“It was July. It was supposed to be hot — but the pool was freezing,” recalls Melissa Barrera.
“It was raining the entire time, and we had 500 dancers and extras, and we kept having to stop because there was lightning!” Barrera’s face breaks into a grin at the pure chaos of shooting a huge, aquatic musical number outdoors. “We’d all be on the sidelines cheering on the dancers. It was such a fun week!”
That song, “96,000,” is one of several showstoppers from “In the Heights,” the new movie musical in which Barrera plays the female lead, aspiring designer Vanessa, who falls in love with Anthony Ramos’ bodega-owner character, Usnavi.
Directed by Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”), the film — which is a love letter to the Dominican community in Washington Heights — is adapted from the Tony-winning Broadway show by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”).
Shot in 2019, its debut last summer was delayed because of COVID-19. It’s already received advance rave reviews and will open the Tribeca Festival on June 9, followed by a theatrical release on June 11. It will stream at the same time on HBO Max.
Packed with huge ensemble songs, New York City vistas, hip-hop swagger and old-fashioned romance, it’s hard to imagine a more glorious reason for people to return to cinemas, says Barrera. “I feel like this movie will make people yearn to go back to crowded places and busy streets,” she says. “And the music of the city, like Usnavi says in the movie — you don’t realize that until you miss it. It’s such a distinct soundtrack.”
On Zoom from Studio City in LA, Barrera says, “It’s very quiet where I am. In New York, you’re in it. You feel the energy.”
This is a rare period of downtime for the Mexican actress.
Unlike most of us, Barrera’s been a whirlwind of activity during the pandemic. If you didn’t catch her in the critically acclaimed Starz show “Vida” — and you really should have — just wait until the fruits of her labors over the past two years start to drop.
She’s the star of an upcoming adaptation of the opera “Carmen,” and she’s also in the latest installment of the “Scream” franchise.
Barrera’s star may be rising quickly, but she’s still geeking out over her own favorite actors. Working alongside Daphne Rubin-Vega in “In the Heights” was particularly surreal. “I’m such a huge fan of hers from ‘Rent,’ ” Barrera says. Rubin-Vega, who plays salon owner Daniela in “Heights,” originated the “Rent” role of Mimi Marquez on Broadway. “When I met her, I was freaking out,” Barrera says. “And she’s so oblivious to the fact that she’s an icon.”
It was like that on the set of “Scream,” too, where Barrera’s co-stars included Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette. “I would be doing a scene with Courteney or Neve,” says Barrera, “and when the directors would cut, I’d whisper to them, ‘Take a picture, take a picture!’ I would act all casual, so they could get a shot of us.”
“Scream,” which filmed last fall, features Barrera as a character named Sam Carpenter. This is, alas, all she’s allowed to say. But the character’s name, which she points out is non-Latina, tells its own story. “The role was written to be played by a white girl,” she says. “And I feel like the studio was giving me a chance, and casting me and leaving the name as-is is a step in representation, and being open to giving the role to the best actor, not just casting an ethnicity.”
Barrera has been increasingly vocal about Latinx representation in Hollywood, and credits 2018’s edgy “Vida,” in part, with lighting that spark. “I learned a lot about Latinx representation, and the lack of it,” she says. “We had a nonbinary actor, so it was also about queer representation, and trans representation, and all these things that, in Mexico, I wasn’t exposed to.”
These days she’s making a point to push for nonstereotypical Latinx roles in Hollywood — a place where, not so long ago, she says Salma Hayek was the only Mexican actress Barrera had as a role model. “I feel like, whenever I can, I want to raise my voice for my community, and present in a way that makes everybody proud. So little boys and girls growing up watching the stories I’m doing see themselves, and can point to the character and be like, ‘I can do that as well.’ ”
She doesn’t have a problem pushing back on roles she sees as stereotypical or racist. “A lot of the scripts I get, I’m like, ‘You don’t understand how this is a negative portrayal.’ But when I say no, I always explain why. I’ve had a few people come back and go, ‘I hadn’t thought of that, thank you, and I’ll work on a rewrite.’ So that’s a little bit of my contribution. Not just saying no, but explaining why that is damaging.”
