Interview: Barrett Wilbert Weed on Lysistrata Jones, Mean Girls, and Playing Bold Characters on Broadway
Actress Barrett Wilbert Weed, who plays the role of Janis Ian (best friend to Damian Leigh and the rebel leader at North Shore High), has made a career of playing strong female roles. Her resume includes work as an understudy in the Broadway musical Lysistrata Jones and credit as one of the original leading cast members of the off-Broadway production of Heathers: The Musical, based on the 1988 cult film classic Heathers. Now back on Broadway in Mean Girls, Barrett has taken on another strong female lead—one who celebrates individuality and female empowerment. Read on to learn more about Barrett’s career, artistic process, and the importance of a production like Mean Girls today.
How do you define collaboration?
I define it as expecting and purposefully attempting not to have more than 50% of the answers to all the questions that build a show. When I actively seek out answers from the other experts in the room and they seek different answers from me, that is collaboration. It’s an ongoing conversation about what a piece needs to succeed. Specifically with Grey [Henson], I think our chemistry is an enormous part of our collaboration. We have a symbiotic performance, one part doesn’t work without the other, and I feel like we’ve only just now gotten to an onstage place where I’m not constantly checking for signal confirmation from Grey. For a while I was constantly checking in – like, “Did you receive that signal, did you get what I just did, does that make sense, am I hearing you?” And now it’s a little more psychic. It’s a lot more flow and trust and much fewer check ins. We know each other much better now.
How did you get your start in the arts and what inspired you to pursue theatre as a career?
Truthfully, I wound up in a children’s performance program when I was about 5 because a lot of my friends were doing it. I just kept performing because I loved it and my mother kept finding more opportunities for me to perform. She never told me it wasn’t possible to pursue it professionally, she just supported me blindly. So here we are.
In college, what prepared you the most for a career in professional theatre?
I was rejected from every school I applied to except for Elon, which is where I went. The lesson was you only need one person to say yes. You don’t need everyone to say yes to build a career. You just need a few people to say yes over a lifetime.
How did you find an agent/management team, and what is your relationship with them like?
My manager, Jeremy Katz, was introduced to me by my agent at CESD. But my first agent was just someone who visited Elon for a weekend and freelanced with me until I got Lysistrata. Finding the right reps is like dating. You just keep hanging out with different people until something kind of clicks and there is an understanding and a shared perspective on what life is about. And in terms of representation the “life” is art. What art is about, what you both agree that you can do for each other in terms of career and money, etc. I can say anything to Jeremy and his team and it is inherently understood. There is no explanation necessary. That’s a very rare thing to find in a rep.
What kinds of resources have you used as an actor to find jobs and build a career?
I’ve never stopped being in class. I think that’s the resource I always return to. I’ll never know everything but it’s a worthwhile pursuit to attempt to know everything knowing you’ll fail.
Did you ever have any doubts or thoughts of giving up during you career?
I remember right before I got Lysistrata I was walking back to my apartment and the thought crossed my mind that maybe I wouldn’t ever get to be on Broadway or work in film or television. Maybe it will all just not work out. And I remember before I could even finish the thought some other voice cut the first voice off and just said, “You’re not allowed to think that.” And I never thought about it again. I don’t know why.
If you had any choice in the world, who would be your collaboration dream team (living or dead)? What kind of project would you work on?
I want to do more projects where I don’t sing. First and foremost, I am an actor. I know I have a strong voice but, it’s just a tool in the box. And I want to work with more female directors. I’m dying to be mature enough to play Loretta in a remake or staged production of Moonstruck. I love that character. John Patrick Shanley was my first favorite playwright. As dorky as it sounds, I would love to play a superhero or an out and out villain. I’m struggling to come up with anyone specific to work with because the list is miles long and no one is in first place.
What was it like making your Broadway debut as an understudy for multiple roles in Lysistrata Jones? Was it intimidating to balance all those responsibilities right out of college?
