Jimmy Smits is one of Hollywood’s most beloved and versatile actors, in everything from NYPD Blue and The West Wing, to playing Leia’s adoptive dad in the Star Wars franchise. Now he’s turning to musicals with In The Heights as a proud local businessman and father.
He may have sung doo-wop on street corners as a kid and appeared in the infamous musical TV series Cop Rock, but Jimmy Smits is the first to admit he had to prove to the producers of In The Heights that his singing was good enough for him to join the movie adaptation of the Broadway hit.
“I can’t SANG – with a S-A-N-G – but I can carry a tune,” he laughs. “So it was about trying to convince them. Having [my] agents put together a little reel of all the snippets of me trying to blow a couple of notes on TV shows and stuff.”
Read more: On set with In The Heights
The filmmakers were clearly satisfied with what they saw and cast him as Kevin Rosario, a local New York entrepreneur whose daughter Nina (Leslie Grace) is the first from her tightknit, predominantly Latino neighourhood, to go to college.
“I felt like I knew this guy,” admits Smits. “I’d been on the Nina Rosario side, having that pressure put on you as the person who’s first in your family, in your community, to attend university and go on to graduate school. I knew what that was. And I knew what it is as a dad putting the pressure on my kids.”
Getting to be in the film was a perfect circle for the actor, who had heard about Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ musical when it was little more rough.
“Actually, I had heard about it when Lin was doing it at the Drama Book Shop,” he says. “They were in the basement doing a workshop of it and somebody I knew called me and said, ‘there are some kids down here that are the real deal, you should check them out.’
This was way back at the beginning of the 2000s and a movie has been mooted pretty much ever since.
“That’s the next wave right there, that’s what my wife and I said when we saw that,” remembers Smits.
“Films take a long time to gestate. But when I read this new script once Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) was attached, Quiara and Lin had found a way to open it up… make it more current. Some characters had to be deleted and songs had to be changed and the skew was more towards the youth… But there was an opening there that I could contribute.”
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Of course, Smits has often played characters at the cutting edge of culture, whether that’s attorney Victor Sifuentes in LA Law or presidential candidate Matt Santos in The West Wing. But younger audiences will know him best as Bail Organa, Princess Leia’s adoptive father in the Star Wars prequels, as well as 2016’s Rogue One.
In fact, it’s his appearance in the latter that recently fuelled speculation he would be returning to the role in the upcoming Star Wars Disney+ shows, particularly Andor (following Cassian Andor, Diego Luna's Rogue One Rebel) and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
“I wasn’t there!” he says, when asked if he graced the Andor set. “I wish I could tell you I was there. But even if I was there, I couldn’t tell you.”
Yet while Andor is apparently a 'no', the same isn’t necessarily the case for him and his character moving forward.
“Now that it’s been Disneyfied, there’s possibilities of that universe continuing,” he says. “Who knows?”
For now though, he’s happy to be in a film which he hopes offers a glimpse of something brighter after a pretty miserable year.
“The pandemic put us in a position where we had to grapple with a lot of things,” he says. “Not only with health and to be close to family, but so many social issues. I’m hoping [In the Heights] is the thing we need right now…
“A little bit of joy.”
In The Heights arrives in UK cinemas on Friday, 18 June. Watch a trailer below.