Leslie Grace Used To Question Her Beauty. After In The Heights, She’s Fearless
In the Heights’ breakout star “wants it all”: a big TV show, a Marvel movie, and an expansive tour. She’s willing to shave her head to make it happen.
“Jon came in [to the group chat] with the biggest flex the other night, showing us a video of Ariana Grande saying she watched our movie. It was nuts,” singer and In the Heights star Leslie Grace excitedly recalls over Zoom. Grace, who plays Heights prodigal daughter Nina Rosario, is casually name-checking director Jon M. Chu, who also helmed the 2018 box office explosion Crazy Rich Asians. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I just had a friend here who wanted to say something.’ It’s Ariana Grande saying how much she enjoyed our movie.”
Grace is currently bare-faced and sporting a casual low ponytail, in stark contrast to the mental image of Grande’s perma-high glam and higher ponytail. Grace sputters in shock as she recounts the text. While she may seem starstruck right now, Grace will likely have the same effect on others after June 11, when In the Heights debuts in theatres and on HBO Max. The ode to New York City’s Washington Heights neighbourhood — inspired by Lin Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning debut Broadway show about his hometown — is the first musical blockbuster of the post-vaccine world, pushing musician Grace from notoriety on the Latin music charts to all-out movie stardom. The In the Heights cast expertly fills the shoes of the original Broadway extravaganza, blowing up a show traditionally confined to a single stage to epic, Technicolor proportions.
The film cast’s chat is always “bloopin’,” as Grace describes it from her boyfriend’s parents’ home in Chicago. Broadway heartthrob Anthony Ramos (Usnavi in the film) is a voice notes guy. Vida’s Melissa Barrera (Vanessa) will throw in a GIF, which Grace pronounces with the peanut butter brand “J” sound. Tony/Grammy/Pulitzer-winner Miranda, who cameos in the film as a piragua vendor, acts as the historian of the crew. He responded to Chu’s Grande text with a 2012 video of the pop star singing In the Heights’ “96,000” when she reached 96,000 followers on Twitter.
Nina, the hesitant college girl with wounded pride — the embodiment of those “Gifted Kid Burnout” memes, with second-generation expectations on her back to boot —is a role that resonates with Grace. Now 26, Grace is the daughter of Dominican immigrants herself, born in the Bronx and raised in the New York area. “I felt so seen. I felt like I was playing myself,” Grace says of the role. “I knew this girl. I’ve been Nina.”
“I was made to feel weird about how I looked,” she shares, tearing up about years of comparing herself to her peers. “If you grow up in a diverse neighbourhood, you feel really accepted and so beautiful. You feel loved; you feel what you see. But as I got older, and I started to face the world that hadn’t faced someone who looked like me, I felt increasingly displaced in the industry. More and more, I was questioning my own beauty.”
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At the age of 10, everything changed for Grace with a family move to Florida. All of a sudden, Grace went from her multicultural hometown with best friends of Indian, African-American, and Puerto Rican descent to classes where she was surrounded by blonde-haired, blue-eyed Floridians. To make matters worse, Grace was severely lacking in pop culture role models. For far too long, Hollywood wouldn’t recognize the beauty of Afro-Latinas, a painful truth echoed by actor Gina Torres, who also identifies as Afro-Latina.
In an effort to fit in, Leslie Grace Martinez — who goes professionally by her first and middle name, explaining, “I’m always looking to give myself or others a little bit of grace every day” — asked her mother, Elba Martinez, to permanently straighten her natural curls. This was a particularly easy request, as her mother is a longtime salon owner. “She was like, ‘Okay we can straighten it real quick. This humidity here in Florida? We’re taking it down,’ ” Grace recalls.
To this day, Grace continues to parse her relationship with her hair, which is inextricably part of her experience as an Afro-Latina. She explains she didn’t always identify as such, simply because she lacked the words to explain her heritage. “Especially in Dominican culture, there are so many conversations that are not had about where we come from for real,” she says. “There’s so much debate about it. I had never heard somebody else explain it to me like, ‘These are your roots, and all of these things are beautiful. I’m definitely now one of the people in my family who’s like, ‘Hey, let’s talk about where we’re from.”
Nina goes on a similar journey in In the Heights. In one of the musical’s most dazzling numbers, she visits her neighbourhood salon seconds after her plane touches down in the Big Apple. Emotionally drained from a school year in the faraway, majority-white enclave that is the Bay Area’s Stanford University, Nina’s stick-straight hair looks as defeated as she feels. As she reconnects to her Washington Heights community — once again enveloped in neighbourhood drama and gossip — her tresses come alive, returning to their curly grandeur to the tune of In the Heights bop “No Me Diga.”
Just talking about the sequence makes Grace tear up: Grace’s mother’s first salon was located mere blocks away from where “No Me Diga” was filmed in New York. In a twist of serendipity usually saved for the movies, Grace’s parents were able to be on set the day of rehearsals for the number. “We were supposed to be shooting something else, and we ended up being in the salon for that whole day,” Grace explains, citing an unexpected scheduling change. She speaks with palpable emotion about her mother’s reaction to the set, which felt very much like the salon she owned. “My mom was like, ‘Wow. This feels like my salon.’ She felt this sense of pride, like, ‘Who would have thought that my little girl would be shooting a movie a couple blocks away from where I started my first business?’”
