In 2017, actor Corey Hawkins was shooting a movie in Toronto when he received a call from the producers of the US Open. The singer they had hired to perform at the start of the men’s singles final had fallen out: Would Hawkins like to do it? I said to myself: “What do you want me to do?” “They told me, ‘Sing’ God Bless America ‘while flying over planes.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ Within twenty-four hours, on September 10, Hawkins was at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, singing at the top of his lungs. He didn’t know it at the time, but among the 23,000 people in the stands was Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Hawkins’s performance was an informal audition for the film adaptation of In the Heights, the playwright’s hit musical.
For the thirty-two-year-old Hawkins, landing the role of Benny, a taxi driver who dreams of starting his own business, was a fluke. In the Heights it was the first musical he saw, shortly after moving to New York to study drama at Juilliard. It’s set in Washington Heights, the predominantly Dominican neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, a few blocks from the Harlem apartment he shared with six roommates when he was starting out as an actor. The show is both a love letter to the people who live there and a sharp criticism of the powers, especially gentrification, that threaten their way of life.
Hawkins feels identified with history. She grew up in southeastern Washington, DC, and says a lot has changed in the fifteen years that have passed since she left. It’s as if someone had dragged one of those big pink erasers across the capital from west to east, carving a Caucasian path through a city that was previously affectionately known as the City of Chocolate. He studied at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the elite school that has Dave Chappelle as a former student. Hawkins and his friends – “troubled art kids,” as he describes them, including Samira Wiley, from The Handmaid’s Tale– met after school at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant and bookstore that served as a de facto community center. Today, Busboys and Poets is a nine-venue franchise with black history facts hung on the walls for patrons to ponder as they peruse vegan brunch options. “Where I grew up, now there are beautiful row houses, with patios and lawns, houses that you can barely afford,” he says. “I wonder what’s going on.”
At Juilliard, Hawkins was one of the few black students enrolled in drama school. “Juilliard was difficult because we …” he says, and stops talking as he searches for the words. “They didn’t see us.” In class, he practiced the accents of the international students from Great Britain and Iceland, but “no one ever had to do our accents,” he says. “We had the burden of teaching our teachers,” of whom only one was black. The pressure to assimilate almost overwhelms Hawkins. “There’s a part of you that has to change code to be a certain way with whites,” he says. And what’s worse, “you think that’s acceptable.”
After graduating in 2011, he began landing roles in television projects and off-Broadway productions. In 2013, he made his Broadway debut with Romeo and Juliet, and landed the role of a young Dr. Dre in the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton. He still remembers the time a producer put him aside to talk about the characters in the film: “They told me, ‘Just so you know, these people are from the street. I know you went to Juilliard.’ The producer said it as advice, but he was actually questioning the actor’s abilities, while also suggesting that no one could embody both worlds.
Hawkins’ resume proves otherwise. After In the Heights, will star The Tragedy of Macbeth along with Denzel Washington (don’t miss the 20 best lines from his movies) and Frances McDormand (who has just hit the mark with Nomadland … here we tell you the true story and the book that inspired the movie), by Joel Coen. “They are a bunch of useless people,” Hawkins says of his collaborators, laughing. “I’m going to clean the floor with all these newbies.” He hallucinates at the idea of working with McDormand: “My God. This woman can do nothing wrong,” and especially with Washington, whom he considers his mentor. “I appreciate that he takes me under his wing and that we literally have talks, that we can tap into his brain and watch him work,” he says.
Hawkins may have fulfilled his childhood dream of succeeding as an actor, but, he says, “it’s still not enough.” Now he is producing and selecting projects that will introduce new faces. You’re learning the importance of contributing to your own success, whether it’s “watching Denzel create the foundation for me to get in there and exist in that same space”; “watching Lin plant the seeds for Anthony [Ramos]”, Hawkins’ co-star in In the Heights; or remembering the way Miranda saw a relatively unknown performer at a tennis tournament and took notes. “It’s about creating space for others,” says Hawkins. “Hopefully that will make it easier for the next kid to get ahead.”
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Corey Hawkins tells us what it’s like to work with Denzel Washington