It was well worth the wait for Leslie Grace as she sets the screen ablaze this summer, soaring to new heights.
The 26-year-old singer has been on the music charts since high school, and last year was supposed to change the trajectory of her entire career. In her biggest professional breakthrough yet, the Latin Grammy-nominated artist was set to make her acting debut in Warner Bros.’ summer tentpole In the Heights. The splashy, big-budget adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s debut musical, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes and directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon M. Chu, was set to open just ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Filled with massive dance numbers and an all-Latinx cast, In the Heights was painstakingly crafted for the communal moviegoing experience.
But we all know how that turned out.
Grace describes the film and its eventual delay as a snowball: It’s a major moment for her, of course, but also for everyone involved in the film—for Miranda and Hudes; for Chu (whose son born during filming bears the middle name Heights); for fans of the musical; and for the Latinx community, historically the biggest moviegoing demographic in America.
“Everybody feels so, so connected to the stories that we were able to tell,” she says. “We all concurred that it was the best thing to wait so people feel safer about having that shared experience that’s just so different and so much more satisfying for a movie like this, specifically, where you want to dance in the aisles.”
Grace does plenty of dancing (and singing, of course) as Nina, a gifted college student spending summer break from Stanford at home in her beloved neighborhood of Washington Heights, Manhattan. Like the musical, the film follows the mainly Latino residents of the close-knit neighborhood as they chase their dreams while battling gentrification, rising temperatures and more forces that threaten to disrupt their lives.
Washington Heights is minutes from the Bronx, where Grace was born and raised before relocating to South Florida at 10 years old. “My parents are very social so we were the house—like, the spot—for all the family members to come over for Christmas, Thanksgiving, just on a random weekend, and we would entertain,” Grace says. She and her older siblings would create shows for whichever family members happened to be around at the time.
Grace grew more serious about performing, and by 14 she’d recorded a Christian CD that her father would keep in his car to hand out to anyone he could. Two years later, he got it in the hands of a big music producer who had the connections she needed for professional success. Her career quickly took off in 2013 when a bilingual cover of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” from her self-titled album reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Tropical and Latin Airplay charts.
When Grace started working on In the Heights, she spent more time concentrating on acting than music, but never gave up on her first love. In fact, the past year has been a boon creatively: “I have been making a lot of music—Zoom writing, in-person writing with a close crew. It’s been beautiful. I wrote my first English project and I’m working on some new Spanish music as well, and I’ve been reading for a lot of roles. I’ve definitely tried to take advantage of the time while staying sane.”
Though all that extra time, some of which she spent in Florida with her parents before finally making the move to Los Angeles, has also provided opportunities for self-doubt to creep in.
“Toward the end of filming I started to feel like, am I worthy of this experience? I knew I was the newbie on set,” Grace says. “I had never done anything on-screen, obviously, and I had been auditioning for a couple of years without telling anybody and doing my music thing. I started to feel a lot of imposter syndrome. I’m feeling so grateful, but, at the same time, a lot of what Nina feels in the movie—am I built for this?”
But sharing those thoughts with co-star Anthony Ramos—who, like the rest of the cast and crew, has kept in touch via a still-active group chat filled with memes, inside jokes, behind-the-scenes photos and occasional name changes—has helped reinforce Grace’s belief in herself.
With vaccine availability skyrocketing and COVID-19 cases trending down, In the Heights is finally set to hit theaters and HBO Max June 18, nearly a full year after its original release date. Not only will mainstream audiences finally get to see everything Grace can do—including a pop song over the closing credits with Miranda and Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony—it will also show little girls just like Grace that they can do whatever they put their minds to, whether it be singing, acting or heading to a school like Stanford and figuring things out from there.
“This is a movie that I wanted to see growing up,” Grace says. “This is what I was looking for to tell me I can do this. I never saw myself. The fact that I got to not only see and read the story and hear the music but also play someone that’s so close to what my experience has been like is just a blessing. That doesn’t happen every day, but we hope that through this movie it does start to happen more frequently. And I think that it will.”
Photography by: Mark Adriane/NOX Media