tick, tick…BOOM! is probably the movie of the year for theater lovers, newcomers and everyone in between.
An adaptation of Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical, the film follows Jon (Andrew Garfield), “a young theater composer who’s waiting tables at a New York City diner in 1990 while writing what he hopes will be the next great American musical. Days before he’s due to showcase his work in a make-or-break performance, Jon is feeling the pressure from everywhere: from his girlfriend Susan, who dreams of an artistic life beyond New York City; from his friend Michael, who has moved on from his dream to a life of financial security; amidst an artistic community being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads and faces the question everyone must reckon with: What are we meant to do with the time we have?”
Aside from Garfield, the film also stars Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Michaela Jae Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Tariq Trotter aka Black Thought of The Roots, Judith Light and Vanessa Hudgens.
Shadow and Act sat down with De Jesús for a conversation about the movie coming at this time, the role and how it feels to be tackling all of this right now.
The above conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity, but you can view the full video below:
S&A: As someone who was familiar with Rent, but not so familiar with Jonathan Larson’s story, I felt like I was taken on a journey about so much that I did not know. I was like, ‘How did I not know all of this? Since you were on Rent on Broadway, what was it like taking part in the film adaptation of tick, tick…BOOM!? Was kind of interesting being in the situation of being in Rent and now in this?
RDJ: Well, I want to also address what you said about not knowing tick, tick because I feel like part of the reason we were robbed of knowing tick, tick was because of 9/11. That was what shut off Broadway shows and why it couldn’t sustain itself financially. So we were robbed of knowing it…who knows if it could have transferred even?
[Taking part] in it [the film adaptation] was really beautiful because I felt like I had so much information and it felt like I was already a member of the family. And I also felt like I came in as a disciple of musical theater and a disciple of Jonathan Larson. So I kind of felt like…of course I’m the one that’s here! I deserve to be here. Like I know even if my performance was busted, which it isn’t [laughs], I came in with integrity and a desire to honor Jonathan and his legacy.
S&A: What were some things that you think that you learned about Jonathan that you didn’t know before playing Michael? Like, I’m sure that you have studied him over the years and of course you were in Rent and all of that, but was there anything you didn’t really realize about him before you were in this role?
RDJ: I don’t know why I was surprised by this, because it’s on full display in of his writing, but just like how hard he loved his friends, he was so giving. It’s very easy to think that Jonathan, it was like, self-indulgent self-indulgent…me, me, me, but that wasn’t the case at all. Lin was telling us the other day that he would like leave gift for his friends randomly, or like write them songs. He was always thinking about them and always wanting to celebrate them. And that, that to me, that’s how my friends are. And that’s how that’s our culture [is], which is why it’s so hard to get in our circle. Because if you’re not at that level, then we can’t be bringing you in. It’s really beautiful to watch.
S&A: By me not knowing a lot about tick tick, BOOM!, I was kind of surprised…but surprised in a good way. Because it is Jonathan Larson’s story, but it’s so intersectional. Like you have what’s going on with Michael, you have on what’s going on with Susan, what’s going on with Carolyn, it’s kind of everyone’s story. And it’s looped in a way where it’s not it’s just about Jonathan but about everyone’s story who’s in there. So how did that feel for you to tackle so much with the AIDS crisis, the things that Jonathan was going through, racism, sexism…all of that stuff in this film under one lens?
RDJ: It’s so Jonathan, even though Jonathan didn’t write this screenplay. But when you look at Rent, the way he brought in all the different people from his life [and the way] he brought in people with different colors, he brought in different sexualities…and he brought them in a way that was full-bodied. We get scenes with me…we get to actually contribute something. We changed. Me and Susan [Shipp]…we changed Jonathan. We help him see himself. So that was really cool and really beautiful, but there was also responsibility I found for me in honoring my culture in that time period, a culture of Black and Latinx folks who had been erased from the conversation about HIV and AIDS…who had experienced gay colonization. So now to take a period piece and to put me in it and to let me tell my story, I feel like I get to honor the elders that I never got to meet, but that I needed.
S&A: And the thing about it too is there could have been a version of this where Michael and everyone else are like stepping stones in Jonathan’s journey, which they are, but that’s not just what they are. Your characters don’t exist as a purpose to teach Jonathan a lesson about some of that.
