This summer, The Boys In The Band will add a new chapter to its long life, this time as a Netflix movie. Back will be the camping, the fighting and laughing and crying, a portrait of friendship as both endurance test and saving grace that Mart Crowley got so right more than a half-century ago. Opening Off Broadway in 1968, The Boys In The Band, an unlikely hit about a group of gay New Yorkers (well, mostly gay and mostly New Yorkers) that would have been all but unimaginable in 1967, just as William Friedkin’s 1970 film was in ’69, and just as last year’s announcement by producers Ryan Murphy and David Stone that the play would finally makes its Broadway debut was met with not exactly whispered dismissals of stunt casting. The 50th anniversary staging of The Boys In The Band would feature, for the first time in the play’s history, a who’s who of out gay actors who had long since found varying degrees of fame and fortune in Hollywood, among them Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, and Tuc Watkins.
And there was Robin de Jesús, a Tony-nominated performer from 2008’s In the Heights who almost certainly was unknown to many audience members, TKTS tickets in hand and excited to see those guys from The Big Bang Theory, White Collar and a rebooted Star Trek.
But once again, Crowley’s play was a revelation. Joe Mantello’s incisive, physically elegant direction brought the drama into the 21st Century, its pre-Stonewall, survivalist heart in tact. The casting was no mere stunt – the ensemble worked (how hard? See below), with credible, thoughtful performances from all. Even more intriguingly, the casting was full of meta delight, as the audience’s awareness of the cast’s sexuality – the celebrity outness, for lack of an even passable term – embellished the production with something that wasn’t on the page: an air of hard-won freedom and honesty that the Off Broadway players from all those years ago could never have considered. Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Frederick Combs, Keith Prentice and Robert La Tourneaux, that one’s for you.
And then, the new chapters: Murphy and Stone, the lead producers of the play on Broadway, announced they’d do a Netflix movie version, same Broadway cast, same Broadway director. Filming is expected to begin this summer.
Turns out, the movie had been the plan all along, as Robin de Jesús, the sole Tony-nominated boy from the band (Best Featured Actor/Play), discusses in this interview. De Jesús played, and will play, the flamboyant Emory, flamboyant being the long-accepted code word for that mix of outrageousness, effeminacy, humor, toughness and pride (wounded and otherwise) that even in 1968 everyone knew meant gay. As in, really, really gay. Mantello’s staging, and de Jesús’ Tony-nominated performance, gave the long saga of The Boys In The Band one late-arriving twist: Emory, it turns out after all these years, wasn’t a throwback to some era of pre-enlightenment, a comic relief bundle of outdated stereotypes that the play’s critics have long claimed. No, de Jesús’ Emory was something he’d probably been all along, if only we’d noticed: a hero.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: The Boys In The Band premiered Off Broadway in 1968, was made into a movie in 1970, premiered on Broadway in 2018 and is now being made into a Netflix movie…
Robin de Jesús: It’s got nine lives.
That’s a good way of putting it. When in its life did you jump aboard?
de Jesús: I jumped aboard about two and a half, three years ago. I was doing a production of a play Off Broadway with Michael Urie called Homos, or Everyone in America. We were about to start rehearsals, and Joe Mantello emailed asking me to be part of a reading. Technically, I worked for Joe before, but it was different because it was in a long-running show and at that point he had kind of handed it off to someone else because he’s got so many projects.
Deadline: And that show was…
de Jesús: Wicked. So Joe emailed me asking me if I wanted to be a part of this all-star reading of Boys In The Band that Ryan Murphy was producing, and he rattled out a bunch of names that were supposed to be in it, and they were all amazing. I was like, oh my God, I can’t do this. I was so devastated, like, I guess that’s just life.
Deadline: But why couldn’t you do it?
de Jesús: Because I was just starting rehearsals for this other play, Homos…
Deadline: Ah, I thought you were saying, Oh I couldn’t possibly do this with all these stars…
de Jesús: Oh, no, no, no! Are you kidding? I was ready and willing! No, I was just not available. But luckily when that run of Homos ended, or the last couple weeks, Joe emailed me again and said that the reading had never happened and he was checking in to see if I was available now. So I did the first reading, and we did one more reading months later. They kind of knew then and there that they were going to bring the show to Broadway. It was just a timing thing.
So, it was like a dream. As an actor you always love getting an offer as opposed to the process of auditioning, which I find for me is very neuroses-inducing. And what I give you in an audition is not necessarily what I’m going to give you when I’m actually working, because the circumstances feel different. And so that’s how I got involved with Boys In The Band.
