Daphne Rubin-Vega embodies Dolores, a woman living underneath the subway system of New York City, in the new solo show Empanada Loca, a passion project of hers and playwright Aaron Mark, who wrote the one-woman play specifically with her in mind. But, how did Dolores come to reside in the underground — with only a massage table and a bottle of water to her name?
In the new solo show (at Labyrinth Theater Company), she tells the story of how a college-going girl with a good head on her shoulders came to be a murderer on a mission. À la Sweeney Todd, after killing off those in her way, Dolores has them baked into meat pies (in this case, empanadas) and watches chaos slowly unfold before her eyes. And, the unfortunate decision of dropping out of college to get involved with a deceitful drug dealer was all it took to bring Dolores to her unhappy ending.
We catch up with Rubin-Vega to chat about how the choices you make have an effect on the rest of your life, including her decision to accept the role of Mimi — the character at the crux of Rent and a role she will forever have her stamp on — as Jonathan Larson's groundbreaking rock musical approaches its 20th anniversary.
I saw the show the night you did a talkback afterwards, and you talked about how Aaron Mark wrote this specifically for you. Tell me about how you and Aaron linked up and how much you collaborated together on this.
Daphne Rubin-Vega: Well, I met Aaron about a year and a half ago. Jim Nicola, [the artistic director] from New York Theatre Workshop, called me. He knew that I was working on a solo piece of my own, which I've been working on for years, and I wanted somebody to help me… And, he knew this kid Aaron Mark, who was sort of a master at the genre of solo shows and was really into [Le Théâtre du] Grand-Guignol, which totally pricked my ears up, and had done a show for Tom Hewitt called Another Medea, based on Medea… And, he wrote a piece for me, so I was like, "Alright. I'd love to read it," but my agenda was really on him helping me with my piece… Then I read it, and I was like, "Holy f*ck! Is this as good as I think it is? Because I think it's really good." I called him; I said, "Come over." I made a cup of coffee, and we sat in my loft for the rest of the year just going over it. I would read it over and over, do private readings, and we started to make it terse.
What I found so interesting is that one wrong move — or meeting one person — could change your life forever. Dolores was a college-going girl until she meets this drug dealer, and then her world starts to crumble. How have you seen that in your life? Good or bad, how has one event or one person changed your life so drastically?
DRV: Well, in the public eye, Rent would be an obvious example of how one thing can change your life. Jonathan [Larson]'s death was a huge event that changed everything. It could have happened this way or that way, but his death… That was also not a choice; that was just what happened. But, yeah, I'm a strong believer that we reap the rewards and the results of our choices, and Dolores is definitely a spokesperson for that. For me to do my job clearly — for me to tell you: How did I get here? How did I get underground? Really, in the case of Dolores, it was love. Heartbreak. In fact, in my research of the mole people, which is a whole other fascinating facet in itself, it's drugs, it's crime, and it's shame. Parenthetically speaking, heartbreak really takes people underground — being betrayed or having been hurt by a loved one… I feel like I get to exercise this wonderful character every night, and we get to "eat" her up. [Laughs.]
Speaking to life-altering moments and to Rent, did you ever feel like — after becoming known for playing Mimi…in a musical that has become a staple in contemporary musical theatre — part of that role defines you as an actor? Was it hard to break out of the role?
DRV: I think what you're saying is that I always tried to do something very different. I always made an effort to make my characters all different. I remember I did "Wild Things" after Rent, and they wanted my hair to be curly, and I was like, "No! I want straight hair!" It was so stupid to have straight hair in Florida in the summer. It was the worst choice, but that was definitely a choice that I thought [to myself], "What a big fight you put up because you really physically wanted to depart from something." I've got to make something clear; this is my opinion. I know I've spent a lot of my career trying to prove that I could be different than Mimi, and I've gotten a lot of pushback, I think, and I've only realized that lately. I was so busy trying to f*cking just "do" different things and explore different roles and do what I wanted and not be defined by what other people thought that now I feel… I didn't realize how much I am judged. It doesn't occur to me how typecast I am. Like, I don't see myself as just another Latina; you see me as another Latina, but I don't. I don't see my color when I see myself. I see me.
There's no alternative for me, so I think that a role like [Dolores] will be very exciting for people who look like me to say, "Hey, a young kid would love to play this." We have young LGBT youth [come to the show], and this one boy was like, "I would love to play Dolores," and that means so much to me. White people can play Dolores, too. [Laughs.] But, it doesn't work the other way around, and that's not my fault; that's the system's fault. I'm not going to try to fight the system. I'm just going to f*cking do what I do. It's extremely frustrating; I'm not going to lie to you about it. It makes me f*cking mad, and it makes me curse a lot, but it doesn't stop me. It doesn't stop me.
