Robin De Jesús always shows up.
The three-time Tony nominee has quietly made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s hardest-working actors, and he's unfailingly delivered.
The Connecticut-born actor of Puerto Rican descent has seamlessly shifted from screen to stage in movies like Ryan Murphy’s “The Boys in the Band” and Broadway shows like “La Cage Aux Folles,” “In the Heights” and “Wicked.”
After starring in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” with Andrew Garfield last year, De Jesús charted his next course with Hulu’s true-crime drama “Welcome to Chippendales,” about the famed all-male strip club, where he plays Ray Colón, the right-hand man to founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani).
De Jesús effortlessly pivots from loyal assistant to greedy, distasteful man. He delivers a deceptively simple performance that anchors the series’ most volatile moments that eventually lead to Banerjee’s downfall.
“Months before the audition, I was working on a self-tape and went to lift my pants up, and I noticed that my posture changed, and I asked myself, ‘Quién es ese,’ ('Who's that') and it felt like a download,” De Jesús told NBC News. “After that, I spent months obsessing over playing a gangster in the same vein as Joe Pesci, as a character actor who is also a shorter man.”
He was right to nurture this idea, because “Welcome to Chippendales” became the project where he could channel Pesci. The series is, on the surface, an immigrant story where Colón looks to Banerjee as a role model to climb the socioeconomic ladder.
But lurking in the shadows are more insoluble questions and odd behavior — and no one is entirely innocent in this world.
De Jesús, 38, was first drawn to his ambiguity since the real Ray Colón did morally questionable things — including his involvement in a murder-for-hire — to earn Banerjee’s trust and approval.
“The big thing for me with Ray, once I learned more about his real-life story, without giving away too much, I viewed his story as a story of a man seeking forgiveness,” he said.
Reaching this conclusion, however, wasn’t without hesitations, De Jesús explained.
“With or without my consent, as a Latino actor, even with my light skin, I end up being the representative of my specific demographics: Latino Puerto Rican, working class,” the actor said.
He ultimately latched on to what is a centering force in his own life: humanity.
“I needed to ensure that this wasn’t just someone who was just a villain,” he said. “Oftentimes, when white folks play villains, there are all these complex reasons for them doing what they’re doing or something that draws people in and makes them like the person or understand them. That nuance is missing for people of color when they play villains, so it was important for me to give him some softness.”
By the time De Jesús filmed the last two episodes of the series (out Dec. 27 and Jan. 3, respectively), he was more excited than anxious about his most significant scenes, and he had become the show’s secret weapon.
“Kumail is someone who’s also pushing boundaries, and this show is also something very different for him, and we’re both making a statement,” he said. “It helped me clarify who my character was and his intentions.”
This is the ideal opportunity for an artist eager to show his range while simultaneously warping portrayals of masculinity, the show’s other taboo. At a time when the show’s various representations of masculinity can be at odds with newer generations, De Jesús challenges them by simply existing as a gay Latino artist.
“I’m a very fortunate actor that I get to do really, really beautiful work, but I’m still in my come-up,” he said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say to you that when I saw these scenes, I thought, ‘I finally get to show what I can do and what I’ve been hungry to do for a long time.’”
It’s his candid ruminations on toxic masculinity that resonate the most. “I still have moments where I’m surprised by how much I’m still battling it. I’m fine and working on it,” he said. “The way I present is completely affected by masking when I was younger. There were instances in school where I was teased,” he said, adding that growing up he noticed that “in Latino sketch comedy you’re allowed to embrace femininity and mock it but not ‘do it’ outside.”
He, like countless Black and brown members of the LGBTQ community, has lost elders to economic crises and epidemics, but rather than focusing on sorrow, he wants to focus on community care. “We’ve been trying to become the leaders that we never had, the tíos (uncles) that we didn’t get to have,” he said.
For all the strife and heartbreak that show business and these conversations bring, De Jesús still considers them unparalleled gifts. “Everything informs everything else,” he said. “It’s a privilege to do such great work that allows me to push boundaries.”
De Jesús said he's been irrevocably changed by “Welcome to Chippendales” in a way that hasn't happened with other roles. The desire to play more characters that are free to be “raw and ugly without being stripped of their humanity, especially if they’re working-class people,” predominates as he readies for what could be substantially more recognition following this role. His frank assessment of the future also is a reminder that there’s room for reflection, healing and duality in an artist’s practice.
“Conversations for people of color and other underrepresented groups in the business exist around us, around oppression and all the work we have to do. It’s heavy, and it’s real. We’re all consciously trying to heal, and that’s something I think about often,” he said firmly.
Breaking his momentum in a moment of pensiveness, he paused. “There’s also a ton of magic and healing and so much that is worth participating in,” he added. “There is power in showing up.”