Among the gay men gathered for a 1968 birthday party in Netflix’s newest film version of The Boys in the Band, Emory, a Bronx-raised femme who brandishes a fan as he talks and arrives with the gift of a sex worker, stands out from the group by being the most, well, most. Especially as played by Robin de Jesús, who earned a Tony nomination for his performance in this show’s Broadway revival. It’s a kind of character he knows well, and has played before, even going back to his first film role in Camp, but he brings a disarming presence to it. “Emory is effeminate, loud, funny — all these adjectives that get reduced to just being gay, but the second half of the movie is the sucker punch,” as he puts it. “I’ve been waiting for a parfait with this many layers of acting for a minute.”
In addition to The Boys in the Band, de Jesús has two other Tony nominations, for In the Heights and La Cage aux Folles. But when the film version of the play, directed by Joe Mantello (who also directed the Broadway run) and produced by Ryan Murphy, arrives on Netflix, those less familiar with the theater world might not be as familiar with de Jesús as some of the other white members of the ensemble. Over the phone, de Jesús spoke with Vulture about being overlooked among the group, how his own identity changed his version of Emory (as opposed to the version played by Cliff Gorman, who was white, in the original play and film), and capturing the dynamic among people of color in mostly white gay spaces.
How long was it between doing the play on Broadway and filming the movie?
We gathered back a little under a year [since the last performance], but we shot a year afterward. You worry about forgetting things or just that you’re less prepared. Then you get there and your body takes over.
Did you feel like you had to change your performance for the different format?
It wasn’t too crazy to adjust, in terms of the acting scale onstage, but what was interesting was the loss of control. When you’re doing a play it’s like a wide shot the whole time. The audience is seeing you even when you don’t speak. You can create relations with these people that the audience sees throughout. In a movie, you don’t get to pick and choose when the audience sees you interact with the other actors. You have to reestablish those relationships. It affected me the most with Tuc Watkins. We had a thing onstage where I was the femme queen and he was butch and there was a class issue there, too. It was fun and stimulating to figure out where to insert that into the movie.
Did the existence of the 1970 version of the movie with that Off Broadway cast hang over you as you filmed this? Did you worry about a comparison?
In terms of comparison to the original movie, I never thought about it, but what protects me is that — just me being cast is different. There’s no real way to compare me to Cliff Gorman, just by the way I look. But what’s funny is one of the most comforting things Joe Mantello said was, “Just so you know, there are going to be people who come in here and don’t like this.” There’s something about acknowledging that, because this play has always been problematic to certain people, that releases you from that ego. I’m not gonna worry about being liked. When it comes to telling gay stories and POC stories, that is so burdensome. Cisgender white folks get to be messy and they’re still entitled to empathy.
Another running thread that came over from the show is the relationship between you and Michael Benjamin Washington’s character Bernard, as the two people of color at this very white birthday party, where the two of them rag on each other the hardest, but also protect each other.
If there’s anything that I’m proud of in this movie, it is the story between me and Michael Benjamin Washington, and it is what excited me most about doing the movie. When you’re often the only POC person in the room, whether people know it or not you experience things very differently, there are a lot of micro-transgressions that you let slide because you clock ignorance, or it’s not worth the conversation, or the person’s not gonna be receptive to it because they’re a good white liberal. It was nice to have someone to dig in on that. He said he didn’t know that he would’ve been okay with this job if those lines were coming from someone who was white. That moment we have at the end of the movie [where Emory and Bernard take care of each other] was really important to me. I really wanted to make sure that we honored it and it wasn’t looked past.
On film, as an actor, you have less control in making sure those moments are seen. What was it like talking with Joe Mantello, who is white, about how you wanted to capture that dynamic?
At first, Joe wanted us to have that discussion on our own. Then it got to a point where it was, like, nah, we can’t not talk about this. That’s an uncomfortable place to be, but everyone was really open to it. What was interesting was occasionally clocking things outside of the actual production. Sometimes you’re checking in for a cast event and being asked, “Are you sure you’re with this production?” I’m not saying that happened to me, and I’m not gonna name names and be specific, but things like that happen in certain shows. People find it hard to believe that a POC person has a job on Broadway with a certain elite group of people. Those little daggers can accumulate.
A lot of the headliners among the cast for this are bigger name white TV or movie actors, and among the ensemble, you got the Tony nomination for the show. Was it weird to transition from stage to film and be thought of as a stage actor among that group?
The cast has a lot of theater experience, we have several members who went to school and study theater, and there was a lot of love for it. But there is this thing sometimes where there’s a cultural difference, and you say something that’s not understood, or you make a joke that’s funny and you know damn well, when you’re with your POC folks, they’d get it. That’s icky. But that’s why POC folks have talents that go unclocked. We are working harder in so many of those rooms, and you’re not being seen as well as the other “successful” folks. I don’t think of myself as not successful, but I’ve already experienced being more ignored by folks in the media in articles that are about ensemble-ness. When you’re doing a piece on the group and you happen to leave out or make an error on one of the people of color, it’s like, ohh. There was one outlet that did a photo of the nine of us, and two of us were cut out, one was white and one was me. Then two more things happened with that outlet, and it was like, oh, wait, you don’t care.
