Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover

'Scream VI' Star Melissa Barrera on Marriage, Hardships and Knowing Your Worth

As Scream VI breaks box office records, Melissa Barrera shares her hard-fought journey to success: "I am a firm believer in manifesting things into existence"

There's an intoxicating intrigue to Melissa Barrera's gaze. It's served her well in the Scream franchise as Sam Carpenter, the daughter of original Ghostface serial killer Billy Loomis, who discovers her own penchant for blood. Under the bright lights of a photo shoot in downtown New York City for PEOPLE's first digital cover story, the Mexican actress, 32, stares deep into the lens with that same allure. "Everyone has demons," she says as she wraps the shoot.

But at the moment, the only demons Barrera seems to be battling are her own expectations for herself. The star's new film Scream VI, which came out March 10, has already smashed box office records, scaring up a franchise-best $44.5 million in its opening weekend — Barrera's second No. 1 debut after 2022's Scream. She also has an unconventional musical drama, Carmen, with Oscar nominee Paul Mescal, coming in April. And yet Barrera isn't spending much time relishing her success.

"Living in the moment is something that I struggle with," she tells PEOPLE matter-of-factly. "My mom is always there to remind me to pat myself on the back, hug myself and speak to myself in the mirror to congratulate myself on how far I've come. I'm trying to change my mentality."

Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover
Barrera's stylist helped the actress play homage to Courteney Cox's memorable bangs from 2000's Scream 3. Josefina Santos

It's been an emotional, often unpredictable journey for the actress and singer, who got her start in what she calls the "actors' boot camp" of telenovelas in Mexico before making a name for herself in Hollywood, first in the 2021 musical In the Heights, then as the first Latina lead of the hit Scream films.

Barrera says she was "painfully shy" as a child in her hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, where she went to school at the American School Foundation of Monterrey.

"I grew up going to see my classmates in theater perform, always wanting to be a part of that because it felt so cool," she recalls. "I would be a little fan in the hallways, watching middle schoolers and high schoolers that were in the show." Over time she built up the courage to participate in her school's theater department. "I just fell in love with the whole process of auditioning and bonding with theater people," she says. "They became my friends."

She landed her first paid acting job in a regional adaptation of the French musical Romeo et Juliette. "I was 17 during the run, and I was like, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,' " she says.

When it came time for college, Barrera got accepted into the musical theater program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "I went to NYU thinking, 'I'm going to graduate, and then I'm going to book something on Broadway and live in New York for the rest of my life.' That was my life plan."

Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover
Josefina Santos

But things didn't go as she had hoped. As a Mexican living in the U.S., Barrera was soon faced with the "harsh reality of how hard it is" after her student visa expired shortly after graduation. "I was like, 'How am I ever going to get a job? They're never going to cast me in anything because I can't work,' " she recalls.

And so Barrera, always one to look ahead, decided to play the long game: go to Mexico to rack up credits, then move back to the U.S. on an artist visa, reserved for people with "extraordinary ability" in the arts. "You need to have things under your belt," she explains.

Luckily for Barrera the work was nonstop when she returned home. First came her television debut in the Mexican reality musical talent show La Academia, followed by starring roles in telenovelas Siempre Tuya Acapulco and Tanto Amor.

Her homecoming also resulted in her meeting the love of her life: singer Xavier Zazueta, 35, whom she wed in 2019. "Life has better plans for you than you have for yourself," she says, smiling. The pair met as singing contestants on La Academia, and Barrera felt an immediate attraction.

"It was 'like' at first sight. You know when you look at someone and you're like, 'You're hot, I like you,' " she remembers. "And then we got to know each other really quick, and I immediately thought, 'This is a really good guy.' "

"In my mind, we were friends for a month before we started dating, but actually, looking at the timeline, I think we started dating two weeks into the show. It just feels so much longer because you're spending 24/7 with these people, so you get to know them on such a deep level so quickly," she adds. "That's why I love shows like Love Is Blind, because I know what it's like to fall in love quickly with someone — I know that it's possible."

melissa barrera

"I needed to go to a place where I could start from scratch and nobody would judge me."

