In The Heights star Anthony Ramos says the film represents “a community that hasn’t particularly been welcomed in Hollywood” over the years.
The movie, an adaptation of the hit musical Lin-Manuel Miranda penned before his juggernaut Hamilton, features a predominantly Latinx cast and is set in the rapidly gentrifying Latin neighbourhood of Washington Heights in New York.
Ramos, who previously starred opposite Miranda in Hamilton on Broadway and takes on the lead role of bodega owner Usnavi, said: “This all started in Lin’s head when he was a kid.
“He was like, ‘I’m going to write this role for myself. I don’t see a world where someone is going to write a role like this for me, so I’m going to do it for myself and I’m going to do it for my community’ and I think that has a ripple effect.
“It starts with one person, but he worked on this for eight years, and now look at it. It closed on Broadway in 2011, 10 years later and there’s a movie out, and it’s a major motion picture.
“It takes a person to say, ‘This is how I want to do it, I believe in this, we’re not going to try and go get stars, we’re going to get the people we feel are right’.”
He added: “Not only is it a reflection of a community that hasn’t particularly been welcomed in Hollywood for so many years, but it’s also a movie that says, ‘We’re not going to do it the way you want us to do it’ and I think that’s what gets me hyped.”
The West Wing star Jimmy Smits continued: “(It says) that we’re here, and we’re present, and there’s a significance to our life experience, and we have stories to tell and that our stories are specific.
“But at the same (time), everybody goes through the same kind of thing – they’re universal, and that’s what a good film can do.
“I think that Jon (M Chu, the director) was able to tap into that because he comes from a similar immigrant experience as well.
“It might be a different decade with a different wave, but those hopes and dreams are still the same, and that’s what this community has, the positivity of all those hopes and dreams.”
Chu, who previously directed Crazy Rich Asians, said he took a valuable lesson from working on the romantic comedy, which featured an all-Asian and Asian-American cast.
He said: “Crazy Rich Asians really taught me a lot about the importance of that, the power of seeing someone who looks like yourself on the big screen.
“I understood that intellectually – I did not understand it fully until seeing it with an audience and people hanging out in the lobby and telling their friends and bringing their grandmothers, and that’s beyond Asian-American people, and them wanting to know, ‘Oh, what’s that music like? What’s that food like?’ I want to go to Singapore’.
“I knew that the opportunity for that for Washington Heights was there, and I knew the personal connection that Lin and Quiara (Alegria Hudes, the screenwriter) had – they still live in that neighbourhood.
“So for me, it was personal. It was personal to make sure we did it right, that I could make room with my experiences, to elbow out whatever needed to be elbowed out, get the resources we need to get to communicate why they love this neighbourhood, and I could fall in love with it too.
“And I did – I even named my son Heights, he was born during the movie, because it was just so beautiful and I wanted to say that word every day of my life, and I wanted him to hear that word. So it became very, very personal quickly.”
In The Heights is released in UK cinemas on June 18.