Out Actor Robin de Jesús on his Straight Turn on 'Welcome to Chippendales'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday November 19, 2022
Originally published on November 15, 2022

Robin de Jesús
Robin de Jesús  (Source:Instagram)

Hot, intense, gripping, and complex: You could apply such words to well-choreographed male revues, and you could also use them to describe the upcoming Hulu limited series "Welcome to Chippendales."

Based on the true story of the relentless ambitions and dangerous rivalries behind the founding and early years of the world-famous male dance troupe and the sizzling acts that put it on (and all over) the map, the eight-episode series stars Kumail Nanjiani as Chippendale's founder Steve Banerjee, an immigrant from India who sought fame and fortune in America with "Playboy" founder Hugh Hefner as his role model. The problem, as the series depicts it, is that Steve has more drive than skill, and he very nearly drives his nascent backgammon club (called Destiny II") into the ground before a chance meeting with a promoter gives him the first rung up an improbably ladder to stratospheric success as the impresario behind a groundbreaking burlesque show catering to woman. Thus is born what will one day be an iconic brand in entertainment: Chippendale's.

Robin de Jesús and Kumail Nanjiani in "Welcome to Chippendales"
Robin de Jesús and Kumail Nanjiani in "Welcome to Chippendales"  (Source: Hulu)

But it's a treacherous path Steve's walking, fraught with jealousy and paranoia, such that even his most talented collaborators (including bisexual choreographer Nick De Noia, played by out gay actor Murray Bartlett of "Looking" and "White Lotus" fame, and visionary costume designer Denise, played by Juliette Lewis) are subjected to his rage and abuses. The only one who seems immune to Steve's rages is his wife, Irene, played by Annaleigh Ashford — and even she begins to tire of his ceaseless ploys and constant lying.

Enter Ray, played by out actor Robin de Jesús, whose stage work has brought him three Tony nominations (for "In the Heights," "La Cage aux Folles," and "The Boys in the Band") and whose films include "Tick, Tick...Boom!" and the updated movie version of "The Boys in the Band." Ray starts as a handyman fixing things around the club, but through a combination of deep loyalty on his part, and increasingly unhinged fury on Steve's, Ray transforms into a fixer of a different kind. Ray and Banerjee are both straight, but their codependent bromance is intense and toxic to a lethal degree. As the club's problems mount and Steve's demons start to get the better of him, the adoring Ray doubles down on his fealty to the boss, eventually crossing lines that neither he nor Steve imagined transgressing when they first met.

EDGE caught up with Robin de Jesús for a chat about the show, working with Kumail Nanjiani, his own ambitions for a queer-centric acting career, and what it was like being on a set crowded with gorgeous male dancers.

Robin de Jesús in "tick, tick... BOOM!"
Robin de Jesús in "tick, tick... BOOM!"  (Source: IMDb)

EDGE: Does working on a limited series hit a sweet spot between an open-ended series like "Law & Order" and a feature film like, say, "Gun Hill Road" or "Tick Tick... Boom!"?

Robin de Jesús: Thank you for mentioning "Gun Hill Road!" That one doesn't get as much love as I as I wish it would.

It's great [working on a limited series], because with a film you have this thing where it's finite, you know, it ends. You find this character, you execute, you peace out, a year later you the movie comes out. With a TV show, it's great because it's that consistent work. You get to go in deeper with your character, and it can become more and more nuanced. It's more of a journey.

With a mini-series, it's kind of the best of both worlds. I love the idea. I was telling my agent this the other day I love the idea of a mini-series for a couple months of the year, a movie, and then a Broadway show. Kind of gives you, you know, your rations of everything.

EDGE: Your character, Ray, gets to spend the most time on screen with the main character, Steve Banerjee, played by Kumail Nanjiani. What was it like to work with him? He must be a riot.

Robin de Jesús: Yeah, it was great. The first day that I got to set I was told to improv with him. That was really intimidating, because [Ray] was a character I'm just figuring out, and here's Kumail — he's an amazing stand-up comedian and an amazing at improv, and so that was really intimidating. He probably did most of the talking in those scenes, but that said he was so loving and so nurturing and so sweet, and made me feel so safe. That first day was a little nerve racking, and then after that, it was just bonding, having fun, being silly, talking about things unrelated to the show.

I think the show is dark, and it can get heavy, so it was nice for us to just have a break from that and just be silly. It was also really great to discover a softness with him. You know, our characters don't do the most noble things. I think it was really important for us to figure out, "Why do these two men become friends?" One of the things that came up for me was that when we were behind closed doors, we were a little more vulnerable and less performative. I think that's why there was that initial trust in one another.

Robin de Jesús in "The Boys in the Band"
Robin de Jesús in "The Boys in the Band"  

EDGE: A lot of the characters don't care for Steve Banerjee, but Ray is extremely loyal to him. Where does that come from? Is Ray someone who needs a strong leader to follow, and doesn't worry about the morals of that leader?

