Within the first 40 minutes of knowing her, Barrett Wilbert Weed has already said too much. At least twice. "I'm sure a lot of people would be really mad about what I just said, but that's what I think," she told me in her dressing room at the August Wilson Theatre. But that's just who Weed is; she has no time for bullshit.
Even before she landed the role of Janis Sarkisian (née Ian) in Mean Girls on Broadway, Weed had been channeling her inner Janis for years, projecting the kind of on-stage confidence that you only learn by not having any of it in your formative years. But that middle-school angst has fueled her explosive performance as the emo teen outsider in Tina Fey's musical adaptation of her 2004 hit — and cost Weed "thousands of dollars in therapy sessions," she joked.
It's that kind of grit that has amassed her a fervent fan-following after starring as Veronica Sawyer in off-Broadway's Heathers: The Musical. Now, with Mean Girls, Weed has a role — and a show-stopping number — she can really sink her teeth into. MTV News chatted with the performer about the middle-school trauma that led her to Janis, working with Fey, and how she learned to embrace her awkwardness.
MTV News: I remember relating to Janis a lot when I first saw Mean Girls because she was so bold. She didn’t fit in, and she didn't care. Did you share that connection to Janis as well?
Barrett Wilbert Weed: She's the most real character. I don't know a lot of Cadys or a lot of Reginas — I know a couple of Gretchens. But I know probably a hundred Janises and about a million Damians, both the versions from the movie and versions that Grey [Henson] and I have made. They're the most real characters because they're the most vulnerable, and they're the most dramatic and stepped on. I think that's how everybody tends to feel in high school.
MTV News: High school is a really vulnerable time. Do you ever wish you were more like Janis as a teen? Because she has such confidence.
Weed: Yes! She's remarkably intelligent, in a way that not a lot of teenagers have the confidence to be. I think a lot of teenagers are incredible. When I'm not working, when I'm technically unemployed, I teach a lot, and I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with boatloads of teenagers for the past three years.
They are really smart. It's just they, well, I think girls are expected not to be… It’s like that whole study that I keep reading about where if you say mean things to a plant and the plant dies, it can't grow. Humans are like that too. If you talk to humans in a certain way, then they act that way after awhile. Whenever I'm teaching teenagers I always try to treat them like a little bit more gently, but the same that I treat adults.
MTV News: It's about respect, too. Young people don't want to be talked down to.
Weed: Yeah. I went to a high school that was really aggressive in that way. They treated us all like adults. I think it was really nice.
MTV News: What do you teach when you’re not working?
Weed: I teach voice, and I teach pretty much just like whatever people need. So if they want me to work on a monologue with them, or if they want me to do some work with them, I do that. And then I do master classes, like at high schools — which is my most favorite thing to do. Because you just hang out with kids for two days and get to know them and work on stuff. I get to really encourage them to be themselves, which is the most valuable thing you can be as an actor.
MTV News: I love that you work with young people because teens were the audience for this film when it came out. It’s about that coming-of-age experience. School can be really unforgiving…
Weed: It's really trash.
MTV News: I know you had your own terrible experience. What got you through it?
Weed: I got rescued like halfway through that experience. Because middle school was the worst time in my life. That's still a first date question that I ask people when I go on dates. I'm like, "Have you ever been or will you ever be a Republican?" And if the answer is yes or maybe, I’m like, "I can't see you anymore." Also, I always ask, "How was middle school for you?" Because I really feel like if you had an OK time in middle school that you're a jerk. If you were able to just slide by, it meant that you either weren't helping people or that you were the person who was beating up on everybody.
MTV News: Why middle school?
Weed: My father passed away when I was seven. I kind of internalized that as there's something wrong with me, and that's not something you can verbalize as a kid — it's something you figure out when you're an adult, when you're paying someone thousands of dollars in therapy sessions to help you figure out what's going on. And it made me feel really separate from everybody, and it made me feel like there was definitely something wrong with me and it was definitely my fault, and it kind of made me feel like no matter what I did I would always just kind of be wrong.
When you feel that way about yourself you project that. And people who are prone to being bullies or prone to being kind of aggressive towards other kids, they pick up on that feeling. If you're feeling vulnerable, or you already don't feel good about yourself and don't have good self-esteem, they feed on that and you become the person at the bottom of the pecking order. I didn't really have anybody in my life telling me to have more confidence or more self-esteem or telling me that nothing was wrong with me.
