It’s her! Valentina! This week, the 30-year-old entertainer makes her film debut with In the Heights, looking gorgeous as ever decked out in golden hoop earrings, orange diva shades, and thigh-high boots. She might only have one line of dialogue in one scene of the movie musical, but the former Drag Race Miss Congeniality makes her time count. It’s a perfect fit that finds her alongside the other salon divas for “No Me Diga,” the musical’s upbeat number that centers on the neighborhood ladies kiki-ing about the chisme making its way around the block.
Having recently come off her performance as Angel in the televised musical Rent: Live, her In the Heights role gave her the opportunity to further her multi-hyphenate skills — all the while getting to experience the true glamour of a major studio film. In a call with Vulture, Valentina opened up about her excitement to be part of what is essentially the musical Avengers: Infinity War of Hollywood’s Latinos, the full fantasy that salons create, feeling validated as a nonbinary performer beyond her drag persona, and more.
How did you first get involved with In the Heights?
My management reached out to me and was like, “Hey, they want you in this movie In the Heights. The director of the movie really wants you. Would you want to do this?” I was like, “Absolutely.” The idea of going from doing Rent, playing the role of Angel, going from a live musical to a film musical, was — oh my goodness, the perfect way to keep developing my skills in that realm. I was honored because I did hear that everybody in it was Latino. Anything that’s Latino I’m all about. Just to know that Jon Chu thought of me was really sweet and special.
Had you seen Crazy Rich Asians?
I did. I remember thinking, How is this even possible to have this kind of production? Just luxury and so much detail. The idea of getting that level of budget and glamour, and for someone so major as a director — to be able to work with him takes me back to when I was a part of working on RuPaul’s show AJ and the Queen. The director of Sex and the City [Michael Patrick King] was like, “I needed you here.” Getting to be part of this career where these huge directors are like, “Hey, I’m interested in you,” it’s amazing. With the director of Crazy Rich Asians and then to be in a Latino musical, to me it was just the opportunity of a lifetime.
How familiar were you with the musical before shooting, and did you do anything special to prepare? And how was it when you finally showed up to set?
Obviously, I’m a Latina and I love anything that’s Latino. I knew Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda, but [my] song I had to learn pretty quick. I was only in one number, but it was all happening so fast. I knew ahead of time we were doing “No Me Diga,” so I was just listening to it before I went. My role isn’t too big, but it takes place in the salon, and the whole community gets there and they kiki about the gossip of the neighborhood. I’m moving around, not necessarily being a character or persona but supporting the main actors and being in a chair while Dascha Polanco does my hair.
It was two days of filming for me. When I first arrived, people know the diva! They were like, “We’re going to allow you to do your own makeup,” which is something I love to do. So I got in there with all the lead actresses — we’re in the same trailer, and they obviously had the makeup artists and I had my big ol’ setup of all the makeup that I use set out, painting my makeup and kiki-ing. It was so much fun. I was really nervous, having no real clue of what was really going to go down but being completely open and available to whatever. All the dancers, I guess, had done these camps where they learned the choreography and had been practicing. I was learning it from the choreographers, who were super-patient and lovely with me in the moment. It was such an artistic challenge that half my body was like, Oh, fuck! and the other half was, Yeah, bitch, you better learn it quick. You better hold yourself accountable. You better be a professional and learn it in the moment! I had obviously come off Rent, which was this super-major production where the pressure was super-high. To go from doing a live musical to a film musical was like, Okay, I need to utilize all these training skills that I’ve learned in school for performing arts and all this training I got from Rent. I need to apply them right now!
Your one line deals with complaining about Daniela and Carla’s salon moving out of Washington Heights to the Bronx and now having to take a train. Did you have any actual context to this New York City geography?
I’m born and raised in L.A., so public transit here is not as developed. New York’s train system is super-intimidating to me. I can’t even imagine getting around by myself the way my friends that live in New York do; it’s just a whole other world. I’m an L.A. girl, and I’m up and down being driven around like Miss Daisy on Lyfts and Ubers. So I’m going to have to be honest and say I had no clue.
In other roles we’ve seen you in, you’re in the full Valentina glam with the wig and everything. Here, you aren’t. What was that like?
I had an exchange with Jon Chu on Instagram. We were just talking about the ending credits. He was like, “I was thinking a lot about it, and why don’t we just put you as Valentina, as herself?” I was like, “Oh, I love that.” It’s so validating to feel acknowledged for this persona and this name that I’ve built under Valentina. As as nonbinary person, to find myself in a position where I get to present myself much more truthful of who I really am and find power in my everyday self as a nonbinary person … to just feel seen beyond the character of Valentina felt very rewarding and refreshing. I felt special knowing I can be a part of this industry beyond just being in the wig and being the Valentina persona. It’s so validating, especially somebody like me as a nonbinary person — we don’t really have too much representation.
That’s so great to hear, especially considering this all takes place in a salon, a space where so many people on the gender spectrum can feel at home.
On top of that, a Latina salon. Latinas really rely on glamour, on their hoops, on their hairstyles. For me, Latina glamour is very specific, and to have been part of a scene that has to do with glamour and beauty, I’m like, Right on! If I could only choose one scene to be in in the movie, it’s this one, because that is my world. A lot of my life consists of getting ready and getting done up. It was just an overwhelming amount of glamour, joy, production, movie, Hollywood. It just felt like everything I’d ever worked for. So much of me wants many more moments like that, because it’s really the whole fantasy when you’re in a studio and it’s a set. You’re finding out all the secrets to how everything works — the lighting, the PAs, the craft services. All that kind of lifestyle of being on set — lights, camera, action — I live!
In your scene, you and Dascha Polanco work a lot off each other. What was that like?
Mm-hmm! That was a kiki. It was so much fun. When it comes to Dascha, I really got a full taste of her energy. That woman is so charismatic; charisma just oozes out of her pores. I learned so much being in the chair with her doing my hair. Being surrounded by her energy was such a reward. I really got to be in the presence of a star when I got to work with her. Then to develop it where we can kiki like homegirls and support each other as Latinos, it’s really sweet. Since then, we’re always super-lovey to one another whenever we interact online. Supporting each other always, we have this secret like, “Keep going sister. I see you!” I can only dream of being able to work with her again.
What do you hope this movie achieves for Latinos in entertainment?
I feel like the Latino narrative has been a little bit silent, just seeing the nominations recently for awards shows and the lack of Latino representation. This movie is really going to help boost us up, cheer us on — it’s going to lift us up. What I really love about the movie is the way they cast it; they wanted it to be inclusive for all Latinos. Me, as a Mexican, being part of this production, it makes me feel really seen to be a part of something that’s for us. I’m excited knowing I got to be a part of something for our cultura that’s so special.
I really wish [for] this movie to be super-iconic, because I already see it that way. I hope out of this comes nominations so we do have that representation, and we do have those awards, and we do get the spotlight — not just for a simple little moment but for more movies like this.