It was extremely intimidating. I was non-union prior to Lysistrata Jones and no one had really taught me how to cover. I know now that no one teaches you—you just have to figure it out on your own. I have infinite respect for swings and standbys and understudies . . . I honestly don’t know how they do what they do. It was an enormous responsibility for me to cover so many roles. I never had to go on because the show didn’t run for very long and I still wonder how it would’ve gone if I’d had to. Probably not well. Technically, Mean Girls is my onstage Broadway debut.
Can you describe the creative process for developing a new musical?
I honestly don’t know if I can but I’m going to try. It’s mostly like you are the paint and you know what color you are or what color you want to be and you have to wait for the canvas to be ready and wait for the paint brush to be ready and wait for the painter to get there. And then when you finally get painted you might get thrown away, or painted over, or mixed with another paint. And the whole time you’re trying to make a picture of something and blend with the other colors without completely losing your essence. It’s a fight. And then you go into previews and the entire canvas gets thrown out the window and you start again. You have to know when to be stubborn and when to let something go. And there are always regrets. But eventually you end up in a fully formed painting.
What is like developing a character for a new musical when previous versions of the production exist (ex. Heathers the movie and Mean Girls the movie)?
I get asked this question a lot and I really don’t know. I can’t see that there’s too much of a difference in process. The same voice that told me I’m not allowed to doubt myself also tells me that the choices I want to make are the best choices to make. I don’t feel the need to repeat another actor’s work. And then the scared voice starts to ask more questions and gets shushed. When you’re an actor, a lot of people live in you. Usually, the right one comes out at the right time.
How has Mean Girls the musical evolved throughout the development process? How have your characters changed?
As lame and un-actory as it sounds, when I get my wig and my costume, I figure out the character. I think I’m more visually stimulated than other people. When I’m wearing hair and clothes that aren’t mine, that have been chosen for me, and I lose control in that area, it forces me to get inside of a person who is not me. Janis is visually stunning. All of her clothes are epic. And her hair is the hair of a completely confident person. You can’t be insecure and rock a half shave. You just can’t. So, I think when we settled on Janis’ look for DC, I understood her. And I understood what she projects as opposed to who she is. In terms of the show’s evolution, I once wore a giant puppet on my head at the start of the show that used to point at people and yell “SHAME”. I also learned guitar and played guitar at the opening during previews. So . . . literally everything has changed except for a handful of songs and the Transformers. The Transformers have always been awesome.
You and the rest of the cast of Mean Girls seem very close. Does that warm environment typically develop naturally, or did you work to create it? Have you experienced less welcoming work environments in the past? If so, how have you dealt with them?
I think our bosses set the tone for this show. We’ve all been working together closely for about a year and a half. We know each other well. And we are a family. It’s not always perfect. But, we do love each other and we all have the same common ground of surviving our out of town tryout and two sets of previews together. That bonds you. I think it’s always work to create a safe and supportive working environment. Nothing worth having is easy 100% of the time. And I’ve had to have so many adult conversations. I have dealt with incredibly difficult working environments where the people in charge aren’t thinking long term. They aren’t thinking about a run or even remembering that actors are humans. They’re just thinking about how they look or money. I usually choose to leave those environments. Especially now, it’s just not worth it to me to suffer or be taken advantage of like that. In terms of Grey and I specifically, I really do adore him. Our roles in this show are sort of a weird arranged platonic friend marriage. I feel very fortunate that I don’t have to fake how much I love him onstage. And as we’ve gone on in the run I keep realizing how much we have in common. We like all the same silly trinkets and Grey knows how to make me laugh until I hurt. He had a necklace made for me for my birthday that says Garbage Person on it. It’s among my most cherished possessions. It’s an old reference to a cut line where Damian used to ask Janis if she felt like a garbage person in French class . . . in French. He’s also a really fun person to scare or be scared by. He has the best movie library I’ve ever seen and we do the same stupid things in our personal lives and then make fun of ourselves for doing it. To say I think we were well cast is putting it mildly. And I’m writing this while he’s on vacation so I’m missing him like crazy right now. Come back to me you goofy b**ch :).
