EXCLUSIVE: Ever since Ana Villafañe marched across the TV screens of America in November, leading the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the irresistible rhythms of the Miami Sound Machine, the young actress’ status as Broadway’s newest nova has simply grown brighter. It’s a trajectory similar to that of Jessie Mueller, who went from unfamiliar name to Tony Award-winning star (of Beautiful The Carole King Musical) to a talent producers are willing to hang their profit points on (Mueller now is starring in Waitress, the new musical opening this week).
For Villafañe, the story pivots on On Your Feet!, the biomusical about singer Gloria Estefan and her husband/partner/co-conspirator Emilio in spreading the good-news gospel of the new Latin sound from Miami to the universe. I was not alone in declaring, when the show opened in November, that a star was born with a show that, given the election cycle, could not have been more timely, as I wrote:
“Facing a record company executive determined to keep exploding star vocalist Gloria in the lucrative but confining ghetto of Latin music, her producer husband Emilio (Josh Segurra, Trainwreck and USA’s Sirens) says, `For fifteen years I’ve worked my ass off and paid my taxes. So, I’m not sure where you think I live… but this is my home. And you should look very closely at my face, because whether you know it or not… this is what an American looks like.’ Cue thunderous applause from the audience.”
Well, thunderous applause form the audience is something Villafañe has been getting used to hearing. She visited Deadline at our New York HQ.
DEADLINE: This story and this music are things you feel passionate about. Did you grow up with it in Miami?
ANA VILLAFAÑE: I did. I’m 26 and I can’t really remember not knowing it, to be honest with you. When I got the audition packet, they sent me an email with the script and the sheet music to these songs. I was like, “What are you talking about, sheet music to these songs? I’ve known these songs since before I could walk.”
“For me, being half-Cuban, that only elevates the platform the Estefans are on. Gloria represented my culture, my family, she was the face of the Cuban exile, and her star rose at a time when they needed someone to represent them. So, you know I see Gloria and I see my mother. I see Gloria and I see my grandmother. It’s a very big deal.”
DEADLINE: Is it true that you couldn’t get an audition at first?
VILLAFAÑE: I had to fight tooth and nail to get in because I was told at first, “Oh, you’re not a Broadway girl.” You know my agents at the time and my management team, they were just like, “Why would you want to go do that right now? That’s crazy.” But I felt some kind of magnetic pull and force that I couldn’t really deny. When I wake up thinking about something more than three days in a row, I know that that’s something I have to at least pursue it, otherwise I’d look back and be shooting myself for not trying. We emailed me singing to the production company, and I was on a flight two days later to New York, and two days after that I got the job. It was my first audition.
DEADLINE: The Estefans are co-producers of the show and have been involved in it from the beginning. So you’re working with the iconic character you’re playing. No pressure there …
VILLAFAÑE: I can’t go up there and give the karaoke, Vegas version of Gloria Estefan. I want to portray her realistically and I want to give — whether it’s the fans or whether it’s the new generation of people who will hopefully fall in love with her music — I want to be true to the records, I want to be true to her style. She has specific, Karen Carpenter-esque like way of putting her soul in there.
DEADLINE: I don’t think that parallel ever would have occurred to me.
VILLAFAÑE: It’s how it came to me, you know? They have a very similar musical aesthetic.
DEADLINE: Tell me more about the relationship you’ve developed with Gloria.
VILLAFAÑE: I think a lot of things have been shocking in this experience, but the biggest and most rewarding part, I think, has been their level of humanity and humility. You can’t buy that, and you can’t fake it. It would be so easy for them to just sign a check, take a couple pictures at the press events and call it a day, but that’s not the case, you know? She and I are constantly texting. She loves emojis! She’s this international superstar texting me, just all emojis sometimes. In the middle of the night. She’s hilarious. It’s been not only an incredible safety net for me but a huge example to someone who’s starting out in their career.
DEADLINE: You used the word shocking a minute ago.
VILLAFAÑE: It was shocking in and of itself to be chosen to step into these shoes, but it was also shocking because you never know, you know? I had no expectations because it all happened so fast. I had no expectations of what they would be like. I grew up in Miami, I lived there all my childhood, and they were royalty. You can’t escape the power that is the Estefan name, so … for me, being half-Cuban, that only elevates the platform they’re on. Gloria represented my culture, my family; she was the face of the Cuban exile, and her star rose at a time when they needed someone to represent them. So, you know, I see Gloria and I see my mother. I see Gloria and I see my grandmother. It’s a very big deal.
DEADLINE: I can just imagine the emoji you’ll get from her: Abuela??!!
VILLAFAÑE: No. She’s the coolest. She’s more probably trendy than I am, so yeah, I’m sorry in advance Gloria, but it’s true, she just really represents all of that.
DEADLINE: Can you tell instantly, when the curtain goes up, what the ratio of Latinos to non-Latinos is in the audience?
VILLAFAÑE: Not instantly, but those first few jokes, you can really gauge it. If the first Spanish joke really lands, you know that there’s at least 50 percent Spanish speakers in the audience. But honestly? It’s always a surprise party. There are some days where you have a full house and it’s insane, and like I’m administering and still sort of taking that thrill drug.
DEADLINE: And your next step?
VILLAFAÑE: Anything that makes me as excited to get up and go to work in the morning as this does — which is going to be a very difficult bar to live up to. My grandparents were able to see me on a Broadway stage saying “Cuba libre!” and singing “Cuba libre!” You know that’s something that doesn’t happen. It’s been timely for 50 years, it just so happens that it’s being told now. I’m the daughter of two people who know what it’s like to either never see your country or to be forced to leave your country, because my father left due to the civil war in the ’80s. So, I think that it’s impossible not to be charged with that kind of fight and with that pride.