'In The Heights' Breakout Star Leslie Grace on the Parallels Between Her and Her Character Nina (Exclusive)

The breakout star and singer chats with ET about her 'incredible' experience on her first movie set.

Leslie Grace's star is shining bright! The 26-year-old is already an international singer, but come June 11, audiences will know her as the breakout star in Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu's musical, In the Heights.

"This is my first anything on screen as an actress, which is an anomaly of firsts," Grace tells ET's Nischelle Turner in an intimate sit-down. "It's rare when you find projects and people that make you feel like you're home. I knew that I was gonna be so spoiled by this experience. Getting to play Nina Rosario, that feels so much like my own personal experience. And then getting to play a character like Nina with people that feel like family, that became my family and that are brilliant, that doesn't happen every day. I feel and I felt every single day so blessed."

Grace stars as Nina Rosario in the upcoming movie, the first in her family to go to college and who is known in her barrio as "the good guy and the one who made it out." However, Nina soon realizes that life outside of Washington Heights isn’t as easy.

Warner Bros.

The Latin GRAMMY-nominated singer hadn't seen the In the Heights play, but "fell in love with the musical through the music." Grace then jumped at the chance to audition for the role. She got the big news on her birthday; her mom was doing her hair when she got a FaceTime from an unknown number. After the person on the other end (which happened to be Miranda!) texted her to pick up the phone, she found out she landed the role.

"I was like, 'Ma, I think this is important. I have to pick up!'" she recalls. "So I called the number back and he's like, 'Mom, you better put the flat iron down before you burn your daughter's hair when I tell you that she's Nina Rosario!'"

"It's incredible to be a part of something like this. I've been waiting to see people like this, dream this big and look [like me], just be celebrated in every way, shape and form," the Latina expresses. "I personally can say, I haven't seen myself on a screen. Just figuratively, someone that looks like me…For me as a little kid to say, 'I can do that I want to do that,' I had to imagine it."

What attracted Grace to Nina were the many parallels between her personal life and her first on-screen character's journey. The daughter of Dominican parents, Grace felt like a fish out of water when she moved from the Bronx, New York, to Davie, Florida, at the age of 10.  

"I talked about it a lot, imposter syndrome and a lot of what Nina feels when she goes to Stanford. I knew from the very beginning that I would be feeling all of that," Grace shares. "But the beautiful part was that I was enveloped and just surrounded by an immense amount of generosity and knowledge. And I knew that this was gonna be, at the very least, such a beautiful school to just sit and go to set when I wasn't needed and see people be brilliant. I soaked it up, every ounce of [it]."

Just like Nina -- who moves away to college and returns to find her father Kevin Rosario (played by the impeccable Jimmy Smits) struggling with his business -- Grace felt it was up to her to make her family proud and not let them down.  

"I think we all do. When you have family that has put their all in you, [they] hope for a better future for their offspring and for the generations coming after them, you feel the responsibility of not failing," Grace reflects. "I think something that we get to discover through the character of Nina, and that I got to process even for my own path, was the guilt that comes with admitting the fear of pursuing a dream bigger than anybody has ever dreamed before you in your family. Not having a path to follow, you're the one making the path. And I related to that so much because in a way this film is my Stanford."

"It's that feeling of wanting to represent and put your best foot forward because you know it's not just about you," she adds. "So Nina, it's really a story about the pressure that the first-generation American feels and I'm so blessed that I get to tell it and have discovered it, my own experience, within it."

Grace explains that Nina goes back home and feels "a sense of responsibility that is almost crippling her," noting that, much like her background, Nina is an Afro-Latina in a predominantly white space that "earned her way." "She doesn't feel at home and she has to go back home and explain this guilt that she feels about being afraid of going back. Then she finds the opportunity to pay forward all this privilege that she's gotten through her dad loving her so much. He's willing to pay for her tuition and sacrifice everything, even his business for her, to have a future and create a future for others. So I've definitely found the parallel between our lives."

Smits previously told ET that Kevin and Nina have a beautiful -- and very much relatable -- father-daughter story. "The whole thing [is] about the parents wanting the best for their child," he explained, before marveling over Grace's extraordinary acting abilities. "She's an accomplished singer and totally on point in terms of the vocal stuff, but she was so open and emotionally available. That whole father-daughter relationship really manifested itself and I'm happy with it."

Grace adds, "That's why I related so much to Nina because she can see the love in her dad. I see that in my mom and my dad. They've supported me all my life. My mom for example, she's like my real-life Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega). I've seen her be the business woman and entrepreneur all my life. Our family business was a salon. I've seen how she earned every cent that she has, and my dad. My work ethic comes from my parents. So to be able to pay them homage in just representing their stories, but also just doing my best in everything that I attach my name to and their name to, is beautiful."

The singer admits that there were times, however, when she would still question her abilities and even feel like she was not "worthy of this experience." But her incredible cast mates, like Smits and her on-screen love interest Corey Hawkins, who plays Benny, would tell her to not question her talent. "It filled me up and empowered me, much like how Nina's community empowers her."

Grace's chemistry with Hawkins, meanwhile, jumps off the screen. "You can't fabricate that," she cracks, adding, "I'm giving my all, excellence. In general, we knew that we were making something that was gonna mean a lot to people. We felt like we were making, doing, something historic."

Anthony Ramos, who stars as Usnavi, has been known to say, "We're doing this for the culture!" And Grace agrees. She explains that while this is a predominately Latinx cast, she believes this film is for everyone.

"Everybody is itching to have communal experiences again, and I think now more than ever we're so grateful for those moments where we get to have and feel that sense of community. And that's what our movie is about," she expresses. "We found the love again in having a neighborhood, having a chosen family, having experiences specific to your block, wherever that is. If it's a big city or a small neighborhood, we've found the love of that again, and I think now is the perfect time for people to see that on the big screen."

And just like Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) says, it's the "little details that tell the world we are not invisible."

"I've repeated that to myself so many times after filming this movie because it is the little details. It's the stuff that you carry on from your family members that remind you who you are and where you come from," Grace relays.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Of course, Grace had to give it up to the creative minds behind In the Heights: Miranda, screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes and Chu.

"Shout out to Jon Chu. Let's just have a moment for Johnny Chu. The best director," Grace marvels. "I mean, I'm biased because he's the only movie director I've worked with, but I'm pretty sure the whole rest of our cast, including Jimmy, we all agree that he's going to go down as one of the best directors of our time, because he has the vision to make those moments [special]."

Grace notes that if anybody else would have seen the script or the show, "Lin talks about it all the time, they would have thought small."

"Like, 'This is about a neighborhood, let's keep it small, keep it grounded.' And these numbers, they're huge!" she continues. "They're like out of the Golden era of musicals of film! And Benny and Nina, thanks to [Chu's] vision, get to have their Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] moment."

It's taken a lot of "paciencia y fe" (patience and faith) to get to where Grace is now, but she still has a lot of "sueñitos" (little dreams) that she's hoping to accomplish in the future.

"I have so many sueñitos. I want to just keep making things that feel like this," she excitedly says. "This is my starting point in my acting career and I feel so privileged and blessed. It is surreal to say that. I am very aware that does not happen everyday…But I also have set a certain bar. The movie or the project does not have to be huge, but it should have as much heart in the way that we feel."

"Everyone was so connected everyday on set and felt so responsible and wanted to do their best," she proudly states, adding that she knows that might not always be the case. "But now I strive for it because I know that it is possible. And that is thanks to -- it trickles down from the top -- Jon, Lin and Quiara who really set the tone, set the morale of the set for everyone and gave their best."

In the Heights arrives in theaters and HBO Max on June 11.



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