NEW YORK — When Daphne Rubin-Vega, who is currently starring in Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics” on Broadway, arrives for a late lunch at Noche in Midtown, she’s carrying a painted cane she bought in Mexico, which begs the question of whether or not she took a well-wisher’s advice to heart and actually broke a leg.
But there have been no injured parties at the Royale Theater, despite the highly charged nature of the play, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize and examines the emotions unleashed when a lector begins reading “Anna Karenina” at a cigar factory in Florida in 1929.
Rather, the cane is a gift for a sculptor and former employer, who would be attending that evening’s performance — serving as her assistant was Rubin-Vega’s last day job (she’d also worked at the makeup counter at Patricia Field) — and is a symbol of how far the actress has come since she originated the role of Mimi in the musical, “Rent,” in 1996. “I was doing this Latino comedy show at Caroline’s. I’d come out in a fur coat and say, ‘People usually get on my case about the fur. They’ll say, ‘Lady, do you know how many animals you killed for the fur?’ And then I’d say, ‘Lady, do you know how many animals I f***ed for this fur?’ So it was really bad stuff like that. Really bad.” It was while she was performing there that Rubin-Vega got a call from her agent, who asked if she’d like to audition for a rock musical based on “La Bohème.”
“My father, being the incredible opera aficionado that he is, and me, being in a very rebellious state at that time, I said, ‘Yeah I’ll audition,’” Rubin-Vega says. “I could kill a lot of birds with one stone: I could piss my dad off, I could take off work, I could maybe quit this awful experience I was having telling bad jokes.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. “Rent” was an enormous success, and the actress has been working steadily since in projects as varied as the trashy cult film, “Wild Things,” the recent revival of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Suzan-Lori Parks’ most recent play, “F*****g A.” She also collaborated with Cruz on the play, “Two Sisters and a Piano,” so she was especially excited about the prospects for “Anna in the Tropics.”
“I was watching CNN, and the ticker was going across the screen saying that Nilo had won the Pulitzer,” Rubin-Vega recalls. “And I told my agent, ‘There’s just no way on God’s green earth that I’m not auditioning for this.’”
Not to begrudge any of her previous theater experiences, but Rubin-Vega finds this new production incredibly satisfying. “Whether we like it or not, we’re making history. We’re in a Broadway play by a Latino who won a Pulitzer,” Rubin-Vega explains. “It ain’t just the paycheck, if you know what I mean.”
And while she’s basking in the glory of a positive New York Times review, Rubin-Vega hasn’t let her music slip away from her — she gets antsy when she doesn’t jam with her band and will perform at the Cutting Room on Dec. 1. But she’s about to begin concentrating on another project: finding a new home for her boa constrictor, Desiderata, which she fell in love with on the set of a movie called “Skeleton Woman” and which her husband brought back from the set in his cargo pants pocket. “I’m thinking we want to have kids soon, so it’s time to see if there are any boa lovers out there,” she says. “Snakes get really bad press, but she’s the most sweetheart snake.
“But enough about my snake. Now people are going to think I’m a weirdo.”