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One to watch: In The Heights’ Melissa Barrera

With two major roles in the pipeline, MELISSA BARRERA’s star is firmly on the rise. Here, the Mexican actor talks to OLIVE WAKEFIELD about representation in Hollywood, spending Christmas with Paul Mescal and finally landing her dream job

Lifestyle
Illustration: Daiana Ruiz

What would you do if you found out you were going to be spending two months in close confinement with Normal People star Paul Mescal? Scream? Shout? Jump for joy? The answer, perhaps, is all the above. Melissa Barrera was already a huge fan of Mescal before learning he’d signed to join the cast of Carmen, in which Barrera plays the iconic title role. “Oh my god. I remember the day they told me they had got Paul; I was ecstatic. I thought, ‘This is perfect. This is the reason it has taken so long. We had to wait for him.’”

Carmen – a modern retelling of the classic opera, directed by esteemed dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied – is just one of the actor’s game-changing roles this year. First up is her breakout part in the big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical In the Heights. The show broke records during its stint on Broadway, captivating audiences with its effervescent portrayal of the Latinx community – something Barrera wants to see more of on-screen. “We don’t get many movies where we celebrate our experience; the shades, the shapes, the accents, the unabashed celebration of our music and our rhythms and our food,” she explains. “And we don’t get many movies that paint us in an aspirational light.”

The studio is confident Lin-Manuel Miranda devotees (and more) will show up for this vibrant production, and it is one of the few films getting a theatrical release in the precarious post-pandemic world. Until then, Barrera is counting down the days until her beloved community can see it – and hoping those who watch will truly feel seen. “I want them to say, ‘Yes, that’s my abuela [grandmother]; that’s my uncle; that’s my corner store; that’s how my family dinners are.’ For all of us involved, we knew that what we were doing was historic. We felt the weight of it every day.”

We don’t get many movies where we celebrate our experience… And we don’t get many movies that paint us in an aspirational light

Hi Melissa, where are you speaking to us from today?

“I’m at the airport in Austin, about to fly to Mexico.”

What are five things we would find in your handbag?

“Keys, phone, lip balm, AirPods and my Kindle.”

What time of day do you feel most creative?

“I’m a night owl, so that’s when I get most of my energy. I can stay up until 4am writing a script, working out or writing a treatment for a movie.”

How did you come to be involved with In the Heights?

“I’ve been a fan of ITH since it was on Broadway – I [must have seen] it at least 15 times. I started auditioning for the show 12 years ago and never got a callback. Then, when I moved to LA three years ago, they were holding auditions, so I sent in a tape – and it took another year to get a callback. But I kept taking voice lessons and made sure the songs were in my body. I left the final audition thinking, ‘Even if I don’t get the part, this has been one of the best days of my life.’ I wanted to remember the feeling of having that opportunity; of just knowing that I was in the room.”

What was it like to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda?

“If you’re a musical-theater nerd like I am, it was almost like being in the presence of a deity. He has a powerful energy to him, but he is also very sweet. [Making] the movie has been a long journey for him, so being in the moment and coming this far was incredible. He was so grateful we were there – you could tell he wanted us to succeed. We wrapped 11 weeks after shooting and we were all crying. No one wanted it to be over. It’s so rare to have a crew willing to shoot for two more months together.”

When a crew connects to the story, that is when magic happens, because everyone has to love what they are doing
In the Heights features Anthony Ramos alongside Melissa Barrera, where Latin rhythms, dance and hip-hop lyrics combine to tell a captivating story of hope

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?

“It was from my mom. She said, ‘You set your own limits. Whatever you want to achieve, you can. Whatever you set your limits to be, that is when you’ll stop.’ I always like to think I have no limits. That’s when I push myself to accomplish things I didn’t think were possible.”

Do you have any plans to work behind the camera?

“I’ve already started producing projects and I have a few things in development. Directing is something I’ve always wanted to do, but I am a bit scared. I have so much respect for directors. I wrote a script during the pandemic that I would like to make, but I don’t know if I want to direct it or [if I’d prefer] someone else to…”

Which female directors do you look up to?

“Chloé Zhao is incredible. The way her films tell stories and incorporate actors with real people requires a whole different set of skills in itself. I love Olivia Wilde [and] Regina King, too. I love seeing more female directors getting recognition – it’s going to inspire so many more women to just go for it.”

What has been your experience of representation in the film industry?

“I was very lucky. I arrived in the US to work on a show called Vida, [in which] the mission was to achieve diversity in front of and behind the camera. I feel so lucky to be coming into the industry at a time when people are consciously giving opportunities to people of color. On the set of Carmen, there were so many Latinos in the crew. They went out and found all the Latinos in the industry in Australia [where Carmen was filmed]. When a crew connects to the story, that is when magic happens, because everyone has to love what they are doing.”

I always like to think I have no limits. That’s when I push myself to accomplish things I didn’t think were possible

What was it like to work with Paul Mescal?

“He is such a great person to work with. He is so fun and talented; a great partner to have on this crazy ride. I am excited for people to see him singing and dancing – a lot of people don’t know that side to him.”

How did you spend your downtime between filming?

“Paul and I were both in Australia without our families over Christmas and New Year, so he found this great Asian restaurant where we could celebrate. As we were on the other side of the world, alone, we stuck together. Being in a part of the world that didn’t have Covid and feeling so far away from everything brought us closer and definitely helped the movie. The director, Benjamin [Millepied], and his wife Natalie [Portman] took us in and invited us over for dinner, too.”

What was the last voice note you sent?

“My friend Jasmine is a huge fan of In the Heights, so I invited her to an advance screening. She called me on FaceTime crying and I replied with a voice note saying I love her so much.”

[Paul Mescal] is such a great person to work with. He is so fun and talented; a great partner to have on this crazy ride. I am excited for people to see him singing and dancing
In the Heights’ Vanessa (Barrera) and Usnavi (Ramos) have big dreams…

Where would we find you at 2am and 10am on a Saturday?

“Out, [drinking] a few tequilas at a bar or taco truck. At 10am? Possibly still out – or in the kitchen eating quesadillas.”

What is your go-to karaoke song?

“I love karaoke, but I’m not good at it because I take myself too seriously. I’d much rather watch my friends. But if I have to choose, anything by Adele.”

What is the song or book you wish you’d written?

“One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. The song I wish I had written is Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.”

Where will you be this time next month?

“At the screening of In the Heights at LALIFF – the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. It’s a huge event and I can’t wait for the community to see our movie.”

What is one thing you’d love to achieve in the next 10 years?

“I would like to have a production company with lots [of projects] in the works, and give many opportunities to Latinx actors and creators.”

In the Heights is released on June 11