hard working than me, would never get to experience that opportunity. And it was this weird thing where my mind was trying to self-sabotage a really, really beautiful moment. And I said something to Whoopi when she came to see the show and she kind of read into it, and she did this thing that I feel like so many wise women do, she took a deep breath and she decided whether or not she was going to drop knowledge on me or just mind her own business. Thankfully, she chose to exhale and schooled me, and what she said was, ‘You know what, babe, there’s only one thing you can do wrong right now in your life, and that is disrespect what’s been given to you. And the only way you can disrespect this opportunity is by not celebrating it because if you don’t celebrate the fact that you got this nomination this will never happen to you again. You cannot disrespect the beautiful things that happen to you in your life.'”
By James Kleinmann