In 2007, Melissa Barrera was a junior in high school living in her hometown of Monterrey, Mexico when she went to see In the Heights on Broadway. She was leaning toward studying musical theater in college, but something was keeping her from committing to the path. “I was scared that it wasn’t a viable career. I was scared that there was no place for me in the industry — that I was gonna go to school for four years and then not be cast in anything because I hadn’t seen a lot of Mexicans on Broadway, ”she told Cosmopolitan. Watching the mostly-Latinx cast of In the Heights bring their complex characters to life calmed Barrera’s fears. “I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a place for me. I can be in this show. This is a story that’s like mine. There are people that look like me. ‘”
She remembers connecting with the character of Vanessa most of all. Sitting in the audience in a Manhattan theater, she thought, “I am her. I am this girl that wants to go somewhere else where there’s more opportunities, where I can start over, where people are not gonna judge me because they know me for my entire life and they know everything about me. ” That was the moment Melissa decided, one way or another, she would someday play Vanessa herself. About 14 years later, we get to watch Barrera’s intention become reality. Barrera spoke with Cosmo about the challenges she faced playing her fictional kindred spirit, the work she’s doing behind-the-scenes to make sure that complex Latinx characters continue to exist on our screens, and the story behind a very special bottle of champagne.
What did you find to be the most challenging part about playing Vanessa?
For me it was, “How do I make her my own? How do I make her fresh? ” I saw it on Broadway so many times played by incredible actresses from Karen Olivo, the original Vanessa on Broadway, to everyone else that took on the role. And I was like, “I don’t want to copy any of what they did, any of what they put of themselves into the character. I want to find her in me. ” And I was lucky that I got a little bit more of her story. We get to know what her dreams actually are. And we get to see that she’s in a lot of pain. She’s a person that is very broken … heartbroken. And so, that was a challenge for me, playing her as honestly as I could in a way that felt like it was true to me, and bringing a lot of myself to the character and exploring a lot of the things that I had gone through when I left Monterrey. Those fears and the insecurity and the rejection.
Speaking of Vanessa’s dreams, she hides them from people and pushes people away, especially Usnavi. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a defense mechanism. When we put walls up in life, it’s to protect ourselves from getting hurt. And I think Vanessa has been wanting to get out of Washington Heights for so long that she’s started to distance herself from people so that it hurts less when she has to say goodbye. It’s not a question of if she’s going to get out, it’s when for her. So, why form any connections [with people] that are gonna be painful to say goodbye to? I think she keeps this wall up. She keeps this mask on— “I’m [a] strong woman, nothing fazes me, ”- so that it’s easier for her. But it’s not, you know? She still struggles, because keeping people at a distance also makes you feel lonely. I think she also keeps her dreams to herself because in case they don’t come true it’s less embarrassing or less heartbreaking to not have to explain herself to people. Usnavi is actually the only person that she confides in. She lets him in to a certain extent because they have this whole thing of like, “You owe me champagne if I move out first, I owe you if you get out first.” And, it’s this little game that they have.
“I feel like that’s how I live my life — in dreams.”
What In the Heights song do you personally connect to the most?
“It Won’t Be Long Now,” is literally, I feel like, the anthem of my life. Especially as it relates to waiting for an opportunity like this, getting to be a part of a project like this. I’ve waited my entire life. And the thing that has kept me going in the difficult times, in the down times of not knowing when I’m gonna work again or getting rejected from roles that I really want and being in such low, dark places that you want to give up and throw the towel in is thinking that, “it won’t be long now.” That I’m getting closer. That I’m getting closer to my dream. And this movie was a huge dream come true for me.
What did you learn from Vanessa?
I learned that it’s important to not be so focused on one thing that you’re being blind to the people around you that love you and support you. Like, you’re not an island, you know? You’re not an island. You don’t have to go through life by yourself. And there are always going to be people that are cheering you on and wanting to help you out. And I think that’s the biggest lesson that I learned from her. That, because she goes through life as an island and she’s in so much pain … I feel like that pain can be diminished if you share it, and if you talk about it.
Melissa Barrera as Vanessa in In the Heights.
Authentic Latinx representation in media is really important to you. Do you have a story to share about something that happened recently that made you feel fulfilled, like you were moving the needle forward and making good progress?
In every meeting that I take when I talk to executives and producers, I try to be as transparent about my feelings and about the roles and types of stories that I’d be willing to tell and those that I don’t want to continue to give fuel to because I think that they’re damaging. I got a script not too long ago … a movie that takes place in Mexico. And it’s all about how easy it is to get away with things in Mexico and how the police are corrupt and all of those things. And it’s supposed to be a comedy. And I wrote back and I was like, “This isn’t funny to me. This is my country and to have white people come and make a mess and do whatever they want in my country and have it read as a comedy is, I think, harmful to the way that Mexican people are already viewed on a global scale because of how much the media focuses on the negative — the violence and the insecurity and all of those things. ” I said no to that, and what I loved is that another actor that was attached to that movie said that he hadn’t thought about it that way when he got attached and he was gonna have a serious conversation and see if he wants to continue with the project. Because even though he’s not Latino, he’s white, he understands the harm that it can do to continue to tell stories like this to a whole community of people.
What is your most prominent memory from filming In the Heights?
A very special day was when we shot “Champagne” because my entire family was there. My mom and my sisters and my husband were all in New York visiting. We were supposed to shoot something else, and because it was raining we had to change the plan. It was nerve-wracking because I knew that it was live — that we were going to have to sing it live — and it was a one-take. And we did it. And it was a beautiful experience.
We were rehearsing with the camera trying to get the choreography right with the camera so that the camera was seeing exactly what it was supposed to be seeing with each of us singing and all of that. And I think it was, like, take five where Jon M. Chu, our director, was hidden in a closet in the apartment because the camera was seeing 360. He yelled “Cut!” and he came out and he was crying because it had moved him so much. And that really just pumped me and Anthony Ramos up. We had an incredible day shooting that. And then Lin came with a champagne bottle at the end of the day to toast. And the champagne bottle was from 2007, the year that the show premiered on Broadway. And it was just a beautiful celebration after that number.
And what is your next dream for Vanessa?
Let’s talk about a sequel. Can we start pitching a sequel, please? Can Lin start writing the music? I’d be so down to see what happened after Usnavi decides to stay and how they make it work. How Vanessa actually starts her clothing line in Washington Heights and what that business is and her journey trying to be an entrepreneur and all that and starting a family. I think it would be great to actually see that happen. The cast would be down to come back in 20 years and do a sequel / reunion kind of thing if it happened.
What is your next dream for yourself?
I have so many dreams. I feel like that’s how I live my life — in dreams. Instead of saying steps or goals I’m always trying to achieve little dreams. And now I feel like I’m very blessed, definitely. I’m at a really fortunate point in my career. I’ve been working towards this moment for what feels like forever, since I started over 10 years ago. And right now I’m going into producing because I want to contribute more to the spectrum of Latinx stories that are out there, and I feel like a way to do that is actually to create those stories. So I have a few things in development in TV and film. And my next dream is to make them happen, to actually make them and give opportunities to other Latinx talents that deserve them. And to have more stories about our people made by our people out there and not just the anomaly of like one movie that’s the unicorn — that is what is happening with In The Heights right now.
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Esme Mazzeo Contributor Esme Mazzeo is a lifestyle and entertainment journalist from Long Island.
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