Olga Merediz interview: ‘In the Heights’

“We all grow as human beings, we all change and have realizations,” explains Olga Merediz. The actress has done plenty of growing in the time since she first performed as Abuela Claudia in “In the Heights” Off-Broadway in 2007. She would later earn a Tony nomination for the 2008 Broadway production, and she now commits the character to film in Jon M. Chu’s big screen adaptation. Merediz says her portrayal of Claudia is deeper now because “there was more of me to funnel into the role.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.

Merediz’s signature number in the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical is “Paciencia y Fe,” and serves as perhaps the most prominent example of the new profundity given to this character. “When I did it on Broadway,” Merediz recollects, “it was just kind of like ‘oh my God, I won the lottery! That’s great news’” But on film, the placement of the song is moved later in the story and the reveal of the lottery ticket is saved for later. Instead viewers dive into Claudia’s thoughts and memories as she prepares for the end of her life. “It’s really a retrospective of their life,” declares the actress, “I feel like it had more weight, it was more emotional.”

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The performer thinks the reframing of the musical number was a “brilliant choice” but admits that performing the complicated, emotional song on camera was an enormous challenge. It was shot out of order, across multiple locations, over the course of three days. When belting out the tune on stage “I feel like I’m in a trance,” Merediz explains. But without the ability to perform the complete emotional arc at one time on film, she had to make notes to map out the emotional journey for each take. “You have to be so in it. So concentrated,” she says.

The actress credits her family as a source of inspiration for the way she sings this song and the flavors she brings to the character overall. Her family immigrated from Cuba, so the details of Abuela Claudia’s life resonate strongly. “My mom just passed away recently, the day Sondheim died,” reveals Merediz when asked about her family. “So I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom.” Her parents instilled in her a desire to follow her dreams, work hard, and strive for excellence. All these aspects could be applied to the performance. “I got so much from her,” Merediz says of her mother, “she was very strong and she’s in me now.”

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The immigrant experience of her own family doesn’t just show up in Merediz’s performance, but also in Abuela Claudia’s richly detailed apartment. Production designer Nelson Coates came to the actress’ house to pour over family photos and mementos in an effort to give the space authenticity. “We helped each other to create that space,” notes the actress, “those pictures are my own photos.”

Merediz fondly remembers the collaborative energy from the experience. “It was like a joy ride,” she recalls. “On set, off set, and when you watch the movie. It’s just pure joy.” She hopes that the themes of finding community and realizing one’s dreams are taken to heart by audiences far and wide. “We need this message in our lives,” she says adamantly, “it’s a universal story.”

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UPLOADED Dec 14, 2021 4:09 pm