MTV News: And then you found theater.
Weed: I got serious about performing, and I got serious about acting. It's very funny; singing has always been a very separate thing for me, until I went to college. I just studied musical theater because I was like, "That means I can study voice and acting in the same major and I won't have to double major." Now I do musicals for a living.
MTV News: But that was never the plan?
Weed: That was never the plan. It's still not the plan! But it's been a very fun sidetrack for awhile. A fun chapter.
MTV News: Do you want to pursue film and television?
Weed: I would love to do stuff on camera. That's what I want to do. It took me a really long time to feel confident as an actor. I think also because there's a weird stigma about musical theater where we treat the men who do musical theater differently than we treat the women in musical theater. It's very rare in my experience, from my perspective, that I have seen women who star in Broadway musicals to go on to do really phenomenal acting roles in film and television.
MTV News: In your freshman year of high school, you transferred to a private performing arts school. How did that change things for you?
Weed: That school for sure saved my life. It was the first time I had friends. It was the first time I was around people who wanted to be around me. It was the first time that I felt like people were taking the thing that was the most special to me as seriously as I'd always taken it.
MTV News: What was your first production when you were there?
Weed: I was in a children's musical. They would do children's theater for the community, which was cool. It's the most competitive place I've ever been. I had a hard time getting cast when I was in high school. We did a bunch of Chekhov plays. I think there was a Shakespeare play thrown in there. I did Urinetown my senior year. I was the mom in Bye Bye Birdie — the head of the theater department cast me in that role. I was like, "What?" And then I saw that part is so funny. Also, Bye Bye Birdie is such a good show. When it's done well, there's nothing funnier than that show. It's absurd.
MTV News: You tend to gravitate to characters who have a bit of weirdness to them. Is that important to you?
Weed: [Mean Girls] is the only thing I've ever done that's actually a real comedy, where we have to land jokes and you have to get the timing right. There are all these very mechanical things, and you have to get them right or the scene doesn't work. Or the scene falls apart. Or the joke that comes three scenes later won't land if you don't do this exactly right. So I'm so not used to comedy in that sense, but my life is just filled with the funniest people in the world. I firmly believe that all of my best friends are geniuses, and they're so funny and weird. That's how I live my life. So I think that comes through in the things I play because I don't really realize that that's awkward.
MTV News: So not only was Mean Girls your first real comedy but you're also workshopping these jokes in front of Tina Fey, who's a genius at what she does — and she created these characters.
Weed: It's cool to watch someone who means so much to so many people kind of live up to those standards and then some. She's also an incredible mom. She has two daughters and they are both so weird and wonderful, and she just doesn't ever try to reign that in for them. As far as having her around and the standards that she holds things to, she'll let people work on things, especially in this environment because when you're doing a theater show you have so much time to develop the characters and to work things out. Then at the very end, when she can tell that you're piecing things together, she'll be like, "Maybe just observe the comma there."
She is such a machine. It's the only time I've ever worked on something where if something is not working it's gone within the day. It's replaced. Usually you have to deal with these very fragile male writers who cannot handle their work being cut or altered.
MTV News: What's it like singing "I'd Rather Be Me" night after night? Because it's such a powerful, anthemic song for young women.
Weed: It's the first time I've ever sung a song where a character has something figured out that they didn't really have figured out, or that they didn't have confidence in at the beginning of the show. It's very stream of consciousness, the way that it's written. It's written so fast that it's almost a patter song, which is such a gift to me because I don't have time to think while I'm singing or talking or speak-singing, whatever I'm doing. There's only one pause toward the end of the song where Janis wakes up from talking and realizes that she's just been carried around and supported — physically and emotionally — by all of these girls who she didn't know she had anything in common with.
Our ensemble is filled with some of the greatest people I've ever met. They're so talented, but they're also just delightful and supportive, especially the women in this cast. To get to share that moment, where you look on both sides and there's just girls listening to you, and then to run around the circle and high five all my friends, it's the best. It's hard to articulate what that feels like, other than it just feels like a really proper delivery of a message that people need to hear.