MELISSA BARRERA! The star of Lin Manuel Miranda’s IN THE HEIGHTS spoke with SBJCT about it all, including the power of narrative to shift stereotypes, how we create change by demanding it, and how we can find our similarities through our differences. We are so excited to feature Melissa, whose HUMANITY is a subject that is contagious. Read on below…
BY ERIN WALSH
PHOTO CHRISTIAN HOGSTEDT
LOOK Chanel EARRING Jacquie Aiche
Erin Walsh Hi there Melissa! What FUN we had at our shoot. I am so excited to feature you and the important work you are doing. Before we get into all things IN THE HEIGHTS and what’s new, I would love to take it back to the beginning. Can you tell me about growing up in Mexico and your background a bit?
Melissa Barrera Of course! I was born and raised in Monterrey Mexico, a gorgeous mountain city in northern Mexico. I think back and I remember having the best childhood. Being the oldest child I was always either out of my house playing with my neighbors, climbing trees, riding my bike, or in my backyard on the trampoline with my sisters, bouncing literally off the walls. There was always music in our house, someone was always singing (it was a loud house) and we would go from playing with barbies to building forts out of our living room couch to watch movies to riding our own tiny Yamaha motorcycles at a dirt park. It was an incredible place to grow up and go to school. I was also lucky to have attended a school that had a wonderful Arts program and I fell in love with theatre from watching the plays and musicals that my classmates would put on. I was more of a sports kid my entire life, I played basketball from kindergarten to 12th grade, but eventually, in 8th grade, I gathered the courage (and by gathered I mean I gathered a bunch of my teammates and roped them in to going and auditioning for the musical together) and from then on it was over for me. I was in love with acting and wanted to do it forever.
EW What brought you to NYC to NYU Tisch? You know that is my alma matter and I have such a soft spot for it. Tisch is such a safe space to let your heart explode and explore. What was your experience like?
MB It really is. My life would not have been the same without the years I spent at Tisch and all that I learned both as a student and just as a person, about the world, about myself. By 10th grade, I knew that I wanted to go to college for Musical Theatre, and in my brain there was no better place to study musical theatre than in the epicenter of it all, Broadway, New York City. NYU was my first choice and I was very blessed to be accepted into the CAP21 program. I was surrounded by so many talented students that it was intimidating and inspiring, I had no other choice but to up my game. The growth that I had there felt monumental. I loved every second and still remember so many breakthrough moments I had in classes and watching and learning from my peers. I was starting to come into my own as it happens for a lot of people when you leave home to go to school and you’re doing what you love surrounded by people that are passionate about the same things that you are. I felt like my life, the life that I wanted, that I wanted to create, was just getting started. College can be so fun, but it can also be tough. My first year was tough, personally, emotionally. I was a little culture shocked and being the only Mexican in my program I had a hard time connecting with people during my first year. Once I found my people though, I had the best time.
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EW You have been acting since such a young age- what drew you to it in the beginning? And what has changed since then as you evolve and grow? I am curious as to what feeds you as an actor and an artist. What do you love about it and what did you love about it at first?
MB I started singing before I started acting. Acting was intimidating at first, learning lines, playing pretend with other people, it just made me feel super self conscious for some reason, like I was being judged if I was bad and I thought I was bad. So I stuck to singing first, in church Christmas plays, then in one show I wasn’t just singing I was playing a character that sung, a doll that came to life, and I thought, ok, I like the story telling, I want to try scenes next. That’s when I auditioned for my first school musical, The Wizard of Oz. I played Tree number three. I gotta be honest, the first thing that drew me to the stage was the attention, the lights on you, the applause. I remember leaving a school show as an audience member and becoming, literally a fan, of my classmates. I would not stop thinking about the show for weeks and I thought, I want to be a part of that, if they can make me feel like this, I want to make people feel like this. I still feel that way today. I want to make people feel something with my performances. I want the audience to connect with my character or the story that I’m telling because it’s a way to make people feel less alone in their struggle. For a few hours you make people forget about the world and just come with you on a journey. That’s so powerful. I still feel very much like that nervous girl that was stepping into her Tree costume and had butterflies in her stomach. Now I guess, I am much pickier about the roles I take on. First, I want to make sure that I’m being pushed outside of my comfort zone, I like challenging myself and I know that if I’m scared of a role, that is the one that I should be doing. And I’m much more aware of the power that narratives have on shaping mindsets of people so when I take on a project I want to make sure that specifically I’m not taking on stereotypical roles that are damaging to my community.
