BWW Interview: Juan Carlos, Tatiana, & Sandra Cantu of IN THE HEIGHTS at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center

In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical about community and family in a Dominican-American neighborhood in New York City, has a multi-layered meaning for its talented cast. The production, which is currently being presented at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, features veteran television actor Juan Carlos Cantu, returning to the stage after more than 30 years, to act besides his two daughters, Tatiana and Sandra. All three play major roles in the show, bringing the three together on stage for the first time. (Our review is in this week's Moorpark Acorn.) We visited with the girls and their proud father before a Sunday matinee performance.

VCOS: So this is the first time all three of you have appeared on stage together?

JUAN: Yes, outside of our living room (laughs).

SANDRA: It's the first time any of us have performed anywhere, at all. We did a church Christmas show...

TATIANA: Oh, I don't count that.

VCOS: Why haven't you ever managed to get together to this point?

TATIANA: I don't think the opportunity ever presented itself.

SANDRA: There are very few shows for an entire Hispanic family to be in.

VCOS: But you've been in other shows in non-Hispanic roles, right?

SANDRA: Yes. I just finished playing Alysha in Green Day's American Idiot and before that I was in th ensemble in Jesus Christ Superstar at the DOMA Theatre Company in L.A. Tatiana just finished The Marvelous Wonderettes here in Simi.

TATIANA: And Fiddler on the Roof. And also Aida, Peter Pan, Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Lots of stuff.

SANDRA: But Dad hasn't done a show since 1979.

VCOS: Oh, we're going to have to talk about that.

SANDRA: (laughs). Well, he's been working in Hollywood for 30 years.

VCOS: For you, Sandra and Tatiana, does it matter whether or not you play Latino characters?

SANDRA: Not to us, but you'd have to ask the casting directors that. That's not up to us. We go in for all kinds of roles, especially ethnically ambiguous. So it doesn't matter what we go out for. It's what kind of roles they'll see us for.

VCOS: Is it different for television and film?

JUAN: Yes. It is. I've done every TV show you can think of, and I'm always a Hispanic. And I tell my agent, if it's in my age range, the ethnicity doesn't matter. Just put me in. But no, they never see me for anything but Hispanic.

VCOS: Why is there such a difference between theater, film, and TV?

JUAN: I think theater people are more open-minded. I mean, you can see it right now in Hamilton. George Washington is being played by an African American. We saw Les Mis in New York where Eponine was played by an Asian girl. Theater is more open to be a little daring, if you want to say, when it comes to ethnicity, but film and TV: they have a long way to go.

SANDRA: I also think that in theater, there's more of a willing suspension of disbelief. So you go in to the theater, and this family doesn't look alike, but they're playing this family and the audience just goes, "Yeah, okay. I get it."

TATIANA: Right. And you can be 30, playing 15 on stage and no one's going to care, whereas if it were on TV, it's like "Hey! They're not 15! That's ridiculous."

VCOS: How long did Cathy Rigby play Peter Pan?

SANDRA: Exactly.

TATIANA: I've played Peter Pan and I was eighteen at the time and nobody said, "You're not a young boy at all." No one cares.

SANDRA: Is has to do more with how movies are marketed than the audience itself.

JUAN: It takes a lot of money to make a film or a TV show. And they just want to play it safe. Whoever has the money, has the say-so. Once, I went out for a movie, and the director and the producers really wanted me. I mean they pushed for me and battled the studio for a month. I went in for the audition, they called me back, and they said the studio wants this other guy but we want you. I went into casting four times. Finally, the studio said, nope, we want this guy and that's it. They had the money.

VCOS: So, 37 years ago was the last time you were in the theater. What show were you in?

JUAN: I played Luther Billis in South Pacific.

TATIANA: We have home videos of him in a grass skirt, coconut bra, and a ship painted on his belly.

JUAN: It was in Laredo, Texas in a community theater. I went to college at Trinity University in San Antonio, and my major was theater. But once I started acting professionally here in L.A., no theater. First of all, because I had a family, and theater takes a lot of time. And there's no money. If you're lucky, they'll pay for your gas. So for me it's been TV and films, TV and films. A lot of TV. And a lot of commercials. Thank God for commercials.

SANDRA: He's been the spokesperson for AutoZone in English and Spanish, for Sprint in Spanish, for Advil in Spanish.

JUAN: AutoZone was my very, very first audition. That gig lasted me eleven years. As a matter of fact, in the first series of commercials, we had to change the signs and a patch on my sweater and did one for AutoShack and the other for AutoZone, because they weren't sure what they were going to call themselves and they were having some problems with Radio Shack, so they went with AutoZone. So I was in at the beginning of the company. So I was their spokesman for eleven years.

VCOS:OK, so tell me about the circumstances with In the Heights and how you finally all got together.

TATIANA: That would be my doing. I was doing Fiddler on the Roof and we got moved to the El Portal in North Hollywood. And I was constantly joking with Fred [director Fred Helsel] - "When are you going to do In the Heights?" In the Heights was my all-time favorite. I've been wanting to play Nina since the show came out in 2008. And he said, "I don't know. We'll see. We'll see." So finally, he said, "Hey, we're doing In the Heights and this is when auditions are."

