Robin De Jesus Has His Own ’Patti Issues’
This fall, Robin De Jesus, the two-time Tony nominee (Best Featured Actor in a Musical, for "In the Heights" and "La Cage Aux Folles") and film and television actor, is as busy as ever. It started when he took the role of Ben Rimalower in Rimalower's acclaimed one-man play, "Patti Issues," in September.
And it continues this month when he will co-star in the ensemble drama, "Domesticated," at Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theater, and appear in a solo concert at 54 Below on Nov. 24 and 25.
EDGE recently spoke with the actor about his career, the challenges of "Patti Issues," and what's ahead for him.
EDGE: Listen, did anyone ever tell you that you have the most incredible hands?
Robin De Jesus: [Laughs] No! Thank you. My hands?
EDGE: Yes! I was completely mesmerized by how you used your hands on stage and it gave me some insight into how meticulous you must be when you approach acting.
Robin De Jesus: I do have a thing for hands, and they are very expressive. I get that from my grandmother. She was the same way. If guests came over to the house and said something inappropriate, she'd point her hand to her mouth and signal with her hands when the guest wasn't looking.
EDGE: How did ’Patti Issues’ come about? Did you approach Ben or did he approach you?
Robin De Jesus: Ben approached me. For a while, he has wanted me to do a show with him, and it didn’t work out with the schedule. Then he brought ’Patti Issues’ to L.A. and I saw it and I thought it was great-funny and sweet. He wanted me to come in and read it, and I did. We talked about it. For him, it was an experiment to see if his writing worked with someone else’s voice. And finally, we realized that Sunday nights could work, so that’s how that came about.
EDGE: It’s highly unusual to take over a role in a one-man show that was written and performed by the author himself. What are some of the themes that attracted you to it?
Robin De Jesus: You know, I think Daddy issues affect a lot of people. Also obsession, which has a fine line between love and going downhill. When that love becomes an obsession, it becomes unhealthy. Obsession kind of takes away that safe distance. I understood that, and in the play, there is a point where the obsession with Patti becomes unhealthy-like the whole issue of the recording. And, of course, it worked out and he produced the ’Les Mouches’ album, but . . . that was a theme that I really understood.
EDGE: Yeah, that’s the part of the show where you understand why Patti LuPone might have been uncomfortable.
Robin De Jesus: Totally! Totally! You never know where that obsession thing comes from and when it will become unhealthy.
EDGE: It would seem that you and Ben are different types, and yet the script worked without any noticeable changes. I completely bought it.
Robin De Jesus: I appreciate that. He took out one or two Yiddish words. But that was the experiment for Ben-it was more about the person and who he is, and the storytelling element. The other thing about playing Ben Rimalower is that he’s a behind-the-scenes guy, someone you may have never heard of but who might have been part of something.
As an audience, you’re not going to come in with a preconceived notion of who that is. That’s fascinating for an actor because you can bring out so many things, like imagining how the other characters affected him. It’s a fun psychology.
EDGE: Was it intimidating to do it in front of Ben for the first time?
Robin De Jesus: Yes. I didn’t think it was going to be, at first. The rehearsal process involved just the director and me. Normally, when you rehearse a show there’s a whole team. I only want to make the writer proud and represent the work as best as possible, and I’m still working on that. I know it won’t be perfect, but I do want to make him proud. I want to make him feel that his baby is in good hands. It’s hard when you’re working on a show that is such a small production. It is intimidating. He knows the story within the story.
EDGE: Is it safe to say that being onstage by yourself for over an hour is more challenging than anything you’ve done before?
Robin De Jesus: Yes. Hands down, it’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I’ve always considered myself to be a storyteller, and I’m also a listener. I loved being an audience member for him. A one-man show is a mind-fuck. When you get out there, you are responsible, no one else. But it’s very empowering when you do it. It’s a confidence-booster. In ’Domesticated’ [an Off-Broadway play that opens next month], I am in an ensemble play and onstage for fifteen minutes. It’s so weird to be in both shows at the same time. I’m also doing my first solo concert for a couple nights at 54 Below in November, and I think ’Patti Issues’ has totally prepared me for that.
EDGE: We haven’t heard you sing a lot, even though you’ve been nominated for two Tonys in musicals.
