We may earn commissions from links on this page, but we only recommend products that we love. Promise.
The actress speaks to Cosmopolitan about realizing her own dreams with her role as Vanessa.
In 2007, Melissa Barrera was a high school student in her hometown of Monterrey, Mexico when she watched In the Heights on Broadway. She tended to study musical theater in college, but something kept her from getting on the road. “I was afraid it wasn’t going to be a viable career. I was afraid there would be no place for me in the industry – that I would go to school for four years and then get cast for nothing because I hadn’t seen many Mexicans on Broadway, ”she told Cosmopolitan. Seeing the predominantly Latinx cast of In the Heights bring their complex characters to life soothed Barrera’s fears. “I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a place for me. I can be on this show. This is a story similar to mine. There are people who look like me. ‘“
Most of all, she remembers the character of Vanessa. She was sitting in the audience of a Manhattan theater and thought, “I am her. I’m that girl who wants to go somewhere else, where there are more options, where I can start over, where people don’t judge me because they’ve known me all my life and know everything about me. ”That was the moment in Which Melissa, one way or another, decided to play Vanessa herself one day. About 14 years later, we see Barrera’s intention come true. Barrera spoke to Cosmo about the challenges she faced playing her fictional soulmate, the work she does behind the scenes to make sure complex Latinx characters continue to exist on our screens, and the story behind one very special one Bottle of champagne.
For me it was: “How do I make them my own? How do I freshen them up? ”I’ve seen it so many times on Broadway, played by incredible actresses from Karen Olivo, the original Vanessa on Broadway, to everyone else who has taken on the role. And I said, “I don’t want to copy anything you did, anything you put into the character yourself. I want to find her inside of me. ”And I was lucky enough to get a little more of her story. We find out what your dreams actually are. And we see that she is in great pain. She is a very broken person … heartbroken. And that was a challenge for me to play them as honestly as possible, so that it felt true to me, and put a lot of myself into the character and explore a lot of the things I had been through when I left Monterrey. These 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 this is?
I think it’s a defense mechanism. When we build walls in life we protect ourselves from being hurt. And I think Vanessa has wanted out of Washington Heights for so long that she has distanced herself from people so that it hurts less when she has to say goodbye. It’s not a question of whether she’ll get out, but when for her. So why make any connections [with people] that will be painful to say goodbye to? I think she’s holding that wall up. She keeps this mask on – « I am [a] strong woman, nothing worries me » – so that it can be easier for her. But that’s not it, do you understand? She’s still struggling, because keeping your distance also makes you lonely. I think she keeps her dreams to herself too, because in case they don’t come true it’s less embarrassing or less heartbreaking not to have to explain yourself to people. Usnavi is actually the only person she confides in. She lets him in to some degree because they have something like, « You owe me champagne when I move out first, I owe you when you get out first. » And it’s that little game they have.
« It Will Be Long Now » is literally the anthem of my life. Especially when it comes to waiting for such an opportunity and becoming part of such a project. I’ve waited all my life. And what kept me going in tough times, the times when I didn’t know when to go back to work or got turned down by roles I really want and being in places so low, dark that you can want to give up and throw in the towel thinking it won’t be long now. That I’m getting closer That I’m getting closer to my dream. And with this film, a great dream has come true for me.
I’ve learned that it’s important not to focus so much on one thing that you are blind to the people around you who love and support you. You are not an island you know You are not an island. You don’t have to go through life alone. And there will always be people who cheer you on and want to help you. And I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from her. That’s because she goes through life as an island and she is in such intense pain … I have a feeling that if you share it and talk about it, that pain can be relieved.
An authentic Latinx representation in the media is very important to you. Do you have a story about something that happened recently that fulfilled you like moving the needle forward and making good progress?
In every meeting I hold when speaking to executives and producers, I try to be transparent about my feelings and the roles and types of stories I want to tell that I don’t want to continue to give They fuel because I think they are harmful. I got a script not long ago … a movie set 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 thought, “This is not funny to me. This is my country and when white people come and wreak havoc in my country and do what they want and have it read as a comedy, I think it is detrimental to the way the Mexican people are already on a global scale be viewed for how much the media is focused on the negatives – the violence and the insecurity and all of those things. ”I said no to that, and what I loved is that another actor who was interested in this movie said that he hadn’t thought about it like that when he hooked up, and he would have a serious conversation and see if he’d like to move on with the project. Because although he is not a Latino, he knows, he understands the damage that it can do to keep telling stories like this to a whole community of people.
It was a very special day when we shot « Champagne », because my whole family was there. My mother and sisters and husband were all visiting New York. We were supposed to do something else and since it was raining we had to change the plan. It was nerve-wracking because I knew it was live – that we had to sing it live – and it was a one-take. And we did it. And it was a nice experience.
We were rehearsing with the camera and trying to get the choreography right with the camera so that the camera would see exactly what it should see when each of us was singing and all that. And I think it was in that Shot five, where Jon M. Chu, our director, was hidden in a closet in the apartment because the camera saw 360. He yelled “Cut!” And he came out crying because it had moved him. And that really just pumped me and Anthony Ramos up. We had an incredible day of filming. And then at the end of the day Lin came to toast with a bottle of champagne. And the champagne bottle was from 2007, the year the show premiered on Broadway. And it was just a nice celebration after that number.
Let’s talk about a sequel. Can we start pitching a sequel please? Can Lin start writing the music? I would be so down to see what happened after Usnavi decided to stay and how they manage to do it. How Vanessa actually starts her clothing line in Washington Heights and what kind of business it is and how she tries to become an entrepreneur and start all that and a family. I think it would be great if that actually happened. The cast would return in 20 years and do a sequel / reunion if it happened.
I have so many dreams. I have the feeling that this is how I live my life – in dreams. Instead of saying steps or goals, I always try to make small dreams come true. And now I definitely feel very blessed. I’m at a really lucky point in my career. I have been working towards this moment for what feels like an eternity since I started over 10 years ago. And right now I’m starting to produce because I want to add more to the range of Latinx stories out there, and I think one way to do that is to actually create those stories. So I have a couple of things in development in television and film. And my next sueñito is to make them come true, actually make them, and give other Latinx talents opportunities they deserve. And having more stories about our people, made by our people out there, and not just the anomaly of a movie being the unicorn – that’s what’s happening with In The Heights right now.
Would you like more information on all of your favorite shows and films? Yes. We know you do. You can find all of our entertainment coverage here.
Melissa Barrera is already thinking about an « In the Heights » sequel