Lin-Manuel Miranda Says He Was Told He Couldn't Make 'In the Heights' Without a Bankable Latino Star

The musical's creator and director Jon M. Chu talk about the challenges they faced to get the movie made.

Lin-Manuel Miranda had a vision for In the Heights and he wasn't going to let anyone change it.

Two decades ago, the 41-year-old multifaceted star was pitching what would become the four-time Tony-award-winning Broadway play. The film adaptation, directed by Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu, would come 16 years later after its debut. But it wasn't an easy ride for Miranda, who revealed that a studio didn't want to make the big screen adaptation without a bankable Latino star.

But before it became the must-see film of this summer, Miranda encountered other problems when it came to pitching the screenplay.

"I would get pitches from producers who only had West Side Story in their cultural memory,” Miranda tells Variety in a new feature published on Thursday. "Like, ‘Why isn’t she pregnant? Why isn’t she in a gang? Why isn’t she coming out of an abusive relationship at Stanford?’ Those are all actual things I was pitched.”

"Because the pressure of leaving your neighborhood to go to school is f**king enough," he stated. "I promise. And if it’s not dramatic enough, that’s on us to show you the f**king stakes."

James Devaney/GC Images

Universal Pictures first bought the rights in 2008, with Kenny Ortega first attached to direct. The project was canceled by 2011. The outlet noted that the studio allegedly wanted a bankable Latinx star, reportedly Jennifer Lopez or Shakira, and thought it would be too risky to put forth $37 million to a musical with unknown stars.

"It very quickly became if you don’t have," Miranda recalled, while covering his mouth with his hand, "-- bleep, you’re not getting the money to make the movie."

"The sentence that rings in my ears from that era is ‘There’s not a lot of Latino stars who test international.’ ‘Test international’ means ‘We’re not taking a chance on an expensive movie with Latino stars,’” Miranda explains. "What Jon did so brilliantly with Crazy Rich Asians was he said, ‘These people are stars; you just don’t know who they are yet.’ I think he’s done a similar thing with In the Heights."

After Universal passed, Miranda teamed up with The Weinstein Company. But after the multiple allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the rights went to Warner Bros. Miranda and Chu made sure to gain creative control and find the right cast to bring In the Heights to life.

“[Crazy Rich Asians] gave me the strength in the room to say: We’re going to have to spend more time and money to find the right actors,” Chu tells Variety. "You’re not going to find them at an agency. Agencies won’t rep them because there’s no roles for them."

Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

They then found their lead Anthony Ramos -- who worked with Miranda on Hamilton -- after he filled in for the role of Usnavi after the original stage actor hurt his foot. Ramos was a relatively unknown name, with his most notable role as Lady Gaga's friend in A Star Is Born. The three other starring roles went to Vida star Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, Leslie Grace as Nina and Corey Hawkins as Benny.

The film was originally scheduled to be released last year but was delayed due to the pandemic. While Miranda had his reservations about postponing the release, he and Chu now know it couldn't come at a better time.  

"This is a vaccine for your soul,” says Chu, with Miranda adding, "Jon’s argument to me, which is the correct one, is we can release it now and people would feel good to have it in their homes. Or we can release it with the right push next year, and then we create a lane of Latinx stars so that I never have to sit in a meeting and hear someone say, ‘Do they test international?’”

Ramos previously told ET that In the Heights is going to be a "moment" for Latinxs.

"It's gonna be a moment for us. You never know what's going to happen with anything you do, but when you do something that you believe in [it's amazing]," he marveled. "The movie hasn't come out but I'm proud of it already because I know what it felt like. I know those days on set where 75 Latin people are in the streets just cheering each other on before the 15th take of a huge dance number, still pumped and hyped, and you feel that thing inside of us that has been waiting to come out of our community for years..  What I'm saying is that we now have the opportunity to give to the world and it was just beautiful and it was a moment." 

In the Heights arrives in theaters and HBO Max on June 11. See more in the video below.