VCOS: Rehyan was pushing for it, too.

TATIANA: Yes, Rehyan, who's playing Usnavi was pushing for it. And we said, "C'mon, you've got two Hispanics on board!" So we got the audition notice and knew that Sandra was wanting to play Vanessa forever as well, so I called her and it was like, "Oh my gosh! They're doing In the Heights! We have to audition! We have to audition!"

SANDRA: I saw it in 2008 in New York. I was on a work trip and I saw it with the original cast. And the first day of rehearsals here was the eighth anniversary of the day that I saw the show.

TATIANA: So I called her and we go to auditions. We get called back, and I was so nervous, I'm crying and I'm freaking out because I wanted this role so bad. And I realized that this was the first time I've auditioned for a dream role. Everything else was, "OK, if I get it, that's great, if I don't, it's no big deal," but for this, it was "If I don't get it, I'm going to be devastated."

SANDRA: She was in there doing her Nina callbacks and I had my ear to the door, listening to every single one, and I was saying to myself, "Tatiana's got this."

TATIANA: A cast list doesn't go up. Fred emails you. And I got the email at 12:30 on the night of callbacks, and I wanted to call Sandra so badly but I knew she was asleep and I didn't want to call her, wake her up, and have her find out she didn't get Vanessa, because that would have been awkward.

SANDRA: So I woke up the next morning and I saw the email and texted Tatiana and said, "Hey, wish me 'good morning.'" Because in the show they sing, "Good moooorning! Vah-nessss-saa!" And I woke up, literally screaming and freaking out.

TATIANA: She called me and we were freaking out on the phone. So Fred called me and said, "Hey, we're still looking for two female ensemble dancers and for a man to play Kevin," who's the guy who owns the taxi service. I had mentioned in auditions that I was trying to convince my dad to come in because I thought he'd be so great in that role. And he said that only one or two people were interested in that role so he said, "Bring him in, if you can." So I went home and I said to Dad, "Come audition." And he said, "I really don't have time." He was working on Telenovela and he had just done a new pilot for CBS. And we got worried because there aren't any understudies and if he's called for filming in New Mexico at a moment's notice for Better Call Saul, he wouldn't be able to do it. So we never knew with his schedule what was going to happen. A week passes. And our first rehearsal is coming up and Fred was still looking for someone to play Kevin. So I said, "Dad?" And he said, "OK." So he contacts Fred and he starts practicing "Inutil" in the living room and I'm helping him with his music. So Fred asked him to come into rehearsals, and he came in, sang a little bit for our vocal director and they said, "The part's yours if you want it." He wasn't going to do it, but then he thought, "When am I going to have the opportunity to be on stage with both of you."

JUAN: Yes, that was Nancy's doing, my girl friend. Like I said, I haven't done theater here in L.A. and my biggest fear was, "What if I'm shooting something and I can't come? It's six weeks." It's fine, Monday through Thursday, but for some reason, I get a lot of night shoots, so if I'm working on a Friday night, what am I going to do? And Fred said, "Don't worry, we'll get an understudy." Well, we haven't had to. If we did, Fred will probably go on for me himself.

VCOS: Have you even sung in the past 37 years?

JUAN: I'm not a trained singer like my daughters are, but I do sing. I can fake it.

SANDRA: At Dad's house, we have a home-built karaoke system, and we have "Cantu Karaoke" whenever possible in the living room. He doesn't sight-sing, but I play piano, so I ended up plucking out all his notes for him, and Tatiana did all the vocal coaching. I'd edit it on my computer and send him all the files.

JUAN: They helped me a lot. So, getting back to what I was saying, my girlfriend, Nancy, said, "Look. You have this chance of being on stage with your two daughters. When is that going to come up again? It may never come up again. So for you to do this will be a tremendous life experience that you will never forget."

VCOS: So is it?

JUAN: Yes, it is.

TATIANA: We watch his song from the side of the stage and we're sobbing. And then we say, "Wait. We have to go and be funny now."

SANDRA: And I have to be mad, because Vanessa's always mad. The hardest part for me is, we're a family that always talks stuff out and we really don't get into arguments because we're all pretty amicable and pretty laid back. One of our favorite things to do is just to be together. So when I'm watching them fight on stage, my body doesn't comprehend it, especially because Dad never raises his voice. We were really good kids.

TATIANA: But on the first day of rehearsals, I'm supposed to call him "Papi" and it's so real, and he has to look across the stage and insult me. (laughs) I always found that really funny in every rehearsal, but I convince myself, "I'm mad at Senor Rosario."


We'll continue our discussion with the Cantus next week. In the Heights plays at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center through May 22. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. Photo: L-R: Sandra, Juan Carlos, and Tatiana Cantu. (courtesy Jon Neftali Photography)

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From This Author Cary Ginell