Film

tick, tick...BOOM! star Robin de Jesús: ‘No more choosing fear over love’

Playing the role of Michael in tick, tick…BOOM! made Robin de Jesús realise the amount of sacrifice that can sometimes be involved in acting

tick, tick...BOOM! credit: Macall Polay

Andrew Garfield and Robin de Jesús in tick, tick...BOOM! credit: Macall Polay

The acclaimed musical tick, tick…BOOM! has been heralded as one of the year’s best films.

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield, it tells the story of Jonathan Larson turning dejection into opportunity, thanks in part to his friend and supporter Michael, played by Robin de Jesús. But ironically, the lessons Michael espouses are exactly the ones de Jesús needed to learn himself. He tells The Big Issue about the relationship between creativity and mental health and how making it in the business shouldn’t come at a cost.

The Big Issue: What is so special about movie musicals?

Robin de Jesús: When you’re studying musical theatre, one of the things you’re always taught is that the reason you burst into song in musicals is because the emotions get to a point where they get so big that speaking words isn’t enough. So you have to sing. Then after a while singing isn’t enough so you have to dance.

The world vibrates differently. Going to see a musical movie is almost like a full body experience. There is something about a musical that makes you emotionally available. Also in a song and in dance, you can say things that you’re too scared to say speaking. I think they just open you up.

Do you see elements of yourself in the character you play in tick, tick…BOOM!, Michael?

There are aspects of Michael in me but I do think there’s some Jonathan [Larson] in him as well. Some of that neurotic passion.

I do know what it’s like to be a Latino queer man navigating friendships with people from different cultures. But I was attracted to him because he was such a contrast to every other character I’ve played, who are larger than life. Michael is very subtle, he grounds Jonathan, and that was so exciting for me to explore.

He gives up on his career in the arts – have you known people in your own life who’ve also changed the paths they were going down?

Yeah, but it’s interesting. People renegotiate their contracts with life. When it comes to Michael and Susan, I don’t think that they left creating. I know they didn’t. Someone who stops acting, we label that failure as opposed to taking into account that maybe that person is happier, or didn’t like the business anymore.

For Michael, the business wasn’t for him. He thought he wanted to be an actor and then he realised that he didn’t have it him. In real life, leaving this business can be really, really difficult because it isn’t always on your terms.

Does what you do for a living inherently involve a level of sacrifice?

Um, yeah, I mean for me, I only want to be an actor if I can do it and keep my mental health. And I do think you have to learn what your relationship is with mental health and your creativity.

In this movie, I very much was having panic attacks. I felt incredibly insecure. I wasn’t having fun. And I feared not being pleasant to be around.

I had this really beautiful moment. The day that they announced Biden winning the election I remember being in my trailer in the middle of this mini panic attack, and I looked at the screen and I thought, now that matters. That is important.

Robin, son of Puerto Rican migrant workers, who didn’t have the privilege of finishing high school, who worked in factories – my dad is in his 70s and he was forced to retire because of Covid but he’d have stayed working full time if he could. Look at everything that they went through. And now in one generation, I’m number two on the call sheet in a film produced by Netflix directed by Lin Manuel Miranda, starring Andrew Garfield.

Once I had that perspective switch, everything changed. The process changed, it became fun. The moment where I feel like that shows the most is the scene on the street with me and Andrew having that argument. That day, Andrew and I were in such a place of alignment. I remember Lin clocking, we have to hurry up because something’s happening right now.

And Andrew turned to me at one point and asked for two more takes. He apologised to me and said, it’s just that your work is so good right now that I want to be at your level.

It sucker-punched me because it really meant a lot. As someone who was struggling and insecure, I felt very seen in that moment. To circle back to your question. I feel like this business often makes you think that you have to sacrifice your mental health, that you have to sacrifice spending time with your loved ones. But I’m grateful to be on the other side.

After that realisation, what things do you put up with ‘no more’?

No more choosing fear over love. It is funny that that’s the lesson I’m supposed to be passing on to Jonathan/Andrew. And that was the lesson I was learning while filming.

tick, tick…BOOM! is available to watch now on Netflix

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