EW I understand that in your NYC years, you had the experience of feeling rather limited in terms of the “kinds” of roles you could audition for, as you told the NY Times that, you “basically could only audition for ‘West Side Story’ and ‘In the Heights.’” Do you feel like this pigeonholing has changed at all? What challenges do you face in terms of how you are seen and what options/ doors feel possible to you?
MB My mom always told me that only I can put limits on my capabilities. So I grew up thinking that everything that I wanted to do I could do if I worked hard. New York was a little bit of a slap in the face because for the first time in my life I was being put in a box and told that I had to understand the types of roles that I would get cast as. I was the foreign student, with an accent that looked, very clearly, not white. A part of me accepted it because I was adapting, but another bigger part of me met it with resistance. I don’t like people telling me what I can and can’t do. And I’ve always believed that talent in combination with preparedness supersedes any preconceived notions of what a role should be. Of course that’s the mentality of a woman of color who needs to believe that because otherwise being in this industry would be too depressing. People of color, especially women of color, are still all vying for very few opportunities. I have to say that in the last few years the industry has taken steps in the right direction. I see more and more stories made by POC and starring POC. Are there enough? NO. Are they a reflection of the world we live in. No, not yet. We fight every day to keep moving in the right direction and to not only wait for the industry to change but MAKE it change by demanding it too. I’ve started following in the footsteps of so many of the leaders in my community that have seen a void and become creators to fill that void with out stories. You realize very quickly as a women of color that no one is going to hand you anything, you have to go and be undeniable and take it for yourself. Write, and produce so there’s more stories for us to live our truths and show the world that our stories matter. It’s a daily challenge, but I’ve always loved a challenge.
People of color, especially women of color, are still all vying for very few opportunities.
EW So. In The Heights. Lin Manuel. This is a huge deal, I am sure you don’t need me to tell you. Can you tell us how this opportunity came about for you?
MB I heard word about auditions for the movie as I was transitioning from Mexico City to LA in the summer of 2017. I thought it was a sign from the universe because if I hadn’t decided to move to LA chances are I never would’ve found out about the auditions. I was a huge fan of the show and of Lin so it became my mission to prepare myself for that audition. I sent a self tape while still in Mexico City, It was awful. I cringe just thinking about it. But then I thought, I don’t ever want to feel this way again, like I’m not ready for an opportunity or like I’m wasting it. So I dedicated the next year to train vocally and be ready for when I could audition again (the production had been delayed so I saw a chance). Sure enough, a little over a year later I went in and auditioned again, this time in person in Los Angeles while I shot the second season of Vida (having two seasons of a show under my belt also gave me a little more confidence) and then after that I had a series of nerve wracking callbacks in LA and then NY and finally in January of 2019 I got the best facetime call ever, from Lin himself, to tell me I had booked it.
EW Give our readers a quick ITH synopsis and understanding of your character…
MB In the Heights is a movie about a community of dreamers in Washington Heights, each person going through their own struggle and pursuing their specific dream or “sueñito” while battling obstacles that often come with being immigrants or children of immigrants. It’s a story of how when people come together and support each other they can make their wildest dreams reality and it’s a story of celebrating the struggle, your history and your culture. I play Vanessa, a woman that feels stuck in her neighborhood and cannot wait to get out and go live downtown to become a fashion designer. She represents so many people like myself, that feel the need to go seeking better opportunities to create the life you dream of and become the person you know you can be.
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EW What was the filming experience like? In terms of preparation and then the actual day to day?
MB It was a dream from beginning to end. We had 10 weeks of rehearsals to learn all the choreography, which were very intense, but they gave us the gift of bonding with each other and creating the real life family that you see on screen. Then the day to day during shooting was like a party every day. Making a movie musical is the most incredible experience because every day there was something incredible being shot and it felt like a live show. We all wanted to be on set every day, even if we were not shooting, just to watch the spectacle of what was going on. It was a privilege to be a part of something so special.
EW Any crazy set stories to report?
MB I mean, apart from the fact that there was an actual blackout in NY while we were shooting the blackout (talk about art imitating life) there was also a day when we were shooting a part of the blackout and a building right down the block from us caught on fire. It was kind of scary and we had to wait for the firemen to come and put it out as we all just stood on the streets with the people of Washington Heights and waited it out, hoping everyone was ok.
EW What do you hope viewers will take from the film?
MB I hope people feel hope and joy when they watch our film. I hope the Latinx community feels proud and claims the movie as their own because it is, and I hope anyone else that watches it can see that we are all so much alike. We all want to feel safe, we want to feel at home, we all struggle and all of our dreams are equally as valuable and important.
