When I get Daphne Rubin-Vega on the phone one rainy Friday after rehearsal, she’s in mommy mode. She has to make sure her son can chill in the next room with a snack while she does the interview. When she gets free, Rubin-Vega is disarmingly frank and accessible, reflective but also impulsive and funny. For years now, she’s been balancing a remarkable career in New York theater that began with a scorching turn as the doomed Mimi in Rent and continues in a series of carefully chosen projects.
Her latest one is sure to make Rentheads perk up: A rock musical at the Public Theater called Miss You Like Hell, which began previews on March 20 and opens April 10. Featuring yearning, hard-driving songs by Erin McKeown and a wrenching book by Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights), the show is a mother-daughter road trip that highlights the trials of undocumented immigrants. I got the chance to talk with Rubin-Vega about her latest character and her own immigrant song.
David Cote, theater expert for What Should We Do?!: You’re playing Beatriz in Miss You Like Hell. Who is she?
Daphne Rubin-Vega: Beatriz Santiago is a Mexican artist. She’s a working-class woman who came to this country when she was 18, fell in love, and got her heart broken. Yeah, I think she’s just a poet and deeply, spiritually soulful. I mean, at this point, she’s a warrior. She’s an undocumented immigrant in the United States, in a time where it’s, you know, you’ve gotta be on the major DL. How do you get up from the struggle when coming out of anonymity might mean losing your status?
Cote: And she shows up suddenly in Philadelphia, gets her daughter, and they drive west. It’s a complicated mother-daughter relationship.
Rubin-Vega: Yes, Beatriz never married Olivia’s dad, who is an American and got custody because she wasn’t documented, and [Olivia] lived with him. She had weekend custody, and when Olivia was 12, she said no more weekend visits. At that point, as far as she’s concerned, she just peaced out, you know? She left. There’s a bazillion reasons to split up a relationship, good or bad. But when it’s a Latin woman and a white male, it looks a certain way. He’s got the daughter and she has her impressions of Beatriz, and the play takes place over a week before her immigration hearing, when she wants to just be with [Olivia].
Cote: You have your own immigration story, right? You were born in Panama City and came here at age 2?
Rubin-Vega: My mother’s family originally came from Barbados, but lived in Panama City. My father’s side of the family comes from the deep interior of Panama. A small town called Los Santos, so there’s part of the country girl in me, too. I find it fascinating that my mother’s family came from Barbados to Panama, like immigrants looking for a better life, to take advantage of the canal and all of the industry that was happening there. They came from the islands to Panama, just as my mother came to the U.S. from Panama to get her nursing degree. She was always yearning for a better life. Of course, I was so little that I didn’t really understand, but now that my parents are gone, I get to look at all these papers and documents that were off-limits.
Cote: What did you find?
Rubin-Vega: Paperwork about adopting me so that I could get citizenship—about coming to this country. A lot of the onus was on my older brothers to show up at Immigration Court and bring some affidavit from school. It was a lot of red-tape bullshit. I got resident alien—a green card, as they say—when I was 9. And we were lucky. But still, I was a resident alien until President Bush, and then I became a citizen because I was like, “You know what? I don’t trust this government, and I’ve lived here all my life.” Life is such that the impossible could happen. I come from a third-world country where coups happen. I didn’t want to be prophetic, but I got a citizenship card fearing the worse, and here we are.
Cote: Miss You Like Hell has a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who also wrote Daphne’s Dive, a beautiful play that you were also in. What’s it like being in her world?
Rubin-Vega: Quiara is my dream come true in terms of being a young writer who stands on the shoulders of the masters. She knows her shit and she’s masterful at putting together images that resound on so many levels. When she weaves the story, she’s very clear about how the threads play together. There are so many images; it’s just poetry. And that’s such a Latin legacy. To have imagery be bright and stark and important to engage the listeners, the imagination. Yeah, I’m a big fan.
Cote: And she’s great at portraying people who are…I don’t want to say fuck-ups, but people who make wrong decisions; there’s drama in their lives.
Rubin-Vega: Well, they’re real people. Real people have major fuck-ups, pain, regret. Things are messy when you’re a real human. And she writes real humans.
Cote: You have a son, yes?
Rubin-Vega: Yeah, he’s 13 now. He’s playing Fortnite, which is one of those games where you slaughter people, and I’m like, “Well, better to do it in a video game…”
Cote: How is it balancing being a mother and being an actor?
Rubin-Vega: I’ve been involved with this project for a really long time, so I made a way to navigate the two. I didn’t work a lot last year. I’m happy to start working, and the fact that [my son] is 13 now is really great. It makes me love what I’m doing, and then love coming home and cooking or something else. If I weren’t working, I’d be like: “Oh, my God, I’m turning into a housewife. What the fuck?!” I’m a soccer mom, and that’s great, but I have a hunger that keeps me writing or doing something, but always feeling that hunger.
Cote: Many people still idolize you as Mimi in Rent, which is such a New York City cultural cornerstone. What do you love about New York today?
Rubin-Vega: I love the fact that I can do yoga around the corner. I could do Krav Maga; I could box; I could fence; or just go to a regular old gym, all in a three-block radius. I could have ass-kicking halal food or a good bagel or the dollar pizza. You know what I mean? Amazing coffee. People look you in the eye. The subway. I love the subway. I mean, the subway has issues, but if you want to get from one place to another…. That’s why I never want to get too famous that I can’t take the subway. I feel like it’s a place where you get grounded. It’s like, “Yeah, we’re all in the same ship here.” New York is electric and there’s opportunity here. It’s a big city and it’s a small town, because it’s really not a big place. When tragedy strikes, you feel the fact that it’s a town.
Cote: Everyone is talking about immigration, and the fate of Dreamers is all over the news. Are there any Dreamers in your life?
Rubin-Vega: I probably don’t even know how many Dreamers I know…you know what I mean? They live among us. When my son was 5 years old, he was in our pool with our nanny, who was undocumented. And she fainted. He was like, “Something’s wrong.” I went out there, and she was passed out, and if it weren’t for my son, I would have never gotten there in time to get her out of the pool. My husband called an ambulance, which got there completely late. And I never saw anybody recover so quickly. This incredibly docile, peaceful human being would not get into the ambulance. As an undocumented worker, she was terrified to go. She was gonna shake it [the near drowning] off. And I wasn’t going to push. And the EMTs said, “Well, now that we’re here, we have to take you back because it’s protocol.” And I was like, “No, you don’t. I’ll bake you a cherry pie; thank you for coming. Please just let it be. She’s fine, and if anything happens, it’s on my watch. I will take responsibility.” “But you can’t do that.” “But yes, I can. Thank you. Goodbye.” She was not getting into that ambulance.
Cote: I hope it all turned out OK.
Rubin-Vega: She’s fine, and she’s documented now. It’s just another testament to the degree of horror that we can normalize. We can live in really small worlds, alongside others who have unimaginably different experiences, and we’ll never know it if we don’t pay attention.
Rubin-Vega: I think the beauty of the story, and the glee I get from telling it, is that there are all kinds of people out there. And we’re not perfect. It’s a story that makes you make your own decisions.
Daphne Rubin-Vega’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Lower Eastside Girls Club.
The High Line.
Park to hang?
Madison Square Park.
New York–themed movie?
Taxi Driver. I know it’s gritty and everything, but I remember that New York.
Tompkins Square Park.