Deadline: So at that point the entire cast was on board?
de Jesús: Everyone. There was one person that was different, but pretty much everyone was there. Ryan and Joe, who cast the show, just really, really knew what they wanted, so much so that Ryan let us know at that second table read, ‘Hey, my intention with this is that I want to make a movie. I want to make a movie that really represents the play really well, that helps people understand the characters more because they’ve gotten such a bad rap, and my intention is to make it with you all.” But we didn’t believe that. That just doesn’t happen, with the entire [stage] cast kept on [for a movie]. And then, sure enough. But what’s hysterical is that actually it has happened before – and it happened with this play, when it was first made into that original movie. That entire cast was kept as well, the entire Off Broadway company, and it is so cool to be able to repeat that.
Deadline: I didn’t know a movie had been part of the plan all along. Does knowing that impact how you, as an actor, approach the role? Does it play with your mind?
de Jesús: Honestly, for me it was distracting at times, so I had to put it aside. There was a part of me thinking, Oh my god, don’t be the one that sucks and doesn’t get cast in the movie, you know? There’s that cynical part of me that thinks about that. So for me it was really, really important to just be the best that I could possibly be in the play and not be concerned with the movie. But it always snuck in there.
I definitely felt very aware of the opportunity that I was being given with the role. I knew from reading it that Emory is very well written and he gets to showcase so much. For an actor, it’s kind of great when you know everything you need is on the paper, and if you don’t see what you need on paper, by some miracle you look at the eyes of any of the other eight men on that stage and you will find it. There was never a lack of resources.
Deadline: So you knew you were going to be Emory right from the start? Was that the same for all the actors?
de Jesús: Yeah, there was no flip-flopping. I remember actually there were a couple news outlets that had gotten early word of the show coming to Broadway and they wrote that Jim Parsons was going to play Emory. We had already done the reading and I was like They’re replacing me with Jim Parsons!
Deadline: Had you seen the original movie at that point?
de Jesús: I watched the movie when Joe offered the reading. He didn’t have anything against watching the movie. The funny thing is that I had avoided Boys in the Band for a long time – the movie – because when I was a kid, anything that remotely felt like it was about effeminate men or gay men freaked me out. I could never watch a Prince music video, because even though he was totally straight, there was something so effeminate about him that it felt like by watching him people would know my secret. Like I might be outed by watching him.
Deadline: That’s hilarious…I think.
de Jesús: Yeah, it’s funny. There was one time in either middle school or high school where I was flipping through the channels and there was this movie with this group of gay men hanging out on a deck or a patio somewhere and it started raining, and it was The Boys in the Band, and I changed the channel before anyone caught me watching it. But I always remembered that image because I didn’t know that there had been a gay movie from that time period.
So that image always stayed with me but I didn’t know what movie it was. And sure enough, when I was doing that play Homos – this will be interesting for people to read because I keep referring to Homos – but there were references to [Boys in the Band] there, and I still didn’t watch the movie. It wasn’t until after Joe offered that I watched it. Fortunately, I’m such a different actor than anyone in that movie that there were no hang ups as to imitating anyone – it just wouldn’t happen because of who I am physically.
Deadline: Cliff Gorman was so good in the movie, wasn’t he? But at some point fairly early on, there was a backlash in the gay community against the movie, and I think in large part it was because of him, this whole idea of how he was reinforcing a stereotype. Unfairly, I think, because Emory was always so proud of who and what he was.
de Jesús: I know exactly what you mean. I actually think that the original play and movie have been very unfairly judged. I don’t mean this by any means to be disrespectful to the previous generation, but I think there was this desire to sort of assimilate, and to be noble as the first to represent a certain group of people. I watch black and Latino people go through this all the time, where we look at our work – the work of our Latino and black actors – and it’s like, Oh god, they’re playing murderers or they’re playing the help again. There’s a desire to get out of this narrative of negative roles because it becomes representative of your entire race, and with The Boys in the Band, there was a lot of people hating the over-the-topness of Emory or, you know, the shame. The idea of men who are ashamed of themselves. But I don’t think this play is about that. I think there is some shame, which is a universal theme, but I think Michael [editor’s note: Michael is the lead character, played on Broadway by Jim Parsons] is the only character who, in fact, hates his gayness. Everyone else is just struggling with the fact that society has put this burden on them and has ostracized them, but they’re not bad. They’re just coping. When people point fingers at what a bad representative this play is of gay life, I would say, You’re pointing the finger at the human beings, these characters, when you should be pointing at society for creating these situations.
