Melissa Barrera is not afraid

On paper, the gig is straightforward, albeit unconscionable: kidnap the daughter of a wealthy businessman and hold her until daddy coughs up the ransom. A crack team assembles, satisfying all the necessary roles for a heist. But after the girl is taken, it slowly becomes clear that the job description wasn’t entirely transparent about the true threat. Daddy’s little girl, it turns out, is a vampire.

“Abigail, the latest campy, gory romp from Radio Silence Productions (“Ready or Not”), sees Melissa Barrera take center stage as Joey, a former military medic with a knack for reading people and someone who has serious qualms with the mission; she didn’t know the target was a kid. Seeing Barrera in such a prominent role and solidifying her status as a scream queen was emotional. It was mere months ago that she was unceremoniously dropped as a lead in the “Scream” franchise and accused of being antisemitic for her public support of Palestinians.

I had the opportunity to talk with Barrera over the phone about “Abigail,” about being a Latina in the film industry and about her experience with Spyglass Media, the company behind the “Scream” franchise that fired the Mexican-born actress for Instagram stories voicing support for Gaza, where more than 30,000 have been killed following the events of Oct. 7, which saw more than 1,000 Israelis kidnapped or killed. I’d written about Barrera’s firing shortly after it happened, and was eager to get her perspective. Lucky for me, Barrera wears her heart on her sleeve.

In “Abigail,” Joey is the strong, silent type with a maternal soft spot for her young captive. She’s capable, level-headed, and constantly coming up with solutions. She gets things done. I was surprised to hear, then, that Barrera sees Joey as “probably one of the characters that is least like me that I’ve played.”

“I have to find the thing that we have in common, that’s my departure,” she said of immersing herself in her roles. “But Joey is very reserved, a fly on the wall. She’s an observer. She doesn’t want to be the center of attention. She’s there to do a job and say, ‘bye.’ She has no interest in becoming friends with anyone, or in being the leader. She’s just not that person.

“But I am.”

Put that way, it’s easy to see where Barrera is coming from. She’s not shy about being the center of attention, or about being the leader. For many, including myself, Barrera was best known as the person who, along with her castmate, Jenna Ortega, breathed new life into the “Scream” franchise in the sixth installation of the series. But for others, she came to national prominence following her dismissal from that very role last November after making pro-Palestinian comments on social media.

“Gaza is currently being treated like a concentration camp,” read one of her Instagram stories in the wake of the events of Oct. 7. “Cornering everyone together, with no where to go, no electricity no water … People have learnt [sic] nothing from our histories. And just like our histories, people are still silently watching it all happen. THIS IS GENOCIDE & ETHNIC CLEANSING.”

Spyglass Media was unambiguous about why they’d dropped Barrera.

“Spyglass’ stance is unequivocally clear: We have zero tolerance for antisemitism or the incitement of hate in any form, including false references to genocide, ethnic cleansing, Holocaust distortion or anything that flagrantly crosses the line into hate speech,” a spokesperson told Variety last fall.

Spyglass Media declined to comment on this story. In March, following the firing of Barrera and departure of co-star Ortega from the project, Neve Campbell announced that she would be returning to the franchise in “Scream 7.”

“It wasn’t easy to be labeled as something so horrible when I knew that wasn’t the case,” Barrera said of being accused of antisemitism. “But I was always at peace, because I knew I had done nothing wrong. I was aligned with human rights organizations globally, and so many experts and scholars and historians and, most importantly, Indigenous peoples around the world. I find that the Indigenous communities around the world are always on the right side of history, point blank, period.”

As bombs have continued to fall on Gaza in the months following the Oct. 7 attack and the death toll continues to climb, public opinion has swayed, and many in the U.S. have become more sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. In the immediate aftermath, however, public statements from celebs were rare, especially ones as impassioned as Barrera’s.

“I did have opportunities taken away from me,” she said. “But I always trusted God, trusted that everything was going to work out for me. I have angels that are looking out for me, and I knew I was going to be OK.”

Barrera wasn’t without supporters. She gained more than 400,000 followers on Instagram following her firing, and her creative partners have continued to work with her, partners like Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett of Radio Silence Productions.

“I got a lot of support from people in the industry, my family, friends, so many people reached out to me,” she said. “A part of me was terrified, but I don’t regret a thing. I don’t regret anything. And you know, we’re six months in, and people are still dying. It’s so obvious what’s going on, and people are coming around and speaking out and I’m just happy about that. It gives me hope for the world.”

It was nonetheless a big risk to speak out. Barrera’s firing took place in the context of a Hollywood where roles for Latinas are already vanishingly rare. Latino representation in Hollywood has reportedly not shown any growth in the past 16 years, despite the Latino population having grown in the U.S., where we account for around 19% of the country’s makeup. When Latinos are cast, it’s often as violent criminals.

“I gravitate to roles that aren’t written for us,” Barrera said, “because that’s how we create more space for us in the industry, when we fight for more, when we go for roles that aren’t obviously Latino or Latina, and that don’t need an explanation.”

“Abigail’s” Joey is one such role, and it was a breath of fresh air to see a Latina leading a film with such an impressive ensemble cast. In a landscape where Latinas are often pigeonholed into the “spicy” or “fiery” love interest, seeing Barrera’s depiction of a cold, calculated professional felt like a reprieve.

“We have the shows and the movies about speaking Spanglish and you get the abuela and you see the traditional food she made and you get the Vicks VapoRub jokes and all that,” Barrera said of the typical roles offered to Latinas, “and that kind of representation can be important for sure. But it feels like Latinos and Latinas always have to do something stereotypical to explain who we are, to make the majority comfortable with our presence, and I’ve never liked that. I enjoy just being a human being, allowed to exist without having to explain myself.

“My characters are going to be Latinas because I am,” she added.

I asked Barrera if, while being put under intense scrutiny, she thought about the precarious position Latinas occupy in Hollywood, an industry where their presence is conditional, and where they are often seen as disposable.

“I’ve never thought of myself as expendable,” she said. “I know what I can bring to a project. I know I’ve worked really hard, and that I’ve worked with people I treasure, and who treasure me. So I’m not scared. I don’t think of human beings as disposable. I think every human being has value. I think that’s why I’m so passionate about Palestine, their human rights and their self-determination.”

The entertainment industry is fraught with dangers for marginalized people. But for Barrera, being afraid isn’t an option, and she dismisses the idea of having to hedge on her beliefs or play along with the system. She knew when she signed up for it that speaking out and using her platform is simply part of the job description.

“That’s what art is meant to be,” she said. “We’re supposed to, yes, give people joy through art, but also talk about the world. We’re supposed to make art that is a reflection of the world, and what we want that world to be, what we know the world can be.”

Despite their differences, it seems Barrera has this in common with Joey: She has a job to do, and she intends to do it, no matter what perils she might encounter on the way.

JP Brammer is a columnist, author, illustrator and content creator based in Brooklyn. He is the author of ”Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons,” based on his successful advice column. He has written for outlets that include the Guardian, NBC News and the Washington Post. He writes regularly for De Los.

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