Actress Melissa Barrera is hungry. After moving from Monterrey, Mexico, to New York City to attend the Tisch School of the Arts, she prepared for her ascent by acting in Mexican telenovelas. That five-year tenure and her unrelenting drive gave way to a crossover to Anglo TV in the Starz series Vida and finally her titular role in a modern reimagining of Carmen. It’s this hunger that made Lin-Manuel Miranda cast her as Vanessa, one of the leads in the film adaptation of his Tony-winning musical In the Heights.
A hairstylist by trade, Vanessa wants to escape her unfulfilling job and dreams of one day leaving Washington Heights, a neighborhood in New York City, and starting a new life in downtown Manhattan as a fashion designer. After persistently auditioning for the musical as a college student whenever there were open calls, Barrera’s casting in this tenacious role feels like fate. “I’m so lucky,” she says.
Before the film’s theatrical release, Barrera spoke with BAZAAR.com about the enduring relevance of In the Heights, challenging the misconceptions of Latinx representation, and bringing Broadway to the masses.
When In the Heights opened on Broadway in 2008, it was a testament to how art can resonate with people thousands of miles away from where it was created and people of different backgrounds. What is your memory of the musical and the time when it premiered?
In the Heights opened when I was a sophomore in high school and wanted to study musical theater. No one in my hometown ever did that, so I constantly wondered if I had a chance at a career in musical theater or if it was just a dream. I went on a school trip to New York City, and a few of us escaped our hotel to see the show. I remember crying uncontrollably. It was a strange feeling, because those were tears of hope and pride—pride in seeing the Mexican flag on a Broadway stage and seeing people who looked like me and roles that I could play—I felt like I was on the right path. This is one of the many reasons it means the world to be part of this cast. It’s the musical that made me want to pursue musical theater because there’s a space for me.
Theater isn’t financially accessible to everyone. How did you learn about musical theater in Monterrey?
My school had a good arts department where we had choir, drama, and music classes, so musicals were a big part of our curriculum. There was the spring musical that I’d go and see, and I always wished that I could be on that stage. I got really into musical theater when I was in sixth grade, because I became obsessed with Les Misérables and Beauty and the Beast. I listened to the cast recordings and learned every word to every song. I would start fantasizing about auditioning for the school musical, but I was more of a sporty kid. I played basketball, so you’re in a different circle. You’re either sports or arts. The first school musical I auditioned for was The Wizard of Oz in eighth grade, and the rest is history.
The release of a movie like In the Heights means that families can have access to theater no matter where they live and in a more financially accessible way to more people.
When you got the script for In the Heights, what was your way of getting into your character, especially as a woman who’s coming from a very specific world?
I always find my characters from the inside out. It’s always about emotions to me and their dreams and frustrations, because I feel like those things are so universal. It doesn’t matter in what world or what country or what neighborhood you’re born in. We all share the need to be loved and the need to be seen. My immediate connection to Vanessa was feeling stuck in a place and wanting to get out to grow and conquer your dreams. I feel like that’s the journey that a lot of people go through. I know I did. I left Monterrey to study at NYU, because I felt like I couldn’t stay there if I wanted to be an actor. I had to be where the opportunities were. Vanessa wanted professional opportunities where the way she looked or where she was from didn’t matter, and that’s where I started. I start with what I can connect with first, and then I branch out.
Vanessa is usually very independent, but she also needs help from others to fulfill her most precious goals. Walk me through how you explored that side of your character while balancing your creative impulses to play the role as you see it.
She’s always looking for opportunities to better herself, but some people are indeed born with more advantages than others. Vanessa wasn’t born with lots of money; she didn’t have a great education or family support. Since she’s always been alone, she doesn’t allow people to help her, because she’s never experienced people helping her. It’s a vicious cycle that we see her break in the movie, because she allows Usnavi [her love interest, played by Anthony Ramos] to see her for who she truly is. Vanessa realizes that he’s always seen her that way, but she hasn’t noticed because she’s been focused on leaving. When you start caring for people, that ties you back, and she distances herself from people, because that way, it will be easier to leave.
If you allow yourself to be helped by other people, life becomes easier, and that’s the message of the movie. This community comes together to lift each other up.
We’re experiencing an overdue reckoning in Hollywood and on Broadway. What do you think the entertainment industry could do right now to be more inclusive of all different backgrounds?
Give us more opportunities! The industry still has a long way to go in terms of proper representation. We [Latinx people] are often seen as narcos, and I hate that. I hope In the Heights starts a domino effect of different realities for us. We can lead major movies and major TV shows, and be multidimensional, complicated human beings. We’re relatable, and our stories are universal.
Music plays a vital role in your life, so much so that your husband wrote a song for you called “Melissa” and performed it on your wedding day. With that said, what would be Vanessa and Usnavi‘s love song?
Anything by JP Saxe! It has to be a song about not being able to be with the person you like.
One of my takeaways from In the Heights was the way it celebrates the endurance, joy, and the strength of a community. What is the message of the movie for you?
We [immigrants and children of immigrants] belong in the United States, especially when so many of us are being told to return to our country. The United States is where many of us have fought to make our home and continue to fight for it, so we deserve to be here.
I hope that when people walk out of theaters, they will not only be happy because it’s a movie that makes you feel lots of joy, but that they also leave thinking, “Wow, this is a story about Americans, not just Latinxs. It’s a story about Americans finding and claiming their home.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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