The film cuts back to these flashbacks of each guy’s memory as they do their phone calls. Were you involved in shooting any of that?
That first week, I wasn’t involved in any of the filming, but they were shooting that prom scene and Joe invited me to come and see it and get the vibe. I walked into the set and immediately burst into tears, because I felt Emory’s weight and sadness and that place of not knowing if you’ll ever belong to anything, and it really fed that monologue. Then the day of shooting the monologue, we were behind on the schooling schedule and we got to lunch and they’re like, “Hey, Robin, we’re gonna get to your scene early.” I wigged! I had this moment that day of, yo, I’m doing a seven-minute monologue in front of this baller cast. This brown Puerto Rican dude whose father grew up on a home with a dirt floor and is a factory worker to this day. In one generation, I get to be doing this. That helped me calm my ego down and do my job. That’s what my people do, they work their tails off. I found my groove, and I’m really happy with what they edited.
Mart Crowley died in March this year after you’d finished filming, near the time of the deaths of other landmark gay playwrights like Terrence McNally and Larry Kramer. Did you all as a cast have a way to mourn?
We did have a group thread. Mart’s death really shocked us, because Mart was so joyous and so energetic during the experience of doing the play. He wrote the play 50 years ago, and that was the first time it had been on Broadway. It was the first time that he had received that love on that scale. He was living! We saw him as so healthy and spry that we didn’t see his death coming. I feel like he’s going to see the movie from above, and I hope that he enjoys it and is proud, and I hope that he and Terrence and Larry are sharing drinks in heaven. I’m so grateful for them, and I’m also so grateful now to the generation that gets to come up and represent us in an even more diverse way.
Right. They did great work, but they were also all white, all cisgender, and that’s limiting.
It’s not only time for LGBTQIA stories to be diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, but also in terms of class. Mart’s brilliance was that he wrote nine characters in 1968 who were more diverse than most of the work being done today, in terms of characters — so many different types of gay archetypes. But it’s interesting to me now that in order for our communities to be a part of certain stories, we’ve had to assimilate. We’re always playing doctors and lawyers and these noble professions. I’m interested in hearing the stories that are about LGBTQIA people who don’t have a 401k and don’t have insurance with no deductible and no copay. That is real, and to me, more universal to white audiences.
I’ve read you say that Emory’s fan was Joe’s idea in this show. Is that true?
Yeah! There was a moment that needed some flair and fabulousness. When Joe said it, I had a moment of, oh my god, that’s fierce and a moment of, oh, wait, is that right? But then it came to me that Emory grew up around bucketloads of Puerto Rican women who, I know for a fact, had them fans out in the summer and were fanning themselves like crazy. When we were looking up costume ideas, we looked up different Puerto Ricans on the queer spectrum in the 1960s. I think that, for my Emory, there was a world where he grew up in a family that was more radical, and came from a socioeconomic class that didn’t have the time to judge gayness. I think that is what enabled him to be so bold and proud.
The producers have made a big deal about the fact that The Boys in the Band’s cast is entirely made up of out gay actors. You were pretty young when you played a flamboyant gay character in Camp, and you came out a little after that. How did being out that young affect your career?
When I was rehearsing and shooting Camp, I was 17 to 18. I identified as bi and questioning, really. By the time the movie came out, I already knew that I was gay. It was interesting because the auditions I got were more interesting when people didn’t know that I was gay, to the point where there were certain casting directors I had to avoid. I knew that the only way to put my foot down was to not take the work and not get the paycheck. During my 20s, there was a period where I was a Tony Award nominee living at home with my family. There were moments where I severely doubted that I made the right choice, and now everything I’m experiencing affirms that I did the right thing. It was all the other work I did on the side that enabled me to prove myself.
Along the way, you played Boq in Wicked for awhile starting in late 2014. Did you work much with Joe Mantello there? It’s such a different context than this show.
Not really, because at that point in the run Joe was so busy that a friend of his was in charge of the show. But it was so much fun and — this goes back to the whole thing of how the business treats you when you’re out — Wicked was a very conscious decision for me. I wanted to be at a job that was stable, where I could make money and save money and go do an Off Broadway show that would showcase me the way I wanted to be showcased. I also thought it was important to see a brown Boq. I don’t think there was a Puerto Rican Boq at this point, there definitely had been Latinx Boqs. It was the first time my niece could come see me on Broadway. While I didn’t get to work with Joe, he did see me, I got a couple of notes from him and stuff. We developed a social rapport, which all lent itself, I think, to The Boys in the Band.
You’re in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Tick, Tick… BOOM!, reuniting with him after your Tony nom for In the Heights. That started filming back in March and then of course everything shut down. Have you all talked about plans to get back to that?
I actually really can’t talk about that, other than that I’m really freaking excited. Jonathan Larson had such a profound effect on me when I was younger. Rent was the show I made my Broadway debut in, and I love working with family.
This interview has been edited and condensed.