Melissa Barrera on Getting Fired From ‘Scream’ and the Controversy That Followed

It was another high point in a career that was filling up with them. Melissa Barrera was in Dublin, finally back on set after a long actors strike and working on the horror feature Abigail, which reunited her with friends and frequent collaborators Radio Silence. The directing duo of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett brought Barrera to new levels of fame when they tapped her to lead the 2022 franchise reviver Scream, and she was looking forward to playing her role as Sam Carpenter for a third time down the road, with Freaky helmer Christopher Landon attached to direct. But then she got the call that would come to dominate the next few months of her life and make her the subject of intense scrutiny.

Spyglass, the production company behind Scream, was firing her from the franchise over social media posts she’d shared to Instagram Stories after Hamas’ Oct. 7 unprovoked attack in which 240 hostages were taken and 1,200 were killed, and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza, which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and a humanitarian crisis.

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One, posted just two weeks after the Hamas massacre, read, “Gaza is currently being treated like a concentration camp. Cornering everyone together, with no where to go, no electricity no water … THIS IS GENOCIDE & ETHNIC CLEANSING.” In another post, Barrera wrote that she was having trouble finding information supporting the Palestinian side and added what many perceived as a longtime antisemitic trope about Jewish control of the media, “Western media only shows the other side. Why they do that, I will let you deduce for yourself.”

Spyglass characterized her posts as antisemitic in a Nov. 21 statement announcing her firing. “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,” read the statement. The actress noted in her own statement the next day that she condemns “hate and prejudice of any kind” and aims to “lend my voice to those in need.” Barrera’s comment came as Israel was recovering from the deadliest one-day massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, and at a time when anti-Jewish incidents and assaults were sharply on the rise across the world. But in the months that followed, the actress has maintained that she does not see why her posts were controversial, instead saying they were aimed at supporting those suffering from war.

Her firing came during a particularly fraught time in Hollywood. Hours before Barrera’s exit was made public, UTA dropped Susan Sarandon after her controversial comments at a pro-Palestinian rally in New York, while a month earlier, Aaron Sorkin dropped CAA over an Instagram post shared by Maha Dakhil that referenced “genocide” on the part of Israel.

Reports at the time suggested that WME was also considering dropping Barrera over her stance, but the actress says she always felt supported by her reps. “It’s definitely hard, because I was just in such a cloudy state of mind, but I was very fortunate,” she says through tears as she recalls the turbulent moment. “I had a lot of support from the people around me: my team and specifically my publicists — they just carried me.”

Barrera is now preparing to release Abigail, her first studio movie since the firestorm. The actress was the first to be cast by Radio Silence in the upcoming film, later joined by Kathryn Newton, Dan Stevens and Giancarlo Esposito as a group of criminals who kidnap a tween ballerina and keep watch over her in a remote mansion, only to realize she’s not as docile as she seems. Those who stood by Barrera in the weeks after her firing say she has bounced back.

Melissa Barrera
Melissa Barrera

“Melissa is incredibly strong,” Scream and Abigail co-director Bettinelli-Olpin tells THR in his first public comments on the matter. “You see it in her performances. When you’re friends with her, you feel it in just being with her.” Still, it’s clear that the past several months have taken a toll. “None of this makes me happy,” Barrera says about the fallout. “It was just all sad because I really, deeply care about the franchise. It’s just bad that it had to happen like that.”

It took Barrera quite some time to find her voice. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, the actress says she was a “cripplingly shy” child who, when she would pick up meals for her family, recorded audio of her mother giving her the fast food order and then played back the tape for the person working at the counter, all to avoid speaking in public.

Barrera was mostly focused on basketball until sixth grade, when she convinced teammates to audition for the school musical, where she belted out a stirring rendition of “Happy Birthday.” From there, she studied musical theater at NYU, but returned to Mexico in 2011 after her sophomore year to join the cast of Mexican singing competition series La Academia, where she would meet fellow performer Xavier Zazueta, whom she wed in 2019. Roles in telenovelas followed before Barrera moved back to the States to star in Starz’s coming-of-age series Vida, which ran for two seasons.

Among the major film roles to quickly follow was the part of Vanessa opposite Anthony Ramos in Warner Bros.’ In the Heights, the adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical. Delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jon M. Chu’s film following a bodega owner in New York’s Washington Heights was released in theaters and on HBO Max in June 2021 and underperformed at the box office. The movie also spurred discussion about colorism over a perceived lack of Afro-Latino performers, given the neighborhood’s demographics.

“My problem was with the press that came out that just felt mean-spirited toward the film. That was my first big studio movie, and everybody was telling us, ‘Your life is going to change.’ Then it doesn’t happen, so it was very heartbreaking and soul-crushing,” says Barrera, who declined to specifically address the colorism debate. “But I’m grateful for how it happened. It taught me a lot about the industry, about myself, about expectations, about not letting the noise outside put a stain on my experience.”

Barrera (second from right) filmed Abigail largely in a Dublin residence, with Angus Cloud (far left), who died in July, as well as Kathryn Newton, Alisha Weir, Kevin Durand and William Catlett.
Barrera (second from right) filmed Abigail largely in a Dublin residence, with Angus Cloud (far left), who died in July, as well as Kathryn Newton, Alisha Weir, Kevin Durand and William Catlett.

Miranda remains impressed by his star’s dedication to her craft. “Her fearlessness and her commitment to finding the truth in a given scene is second to none. And her commitment to increasing Latina representation in Hollywood is helping to propel this industry forward,” he writes in an email.