— melissa barrera

Barrera also got her first taste of being in a relationship in the public eye, something she admits felt "kind of cool."

"People were rooting for us to be together, and I think it definitely helped us stay together in the beginning," she says.

Once each of their runs on the show came to an end ("My husband was out after week 12, and I was kicked off the following Sunday, week 13"), they spent time living in Mexico City — Barrera working on soaps, and Zazueta trying to make a name for himself in the music industry as a singer-songwriter performing a mix of Mexican music including Mariachi, Norteño and Sierreño. "It was rough," she admits, "but I think the love that we got from fans really helped us during tough times to stay together."

Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover
Josefina Santos

Barrera valued her time working across several telenovelas and explains she learned a lot from veterans of the business. "Not everyone can do what soap actors do," she says. "Having to go from crying in one scene to laughing to crying again to being angry to falling down stairs to a mud fight — all these kinds of crazy things you have to do in one day . . . it's insane!" Still, she was eager to branch out but says the film industry in Mexico "wouldn't let me in. "They had me in this box of this soap actress that did theater," she says.

"I got a little angry and felt like I needed a change. I needed to go to a place where I could start from scratch and nobody would judge me — I knew L.A. would be that," she says.

With the money she had made on soaps saved up, Barrera had just enough to survive jobless in L.A. for a year and a half. She knew the clock would be ticking, but "I set my mind to it. I was like, 'I'm going to book something really quickly,' " she recalls telling herself. "Everyone was like, 'Yeah, everyone says that, and then they come right back to Mexico.' And I was like, 'Just watch.' " Within her first month of living abroad, Barrera landed the lead role in the Starz drama series Vida in 2017.

Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover
Josefina Santos

Two years later she booked her leading role as striving fashion designer Vanessa in In the Heights. What should have been an unreservedly joyful breakout moment in her Hollywood rise was clouded by a box office bust.

Jon M. Chu's film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning musical opened to ecstatic reviews after a rousing premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. For months the Warner Bros. release was touted as an Oscar contender and a major win for Latino representation onscreen.

And then the film came out, fizzling at the box office under a huge weight of expectation. For Barrera, who saw the musical more than a dozen times on Broadway while she studied at Tisch ("I took my family, my friends, everyone that would come visit me"), starring in the film adaptation "was the most full-circle moment" of her life. "I am a firm believer in manifesting things into existence, and In the Heights was one of those things," she says. "That's the show where I belong — the first time that I ever saw people that looked like me on a Broadway stage."

Melissa Barrera rollout
Melissa Barrera in In the Heights (left) and Scream. Warner Bros; Paramount

So when the film opened to just $11.5 million in theaters the same weekend it arrived on HBO Max, as part of Warner Bros.' controversial day-and-date release strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic, the media coverage (Variety said the film "didn't hit all the right notes in its box office debut") struck a raw nerve with Barrera. "Everyone was hyping it up so much," she recalls. "We were very proud of what we did. We knew we had an incredible movie in our hands."

When the receipts rolled in, Barrera was entering quarantine in Vancouver for 14 days before shooting her Netflix survival series Keep Breathing. The isolation made the disappointing box office even worse.

"It really affected me," she says. "[But] it also taught me a huge lesson — that I have no control over what happens when a movie comes out or when a show comes out. The only thing I have control over is my experience and my feelings while making it and if I'm proud of it. I cannot let the stars not aligning, or whatever is happening with the world, take that away from me."

Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover
Josefina Santos

Barrera was finally able to savor her first surefire Hollywood success with the opening of Scream, the fifth movie in the slasher franchise. It opened at the top of the box office over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend last year, nearly matching the entire domestic gross of the previous film by making $35 million in just four days.

"It's nice when something that you make with so much love gets received with love," she says. "We were nervous. There hadn't been a Scream film in 11 years. What are the fans going to think?"

Melissa barrera

"This job requires so much of us... You need to feel like it's worth it."

