'In the Heights' Star Leslie Grace Talks Humble Beginnings and Larger-Than-Life Hollywood Roles (Exclusive)

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In the Heights brought together a diverse Latinx cast on the big screen.

The Lin-Manuel Miranda-created musical features Latinx legends (Jimmy Smits and Daphne Rubin-Vega), Hollywood staples (Dascha Polanco and Stephanie Beatriz) and newcomers (Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera). However, there was one actor that stole the spotlight: Leslie Grace.

The 26-year-old singer made her feature film acting debut as Nina Rosario in the Jon M. Chu-directed musical, and is now set to suit up as Batgirl in the upcoming standalone Warner Bros. and DC film, ET confirms. 

While she may be new to Hollywood, Leslie is no stranger to the entertainment industry. Successful in her own right, Leslie has already made a name for herself in the Latin music scene. With much buzz around the Latina, here are a few things you should know about the rising singer-turned-actress.

In the Heights
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A Big Move With Difficult Challenges

The youngest of seven, Leslie was born on Jan. 7, 1995, in The Bronx, New York, to Dominican parents, and raised in Davie, Florida. Making the move, Leslie has admitted, was a shock and at times made her feel not accepted.

"It was a little bit different when we moved to Florida," she explained in a recent interview with Kelly Clarkson on her talk show. "I was raised in New York until I was 10 and then we moved to Florida. And my big curly hair and being Afro-Latina was kind of a shock that I didn't realize would be for some people, once I moved to a place where there weren't a lot people that look like me. "

"Being able to even just do a project like In the Heights and feel fully accepted, and even learn how to celebrate where I'm from more through the plot of our movie, was such a beautiful thing and it's something that we don't always get to see in Hollywood," she expressed.

An Entertainer at Heart

Leslie was always singing and dancing from a young age. In 2009, the bilingual artist dropped her debut album, Pasión and later released a bachata-tinged rendition of The Shirelles' 1961 hit, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," that reached No. 1 on both the Billboard Tropical Songs chart and Billboard Latin Airplay charts. The landmark made her the youngest female artist to do so.

"I knew from a super-young age I loved the feeling of performing," Leslie tells ET exclusively. "It was always something that brought my family together in my household and we all enjoyed doing a bit of whether it was through dance, karaoke songs or storytelling! Growing up in a Dominican household in New York, music was at the center of all of our moments, so it wasn’t long before I began putting on little shows in my 'sala' (living room) at around age six."

 

First Latin GRAMMY Nomination

She released her self-titled sophomore album in 2013, which earned Leslie her first Latin GRAMMY nomination in the Best Contemporary Tropical Album category. She would go on to receive two more nominations at the celebrated awards ceremony.  

"My first album was the beginning of my career and a world of possibilities," Leslie details. "It was me stepping on the scene at the ripe age of 17 and singing some songs I thought people would enjoy while I was still finishing up high school. Thankfully they did! I’m forever grateful!"

"It granted me my first Latin GRAMMY nomination before I graduated, and it was an absolutely surreal experience I still haven’t wrapped my head around to this day," she adds. "I’m grateful for it and all the growth [and] support."

Paying It Forward

Leslie already has some experience mentoring other up-and-coming artists too. In 2016, she was the winning coach on Univision’s Va Por Ti.

"I had the blessing of meeting so many gifted contestants as a coach during Va Por Ti, and it definitely made me think of the possibility of assisting in the development phase of artists in the future," Leslie expresses. "It was invigorating for me [and] spoke to all of the things that light me up as a person when it comes to collaborating! Love my #teamgrace!"

Epic Collaborations

The "Duro y Suave" singer has collaborated with the hottest names in Latin music including Karol G, Becky G, Mau y Ricky, Wisin, Noriel, CNCO, and Play-N-Skillz. After working with Maluma on the song "Aire," she joined him on his 14-city tour in Mexico. She recently revamped Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine’s "Conga" with Meek Mill and producer Boi-1da.

Taking Center Stage

Leslie co-hosted the 2018 Latin American Music Awards with Becky G, Roselyn Sanchez, Gloria Trevi and Aracely Arámbula.

"I am so excited to be a part of such a huge night," Leslie previously told ET ahead of the awards ceremony. "It's a special night too because we’re sending out a really big message, which is 'empowering women.' It's been such a huge year for women and the conversation that we have been putting out there. So I'm excited with the message we're going to be giving audiences as co-hosts and performers."

Film Debut

In April 2019, it was announced that Leslie was cast as Nina Rosario in In the Heights. In the film, Nina is known as the "good girl" who is the first in her family to go to college and who the barrio knows as “the one who made it out.” However, after being away, she realizes that life outside of Washington Heights isn’t as easy.

"I auditioned about two years prior to my final audition, back when it was under the Weinstein Company and it was my very first in-person movie audition in L.A. I was so green and so nervous but Jon, our director, was soooo warm even then," Leslie recalls. "After year and a half of continuing to self-tape, audition and test for a bunch of stuff while doing music, it was time to audition in front of Jon, [writer] Quiara [Alegría Hudes] and [casting director] Bernie Telsey -- this time around after casting kicked back up under Warner Brothers."

"I had learned by then that if I wasn’t right for the part of Nina, the best thing you can do in any audition in front of the same people is demonstrate growth. I made that my goal!" she continues. "Soon after that I would be asked to stay in NYC for the rest of the weekend to chemistry read in front of Lin and what became some of our incredible cast, including my bomb screen partner, Corey Hawkins. We happened to walk into the building from opposite sides of the block at the same time... and the rest is history!"

The Best Birthday Surprise Ever

Leslie revealed that Miranda FaceTimed her on her birthday to tell her she landed the role of Nina.

"He had no idea it was my birthday and he was calling me to let me know that I got the role for Nina [in] In the Heights," Leslie said on The Kelly Clarkson Show. "It was the best birthday gift I've ever received."

After wrapping the film, Leslie expressed, "It was beautiful, on my first experience as an actress to experience that."

As for what she hopes people get from watching In the Heights when it hits theaters and the HBO Max streaming site? "Hope! The opportunity to celebrate life again...even in the thick of the strife it may bring!" she tells ET. "I pray it makes all those little boys and girls and grown men and women that have yet to see themselves onscreen in a feature film feel absolutely seen and celebrated in their fullness!"

What's Next?

Leslie will definitely be pursuing an acting career and already has her next gig lined up. For her second role, she landed the coveted role of Barbara Gordon in Batgirl. According to Deadline, the upcoming Batgirl film will debut on HBO Max, marking one of the first major DC properties to premiere exclusively on the streamer. Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah will direct the film from a script by Christina Hodson, while Kristin Burr is producing.

The entertainer also has new music on the way. "I plan on continuing to pursue all the ways I know how to express what I have within that I think may be worth sharing, and learn new ways to share what I’ve yet to express!" she exclaims. "So excited about what is yet to come!"

Be sure to keep an eye on Leslie as her light is shining brighter than ever. See more in the video below.

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