The last time we saw Mars Blackmon on She’s Gotta Have It, he and his gigantic gold name chain were serenaded out of his former lover Nola Darling’s apartment to the beat of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” But in the second season of the Netflix series, out today, Mars has bigger things to focus on than a wounded heart. The struggling musician is bouncing from couch to couch after his sister, LuLu (Santana Caress Benitez), throws him out of her apartment because he can no longer help her pay for it. And that’s only because his job is dissolved once the owner’s Brooklyn rent got too damn high to maintain.
So both Mars (Anthony Ramos) and Nola (DeWanda Wise), who’s at an artistic crossroads, find themselves in a state of limbo. This was not unfamiliar territory for Ramos, who talks to Vulture about growing up poor in Brooklyn and having many doors slammed in his face because he’s Latino or didn’t have what was considered leading-man material. But after starring in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway blockbuster Hamilton, getting handpicked by Spike Lee for this small-screen version of his 1989 film, and landing the marquis role in the In the Heights movie, Ramos is on the verge of superstardom. In the conversation below, Ramos reflects on Mars’s journey, how gentrification has given him a “kick in the ass,” and why he thinks filming In the Heights marks “the most authentic, dope, New York, Latino moment in history.”
She’s Gotta Have It is one of the few series that highlight a friendship between a woman and a man that was once a sexual relationship. Why do you think Nola and Mars have defied the odds?
I think about how many times that has happened in life. It’s not uncommon to have at least one friend that you used to mess with, and it didn’t work out. But still, there’s mad love there. These are two people who went there and decided that it wasn’t the vibe, but still love each other and respect each other enough to remain friends. They support each other in a real way.
I can see that. I’m really curious about their trip to Puerto Rico, which was a transformative experience for them as artists and individuals. It was also nice to see such a gorgeous tribute to Puerto Rico post–Hurricane Maria. How did that story line come to be?
We shot in Puerto Rico for eight days and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Lemon Andersen, who’s an executive producer and one of the head writers on our show, had been working with an organization that has been doing a lot of great work on the island post–Hurricane Maria. He was educating Spike on this organization and what was going on in PR, and Spike’s heart just opened up. He put the Afro-Boricua shirts that I’m wearing in the first season on sale and raised $40,000. [The story line] became a love letter to Puerto Rico. It was beautiful and it meant the world to me. My whole family, including those that live on the island, came to the set with me. It was really emotional and just dope.
Seeing the beauty and resilience of the island after such a massive devastation is quite moving.
Being there was cathartic. The people on the island are so resilient. You see all these pictures of the devastation, but no one talks about the restoration. We don’t highlight that enough. I don’t know if that’s because devastation gets ratings, but the island looks beautiful and continues to flourish. I’m so excited we captured this moment.
Nola and Mars also flourish there. It’s a stark contrast from New York, where Mars is more nomadic than ever after. The city was once a nourishing place for starving artists of color like Mars. Do you think gentrification has made them somewhat obsolete and consequently whitewashed the art world?
I wouldn’t say it’s whitewashed the art world. But it’s always been hard for people who live in poverty. Just speaking from growing up in the projects, it was hard for me to take dance classes or voice classes because I didn’t have money. Or learn an instrument because I didn’t have the money to buy one. Gentrification has made it more difficult now because people are literally just trying to afford to stay in their homes. It has definitely made it harder as an artist of color living in the midst of gentrification, but I think that has made the best art. People are getting more motivated. It’s an awesome time for black and brown communities to come together and start our own businesses and begin to buy up land. I think gentrification has given us a kick in the ass.
Being in a cast right now with all Latin people, I’ve never seen no shit like this in my life. That is the most inspiring thing to me. I’ve always been in all-black casts with maybe two or three Latinos, or all-white casts with two or three Latinos. I just feel like, especially after Crazy Rich Asians, gentrification isn’t affecting art. I am actually more inspired by art now than ever.
