Interview: Melissa Barerra of “In the Heights”

Long before the marvel of Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights took Broadway by storm when it debuted in 2008. Desperate to create a production for Latinos on Broadway, Miranda wrote the Tony-nominated musical out of necessity.

Since then, In the Heights toured the country and finally went into film production with Jon Chu, of Crazy Rich Asians, as the director. A colorful cast of Latinos representing different cultures and ethnicities sing, dance, and overcome struggle in the uplifting film, which premiers June 10th. Melissa Barrera, a star in her native Mexico, was cast as one of the leads in the movie, Vanessa. A legitimate triple threat, Barrera starred in several productions in her native Mexico before breaking through in the United States on the show Vida. Although this is her first movie, you will see much more of her very soon with starring roles in the upcoming film Carmen, the Netflix survival drama Breathe, and a remake of the classic horror movie Scream

I had the great fortune of sitting down with Barerra to talk about In the Heights, her job as a Latina actress, and how she overcame her insecurity to make what will go down as one of the best salsa dance scenes in history. 

What is it like to be involved in a movie of this scale, with big names behind it, that is also a majority-minority production? 

It feels beautiful. It feels like home, and it feels like it is all our story. It wasn’t just a job for any of us – we all had a stake in it. The industry that has ignored us for so long has finally opened the door for us, and we are going to make a big splash. We are going to make them see what they have been missing out on by ignoring our stories.

For so many years, we have had a tiny little corner with three different storylines that usually paint us in a negative light. In this movie, we are showing the grandeur of our culture. I felt like I had a big responsibility, but at the same time, I felt like it was a big blessing. We all felt like we were making cinematic history – it felt like that every day on set, and it was magic.

It is also a beautiful thing that broadens the audience. I think it is so essential for little Latinas and Latinos to have this as a reference. To see themselves in this movie and to say, “I have this movie – In the Heights is my movie.” When I grew up, I didn’t have a movie, and it is a beautiful thing that the new generation will have one.

What do you think about the release of this movie in relation to what has been going on in the world?

I feel like the timing is excellent. It was supposed to come out last summer, and that would have been fantastic, too, because we were three or four months into the pandemic, and people needed something uplifting in their lives. People needed some hope, and I think that is why Lin Manuel Miranda wanted it to come out then.

At the studio level, someone decided that it should be postponed a year. After the year we have been through, it means so much more now. It is a huge celebration of being close together in a community, being able to hug each other and sing together – it is all the things we have been missing out on. As the world opens, it is an excellent reminder that we are better together.

Do you think the movie will appeal to mass audiences?

I think it will. It is a joyous movie, and those are the kinds of movies people will gravitate toward because there is already so much suffering around us. We don’t need to go to the movies to suffer anymore. We want an escape – to celebrate and dance. Historically we have seen that after periods of great drama, there is always a wave of musicals because those are the productions people want to see. I think that there is a wave coming, and I am so happy that In the Heights is at the forefront of that wave. There are many musicals being made or pending right now, and I can’t wait until they are all released.

Did you enjoy the musical before you became involved? 

Oh yes, I was a huge fan. Maybe the biggest fan. I saw the original on Broadway maybe 15 times. I saw the original cast and all the cast iterations, and I auditioned for it a lot. Every time they held an open audition, I would go, audition, and never get a callback. 

When I saw it the first time, I knew that I belonged on that stage. I was studying musical theater at the time, and it was my dream to be in it. That is what it did for me at the time, and I hope it continues to inspire younger generations who are wondering if they have a place on stage. I want them to watch the movie and know they belong.

How did you become involved in the production?

When I heard they were having auditions, I sent in a tape. I was in Mexico City wrapping up things with my house there because I was just cast on Vida, and I was moving to Los Angeles. That was in 2017, and I didn’t get the role until January of 2019. I waited for a year and a half and busied myself by taking voice lessons and learning lines. I believe in manifesting things, and this is the ultimate proof that it works.

Were you starstruck when you met Lin Manuel Miranda?

Yes, I was so nervous that I couldn’t breathe. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to sing in front of him. But he immediately made me feel comfortable. I felt his love and his gratefulness to all of us for being there. He worked for so many years to make In the Heights a reality, and I could tell he was just so happy that it was happening. This was his dream, too.

Tell me about “Fiesta in the Heights” – not only is it an incredible dance scene, but it is also one of the pivotal parts of the movie. 

It was my Mt. Everest, and it was the hardest thing I have ever done. There wasn’t a dance part of the audition, so they didn’t even know if I could dance. There is always a need for stunt doubles and dance doubles on movies, but I didn’t want to use one. I wanted to do it all myself.

I am very competitive and a perfectionist – I just knew that I had to do it. I spent eight weeks learning the choreography with Eddie Torres Jr., the salsa choreographer and I got to dance with a lot of salsa partners, who were also all my teachers. I had a lot of insecurity because I wanted to make everyone proud, and I didn’t want them to have to make it easier for me. I knew that I was surrounded by the best salsa dancers in New York, and I had to rise to the challenge. There was a lot of crying, but it made me realize that we are all capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. It took two days to shoot that scene, and when we finished, I knew that I could do anything. It is about pushing and believing in yourself, and I am so proud of myself.

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