An interview with two-time Tony nominee Robin De Jesus is like a gossipy chat with your best friend. He’s warm, open and unspoiled by the success he’s achieved on Broadway in the past two years, first as comic sidekick Sonny in In the Heights and now in a scene-stealing performance as Jacob the “maid” in La Cage aux Folles. At the end of a busy Tony-centric week, the 25-year-old actor chatted about why his breakout performance in the movie Camp made his wary of drag roles, his dream outfit for the Tonys and who’ll be on his arm at Radio City.
Did you have fun at Tony press reception after the nominations were announced?
It was really cool. But I have an interesting story…
Oh, this is brilliant. When I walked in, our [show] publicist went up to a woman from a well-known TV network who was just sitting there, and said, “Would you like to interview Robin De Jesus of La Cage aux Folles?” She said, “What?” And he said, “Robin De Jesus of La Cage aux Folles?” She looked up and went, “We’re only doing leads.” So now at the theater, anytime anyone in the cast walks by me, they say, “Only leads!”
You told us that the last time you got nominated [for In the Heights], you had to go into therapy. Why?
I was really…I was about to say “young,” but it was only two years ago [laughs.] [At that time] everything seemed perfect in my life and my career, and when the Tony nomination happened, it created this pressure. It was like, “People are expecting a ‘nominated’ performance, and I have to deliver.” I started having really bad shows, and then it started bleeding into the rest of my life. A lot of my demons came out. But I ended up in therapy, which opened the door to me finding my spirituality and realizing I didn’t need the kind of validation that comes from awards; I needed to seek validation within myself. Once I discovered that, my mind eased. It’s still a process, but that’s been the difference this time around. Everything is extremely exciting, and of course you want [recognition], but you don’t need it.
Is it true someone said you would never make it in show biz because you’re short and Hispanic?
Yeah, that was my [high school] voice teacher, bless her heart. She encouraged her students to be opera singers, and that’s what I studied. I would talk about shows I wanted to do, and she would say, “Robin, when will you understand? You will never make it in musical theater. You’re too short and you’re Hispanic. All you’ll ever play is character roles, and they never get to sing.” But it’s turned out completely the opposite. All of the things she felt would be held against me have helped me.
You are hilariously deadpan as Jacob. Is it fun to play a part that’s so flamboyant?
It's been very cool. My first big gig was the film Camp, and I played a kid who aspired to be a drag queen. The set-up sounds like Jacob, but he was very different—kind of abused, a softer, sweeter kid—and after that, I kept getting called in only for drag queen and gay roles. I got tired of being pigeonholed and so I said to my agent, “That’s it. I don’t want to go in for something that’s gay or a drag queen.” It had nothing to do with me closeting myself, because I’m very out in my life. I just want to prove that I could do other things. A couple of years later, I had done enough straight roles that I felt comfortable telling my agent, “If Rent calls, I would be happy to audition for Angel,” and a month later, that’s that happened. Then I did Sonny in In the Heights, and that became the way people thought of me. When [La Cage] came about, I said, “This is totally different from Sonny.”
Do you think you’re going to win the Tony?
Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t seen all the other guys, but I did love Mr. Bobby Steggert in Ragtime. I think he’s beautifully talented.
Almost every Tony category is up for grabs this year.
I think all the male categories are going to be interesting. It’s going to make for a fun evening. I love it when there are guttural reactions from the audience, and I have a feeling it’s going to one of those years.
What are you going to wear?
I am picturing a classic look of a double-breasted white jacket with black slacks. A couple of seasons back, Armani had this awesome look of a white jacket and black slacks, but the slacks were cut off at the ankle, with white high-top sneakers. I tried to pull that off one time, but it didn’t work.
Full-length pants and black dress shoes are the way to go.
I completely agree.
Who’s your date?
My mother. She came last time.
What a good son you are!
I wouldn’t have it any other way. First of all, I’d never hear the end of it [laughs]. No, I’m kidding. Last time, when they called my name, I pointed to her and said, “That’s my mom,” and, I kid you not, everyone who said, “I saw you on the Tonys,” also said, “Oh my god, and your mom was so beautiful.”