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EW What do you find to be more inherently important about your role in the storytelling process?
MB Honesty. As actors we are the faces that people connect to. And I always want to be honest with the audience so that they can feel safe and like they can also be vulnerable as they watch.
EW You will also be playing Carmen in the upcoming film adaptation co-starring Paul Mescal. Another huge deal. I am curious, when huge opportunities happen, how do you process and react?
MB I don’t even know that I can accurately tell you. I feel immense joy that fills every inch my body, kind of like I’m going to overflow. I let myself bask in that feeling of “I’ve been praying for this and now it’s here”. I like to sit by myself with that. I guess that’s me processing. I get very quiet, I guess I’m private about those sorts of sacred moments in life. I will share it with only my closest people, my mom and sisters, my husbands and some of my closest friends. Then I’ll get to work.
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The mind is incredibly powerful.
EW Any Carmen specific training you had to jump into for the role?
MB I did a loooot of dance training. I actually started training via zoom while I was shooting Scream, so whenever I had a day off from shooting and on the weekends I would go into an empty stage and train and start learning the choreography.
EW You mentioned to me that your mother is a skilled healer- does she help you at all with processing evolution, trauma, pain? Pain is so often passed down both through systemic tendencies like racism and the inherited trauma of our ancestors. What ( among many things, I am sure) do you think is something incredibly powerful that you could pass on to our readers from your experience in processing pain with her?
MB My mom is my guide in life, I don’t know what I would do without her. I am so lucky to have her help me through every stage of my life, not only personally as my mother but spiritually as well. Something that has been life changing that she’s taught me and continues to teach me is: every ailing of the body is connected to an emotion. And if you can pinpoint what that emotion is, acknowledge it and release it, the physical pain you feel goes away like magic. Everything from a cold to back or neck pain to more serious diseases all tie back to emotions. The mind is incredibly powerful. It’s called biodecoding and it has changed my life.
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EW How do you take care of your mind and body on a daily basis?
MB Being kind with myself. I like to be active and exercise, but sometimes I just want to sit on the couch all day and snack and watch TV, and I think having a balance is very healthy. I like giving myself permission to do what feels good in the moment and not put too much pressure on myself. I also like to do affirmations and cheer myself up by being my own hypewoman and talking in the mirror. It might feel weird at first but like I said, the mind is incredibly powerful and how you speak to yourself can have a big effect on how you live your life.
EW Do you have a spiritual practice you turn to?
MB I pray, I do affirmations and I do reiki with my mom.
EW What do you find most necessary to stay centered as an artist?
MB Keeping my family close. They are the pillars that hold me up.
EW What are you most looking forward to in 2021, in a landscape that is evolving out of Covid territory?
MB I’m so looking forward to the streets filling up again, to being able to go to crowded places again and to being able to hug people again.
EW What are some of your favorite charities and causes that you would like to bring attention to? Your favorite way to pay it forward?
MB Bold Futures is a non-profit that I collaborated on a movie with a few years ago and they do incredible work out of New Mexico for women and people of color. What I love about them is that they understand two key ways of creating long lasting change. One is getting involved in policy making, to ensure that women and people of color have a say in shaping the spaces they live in, and another is through art and storytelling, which is how we made the movie All the World is Sleeping. They know that sharing stories is a way to humanize and change narratives about women of color that are going through different struggles like substance abuse, homelessness or domestic violence. There is so much love in the work that they do and they create a safe haven for so many people that need that support.
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EW How do you use your platform to inspire your followers to pay it forward as well?
MB I hope that by leading by example. Otherwise what’s the point right?
EW Favorite place in the world?
MB New York City and recently Hamilton Island came to the top of my list as well.
EW What should we be reading?
MB Two incredible memoirs: My Broken Language by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Once I Was You by Maria Hinojosa.
EW What should we be watching?
MB Veneno on Hbo Max and while you’re there (In the Heights also on Hbo Max starting June 11)
EW Do you think about what you hope your legacy to be?
MB I have so much work to do before I start thinking about a legacy. I just want to use my voice for good.
EW Do you have anything in the way of 5 or 10 year plans?
MB I want to have a working production company with a full slate and I want to start a family.
EW What’s your SBJCT Melissa? What really moves and motivates you and drives you every day?
MB I think humanity is my sbjct. Watching the incredible things that people do on a daily basis inspires me and motivates me to keep fighting every day to live a life that I’m proud of and that hopefully in turn can also serve as inspiration to others when they need it.
I think humanity is my SBJCT.