Daphne Rubin-Vega Talks to MJ Rodriguez About Her “Wild-Ass Ride”
In our September issue, we assembled a portfolio of five legendary Grand Dames of Broadway who define elegance, drama, humor, and grace, and who our guest-editor Jeremy O. Harris called “the foundation of New York’s theatrical heartbeat.” In the fifth installment, Daphne Rubin Vega speaks to MJ Rodriguez about Rent, creating a legacy for younger generations, and the power of their ancestors.
BROADWAY DEBUT: Rent, 1994
SIGNATURE ROLES: Mimi Marquez in Rent, Lucy in Jack Goes Boating
TONY NOMINATIONS: 2
YOUTUBE IT: “Out Tonight”
INTERVIEWED BY: Emmy nominee MJ Rodriguez
MJ RODRIGUEZ: Hey, Daphne.
DAPHNE RUBIN-VEGA: Hey!
RODRIGUEZ How you be?
RUBIN-VEGA: I’m good. I’m thrilled to do this interview.
RODRIGUEZ: Same here, Daphne. I’ve been a fan of yours for years. Also, just being in the Rent family, it’s inevitable for me to gush over the work you’ve laid down. I want to give you all of the flowers because honey, you are that girl.
RUBIN-VEGA: Thank you. When my son was seven, I took him to New World Stages and he saw your Angel.
RODRIGUEZ: I remember that day.
RUBIN-VEGA: I might throw around the word legacy a lot, but that’s the legacy that we do have. I just wanted to reiterate that the Rent family is true. I’m so proud of everything that you are. I feel that way about Lin.
RODRIGUEZ: Speaking of Lin, with you being in In the Heights, what’s it like riding this wave, the excitement of it all? I’m thinking of the musical, but this movie has really pushed the needle forward. How does it feel to be a part of such a big company and work with someone who you love and worked with for years?
RUBIN-VEGA: It feels like the group of people you’re with, and the family you’ve created from making this work that’s bigger than you, gets tighter as the project becomes more public. It’s not pressure. I’m trying to find the right word. What does it feel like? It’s hard to describe. Ask me in five years.
RODRIGUEZ: I feel you. What about the character herself?
RUBIN-VEGA: She’s a composite of all the brave ancestors, my mother included. The people that left everything they knew and loved to pursue a life that was the most real for them, the most truthful, the most humane. It’s better than putting on jewels or clothes. It’s like embodying a character that resonates with people, and when things ring true, they ring true. I was so happy to have moments with the character that embodied a woman that lived her best life on her terms, no matter what.
RODRIGUEZ: I watched the movie while I was in L.A., and I lit up when I saw your face on the screen. I was like, “This woman has paved the way for so many people, and she still manages to turn it out completely.” That being said, I’m going to make a pivot and take us back to when you were on the actual stage. You are the queen of theater and you’ve changed it so much with your work. What do you think is the future of Broadway, specifically in 2021?
RUBIN-VEGA: Theater is ancient. It’s so old that it was a threat to religion. It mirrors the truth. So I’m really not worried about it. I’m ex- cited to discover what it’s going to be. These times have been really, really turbulent. I think we’re still hypervigilant on so many levels, but theater is going to be good. It’s going to be better.
RODRIGUEZ: It was the 25th anniversary of Rent this year. Being tied to the character of Mimi for over 25 years, what was her impact? How did she change your life, and how do you think she changed other people’s lives?
RUBIN-VEGA: I’ve found that it’s not so much the role, but someone who looks like me in the role, which has made it mean something different. When I embody roles, it must be surprising to people because it impacts them a certain way. The fact that I’m in the role is what makes it pivotal.
RODRIGUEZ: I know exactly what you mean. I remember the days when I would go on YouTube and watch you and Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs and everybody come back for the 10th anniversary of Rent, and what it did to people, because it did that same thing to me. The characters were poignant figures of that time, but so were the actors who lived in those characters.
RUBIN-VEGA: It’s been a wild-ass ride. It feels like having gotten to the top of a hill and being able to look out at a beautiful vista. It doesn’t mean there isn’t more to explore, but it feels like in a world where we’re wondering, “Why do I do this?,” I’ve never been unclear aboutwhyIdowhatIdo.I get all cheesy about it because I love what I do. I ain’t going to lie. Otherwise, I’d never put my family through it.
RODRIGUEZ: I feel you on that. I also feel like you’re an icon.
RUBIN-VEGA: It takes one to know one.
RODRIGUEZ: I don’t deserve that just yet. I got more work to do, Daphne.
RUBIN-VEGA: As long as we’re alive, we’re going to keep it going.
RODRIGUEZ: Yes, ma’am. But back to you. You were born in Panama City. What was it like acclimating to the U.S. as a young Panamanian girl?
RUBIN-VEGA: Frankly, you’re always not Panamanian enough, and certainly not American enough. It was tough. Immigration is a blast, and by a blast, I don’t mean a great time. It’s a rupture in our lives. You know what I mean?
RUBIN-VEGA: And for better or worse, it’s a big experience, to feel like you’re not really home in either place. In first grade, I remember kids saying, “Are you black? Are you white? What are you?” I didn’t know, so I said I was gold. And the repercussions of that have rippled throughout my life. But I love going back to Panama. I try to go back as much as possible.
RODRIGUEZ: Part of what has always attracted audiences to you is the sense that you are this open, raw, upfront, and energetic person. Most people aren’t like that, so it’s electrifying to be in the presence of someone real. What is the most electrifying thing that you’ve witnessed?
RUBIN-VEGA: Seeing Patti LuPone sing “Ladies Who Lunch” in Company was a physically altering experience. But the first time I had that feeling was when I read the Gabriel García Márquez novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
RODRIGUEZ: For me, words on the page come more to life than when you actually see something. When I read Wicked, that was my most electrifying moment. I was like, “This is not like the musical. It’s more graphic, more in-depth.”
RUBIN-VEGA: More expansive.
RODRIGUEZ: Exactly. That’s the perfect word for it.
RUBIN-VEGA: Just the other day, a friend of mine was like, “A film should be made of One Hundred Years of Solitude.” And I remember being 18 and thinking that, because it actually encapsulated an experience I had. It transcended the page, even though it was a long-ass book. I feel like you could never put that on film. How are you going to encapsulate all that “-ness” into it? I mean N-E-S-S, like fabulousness and awesomeness. Our job is to put the “-ness” in things.
RODRIGUEZ: My last question to you is this: In being such a prolific figure in so many parts of the community, what do you feel you haven’t done that you’re waiting to get called to do?
RUBIN-VEGA: More producing. It’s the writing and producing that I’m loving right now. Loving and fearing. It’s excruciating to write, but it’s beautiful, too.
RODRIGUEZ: I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve watched producers, and you’re right. It’s a hard job, so I commend you on that. I hope I get to produce something. That is my dream.
RUBIN-VEGA: You will. It’s a natural evolution. It’s coming into our own as artists.
RODRIGUEZ: Yep, stepping into ourselves and being comfortable.
RUBIN-VEGA: Yeah, I can’t wait to see what you can produce. Are you kidding me?
RODRIGUEZ: I hope so. Who knows where the winds may blow? I try to keep my options open and let my faith steer me wherever it takes me. And by you speaking it and manifesting it, I believe it’s going to happen.
RUBIN-VEGA: Stay in the game. That’s the thing. The odds are in your favor when you just stay in the game.
Hair Stylist: Karen Miller
Makeup Artist: Rebecca Restrepo at Tracey Mattingly
Photo Assistant: Lance Charles
Styling Assistant: Mabel Nugent
Special Thanks: Cherry Lane Theatre