— Melissa barrera

Within weeks of the film reviving the decades-old horror-skewering franchise, a sequel was announced, with Barrera slated to return. And just two months later Barrera, her returning directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and her costars whose characters had survived (Jenna Ortega, Jasmin Savoy Brown and Mason Gooding) found themselves in Montreal shooting the sequel. (The French-Canadian city served as a substitute for New York City, where Scream VI is set.)

Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover
Josefina Santos

The series' longtime scream queen Neve Campbell shocked fans when she announced she would not be returning after having appeared as Sidney Prescott in all five previous films. The actress released a statement at the time: "As a woman I have had to work extremely hard in my career to establish my value, especially when it comes to Scream," she wrote. "I felt the offer that was presented to me did not equate to the value I have brought to the franchise."

While Barrera admits that it was "weird" not having Campbell back for the sixth film, she found Campbell's stance "very brave" and "important."

"This job requires so much of us, not only physically [but] mentally and emotionally. You need to feel like it's worth it," she said. "A part of it is: Are you getting compensated fairly for what you think you're putting into the work? If you don't, you're going to be miserable, so you shouldn't do it. I applaud her always."

Barrera was heartened that Campbell sent her support despite exiting the film. "I got a really sweet text from her right before we started shooting," she reveals. "It felt like a blessing. We've become really close friends."

Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover
Josefina Santos

Barrera finds her character Sam's dark inner life the most "interesting" aspect of the role. In Scream VI, Sam tries to uncover the roots of her bloodlust while fighting to keep her friends and formerly estranged sister (Ortega) alive when a new Ghostface killer begins terrorizing them in the Big Apple.

"In the fifth [movie], they were thrown into the ring, and it's chaos," she says of her character's introduction to the series. "I'm very happy that we get to know Sam a little bit more in the sixth movie. I was like, 'She's such an interesting character because she has so many demons that can be—if the writers and directors want—explored and lead to a very interesting challenge for me. In the sixth one, [they] take her in that direction. I feel very happy about that."

Barrera's costar, Yellowjackets' Brown, who plays the horror film buff of the group, agrees, noting the "many sides of Sam we get to see" in Scream VI. "You get to see her be a bit more vulnerable and lower [her guard]. Beautiful to watch."

"In some ways, [Barrera's] journey with us mirrors Sam's journey with the group in the first film, when we were all meeting each other and finding our groove," Brown adds. "This time around, Melissa got us all together for dinner when we arrived and was like, 'Here's the way it's going to go. We're going to make sure it's really welcoming for all the new people — and let's haze them a little bit, and let's have some fun.' And so we did."

Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover
Josefina Santos

That nurturing instinct comes naturally to Barrera, who, like Sam, is a big sister — the oldest of sisters in her family. "I immediately connected to that," she says. "I was like, 'Okay, everything that she's doing is for her sister and to protect her and keep her safe.' "

When Barrera had to quarantine in Vancouver for Keep Breathing, she knew right away who to call. "I took my youngest sister, Mayelah, with me. We hung out and we exercised together. She was there to have someone to talk to. That's why sisters are the best. I was like, 'Would you go for 14 days and lock yourself in a room with me?' She was like, 'Of course.' "

Barrera is also the proud dog mom to two longhaired Chihuahuas, Rambo and Zeus, and likes to bring the pups with her whenever she can. "They're like my children, and I really do feel like they decompress me at the end of the day," she says.

Looking back at her whiplash-inducing introduction to Hollywood, Barrera sees it all as a "big lesson." "Imagine if [In the Heights] had been a success and everything had been incredible and it made a billion dollars at the box office — and then my next movie flopped," she says. "That would have been, I think, harder," she says. "I'm so grateful that my life has been exactly as it has been."

Melissa Barrera People Digital Cover
Josefina Santos

Credits:

Photographer: @josefinasantos
Cinematographer: @altmojica
Hair: @claytonhawkins /A-Frame
Makeup: @lilly_keys /A-Frame
Stylist: @jessmonterde /Walter Schupfer

Clothing Credits:
Red background: Catsuit & shoes: Stella McCartney
White background: Top, skirt and shoes: Marc Jacobs. Yellow Gloves: Ankvas. Black Gloves: Marc Jacobs. Choker: Odissea

Related Articles