Anthony Ramos Takes the Lead

It’s hard to imagine a better Usnavi for In the Heights, but the actor never thought he’d get the part.

Interview by Lynn Hirschberg
Photography by Tim Walker
Styled by Sara Moonves

Anthony Ramos wears Adidas Originals by Wales Bonner shorts and sneakers.
Anthony Ramos wears Adidas Originals by Wales Bonner shorts and sneakers.

Back in 2015, when Lin-Manuel Miranda was putting together the original cast for Hamilton, he tapped a young Anthony Ramos in a dual role that included playing his Hamilton's son, Philip. Three years later, Ramos would play Usnavi, a character loosely based on Miranda in In the Heights at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Upon seeing Ramos in the role, the playwright took to Twitter and likened the joy of watching Ramos to that of a proud father watching his son follow in his footsteps. So, perhaps it was destined that Ramos’s first leading role in a major studio film would be reprising the part for Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of In the Heights. For W’s Best Performances issue, Ramos muses on the teachers who inspired him, angering his mom by listening to Eminem, and why his electricity bill almost forced him to take another role instead.

How did In the Heights come to you?

I had worked with Lin-Manuel on Broadway. We did Hamilton together. We already had a relationship, but by no means did I think I was going to get this role. I had auditioned for the role of Usnavi a couple of years back, and I bombed that audition. I was like, “Yo, I’m never gonna get this role. That’s it. That was my chance.” A couple of years later, the movie comes back around, and I was able to get a meeting with Jon Chu, the director. No singing—just vibing. I felt his heart, and he felt mine. After I left the meeting, I got another job offer. I texted Jon, “If I’m not in the running, I’m going to take this other job. Con Edison don’t wait for nobody!” He wrote me back: “It’s you. It’s always been you.”

Did you go out and buy a car or some celebration gift for yourself?

No car. They didn’t immediately cut a check for me! I had the part, but I was like, the bank accounts still look the same!

When you heard that news, how did you feel?

I was actually in my Shakespeare teacher's house from high school. I was hanging out in her backyard with a few of her other students from school, because she was having shiva at her house. She lost a parent. So we were there supporting her. You get the call from the 3-1-0 or the 2-1-2, you’re like, "Hold up. Something might be going down. … Give me two seconds. Let me go ahead and take this call." It was my agents. It was wild how I got that offer in the home of my teacher while supporting her after she experienced this loss. She's played such a big role in my life. She let me into the Shakespeare class in high school, and that was an honors class. My grades were not honors grades.

During my first musical in high school, we finished the dress rehearsal, and she grabs both my arms and looks me in the eyes: "This is what you need to do for the rest of your life."

What's your karaoke song?

“Don’t Stop Believin’,” by Journey. I can't sing it now. I'm not going to lie. I went out last night and my voice is low. I can't even front. I'm not even going to lie to you right now. We're not going to lie in W magazine. I try to hit them notes, and I crack. That's it.

What was the first CD you bought?

Eminem. The Marshall Mathers LP. I burned that joint through the ground. My mom heard me cursing, and she was like, “What are you listening to?!” I was like, “Yo, this is my shit!” Two years ago, I saw Eminem live at the Oscars, and I was just like a kid. I was sitting there bumping.

Hair by Ali Pirzadeh for Dyson Hair at CLM; makeup by Daniel Sallstrom for Chanel at MA+ Group; manicure by Michelle Saunders for Nailtopia. Set Design by Gary Card at Streeters. Produced by Wes Olson and Hannah Murphy at Connect the Dots; production manager: Zack Higginbottom at Connect the Dots; photo assistants: Antonio Perricone, Jeff Gros, Morgan Pierre; digital technician: Michael Preman; lighting technician: Keith Coleman; key grip: Scott Froschauer; retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; senior style editor: Allia Alliata di Montereale; senior fashion market editor: Jenna Wojciechowski; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Antonio Soto, Nycole Sariol, Sage McKee, Josephine Chumley, Rosa Schorr; production assistants: Tchad Cousins, Juan Diego Calvo, Gina York, Brandon Fried, Nico Robledo, Kein Milledge; hair assistants: Tommy Stanton, Sol Rodriquez, Andi Ojeda; makeup assistants: Tami Elsombati, Bridgett O’Donnell; manicure assistant: Pilar Lafargue; set coordinator: Sarah Hein; set assistants: Olivia Giles, Seth Powsner, King Owusu; tailors: Suzi Bezik, Cardi Mooshool Alvaji; tailor assistant: Elma Click