Jimmy Smits stars as Kevin Rosario in In the Heights, now playing in theaters and on HBO Max

By Vanessa Etienne
June 10, 2021 01:20 PM

Jimmy Smits is preparing for a whirlwind of emotions for the premiere of In the Heights.

The 65-year-old actor stars in Lin-Manuel Miranda's movie musical, playing Kevin Rosario. Ahead of Wednesday's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York's United Palace, Smits told PEOPLE the emotions he felt preparing to reunite with his family.

"I haven't been back to New York at all," he said. "This whole thing about the premiere with the movie is going to be so emotional for me because I haven't really seen my extended family. I haven't seen my kids, my adult kids. They're on the East Coast. Everybody's in New York, so it's just me and my honey here. Yeah, it's going to be... I'm going to take my hankies with me."

The In the Heights in-person premiere was kicked off with Smits' castmates, including leading star Anthony Ramos. Directed by Crazy Rich Asians' Jon M. Chu and co-written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the film follows the lives of residents living in Manhattan's predominantly Latin neighborhood of Washington Heights - an area that Smits says he's very familiar with. 

Marc Anthony, Christopher Jackson, Michael Travers, Melissa Barrera, Jon M. Chu, Dascha Polanco, Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Gregory Diaz IV, Olga Merediz, Jimmy Smits, Nelson Coates, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Christopher Scott attend the "In The Heights" Opening Night
Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty

Although growing up all over New York City, Smits spent 12 years in Hamilton Heights along the neighborhood's border with Washington Heights. He says he's glad the film was an accurate depiction of the Latino community.

"I'm so happy that they fought hard in terms of doing it actually on streets that were in Washington Heights. We didn't eat catering, we didn't have movie catering. We were going to restaurants there in the community because... they knew we were there and they were so supportive on every level. I can't imagine having shot it, like, 'Oh yeah, we got brownstones in Canada and Toronto, we can shoot.' Nah," the actor said.

"Anthony Ramos would constantly say when we were in the middle of one of those crowd type of scenes, 'We're doing this for the culture!'" Smits added.

in the heights
Credit: Macall Poley/Warner Bros.

Smits also discussed some of the themes that the movie touches on, noting that it will resonate with a lot of people after the past year filled with the pandemic and social justice issues, despite it being a musical.

Listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day for more on In The Heights.

"The whole thing about the delivery system being the musical and joy and bubbly, all that stuff is good but there's some themes I think in there that run through that relate and touch on some of those things that I think people have been thinking about," he said, sharing that viewers will experience themes of family, community, immigration, and sexuality.

Never miss a story - sign up for PEOPLE's free weekly newsletter to get the biggest news of the week delivered to your inbox every Friday.

"It doesn't have to be dealt with in a kind of, 'let's put a ring around it' way. It is what it is. What that kid is facing, it is what it is in terms of what we've been dealing with on the political level from different administrations," Smits continued.

In the Heights, starring Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Olga Merediz, Dascha Polanco and Stephanie Beatriz, is in theaters. It's also now streaming on HBO Max until July 11.