It'll be nearly another year until In the Heights hits theaters since its summer 2020 premiere got delayed, but its star Melissa Barrera is still basking in the glow of playing Vanessa in the film.
"It was the first day of production and it was my song that we started with," the Mexico-born actress, 30, recalls to PEOPLE of making the film in 2019. "I was so nervous because you're always nervous on your first day, but I was even more nervous because it was a big dance number."
And then producer Lin-Manuel Miranda came to the rescue.
"I was just getting touched up and then all of a sudden Lin walks up and he has his phone and he's like, 'Hey, Mel, I have a surprise for you,' " Barrera recalls. "And I was like, 'What?' He's like, 'Someone wants to talk to you.' And it's [original In the Heights actress] Karen Olivo on FaceTime. And I just dropped to the ground. My legs just gave out and I was like, 'Oh my God.' She wished me luck. She was so sweet. And it really gave me the confidence I needed to start that day."
Barrera almost didn't play Vanessa, though. "I auditioned for Vanessa, which is the role that I play, but they switched me over to Nina. So all of my In the Heights auditioning process, I was auditioning for another role," she says. "And then it wasn't until the very end that they switched me back to Vanessa. It was perfect because I always saw myself as Vanessa, even when I was 17 watching it on Broadway. So it's probably the most full-circle thing that's ever happened in my life."
The star looks forward to sharing the movie with audiences next summer because "an all Latinx cast in a movie that's all lifting each other up and being proud of where you come from, I think it's exactly what the world needs right now," Barrera says.
Until then, Barrera continues to film Scream 5, in which she plays an undisclosed role, and looks forward to portraying the titular character in the upcoming Carmen musical movie.
Barrera ultimately credits landing a lead role in Starz's Vida weeks after arriving in L.A. in 2017 as the base of her success in America.
"I knew that in the U.S., everything that I'd done in Mexico counted for zero," she says of acting for six years in her home country. "So I got a manager finally and Vida was the third audition that I went on. It was the second week that I was in L.A. and then two weeks later, I got the role. I'm very grateful for it because I know that the casting director and the producer all fought for me to get that role."
Barrera explains that her status at the time as "a Mexican without working papers" jeopardized her ability to work in the U.S. "I was on a tourist visa at the time," she continues. "They decided to help me get my work visa and stalled production to wait for my papers to come through. It really changed my life. It's thanks to Vida that I'm here right now."
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