A lot of actors talk about how they've changed their name because they were considered "too ethnic." In this industry, some actors are just trying to fit themselves into a "type" because it makes it easier to get work.
DRV: That's a choice, you know? We're all responsible for the choices we make, and it's a choice that I didn't make. If I had thought that it would be easier, I might have done it. I mean, I've been in positions where I would probably want to do anything to be recognized, [but] I'm glad that I didn't! [Laughs.] It's really a dog-eat-dog world, as they say, and it really is about relationships and what you know. I really don't have the skills to play anything other than myself, you know?
Tell me about balancing motherhood and an acting career.
DRV: I miss my kid. I'm going to pick him up today from school and then have a couple of hours with him, and then I've got to go to work. I just feel lousy because I just can't peel my face off the bed in the morning to get him to school, so his dad's been doing that. But…it means a lot to just do simple things that you're supposed to do, like helping your kid with their homework and feeding them. When I'm doing theatre, it feels very grounding. Especially being Dolores, I have infinite gratitude for my life — that I have a pillow and a bed… I haven't eaten much meat though! [Laughs.]
Is he ten now?
DRV: He's ten. He plays drums and soccer. He loves telling people that his mom plays a homeless lady. I'm like, "I am not homeless." He's like, "Mom, you're homeless. You're playing a homeless lady." I'm like, "I'm not homeless. I have a home. I live underground."
You're known to take on some heavy roles! At the talkback after Empanada Loca, you said that you'd like to take on something lighter next, like maybe an animated role?
DRV: [Laughs.] I really would like to play like a kids' character. I would like to do something that's intelligent and kid-happy. Totally. I'd love to do like a "Pitch Perfect"! … Something that children would enjoy and get something out of. I don't know what it is though. I'm also considering working on a piece about [exotic dancer] Mata Hari with Aaron. Espionage and erotica! But, that's not for kids! [Laughs.] Not for kids, no.
Rent is approaching its 20th anniversary…
DRV: Yeah, isn't that ridiculous? I can't wrap my f*cking head around it.
It's so interesting because it's amazing to see a musical like Hamilton on Broadway now, breaking ground yet again. Did you guys know that you were doing that back in '96?
DRV: We didn't have a crystal ball, but I knew that we were doing something special. It's hard to tell anything when you're in the middle of something. It's like when you're in the eye of a tornado, you don't know how the tornado's hitting, but I just knew that my life had totally changed in a big way. But, it really didn't change all that much at the end of the day — I'm still me. It gave me my first break, and my first break was huge. I knew that it was big. Of course, I didn't know how big it was going to be, and I just thought it really sucked that the person who was responsible for it all wasn't there to bask in the good stuff, you know?
What do you remember from your audition or the first rehearsal? What were your first impressions of people?
DRV: My first impressions of people… Well, there was the workshop before. I knew Anthony [Rapp] and Gilles [Chiasson]. Michael Greif just telling me to practice. Jonathan saying, "It's easy! All you have to do is make me cry." Getting all chummy with everybody. I mean, I felt like we were just an inseparable posse. Idina [Menzel] and Adam [Pascal] and Jesse [L. Martin] and Anthony [Rapp] and Taye [Diggs]… We were all like, "Go see Rent! Go see Rent!" We were like a graffiti bunch of kids in the Village just going, "Hey everybody, go see Rent!" [We were] very young and silly and fun, and we had so much energy! I don't know where that energy f*cking came from, but we could hang out all night, get up the next day, do press, do this, do that, do the show, hang out all night, get up the next day, do this, do that all over again. It was fun! [Laughs] It was fun. It was.
Do you have a favorite memory, looking back on Rent now?
DRV: I remember Taye, when we were taking photographs in front of Chelsea Piers on opening night on Broadway… It was like the big flash pops of paparazzi, and Taye's face — this ear-to-ear grin like, "Oh my God, guys! This is happening!" And, when I think of him then and I think of him now, that makes me f*cking laugh! [Laughs.]
I was looking at an interview earlier, where you were talking about the film and said there were many reasons as to why you didn't do it — not only because you were pregnant. But, when it was happening you thought, "Maybe I wasn't invited to my party." Were there any regrets from not doing it?
DRV: No. No. Regrets from not doing a movie…? Well, you know, yeah — you want to get invited to the party, and you want to be in a movie because movies are forever. Movies are eternal… I'm just going to say no. I don't have any regrets about that. No. Everything is meant to be. I'm not in it, so it wasn't my role. It was Rosario [Dawson]'s role because she's in it. That's how that works. Nobody "took" my job. I think that if [director] Chris Columbus — and everybody knows that if he wanted me to be in it, I would have been in it… It sucks not to be invited and to feel singled out, but that's just one road that I'm not going to go down. It's like: Go where it's warm!
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)