Why shouldn’t your morning stop at a bodega be worthy of a break-in-song moment? that’s the way to win “Heights” Introduces Jimmy Smuts’ character: He strolls into the corner shop run by Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) to pick up his cafe con leche while shouting with joy, “Good mooring, Usnavi!” Of songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical filled with all kinds of twisty wordplay, somehow this simple line is the most sublime — and hey, who knew the Emmy-winning actor “NYPD Blue” and “La Law” Can carry a tune?
Directed by John M. Choo, the screen adaptation of the Broadway show stars Smuts in the supporting role of Kevin Rosario, a car-service owner who helps his staggering daughter, Nina (Leslie Grace), through an expensive college education. determined to keep. But is it his dream and not his? The characters have a very complicated conflict that Smuts was eager to take on, but first he had to make it through “Good morning, Usnavi” above all else. Last month on Zoom, Smuts told me how much was gone in that brief moment.
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Are you ready to sing “Good morning, Usnavi” to people throughout your life? Have people already started?
I’m really fine with it! Like the family text thread my kids and everyone else is on, they’ll say hello now: instead of “Hey Teo” or “Yo Pops,” they’ll go, “Good morning, Usnavi.”
This is your first line in the movie. I think there was a lot of pressure in the cast read-through to capitalize on that moment, because people don’t really know you as a singing actor.
That’s when you find out, “Have you been in any music before? I didn’t know you sang.” And I didn’t! I didn’t sang with SANG. There are some people in that cast, they can sang – I just tried to keep my own. All I know is that when I saw those first two lines, everyone was smiling. There were no people watching the script down.
Still, you’ve done a little bit of in-character singing before Episodes of “NYPD Blue” and “West Wing.” And I know you did a cameo “Police Rock” Back in the day, but I couldn’t figure out whether they sang you or not.
You’re embarrassing the hell out of me. No, I didn’t sing on that.
Jimmy, you appeared in “Cop Rock” and you didn’t sing? Wow?
That’s perfect. Oh friend! Even on this, I had six lines that were musical, and I had four different vocal coaches. Warner Bros. was saying to my agents, “Really? Should he have two vocal trainers on each coast?” Yes, because I wanted to be on point as much as possible!
And even though it’s just a few sung lines, they convey a lot.
I appreciate you saying that because even with three lines in that song, we did this whole character-based, psychological approach. It’s a switch-up from happening rhyme, and it’s your traditional thing. Basically I was like, “I’m going to make this count, and I want it to be bigger!” And they were like, “No, no, no. Let’s talk about character and what’s going on there.” That was part of exactly what I had to do with the dramatic back-and-forth scenes in the family.
What did you do on set to get yourself into that music genre?
I love using music, especially when I’m preparing for something, and I’m playing my boy, Carlos Gomez [who originated the role onstage]. I kept playing “Inutil,” which is that Broadway version of the song. So Carlos, he was with me the whole time.
And he does a great “Good morning, Usnavi” too.
Spectacular? This is amazing!
Do you remember when you first met Lin-Manuel Miranda?
I had a friend who used to work here Drama Book Shop Who said to me, “These Wesleyan kids are doing stuff here in the basement. Jimmy, they’re the real deal.” And then a few years later, I was at 37 Arts with my lady, watching “In the Heights” off Broadway was, and we realized, “Oh, this is the kid Stu was talking about. It’s the new wave.” The next thing I know, it’s rhymes for Barack and Michelle.
I remember when they went to Broadway, they said, “Whatever you need from me…” They called me one day and said, “We’re going to do commercials for the show. Would you like to voice-over? can do?” “Come on brother. Yes, I am there!” During my first meeting with John, I actually referred to Michelle Yeoh in reference to “Crazy Rich Asians” And I was saying, “I want to do what he did for that film. I want to help in whatever way I can.”
You grew up in New York. Can you tell what these characters are going through?
I grew up in Brooklyn, but I lived all over New York, and we moved to Puerto Rico from 10 to 12. I went from listening to Motown and R&B and the Beatles to boom, I’m listening to Trio Los Panchos in Puerto Rico. Everything I am now as an adult relates to that experience: Where do you fit in? I feel like doing everything I do has something to turn around in me.
You had to learn how to play different aspects of yourself in front of different types of people.
Absolutely. And in Puerto Rico, it was painful because I was a Yankee! But what I hold dear from a cultural point of view comes from what I can trace back. That speech that Kevin has about shiny shoes? I shone shoes at the plaza in Ponce, I know what it was like as a kid and how it resonates. Even when I do Shakespeare and Shaw and Pinter, there are parts of me culturally that make all those roles unique, but here are things I can really relate to as I play my tios, my uncle, and my parents and all. Their hopes and hopes and dreams on an amazing level.
How did your family feel about you becoming an actor?
Well, I don’t come from any musical or theatrical background. It’s not that my parents took me to the movies – I stopped doing most of my work on television, and I think it has something to do with the fact that the TV set was something we did as a family. was included in the form. But they were always very supportive, and I joke about the fact that they would come to see me do something like a Shakespeare play and go, “That was cool. Why does everyone talk like that?”
Did you know as a kid that you wanted to do this?
I knew long ago. I went to George Gershwin Junior High School in Brooklyn, and if you did well in school, you could be a part of musicals — “Damn Yankees” and “Carousel” and all that stuff. After that, I went to Thomas Jefferson High School in a not-so-great neighborhood of East New York, and there happened to be an English literature teacher whom I’m still very friendly with, and he took us to plays. Seeing Raul Julia and James Earl Jones for the first time, they were probably the most inspiring to me, because I saw similarities there: “That boy is from the same place Mom is from, and he speaks with an accent!”
And then there was another professor working at Brooklyn College, Bernie Barrow, who encouraged me. “You’re showing this interest in the classics and you can probably go to L.A. and be the rookie of the week on ‘Hill Street Blues,’ but you should think about graduate school and adding some tools to the toolbox,” he said. So he helped me navigate applying to all these schools and I wound up at Cornell, which had a very short, almost monastic MFA program. But for me it was happiness. It was the right thing to do, even when it was 6 in the morning and I was at the ballet bar, wondering if I had made the right decision.
If you were singing and dancing at Cornell and aspire to be in those musicals in junior high, this is a full-circle moment for you.
Absolutely. That’s the whole point of business, you have to tune your instrument. When I took all those dance and voice classes, it’s not like it went by the wayside, but I wasn’t as used to it here in L.A. as I was doing television. But I still should have kept doing it. I kick myself about it now.
Look, that’s even more proof that they should have let you sing on “Cop Rock.”