The 30-year-old Barrera, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for two years before leaving to take a role in a telenovela back home. The four years she spent in Mexican soaps were like acting boot camp, an experience she wouldn’t trade for anything.
“I would shoot 30 scenes a day,” she says. “I know the genre is looked down upon, but I would invite any actor to try to shoot a soap. It’s a challenge, and a set of skills, and a lot of discipline. In Mexico, you rarely have two takes.”
Her CrossFit-level acting muscles were put to the test in “Scream,” she says, which can flip between comic and stabby in a single scene. They also came in handy for taking on the title role in “Carmen,” directed by ballet dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied in his feature-film directing debut.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “There’s a lot of dancing, and I had to do the training for that. It was super rewarding. It felt like every day we were making art.”
But that art required sacrifice. For the first time in her life, Barrera had to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve alone, quarantining in Australia for the shoot. She couldn’t even be with her husband, musician Paco Zazueta.
Eventually, the couple got several months in lockdown, in their home in Sonora, Mexico. They didn’t mind sheltering in place. “It was so fun to be a normal couple, because we’re always apart. And so when we spend time together, it’s like a honeymoon: Let’s go somewhere, let’s travel! It was nice to have regular at-home time together.”
Shortly after Australia, she was summoned back to New York by Ramos, who had waited to shoot a video for his new single until Barrera was available to be in it. “Say Less” sees the two stars in a sultry light, entwining to the sounds of Ramos’ R&B jam. “We hadn’t seen each other in a year,” she says, “and it feels like being back with family, when we’re together.” As it happens, she’s wearing the leather pants from that video while on our chat. They’re a lot cooler than most Zoom fare I’ve seen.
Barrera is on a mission to carve out a red-carpet style that’s both fashion-forward and pandemic-reminiscent. “I don’t want tight anymore. I’ve been at so many events where I can’t breathe, or sit down, or eat, because it’ll give me a food belly. I don’t want that in my life anymore.” Her wish was granted recently: Armani loaned her a suit made of literal sweatpants. “It was cut like a striped navy suit,” she says. “It was incredible!”
Barrera thinks the word is out now to designers who are paying attention. “Everyone who’s been wearing loungewear for a year? We’re not going back.”
Who can say what colorful creation she’ll procure for the “In the Heights” premiere — but she knows she’ll be comfortable in the company of colleagues who’ve become family. Even now, she says, the “In the Heights” group-text chat is going strong, every day.
“It feels like the movie is an arts high school we’re all graduating from and going out to do other things,” she says. “It feels awesome to be able to share in each other’s successes.” And to come back for class reunions of sorts.
This is a practice Miranda has nurtured for his ensembles throughout his career. Ramos got his big break in “Hamilton,” and you can catch cameos from both Miranda and Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington, in the new film.
“He’s kind of like this fairy godmother,” Barrera says of Miranda. “When he loves you, he has your back. And I think that’s so beautiful.”
Fashion Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Fashion Assistant: Alejandra Munt; Hair: Josué Perez at Tracey Mattingly using Frenchies Hairpins; Makeup: Talia Sparrow; Manicure: Ellen Jin at The One Nail & Spa
Alexa cover star Melissa Barrera was photographed at Ocean Dream, an iconic 80-year-old Southampton estate on renowned Gin Lane.
Built in 1940 by Henry Ford’s daughter Anne Ford (the property was a wedding gift from her dad), the sprawling shingle-style nine-bedroom, nine-full-bathroom mansion is spread over more than 7,500 square feet of newly renovated living space.
It boasts wide wraparound porches and amenities such as staff quarters, a gym, media room and sunroom.
Set off a private road, the 3.7-acre grounds include a three-car garage, pool and accompanying house, golf putting green and an elegant grass tennis court.
The estate at 5 Fair Lea Road (36 Gin Lane) is asking $49 million with Corcoran’s Marcella O’Callaghan.