Because of Mars’s displacement and Nola’s artistic disillusionment, the two find themselves escaping to other places — Puerto Rico as well as Martha’s Vineyard. Would you say that leaving the city is a way to reclaim a sense of identity as an artist?
One hundred percent. I went to L.A. for a month and a half to write my album. It was just being somewhere else that wasn’t my home and where my day-to-day responsibilities are. There’s also something magical about Puerto Rico. Every time I’ve been there, I’ve had a discovery or rediscovery, or I have been inspired in some way. The history of the Spanish — bringing the slaves over and dropping them off island to island, the Taínos being killed off, interweaving that with the Africanos and everyone coming from somewhere else — there is something special about that island.
Nola and Mars were reinvigorated. Mars hadn’t ever been to the island, so he feels more disconnected from it. I know what that feels like — to be in New York and disconnected from the island that your family is from because you didn’t really grow up in the culture or didn’t take trips there. It was just something about them seeing the artwork and the culture, the bomba and the plena and watching people dance. There’s a scene where we dance salsa in the streets. It gave them extra motivation about their own art when they went back home.
I was also struck by the fatherhood themes throughout the season. Particularly when Mars finds out that Clorinda aborted his child, which really affects him. Do you think he would have considered fatherhood, or was he just dismayed that the choice was taken from him?
Mars feels like he can take care of someone, though he can’t. But not having the opportunity to do so is what hurt him the most. Any man that does care probably would have reacted the same way. I grew up [fatherless] in Brooklyn, specifically Fort Greene, Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, and Bushwick. I think Mars is just mad that he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Another really surprising paternal moment is when we learn that Mookie from Do the Right Thing is Mars’s dad. And it is none other than Rosie Perez, playing his mom, who tells Mars. What was your reaction to this reveal, and how do you think it impacts Mars?
I was hyped. First of all, Rosie is a legend. She is a G in the game. That was such a blessing and a dream to work with her. It was funny because Spike had a conversation with us about this long ago, and we went crazy for the idea and were bugging out. It will be interesting and so sick to see how we play this out if there is a third season. Honesty is a big theme this season, especially when it comes to fatherhood. That scene between Rosie and I wasn’t even written. We just improv’ed. Rosie and I just vibed.
Switching topics, how does it feel to be in the In the Heights movie?
It feels amazing. This was the first musical I’ve ever seen where I was like, I know all of those people. I know the piragua guy. He just looks different on my block. I know the blonde lady. I know the bodega owner. That changed the game for me. Before then, I wanted to quit [acting]. I was feeling so discouraged because I wasn’t white enough or black enough or tall enough or short enough for the role. I couldn’t be a leading man. Then [people] were like, “Your technique isn’t quite there to be in the ensemble.” There were so many years of, Where do I fit in?
Then I saw a group of people who look like me of all shapes and sizes and they were living their best Latin lives. I was like, Maybe that’s where I fit. In the Heights [encouraged me] to keep going. So it’s surreal to be playing Usnavi on this level with this crazy cast. It is the most authentic, dope, New York, Latino moment in history. I know that’s a bold statement, but I’m just going to go ahead and say it.
Quite a few films have become Broadway shows and vice versa. How do you think that affects theatrical experiences as well as the audience demographic?
It brings more awareness to the shows and gets people inspired to see them. Look, I understand that some shows don’t translate onscreen. But I think we strive to make movie musicals the best they can be. The Les Mis movie came out and then came back to Broadway and had a great run. We should be open to both because there’s beauty in expanding pieces of work.
You think about people who may never see the In the Heights musical. Here’s an opportunity to get it to people in a bigger way. There are just 1,300 people a night in a theater. How about, God willing, millions in movie theaters around the world? If you want to, you could watch it in Spanish or German. When it leaves the theaters, people can watch it in their homes. It’s about people being able to access this story whenever they want. There is no form of art that does that better than the movies.