After 2023’s Scream VI, she appeared opposite Paul Mescal in the Mexico border drama Carmen, which failed to make a splash. But according to Barrera, one of many positive takeaways from the film was that Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer turned director, also now ex-husband of Natalie Portman, took a pay cut so that part of his salary could go to his lead actress. “It’s a constant fight,” Barrera says about pay equity in the industry. “But that’s the kind of solidarity that we need.”

Barrera isn’t the only Scream actress to have been vocal about dealing with salary disparity. Not long after the fifth Scream movie debuted, franchise mainstay Neve Campbell announced she would not appear in the sixth film because of pay equity issues. So it came as a shock when Campbell announced in early March that she would return for Scream VII. The move put the project back on track after months on life support following Barrera’s firing and the subsequent exit of director Landon, as well as the quiet departure of Jenna Ortega in the spring of last year. Barrera’s supporters on social media saw Campbell’s return as a betrayal. (Campbell’s reps did not respond to a request for comment.)

Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega in Scream VI
Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega in Scream VI

When asked if she and Campbell had spoken about her return, Barrera pauses before declining to answer. But she is effusive about her friendships with other former Scream cohorts, citing Jasmin Savoy Brown, Liana Liberato and Jack Quaid as those with whom she has recently connected. “We’ll plan little reunions to play board games because that’s what we used to do when we were shooting,” she says.

Barrera also makes it clear that she appreciates Ortega, noting of their respective exits: “We chatted for a while, and I love her so much. She’s been very supportive of me, and we’re sisters for life.”

Months after her firing, the ongoing conflict in Gaza remains a divisive topic in Hollywood. During his Oscar acceptance speech for best international feature for the Holocaust movie The Zone of Interest, director Jonathan Glazer described himself and his team as “men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.” An open letter condemning the speech was signed by more than 1,000 Jewish people working in Hollywood, including Spyglass co-founder Gary Barber. Barrera demonstrated her support for Glazer by sharing a Vox story calling out media outlets for misinterpreting the Oscar speech.

Several agents and managers THR spoke to believe that Barrera hurt some of her projects by speaking out in support of Palestine. But they say it was a not a permanent strike against her, given that public sentiment has shifted somewhat as details about the humanitarian crisis emerge. “Before it was, ‘How dare you,’ but now her comments are being seen more positively,” says one top dealmaker.

Brendan Gall, co-creator of the 2022 Netflix series Keep Breathing that starred Barrera as the lone survivor of a plane crash, tells THR about her Scream firing, “It broke my heart, just knowing the kind of human being Melissa is. She comes from a place of caring and deep empathy, and that’s what she was trying to express.”

Some stars have been outspoken on Gaza without as much blowback, such as Mark Ruffalo, who also has supported Glazer’s speech and applauded him at the Oscars. Barrera says she thinks women of color are granted less freedom to express themselves. “It’s very evident that that’s the case,” she says. “All I can say is that it is very important for me to raise my voice for those who don’t have one. It seems weird to have a platform and not use it for that.” Despite reports that she was given a warning from Spyglass to tone down her posts before being let go, Barrera refutes this and emphasizes, “Not at all.”

Radio Silence had intended to revive the Scream franchise with a trilogy focused on Barrera and Ortega’s characters, and believed Abigail could work before a seventh installment, but according to the pair, Spyglass hoped to get the ball rolling sooner than their schedules allowed. “We got exited,” Gillett says, which Bettinelli-Olpin then repeats verbatim with a laugh. Bettinelli-Olpin adds, “We’ll be sad that there’s not going to be an end to the Sam Carpenter story, but in our minds, we designed Scream VI so that the story feels complete.” Regarding Landon walking away, Bettinelli-Olpin shares that he and Gillett “reached out to Chris and just commiserated a little bit.” Barrera herself says about Landon’s departure, “I actually don’t know what happened. He was very excited about it, and he had great ideas for it, so it makes me sad.”

Since her Scream ordeal, she makes a point of supporting others who face backlash for being vocal online: “Now when I see someone going through something like that, I’m constantly checking in, because I know what it feels like.” This has included sending a message to Ava DuVernay to commend her 2023 drama Origin, which spurred debate over its lack of awards attention. “What you’re doing is what we should all be doing,” Barrera wrote to the filmmaker.

With husband Xavier Zazueta at the 2022 Latin Grammys.
With husband Xavier Zazueta at the 2022 Latin Grammys.

While she doesn’t rule out a potential return to Scream, Barrera is realistic about the odds. “I’ve learned to never say never, but also a lot of things would have to happen for Sam to come back,” she says. “For now, next page, next chapter, and then we’ll see what the future holds.”

The next chapter already has bright spots. After five years of marriage, Zazueta — who had resided in Mexico to help with his family’s butcher shop — joined Barrera permanently in Austin and plans to grow the business in the U.S. Barrera is also anxious for audiences to see her return to the horror genre with Abigail after a shoot filled with bonding moments, such as weekend dinners with the cast and day trips to the Irish coast. “Matt and Tyler make it a point for us to become a family,” says Barrera of the on-set camaraderie that was particularly welcome given the circumstances.

“It takes a long time for things to change, and there’s resistance, but I definitely see a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “Our art always has to be a reflection of the world, and what is the state of the world currently? It’s not great. So how do we make it better?”

Borys Kit contributed to this story.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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