There’s a scene in A Star is Born – the one used for the “Shallow” music video – that plays out like a fairy tale. Backstage at his concert, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) tells Ally (Lady Gaga) in his gravelly voice: “Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to sing that song I love.” She’s never performed in front of a massive audience and politely declines, but her best friend Ramon gives her the gentle push she needs.
As Jackson strums his twangy acoustic guitar and starts off the sweet melody, “Tell me somethin’ girl. Are you happy in this modern world,” she follows him onstage towards a mic and belts out a rendition of “Shallow” that turns her into a viral YouTube sensation.
Their chemistry, onstage and off, proves to be a powder keg. And if it wasn’t for Ramon the couple would have never met. “He’s just a real guy who loves his friend and wants to see her win,” says Anthony Ramos of his character. “He saw an opportunity to give her that chance. Imagine if we all did that for each other? Imagine if we all used our platform or we saw an opening to help our loved one win, and we took it? How many of us would be living our dreams right now?”
It doesn’t to take a lot of imagination to envision what Ramos living his dreams looks like. We caught up with the 26-year-old Brooklyn native at the Toronto International Film Festival to mull over his recent success. The young actor and singer had two movies playing the fest: Reinaldo Marcus Green‘s Monsters and Men and Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star Is Born.
In Cooper’s musical drama, Ramon is Ally’s cheerleader, best friend, and support system. And he’s her link to Jackson. It’s what made casting this part so crucial. “The Ramon character always, to me, was the purest character,” Bradley Cooper, who served as star, co-writer, and director, explains during a roundtable interview. “I knew I wanted to cast someone who has an internal light that is just unwavering, and that was him [Anthony]. Ramon has this joy and he [Anthony] brought that plus myriad other things.”
It’s a role Ramos didn’t expect to land. “My agent had sent me a breakdown for like a routine audition. I saw the names on the marquee and I was like, ‘Pfft! I’m never gonna get this part.’”
“I have no problem saying no to playing gangsta number two. If there’s nothing deeper there than him being in prison, than him being handcuffed, locked up; I have no interest in it.”
After sending in a self-taped audition, Ramos got word that he should do another take. “I was in a hotel room in Arizona doing a gig – this corporate gig singing or whatever. I’m like, ‘Alright, cool, I’ll put myself on tape again.’ Then Bradley’s like, ‘I want another one.’ So I do another one. He’s like, ‘Can you fly to LA tomorrow and do a reading with the cast?’ And I’m like, ‘I have a show tomorrow night at 8 in Arizona.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Alright. I’m gonna go ahead and take this chance and roll this dice.’ I flew out to LA, did the reading at 10 a.m., and I rush back to the airport. I hop on a plane. At 3:30 p.m. I get the call, ‘You got the part.’ Then I go and perform.” He, of course, sang his heart out that night.
Cooper insists he was open to any ethnicity for the role of Ramon, and that Ramos just felt right for the part. Once on set, Cooper encouraged Ramos to add his own sensibility: “I got there, and he just was like, ‘Yo, just be you, man. This guy’s going to be whoever you want him to be,’” said Ramos. “After a couple conversations and just trying different things on set – this guy became – he just became this extension of kind of who I am in real life.”
The Nuyorican actor didn’t only imbue Ramon with aspects of his own personality but also provided input on how he should look. “Even to the way I did my hair. I was like, ‘Let’s slick it back. Let’s do a braid here. Let’s play with his clothes, his shirts.’”
Cooper wasn’t precious about the dialogue either. “I said what was on the page half of the time,’ Ramos recounts, “but that was only because Bradley – he had moments he’d be like, ‘Forget about the script. Let’s try this.’”
This flexibility allowed Ramos to create a portrait of a young Latino that felt real, unforced. While speaking a line of dialogue written by a couple of white guys, he’d drop in words that came from an authentic place. Case in point: Early on in the movie, Ramon and Ally are at work having the mundane kind of convos we all have with our BFFs. He lovingly calls her mama. When asked if it was part of the original script, Ramos laughs and admits, “No it wasn’t.”
Despite his considerable talent, it’s only his third big-screen role. Though early in his acting career, Ramos is fully committed to saying no to stereotypical roles. “Sometimes I’ll go months without doing a movie,” he explains, “and in the interim I still keep working. I write songs for people, for myself. I’m working on a record. I don’t feel fussed about it. I have no problem with being like, ‘That’s not for me.’ Because I think especially being Latino we get put in a box. I also have no problem saying no to playing gangsta number two. If there’s no story there, if there’s nothing deeper there than him being in prison, than him being handcuffed, locked up – I have no interest in it. I just want good stories.”
But Ramos acknowledges that having the ability to say no is “a complete blessing” and that because of it he’s taken a lot of rejection. “There’s been a lot of years, hard years,” he contends, “But I’m happy to be that guy and part of the movement along with Lin [Manuel Miranda], along with John Leguizamo. With cats that I can look up to like that – Latino actors and writers – who have shown me that, ‘Yo, you can do anything you really put your mind to.’ I’m blessed. Truly.”