Interview – Melissa Berrera talks about new musical IN THE HEIGHTS

Melissa Barrera was one of the lucky few to experience the musical ‘In The Heights’ on its opening week in Broadway while on a school trip to New York. She went all the way from an audience member to the dizzying heights of now starring as lead actress in the big screen version that is winning rave reviews from critics across the globe. The film, based on the stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda hits Irish cinemas this week…. Check out a behind the scenes chat with Melissa Barrera below…

Tell us about your experience with “In The Heights” prior to the film.
MELISSA BARRERA: Ooh, I have a long story with “In The Heights.” I saw it for the first time, I think, opening week on Broadway. I was on a school trip to New York, a Model United Nations trip, and we escaped the hotel one night, me and a couple of friends, and we were like, “Let’s go watch a Broadway show.” “In The Heights” had lottery tickets, and we won the lottery and we saw it on the first row. I was deeply moved and impacted by seeing Latinos on a stage and seeing the Mexican flag. I remember just crying… and I couldn’t explain what the tears were. Now, thinking back on it, it was an overwhelming sense of pride, because I had never seen anything like it.

I was thinking of applying to colleges to study musical theater, but there was always this thought of “Does anyone even do this? Are there any Mexicans on Broadway? Could I even play any parts?” And seeing “In The Heights” showed me that I was making the right decision, because there was a place for me. I became obsessed with “In The Heights.” Once I was in college at New York University, I would go every time that they had an open call, I would go and audition. I would wake up at like 5:00 AM, do my vocal warmup, go in, wait in line with 300, 400 other girls that were doing the same thing as I was, and then wait to get a call back. And I never got a call back. Not for Broadway replacements, not for tours, not for anything. There was even talk of a movie back then and I was like, “Oh my God, I want to be in the movie.” But I was a student without representation, nothing. There was no way.

Then I left and I went to Mexico and kind of forgot about it. I was focused in Mexico doing telenovelas and then, I started doing theater and I was happy for a while. But I started to get that itch of wanting to go back to the U.S., to start working there on projects in English. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2017, I heard that they were having auditions for the movie. It was perfect timing, because if I hadn’t moved to LA, I never would have found out.

I got a self-tape request and I sent in a video and… didn’t hear anything, like for eight months. Then the project found its home at Warner Bros., and I was tracking it. Finally in October of 2018, I went in again to audition and things started moving fast. I had a few callbacks with Jon [M. Chu] and they flew me to New York. It was a crazy experience. I still can’t believe that I get to be a part of the movie. I think until it premieres in theaters and it’s out in the world, I won’t be able to digest it, because I just feel like it’s crazy that I would pray to be Vanessa when I was 17, and now I’m 30 and I did it. It’s great.

Tell us about your character Vanessa. How does she fit into la familia of this community?
MELISSA BARRERA: Vanessa is the one who wants to get away. If you’re talking about a family, she’s the cousin that’s kind of removed at family gatherings and is always dreaming of going somewhere else. She feels stuck in the neighborhood and she feels like she’s never going to be able to make her dreams come true if she stays there, so she wants to get out. I think that’s a feeling that a lot of people can identify with, because so many of us, especially in the industry, we fly to New York or to Los Angeles for opportunities. If we stay in our hometown, we know that we’re not going to be able to have the same opportunities as when we’re in the meccas of theater and film and TV.

So I understand the journey that she goes through of feeling stuck, feeling like no one really sees her… there’s a yearning to demonstrate that there’s more to her than her physical appearance or her temporary job at the salon. She wants the world to see her talent. I felt like I connected with her immediately when I saw it on Broadway, and I think there are a lot of people who are going to be able to connect with her still.

But the beautiful thing about her journey is that it has an unexpected ending. The typical story is small-town girl goes to the big city, gets success and lives happily ever after there. This story is small-town girl dreams of going to the big city, tries it and then… (shrugs). Even if you do go somewhere else, the place that you grew up in makes you who you are, so you can’t run away from that. I love Vanessa’s journey of discovery. I love the signal it sends.

Can you tell us a little about the experience of working with Lin-Manuel Miranda?
MELISSA BARRERA: Oh my gosh. I’ve been a fan of his, obviously, for many, many years, ever since I saw “In The Heights.” You hear so many things about him—the way that his star has risen is incredible. He’s a genius. And at the moment, he’s probably one of the most famous people on earth, with “Hamilton” and the success that that gave him. But he’s so humble and normal, generous and chill. The day that I met him was at the final chemistry read for the film. I walk into the room and I see him and I automatically… It was like this presence, and I was a little starstruck. And he turns to me and he’s like, “Oh, hi. You’re the hugger. Give me a hug.” I had a reputation in the audition process of hugging everybody, because I’m Mexican and I just like hugging. Every time that I would go into the audition rooms, I would hug every single person in the room. So I guess they told him and he turns to me and he’s like, “Oh, hello. You’re the hugger. Give me a hug.” And so I hugged him.

And automatically, my nerves went from 150% to like 80%, which was still a lot. But dropped by about half, you know? He had this peace to him that was beautiful, to have that in an audition room… You’re already so nervous and the stakes are so high, and everyone is serious behind this table. Sometimes it feels like they’re expecting you to mess up. It’s horrible. But there was so much love in the room, and so much of it coming from him, that it was a beautiful experience. I remember after that, and it had been a crazy long day, I walked like 40 blocks to the Airbnb where I was staying—in the cold because it was December in New York. I felt like I was floating. And I was like, “Oh my God, this has been the best of my life. Even if I don’t get it, this has been an incredible day.” Like it was just a dream.

Jon M. Chu is such an amazing visual storyteller. What was it like to work with him?
MELISSA BARRERA: Jon M. Chu is a master. He is. I would work with Jon for the rest of my life exclusively if I could. He’s just the best, the best leader, he’s so respectful of the story and so generous in the way that he works; he’s so collaborative and he makes everyone feel important and heard. It was a big production and directors have to be the orchestra director, basically, of everything. And sometimes I’ve seen directors be like, “Don’t bother me with that because I need to deal with this.” And Jon, whoever approached him, he would stop and talk to.

He cared so much about the story and about making the best working environment that he hired the best people to be in this movie. You could feel that every day on-set. Everyone was happy to be at work. We were doing long hours, it was hard, it was hot, then it was rainy. It wasn’t an easy shoot and it was very ambitious for the scale of the numbers that we needed to accomplish in the amount of days that we had. But his energy was always positive. He’s a team player. For “96,000” the pool was freezing, freezing, and the dancers were in there. So he was like, “I can’t have the dancers just freezing in there.” So he got in the pool with the dancers—he’s that kind of person. It was incredible.

I think at the end, no one wanted it to be over. We were like, “Let’s just keep shooting for two more months.” That’s the kind of environment that he creates. That’s only speaking of him as a human being, not even as the brilliant director that he is and how he dreams up things and then makes them reality. There’s no one better to direct this movie. No one. I mean, I remember when I heard that he was directing, I was like, “Why didn’t they hire a Latino to tell a Latino story? Why?” That was my first reaction. And then I met him and I saw his vision and I understood that even though he’s not Latino, he’s a person of color and he understands the experience of being a person of color in the United States. He has so much respect for the story and for doing everything as honestly as possible. He listened to everyone and took all the suggestions, the whole time learning but letting everyone create. It was just a beautiful thing to witness.

IN THE HEIGHTS is now showing in Irish cinemas nationwide