Williamsburg actor proves he can still sport the stilettos in ’Rent’

for The Brooklyn Paper
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When the producers of the new film "Rent" asked Wilson Jermaine Heredia if he could still play the demanding part of Angel nearly a decade after originating the role of the HIV-infected, cross-dressing performer in the Broadway production, the 34-year-old Williamsburg native offered a sassy reply worthy of his beloved alter-ego: "Hire me, and I’ll let you know."

"They wanted to know whether I was still up to it and whether I would be in that position again to be that character again," the actor told reporters in Manhattan Saturday. "[They asked] ’Are you ready for the heels? Are you ready for the makeup?’"

The answer, thankfully, was "yes."

Directed by "Gremlins" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" filmmaker Chris Columbus and co-starring Rosario Dawson and "Rent" original cast members Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, the film opens Nov. 23.

Inspired by Puccini’s classic opera, "La Boheme," the rock musical "Rent" won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Obie Award, four Tony awards and three Drama Desk awards. The accolades were bittersweet for the cast, however, because they came after the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, died unexpectedly before the first dress rehearsal of "Rent."

At the heart of the story about a community of Bohemian artists dealing day-to-day with poverty, AIDS and fractured relationships in New York City’s East Village in the 1980s, is Heredia’s unforgettable character, Angel. For his stunning portrayal of the transvestite with a heart of gold, Heredia won the Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1996.

For Heredia - and most of the show’s original Broadway cast - being hired to star in a Hollywood version, 10 years after creating their parts on the stage, was a dream come true.

"We were thrilled," he confessed, noting how stage casts are almost never called upon to star in the film adaptations of their shows. "[My first thought] when we knew it was going to be turned into a film was, ’I hope that we get hired for this.’ But I didn’t cross my fingers. I just waited until I got the call."

Although most of the other 30-something actors say their real ages didn’t interfere with them playing younger characters, Heredia admits there was some concern that he would not be up to task, since his drag queen role is arguably the most physically challenging in the show and requires exuberant singing, dancing and drumming, all while wearing perilously-high heels.

"Law & Order" star Jesse L. Martin, who plays Angel’s devoted boyfriend, Tom, says he will never forget the moment when Heredia convinced the filmmakers he could still soar as Angel.

"I remember when he was doing ’Today For You,’ they were just blown away that he could run around all over that room with those heels on," Martin explained. "They just couldn’t believe it. They were like, ’Wow.’ We’re used to him doing it, and we were like, ’Wow, Wilson, you the man!’"

"My cheering section," quipped Heredia, an actor whose film credits include "Flawless" and "Went to Coney Island on a Mission from GodBe Back by Five."

"I never played the part age-specific," he continued. "I was 24 back then and really didn’t play it as a 24-year-old. I just played it as a human being who happened to be a drag queen with HIV who was very generous, open and made a conscious decision to live life moment to moment, as opposed to lamenting about the past and worrying about the future. Everything that was right there in the present. It was more about that. That was my character choice. It really had nothing to do with age. . . I’m always childish anyway."

Asked if he thinks Middle America is ready to see a gay couple of color sing a bubbly love song to each other on film, Heredia says he thinks his character’s glamorous, feminine appearance makes it easy to focus on the pair’s affection for each other, as opposed to their race or sexual orientation.

"I think it’s easy to forget color on screen," he noted. "Actually, I forgot myself. Really. I was watching it and [thinking]: ’Oh, that’s me. I’m so beautiful. Who’s that?’"

Heredia then went on to point out how many people from different backgrounds have seen the Broadway show and connected with its characters and story.

"It’s about timeless, universal themes encompassing real people," he observed. "These people in the film were all Jonathan’s friends. He wrote about his life. He wrote about his friends, his environment. Some of these things happened, and I think people identify with them. If you don’t identify with the drag queen, you’ll identify with Colin’s character. If not with Colin’s character, you’ll identify with Roger. If not Roger, Mimi.

"There’s something in this film for everyoneIt was a celebration and now the film will be an eternal celebration of his work and his life and the life of everyone represented in the movie, with all the issues."

Although "Rent" has been Heredia’s biggest success to date, he took a break after playing the role on and off for several years, so he could regroup and figure out what he wanted to with his career.

"I didn’t give up the stage," he reassured a reporter who wondered where he went after collecting his awards. "I just took a break for a year just because I needed to. I think very few people take that opportunity for themselves. They identify themselves with what they do, and I knew I was identifying with what I did, and if I didn’t get what I wanted at that moment, it would really tear me up. I knew I just needed a break, and it was a self-imposed vacation. I knew that if I didn’t take that break, I don’t think I would have been ready to do [the film]. So, I’m glad I took that year break."

Now on the promotion trail for "Rent," Heredia also recently starred in and produced a film called "Johnny Was" with Vinnie Jones and Roger Daltrey, and wrapped another movie, "Manwitch," which he describes as a "sort of a horror thriller."

"I play the lead character and it’s still up in the air, still in post-production," said the son of a seamstress and a super. "And, of course, I’m just auditioning for everything that comes my way. I definitely want to do things that are completely opposite to this character - not because I’m worried about being stereotyped. More it’s just that, as an actor, I want to be challenged more.

"I’ve already done this," said Heredia. "I did it on stage on and off for four years, and I did it on film, and now I want to experiment with other characters."

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