Robin de Jesús: I think he's definitely a follower, but, above all, I think he's a survivor. I think he hustled his way out of his neighborhood, and I think he's economically trying to get himself out of a rut. He's like Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!," right? He's a plumber. He's a carpenter. He's a screenwriter. He does so many things because he's constantly trying to figure out, like, "How can I make the next buck? How can I get myself in a better position in life?" Initially, when he sees Steve, he sees a successful brown immigrant man running a business. And I think for Ray it was that thing of, like, "Oh, I'm trying to do what you're doing. I'm trying to make big moves, so I'm gonna make sure I have a proximity to you, so that I can also reap the benefits." And then when the other stuff shows up, it's like, "Oh, you know, I've been through some stuff, too, so I'm just gonna, like, ride along because it's convenient." And, you know, I negotiate the fact that, at some point, it may not be convenient for me.

EDGE: There are times when it seems like Ray is the little devil sitting on Steve's shoulder whispering things in his ear, but there are other times when he's almost like Steve's conscience. How did you approach that?

Robin de Jesús: I actually feel like Ray had some sort of spiritual upbringing, because the second half for me a lot of it is about forgiveness and trying to make things right. I think he always does have that consciousness — he has a scarcity mentality, so he makes these fear-based decisions. He does messed-up things, and then he tries to correct it. That's why the energy is, you sometimes don't know where Ray's coming from; he's equal parts opportunist and minion. Sometimes he operates from fear, and sometimes it's another version of fear, but it's, "I'm going to do what's convenient for me."

Robin de Jesús in the Broadway production of "In the Heights"
Robin de Jesús in the Broadway production of "In the Heights"  

EDGE: What was it like coming onto the set with all these amazing, beautiful dancers? I think I would be intimidated!

Robin de Jesús: You know what's crazy? Beforehand, my friend said to me, "Just make sure you keep your eyes...." [Makes "at eye level" gesture.] "Keep eye contact the whole time with everyone, because the last thing you need is an HR case." [Laughter] But luckily for me, I wasn't in a lot of those scenes with the dancers. I'd see the guys in between, or if we were sharing a location we'd happen to be around each other for a little bit, but I didn't get to be around the energy as much as I would have loved.

I'm a theater guy. A lot of the dancers were from the theater world. I grew up around dancers, so there's a dance culture as well. I wish I had been able to engage with them a little more, "Chippendales" stripping aside.

Robin de Jesús and Andrew Garfield in "tick, tick... BOOM!"
Robin de Jesús and Andrew Garfield in "tick, tick... BOOM!"  

EDGE: You've played straight before, and you play a straight character here, but did you wish sometimes that Ray might have been gay? That could have led to some interesting story complications.

Robin de Jesús: Oh, yeah. Especially with the Steve Banerjee character.

I actually would like the bulk of my career to be queer work. Growing up, I thought that being gay was a bit of a reduction, and I felt like being gay meant playing one thing in the story, and that if you played three gay roles back to back, the general consensus from folks was, "Well, he's not talented because he only plays gay." And then I had this moment one day where I thought, "But no one ever tells straight men that they're not great actors until they play gay." And I do think there is, like, a favoring in that argument. I think most people do think if you're a gay man who only plays gay that you must not be as good. I kind of want to demystify that, unpack it and disrupt it a bit, and show all of this diversity and have it all be queer, or queer-adjacent.

But that said, if there's a good role, that's ultimately what I want more than anything is a great role. And with Ray, I was looking for something darker. I was looking for something a little more unexpected, and a bit of a hard left turn. And I'm really grateful, because I love [Steve Banerjee], and this is not sexuality at all.

I was also really, really fascinated by [love between tough guys]. I love "The Godfather" — it's such a great film. One of the things that I love when I watch it is that those men are soft. They are loving, they give each other big kisses on the cheek. Like there's something there — they feel. I wanted Ray to have that. We typically think of gangster-like characters as just being so hard and harsh. I wanted you to see someone who does really bad things, but also is kind of pillowy in that sense, and I think it was really good for me and Kumail because it shows why we became the friends that we became.

EDGE: What else might you have got on your plate coming up?

Robin de Jesús: I can't really say. There's something that's like, we're waiting to hear back. But I will say I'm on a great cartoon series called "Santiago of the Seas." We did actually get an Emmy nomination, the children's Emmys, yesterday for Best Preschool Animation show... and I just realized my publicist is looking at me like, "You should have told me that earlier." [Laughter] So, I'm really excited about that.

There's some theater stuff that could happen. And a lot of what I really, really really want to work towards is producing. My best friend Dominic Williams is an amazing writer. We kind of have the same mission statements in life. Ideally, the goal is to get to the point where we're producing our work.

Watch the preview for "Welcome to Chippendales" below.

"Welcome to Chippendales" premieres on Hulu Nov. 22.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.