Deadline: Really well put. Specifically with Emory, there was a period within the gay community of the Clone thing, the Village People caricatures of masculinity that were reactions to the Emorys of the world, who were viewed as throwbacks to something the community didn’t want to present anymore. But Emorys existed, and do, and always will, thank god.
de Jesús: Diversity within our diversity! A friend of mine was telling me how she was turning 40, lesbian, Indian woman, and she said that culturally, growing up, she felt like she could never walk with her head up because she felt like she had to be daddy’s good little girl. So she would walk with her head down so that she would always appear humble. And she always wanted a pair of Doc Marten boots, but she never got Doc Marten boots because that was just too butch. So she was turning 40, and she was like, F*ck it. I’m ready to get my Doc Marten boots. I’m a grown-ass woman, I deserve it, and I’m going to walk with my chest in the air and my head held high. And she said, “I have never, ever, felt more feminine than when I embraced my butchness.” I was so fascinated by what she meant by that, because yes, it sounded pretty and poetic, but I wanted to know what she literally meant. So, she goes, “Listen, if I’m walking with my head up and chest in the air, what’s the first thing you see? My breasts! My most feminine asset. I’d been hiding them.”
And it’s so true. I find that for me as a gay man I was so self-conscious of my effeminateness. Especially being an actor, you feel sometimes that A) Can they tell? Can they tell right away, when I’m playing a role that’s not gay? And B) Are they judging me before I even walk in because they know I’m gay? So you develop this whole relationship with that. But there was something about getting to a point in my life where I just embraced my authenticity and it did actually help me tap into more masculine energy.
Deadline: With such a strong cast, can you give an example of something you learned from one of your co-stars?
de Jesús: Here’s the thing. I’m a very mushy person. I’m pretty romantic in my way of thinking, which means I’m often nostalgic as well. So, I have been thinking about this a lot lately, especially this month. It’s got me in my feelings and I’ve been thinking a lot and processing, and there are two big takeaways for me. One was that I went into that rehearsal process really, really curious to see what it was going to be like to work with these men, and curious to sort of see like, what’s the magic? What is it that they do, how are they so successful in film and TV and financially and stuff. I wanted to see what that is and see if I have access to that. And the super beautiful, humbling, human thing about it all was that their special gift is that they work their asses off. And that is something that we’re all incredibly capable of. I think what I have ultimately figured out was that my learning process had shifted. When the show was done, I took acting class for the first time. I had never taken a class before, and I took a couple and it was funny because all the little things that I had to fine tune from not having a formal education in acting, just all were clarified. Even just the way I work now is so much more…what’s the word I’m looking for…I just get through the process faster now and…
de Jesús: Yes! Thank you. That’s totally the word. It’s significantly more efficient, the way I work now. The big take away from those guys was work, work your ass off.
And then the second thing that was really big for me was, personally, in Robin’s life over the last couple of years, there has been this inability to take up my space, this sensation at times that feels like I’m passing. Sometimes that’s because a lot of the workspaces I have been in have been very white, and even when I think I’m done with the trauma of being the short, fat, Hispanic kid with acne who is the only minority in the department and feeling like the weirdo, that would [still] prohibit me from taking up my space. And watching those guys and working with them on this play helped me relearn how to take up my space while sharing it with others, and to realize that you can, in fact, do both. I was always afraid to do that.
Deadline: And now the irony – maybe irony isn’t the right word, but I’ll use it anyway – is that you are the one who got nominated for a Tony Award. There have to be some real feelings and emotions around that. What are they?
de Jesús: You know what? I feel very proud, and I don’t mean to come across as a narcissist. I feel very proud of that group. I feel very proud of the imagery of that group of gay men working together on this piece. I feel very proud of the people that it represents, people who don’t live lives that receive accolades, because I definitely am a product of a village. I have been thinking lately about random little moments where people have blessed me with things that they don’t realize I carry with me. Like Joan McFarland, the mother of a student that I worked with, and I remember being a broke actor and telling her one day that I was auditioning for Rent, but I’d never seen the play, and she knew I was broke and I was 18 years old and she slipped me a 50 dollar bill and said go to TKTS and see the show, and I went to that audition and I didn’t get it that time, but two years later Rent was my Broadway debut.
And I think about the random-ass day when Whoopi Goldberg came to see In the Heights and she noticed that I was sort of struggling with my Tony nomination. I sort of felt guilty for being successful and she caught on to something I said, and she said, “Take a deep breath, baby. The only thing you can do wrong right now is to disrespect the gift that you’ve been given, and the only way you can disrespect it is by not celebrating it.”