|Daphne Rubin-Vega–-courtesy of daphnerubinvega.com|
Daphne Rubin-Vega is an inspiration.
I first met the two-time Tony Award nominee (Rent and Anna in the Tropics) 12 years ago at Joe’s Pub when she was fronting her own band. Although I was only a starry-eyed college freshman at the time, she took me under her wing and mentored me. We recently met at Nanking during her lunch break from Romeo and Juliet rehearsals, which will open at the Classic Stage Company on September 27 and run until November 3. With honesty, humor, and fabulous black stiletto boots, she talked about breaking the rules, loving New York, and the transcendental powers of acting.
“New York is electric. The colors, the street, the neighborhoods, the variety, the accessibility,” she said. “I come from Panama – a place where the idea of being who I am, in fact, is unfathomable.”
At nine years old, Rubin-Vega moved to Manhattan to live with her mother and two brothers, to escape the unrest and dangerous protests that were happening in her hometown. “I didn’t have a chance” she said. “When I’m in New York I can do whatever I want.” Raised by a Jewish father and a black Latina mother, she grew up near Bleecker Street and was no stranger to the starving artist life depicted in Rent. In fact, before starring on Broadway, she endured a miserable waitressing job in the East Village at a time when artists, actors, and other creative types inhabited New York and had little to no money to tip.
“[This place] had shawarma and everything was really disgusting and dirty. It was like 10 or 15 degrees hotter than it is now, and the boss was abusive – a knife-wielding maniac!”
Luckily, she left that job with her life intact.
|Mimi struts on the catwalk to “Out Tonight” in Rent|
Indeed, New York City was the place where Rubin-Vega got her big break, landing the role of Mimi Marquez, in which she skyrocketed to Broadway fame. She remembers her Rent audition fondly. As she belted out “Roxanne” by The Police, she felt a rare burst of confidence. “It was a great moment of confluence,” she said. “There are moments on stage when you’re so in the zone and it’s transcendental. You can’t really expect to always achieve that.” She explained that an actor expecting those moments to happen often is unrealistic. “But that’s what the junkie in me always wants to go for.” These are the moments that performers get addicted to, and what keeps them going during hard times.
Rubin-Vega will strive for another transcendental moment in her autobiographical one-woman show, Frequently Unanswered Questions (FUQs), which she’ll perform September 17 and 18 with the Labyrinth Theater Company. I saw earlier versions of the piece and was deeply moved by her account of how she came to be the sole surviving member of her family. “Telling the truth” is what the actress uses to describe both the hardest and most rewarding parts of writing about herself, which can’t be easy.”The most difficult thing is trying to have you come with me on that road without giving you whiplash,” she said about her audience. “I don’t wanna lose you.”
|Rubin-Vega bares her soul in FUQ alongside guitar player, David Matos|
In between preparations for FUQs, she is also rehearsing to play the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. This play will be her first stab at Shakespeare and she is enjoying the process. “I have to hurry up and learn the laws in order to break them.” As a big fan of breaking laws, she feels it’s good to learn what the rules are. “It’s vital,” she said.
While rehearsing for two shows, she also makes time to perform her real-life roles as a wife and mother. In the eyes of her son, Luca, she is a normal mom who indulges in everyday guilty pleasures like eating pineapple ice pops at night and playing on social media. “I don’t go on Facebook except to ask other people for their Candy Crush lives. I really need to stop it,” she said. Though she admits that while she would never discourage Luca from following in her footsteps, more than likely he won’t. “He’s musical but he’s not show business-ical.” She secretly hopes that with Luca’s talent in recording beats, he’ll end up being a record producer and help her lay down tracks for an album eventually.
|Rubin-Vega, her husband Tommy, and spitting-image son, Luca–photo by Saundra Santiago|
No matter her career direction, she has plenty to look forward to. Keep an eye out for more upcoming projects, as she doesn’t plan to ever give up acting. She treats her career as a privilege, an honor, and a luxury. And, with numerous theater, film and TV credits under her belt, Rubin-Vega has plenty of tips to offer novice performers as well. “Separate your ego from your spirit,” she said. “While you should be teachable, you should continually take notes on what feels right and what doesn’t.”
|On the silver screen in Wild Things –credit|
Rubin-Vega knows from experience that it’s the journey that counts, and not about going from here to there. “It’s about how many times you get back up on that horse,” she said. “If you play anything, if you do anything well, you need to build up a callous.” That callous is essential to the soul in this business, as rejection is par for the course. “Listen to everything and accept that you don’t know anything. There’s a lot of trial by fire.”
Clearly, the actress follows her own advice, while marching to the beat of her drum. “I know that I would wither and fade if I didn’t do what I do, she said. “I know what it’s like to literally scrub other people’s toilets.” Though that part of her life may be way in the past, she doesn’t forget. “My life could have gone a whole lot of other bad dark places, you know? But it didn’t. I am forever grateful.”
|Lyrics ring true in Rubin-Vega’s song. “Can’t get fixed till you’re broken.”|
For more about Daphne Rubin-Vega, visit her website.