New York City’s vibrant Washington Heights neighborhood comes to life like never before in the new feature film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award winning musical In The Heights. The energetic new film features an ensemble cast bursting with culture, predominantly lead by Latino actors. Corey Hawkins, of Walking Dead and Straight Out Of Compton fame, is the only Black star among them—but he feels right at home. The 32-year-old actor lived in the Washington Heights neighborhood when he was attending Juilliard acting school.

Below, Hawkins took some time to talk with EBONY about his character Benny, his unsung journey through the theater world, and the power behind the film’s diverse cast. 

EBONY: Congratulations on the new film! Many people may not be aware of your theater background. You appeared on Broadway in Six Degrees of Separation, for which you got a Tony Award nomination for. What’s it like for you getting back into that theatre world, but on the big screen?

Corey Hawkins: Guess that's the crazy thing with musicals on film. It's a joy, brother. I grew up in a theater. That’s kind of where I cut my teeth. On Broadway, off Broadway, off-off-off Broadway, workshops, grinding in New York. Funny enough, In The Heights was, when I got to New York, the first musical I had ever seen on Broadway. So talk about an introduction to musicals and The Great White Way, with Chris Jackson playing Benny. And I actually lived in The Heights, so there was this sort of kismet I had with this show. 

So it all kind of came full circle for you?

A little bit. I’m still kind of pinching myself. You know everything happens the way it's supposed to happen. I firmly believe that the universe, you just sort of have to get out of the way and let it do its thing. But you still have to work and pursue the things you want. This was a dream of mine, just to be able to stretch out. Going from Straight Out of Compton to Black Klansmen. Now I get to show people I can sing, and all those things. It’s fun.

I didn’t know you could sing either, until seeing the film. You're a talented brother!

My grandfather said the same thing when he saw the movie. He was like, “I didn’t know you could sing like that!” And I was like, “Dang grand dad! Tell me how you really feel!”

You mentioned you’ve been cutting your teeth in theater. Do you remember your first role? Did it go all the way back to your childhood?

I remember specific moments. I remember working with Richard Wesley and Duke Ellington School of the Arts in DC. That was a huge moment for me. I did Showtime At The Apollo when I was a kid with Steve Harvey, and Jasmine Sullivan was on my same show. So I used to do fun stuff. But I never thought I would go on to be a singer. I’m just blessed to work with so many great people in that time, like Katori Hall who did P-Valley. I’m blessed to work with these luminaries. 

It’s a small industry! 

Yeah, man. The people you see going up are sometimes some of the same people you see going down. We're all in this together and I'm realizing how special it is, especially with this movie and this cast—like how special the film making process is and how personal it is; what it reveals about who you are and what you have to offer to the world in terms of activism and what you have to say. Everyone has their way of doing things and this just happens to be mine. 

You know Washington Heights well. You lived there. Does the film capture that neighborhood feel? 

It does an excellent job of that, more so than any other film. It’s historic in that sense. For me it’s where I can go back and lay my head. After going down to Juilliard and having to code switch and having to go downtown and exist in a world that didn’t feel like something I could recognize as something personal to me. Being able to go back to that community and say, “Wow, this feels like southeast DC where I grew up” is special. The food, the culture, the language, everything about it. I felt seen and I felt heard. We felt like we saw each other while filming. We saw all of those similarities and differences. We get to revel in the beauty and the facets of everyday life. 

A scene from In the Heights.

When you look at the cast, this is a great moment for the Latino community. But you’re the only Black person in the starting cast. As Black people, we are used to being the only one. But it’s a little different being the only Black person with some white people and being the only Black person among other people of color. Right?

Definitely. But that’s the crazy thing. This was one of the first times I went to work and didn’t feel like I had to code switch, or feel like I had to be something other than who I was. When I walked through the hair and makeup trailer, I didn’t have to worry that they wouldn’t know what to do with all this hair, or my skin color or complexion. I didn't have to worry about, you know, stepping on people's toes and not feeling wanted. This cast became like family to me. We would joke about my Spanish. And that’s the funny thing; my character is also trying to learn Spanish. Benny came to the Heights and found that as his home, whereas some of the other characters are wrestling with getting out to try and make it. But Benny revels in the beauty of lifting up that community. And I think that’s so powerful. It just made me feel at home. 

That’s allyship in action.

Exactly. It takes all of us.

And working with Lin-Manuel Miranda, what was that like for you? He contributed to that home feeling?

Man, Lin is one of those once in a lifetime genius beings, and a giving soul. And he gives through his work. His work is his contribution. In Shakespeare it says, “my voice is in my sword.” Lin’s voice is in his sword, his work. That’s where his strength lies. And his work lies in his roots and his community. We would be in studio and he would say, “you know what Corey let’s change the lyric.” I’m like, “you can’t do that bro—it’s iconic!” And, I mean, he wrote it, so of course he can change it. So he said let’s hop on Twitter and see what the fans think it should be. People would chime in and now it’s in the movie! It’s incredible. He gave us the ability to be leading actors and actresses and artists on this. And there is no other gift a creator can give than the permission to be yourself and tell the story. It’s something I’ll forever be grateful for. It’s our little time capsule, this magic of The Heights with this incredible cast. I’m thankful.

The trailer to In the Heights.