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Melissa Barrera used to attend every open call for Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Tony-winning musical In The Heights. Studying at NYU, she’d regularly wake up at 5 am, get in the casting line along 43rd street and sing eight bars in hopes of getting a callback—but somehow the casting team overlooked the budding actress. Now, almost ten years later, she has the last laugh: her dream becomes a reality as she stars in the all-singing, all-dancing film adaption. The whole thing is a surreal, full-circle moment for the actress, who’s been a fan of the musical since she saw it during a high school field trip. “Seeing In the Heights on Broadway gave me that final push that I needed,” Barrera said in a light-hearted Zoom call this March from her home in L.A. “It [led me] to think, ‘I can do this, there’s a place for me in this industry.’”

When Barrera discovered musical theater, she was 15, living in Monterrey, Mexico. Despite being an athletic, motorcycle-riding teenager, she was shy when it came to acting and was initially afraid to audition because the casting agents were her teachers. Fast forward almost a decade and Barrera has racked up numerous acting credits, starring in countless telenovelas and most recently, Vida, a cult-favorite dramedy about Latinx life. Premiering June 11 in theaters and on HBO Max, In the Heights is about “dreams and how every person’s dream is valid and important,” says Barrera, who plays Vanessa—a hairstylist who aspires to be a downtown fashion designer. “And that’s not even about being Latinx or not, that’s as a human.”

The film musical tells the story of a block that’s disappearing as gentrification begins to take hold of a predominantly Latinx neighborhood of New York City’s Washington Heights. Directed by Jon M. Chu, who also directed the 2018 blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, the film relied heavily on a collaborative, community approach. “I feel like, because [Jon’s] not Latino there were no confines in his imagination for this story at all,” says Barrera. It’s hard to pick a standout day of filming (“every day felt like we were making cinematic history,” according to Barrera), but a particularly memorable one involved nailing a technically challenging dance sequence where Vanessa woos the whole club with her salsa skills. After a brief bathroom tear session, Barrera pulled herself out of her mental block and let her body take over. And just like that, they had the shot they needed.

“We’ve all dealt with loss in this past year, and I think it’s important to go back to the theaters,” Barrera said. And after a period characterized by grief and trauma, we could all use a hefty dose of serotonin—and that’s just what this film provides. Expect explosive salsa numbers, infectious songs, and young gushy love.

In The Heights is now in theaters and available for streaming on HBO Max


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