RDJ: Even just watching like Michael and Jonathan as friends, like watching a straight cis man with a gay man who have such intimacy who are so ride or die, who can like hug it out, hold each other’s face. And it, it’s not about sex. It’s not about sexuality. It’s just pure love, love and respect for one another. I’ve never seen that.
S&A: How did you relate to Michael and what he was going through? Cause he was really going through it at one point. I was like somebody, anybody…give Michael a break! But how were you able to, outside of being every part of his identity, relate to the character?
RDJ: I feel like in my friendships, I have moments where I’m the one just like floating and spiraling and then neurotic when [in] mid-crisis. But there’s also moments with friends of mine where I am the grounded one. I am the one who tethers…we’re each other’s therapists. And so for me that was something I felt very, very familiar with–the person that you can lean into, the person that grounds you, that helps you remind you who you are. That’s that’s the culture I have with my friends.
S&A: How was it working and reuniting with Lin-Manuel Miranda for this project years after In the Heights and working with him on a passion project of his on top of that?
RDJ: I was really happy and so proud of him. There were so many good things. I feel like I could go on about things that you would already assume because he’s just such a great person, but it’s really cool. Now we’re doing press and we’re doing all these panels and there are these moments where he and I just look up and we see each other… like really see each other. And I don’t know how else to describe that, but there’s such a depth there [and] such a deep love for one another and a respect. And I feel like in general, the whole cast, we’re so emotional and raw right now. We’re sensitive artists [laughs]. And this is a really beautiful movie that we’re proud of and excited to share with everyone. But I feel like we keep delivering monologues to one another with just our eyes.
S&A: You’re like, “Wow, after all this…we’re here.”
RDJ: After the “Pon de Replay” pandemic [laughs] after all of that, the movie still got made…and it matters that the movie’s here and that it matters when we talk about racial justice and social justice. I feel like everyone’s overwhelmed with social justice right now, but I think we’re all supposed to be. I think that’s what we need to be feeling. But it’s also the story that we’re telling is also musical. It’s also fun. It’s also a light, it’s also an escape. So there’s like there’s great beauty and lightness in that. And there’s also that thing that’s like, ‘Hey, so this, epidemic that we experienced in the ’80s and ’90s is not that different than the one we’re experiencing right now.’ Like the Venn diagram is kind of just one circle.
S&A: I like how you talked about the tone of it, because when I was watching, I was like “OK, I’m sad.” Then I’m like, “Oh, this joyful…. then I’m sad again.” All of the feelings are interconnected and it all makes sense because you can relate to it because it’s what we have to go through now. Like you said, if we weren’t mobilized by injustice, then we may not feel this push to see better and want to do better. So sometimes you still need that.
RDJ: But there’s, there’s a balance to it too. And I feel like we’ve been discussing that today, even the cast and how we discuss the movie as well. And I feel like we need to sit with our feelings sometimes and need to be introspective and we need to do shadow work or like go to those dark places and feel those feelings. But we also need to be centering joy. We also need to give ourselves an escape from that. And the escape is not to escape forever. The escape is a relief, so you can come back to it.
S&A: What’s a key takeaway that you hope people get from this?
RDJ: [This is] cheesy, but it’s real. Are you in your life at this present moment? Are you choosing fear or are you choosing love?
S&A: I know personally for me, I have a different concept perception of time than I did. In early 2020, I’m like, “OK, well maybe I shouldn’t put this off, or maybe I should do this.” And it’s kinda cliché. But again, when watching the movie and thinking about everything we’ve been through, it kind of lines up…especially considering everything that Jonathan did and having biggest work come after his death and things like that. It’s just like, you know, go for it.
RDJ: I mean, it’s so funny. This wasn’t a question you asked, but I’ve been thinking so much about the pandemic and the fact that we all face mortality so much…every single day watching it and like what does that do to people. And one of the things that I’m loving right now is I think certain people were liberated. Don’t get me wrong–real things are happening, like real heavy things. But there’s also this other thing of like, “Yo, the news [is about] dying every day. What am I doing? What do I want to do? I’ve been masking, I’ve been subscribing to certain rules. And now I’m gonna say, you know what, I’m liberated. I’m gonna do whatever the f**k I want. I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”