Robin De Jesus: It’s true. I’ve never had my own song in a Broadway musical. I’m coming off a couple years after I had a weird reaction to a medication, which affected my vocal cords. But now I’m healthy and feeling good and ready to sing in front of an audience.
EDGE: I was reading about how you kind of freaked out when you were nominated for your first Tony for ’In the Heights.’ How did you react after you were nominated a second time, for ’La Cage Aux Folles?’
Robin De Jesus: You know, the second time was great in that it made it feel like the first time was not a fluke. And I thought I was calm and fine with the whole thing the second time, but the week before the Tony Awards, I could not sleep at all and couldn’t concentrate on anything. Somewhere inside you, there’s a part of you that really wants it. I went to my acupuncturist and was complaining about my stress and lack of sleep and she asked me what was going on. I mentioned the Tony Awards in passing. She’s like, ’Hello? You’re dumbing down the Tony Awards?’ Basically, I was making the award more important than it really was, even though it would be great to have one. A cure for cancer would be better. When the Tony Awards were over, it was kind of a relief. I could just go back and do my job.
EDGE: Does having two Tony nominations open doors for you?
Robin De Jesus: They definitely help, but every person in theater gets put into a niche. When you’re an out, gay, Hispanic man, you get stuck with certain kinds of roles. The work I was offered was kind of one-note and stereotypical and I didn’t want it. When I was doing ’La Cage’, my father had cancer and was on chemotherapy and I wanted to take some time off. So I took six months off, and that turned into a year. I ended up teaching some master classes back in Connecticut. Having the Tony nominations definitely brings something to the table and gets people to show up for the classes. Anyway, I love doing the master classes. Every time I do them, I remember what it is like to be that excited by the theater, and loving it. After a year, though, I was ready to come back and there was nothing for me. But then this year, there’s all this random great stuff happening.
The most amazing thing about the nominations is realizing the amount of good I can do with that. Earlier this year, I performed for those affected by the Sandy Hook massacre. That hit everybody hard, but because it’s near where I grew up, I was extra-sensitive about it. At the concert, the first song I sang was ’Seasons of Love.’ After the concert, we got to meet families of the victims, which was very emotional. A woman talked to me about her son and showed me his photo, which had the caption, ’Measure your life in love.’ She took that song as a sign that she was supposed to be at the concert. That night, I really felt on a gut level why I was given a talent, that I have a gift and that I’m supposed to give of it freely. That night changed my life.
EDGE: You have been outspokenly open about being gay. I think things have changed with your generation, but do you think there are specific challenges for Hispanic kids to come out?
Robin De Jesus: Yeah, there’s this weird dynamic where it goes back and forth with the Catholic guilt. My grandmother always had this saying, ’In every family there is one of everything.’ It’s another way of saying ’Thou shalt not judge.’ But when I came out, there was this weird dynamic with my mother, that the devil had taken over. But at the same time, she had tons of gay friends that she loved. She went out of her way to call all the relatives and tell them I was gay but that she was still going to love me. She’s come a long way, and is much more open. She loves it when I’m in a relationship and when it’s over, she’d say, ’Why did you fuck that one up?’ [Laughs] Every now and then the Catholic thing will come up in the background. There’s a very popular talk show host in Puerto Rico-kind of the Wendy Williams of Latin America-and she recently got in trouble for making a homophobic comment, and my father totally P-flagged it: ’Get rid of her!’ It was great. But it’s always a work in progress.
EDGE: Tell us about ’Domesticated,’ the new off-Broadway play that opens in November.
Robin De Jesus: It’s an awesome cast and it’s so good. It’s kind of political gender drama, about the relationships we have and the assumptions that we make about one another. It’s about promises that we make and if we intend to keep them. I’m very proud of it and very excited about it. When I first read the script, I knew I was going to book it, even before I had an audition. It’s like I dreamed the show, I wanted it so much. I’m hoping we can really stir things up at Lincoln Center. I hope you get to see it.
EDGE: I definitely plan to. This is turning out to be a great fall for you!
Robin De Jesus: I’m very excited! Life is good!
Robin De Jesus will appear in "Patti Issues" on Sundays at 9:30, Oct. 13, 20, and 27 at The Duplex (www.theduplex.com). "Domesticated" begins previews at the Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, on Oct. 10. DeJesus appears at 54 Below (www.54below.com) on Nov. 24 and 25.