How did you two in particular develop such great on-stage chemistry?
We have literally been forced to love each other. We knew each other before the show and we have always enjoyed each other’s company, but we’ve literally been glued to each other professionally for almost two years. I think I honestly just have so much more in common with Grey than we knew before we started this show. There’s something about Grey that is instantly adorable and funny. I just know that I love him and he loves me (most of the time) and we are lucky. We rarely want to murder each other.
How do you get ready for each show and how do you keep your stamina up for eight shows a week?
Eat, warm up, get dressed. Your body adjusts to the difficulty of the schedule. It’s like being an athlete. That being said, when I get sick I go down HARD. I don’t believe in pushing through illness. That’s how you develop injuries or hurt your voice, so when I’m out, I’m out. And I try not to shame myself for it. I don’t believe in all that fragile masculinity suffer through it bullshit. No, go home and get better and come back to kill it.
What has been the most unexpected thing you've learned as an artist from the experience of bringing Mean Girls to Broadway?
We are a female-led, female-driven show with no celebrities and no Tony Awards and we sell out every night. People want to see a coming of age story about girls set to music. When you write it out like that, and compare it to the lies I’ve been told my whole life about women’s stories not being popular, it’s pretty unexpected. So, I’ve learned that story trends are total bullsh*t :) Humans like good stories. Period. Doesn’t matter what kind.
What's the most significant thing you've learned from working with the amazing Mean Girls creative team (Tina Fey, Casey Nicholaw, Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin)?
I always want to be the dumbest person in the room. Our creatives are geniuses and it was a relief to work with them every day and just be a dumb little sponge. I am so much smarter and more confident than I was prior to this show. I always want to be the dummy with a lot to offer going forward.
What was it like attending and performing at the Tony Awards with the Mean Girls cast?
Unreal. It’s like being shot out of a cannon. You basically get ready for the show, get on the bus, go to Radio City, get off the bus, go in the building, perform on live television and immediately get back on the bus and go back to the theater. And it’s really easy to wonder if you just dreamed it. But then it’s on YouTube . . . so it’s real.
Which artists (living or dead, and in any discipline) inspire you?
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Together and separately. Viola Davis. Sondheim. Jerome Robbins. My mother. Lila Neugebauer. Gillian Robespierre. Reese Witherspoon. Alex Timbers. Michael Arden. Timotheé Chalamet performing in Prodigal Son as a teenager in a basement – easily one of my favorite performances ever D*MN, d*mn . . . the list is endless.
What's the most difficult thing about being an artist? What's the most rewarding?
All the sh*t that gets in the way of making art. Egos, your body hurting, mental instability, money, not being loved, being loved, praise, no praise, reality. Life in general. It gets in the way but you need it to act. If I’m not living out in the world navigating things, I am a crappy actor. The flow you feel when you can just let everything go and focus on your scene partner. That’s the feeling we are all just chasing. Saying your first line and waking up at the end of the show or the take covered in sweat or sometimes blood (I’m really clumsy) and just having zero recollection as to how you got there. That’s flow. That’s gold.
What's a piece of inspirational advice that you would give to other artists starting out in the business? What's a piece of practical advice that you would give?
Put the business of making art first. Make it your business to put good work out into the world. Whether or not anyone sees it is beside the point. Inversely, know when you’re being pushed around or devalued and always be willing to walk away. Being a generous artist does not mean letting yourself be used, but plenty of people will try to get you to buy into being used in the name of making art. Especially women, don’t let people do that to you. And don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for wanting to be successful. You can be generous and still get paid a lot for your work. But put the work first. And hire reps who will do the fighting for you so you can focus on what you’re here to do; make things.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.