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The youngest member of a blended family with seven siblings, Grace has always enjoyed her parents’ unconditional support. She moved out of their Florida home during the pandemic to live in Los Angeles with her choreographer boyfriend of two years, Ian Eastwood; grow her career; and eat Vanilla Swiss Almond Häagen-Dazs (“I love some food freedom. I’m sorry, I’m not going to kill myself.”). The Hollywood relocation was years in the making. One can track Grace’s career from a childhood Christian album to her 2013 breakout at the age of 18, when she released a tropical cover of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” That song led to a string of Billboard-charting singles and three Latin Grammy nominations, all of which which put her on the path to teaming up with Korean pop superstars Super Junior, whom she toured with in 2018. “Love my K-Pop fans — my SuJu fans. They’re mad loyal,” she gushes.
But there’s more to be said about what happened behind the scenes of the tour.
“I remember it being a big thing that I went on tour with Super Junior with braids,” Grace recalls. It was the performer’s first time experimenting with the protective style, and the choice became “the biggest thing” for decision makers behind the tour. They were hoping Grace would go for something a bit more... “sleek” (direct quote from Grace) and in line with “what K-Pop audience would be more 'accustomed to.’ ” — a.k.a. pin straight hair that bellies Grace’s identity as an Afro-Latina. “I specifically had to fight for [my braids],” she says. Still, she remained steadfast in her belief that audiences would be blown away by a new style — and she was right.
But Grace, a budding triple threat, was never going to be satiated by merely taking part in K-Pop/Latin music crossover history. She wanted to act, so she started auditioning for roles a few years before she was put up for In the Heights. She saw little results. Grace initially tried out for the part of Nina about a year and a half before officially landing the part. During that time, the film drifted from studio to studio, as often happens in Hollywood, before landing at Warner Bros. By the time she re-auditioned, Grace had secured a few more positive audition experiences, which boosted her confidence. She was hungry to show off her growth when she got back in front of casting directors.
Prior to her Heights audition, she says, “It could feel pretty cold sometimes” auditioning as a non-white Latina. But for In the Heights, the atmosphere was different. “I was really happy when I looked around the room. There were Latinas who looked like me, who didn’t look like me, some who looked like they could be my sister. I hadn’t seen that in an audition room almost ever,” she says.
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In April 2019, Grace officially snagged the role in In the Heights, now an early Oscar contender and the only all-Latinx-led blockbuster of the year. While the film does recognize the struggles of the brown and Black people who populate its musical world, the summer spectacular is more enamoured with the romance and joy of its characters. As half of one of the story’s two central pairings, Nina embraces the love she still carries for her high school boyfriend, Benny (Corey Hawkins).
In an evocative dance sequence that everyone will be talking about, Nina and Benny effortlessly dance on the side of a Washington Heights apartment building while sharing the duet “When the Sun Goes Down.” Despite the high flying visuals of the sequence, no wires were used during production. Instead, Grace and Hawkins performed the number on a moving wall, mere days after learning their complicated choreography (think of the mind-blowing hallway fight in Inception, but romantic and lacking any murder). While the scene is intended to dazzle audiences, it initially boggled the minds of its performers.
“The whole summer, we were like, ‘But how… How are we going to dance on the side of the building?!,” she says with a chuckle. “It was high pressure. We knew it was magical from the moment we saw that wall. We were like, ‘This is crazy.’”
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Although Grace spends a great deal of In the Heights dancing with Hawkins, she’s two-stepping through life with her boyfriend and frequent collaborator Eastwood, who previously competed on Jennifer Lopez’s World of Dance and choreographed Grace’s February Kelly Clarkson Show performance. “We have a genuine love as individual people for each other,” she says, adding that they’re not in a hurry to get married or start having children just yet. “We have some time where we want to enjoy pursuing things in our careers and things in our own personal lives,” she says. “A lot of my family members are like, ‘You’ll feel it when it’s time. So you don’t have to rush that.’”
In the meantime, Grace plans to continue working on her first full-length album since 2015’s Lloviendo Estrellas, which nabbed one of her three Latin Grammy nods. While she stays mum on any possible future collaborations, Khalid is at the top of her fantasy feature list along with “old-school” favourites India Arie and Brian McKnight. There is also her burgeoning passion for on-camera work. Grace pokes fun at the tunnel-vision drive of a multi-hyphenate, saying she wants “all of it” — a big TV show, a Marvel movie, and an expansive tour. Then, she gets serious.
“I really would love to do another film that feels, again, like something that I know,” she announces, cryptically following up with: “I’ve been meeting for some things and I’m really excited.”
Maybe that next project will allow Grace to live out her wildest fantasy: taking the Big Chop plunge and cutting off her processed hair to grow fresh, free curls. “One day I’m just going to shave it all off. I’m hoping for a movie that requires me to — or allows me to — take it all the way down,” Grace reveals, as if this is her deepest, darkest secret. “People think I’m crazy for saying that. But I would totally be down for that. I want to embrace my natural hair. Like how I had it when I was a kid. I have no more fears.”