Barrett Wilbert Weed, who is currently belting out “I’d Rather Be Me” eight shows a week as Janis Sarkisian in Broadway smash “Mean Girls,” lovingly adapted from Tina Fey’s hit comedy that introduced the world to “fetch” and “grool,” is no stranger to the theater scene.
After attending a self-described arts version of “Hogwarts” and performing in productions like “Rent” while studying at Elon University, Weed went on to originate heroic roles like Veronica Sawyer in the Off-Broadway run of “Heathers: The Musical” and now planning “revenge parties” as Janis at the August Wilson Theatre. You might have seen her recently singing on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” garnering a standing ovation by the end of the number.
On her day off, Weed, a Helen Hayes Award winner, talked with Variety about her pride in delivering such an empowering message every night, her dream of playing Elphaba in “Wicked,” and her ease in tapping into young adult characters.
Did you go to any shows as a kid? Or have any roles you really wanted to play?
Not really. I didn’t really see myself represented. There have only been a few actresses over any of the acting mediums where I’ve thought: “Oh, she’s kind of like me.” I remember when I saw the movie of “Cabaret” I was amazed by Liza Minnelli, like: “Wow, that kind of looks like someone I could be similar to.”
Speaking of Liza Minnelli, you played Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” What was that like?
I say all the time that’s my most favorite job I’ve ever had. I was unemployed, and I was in LA at my friend’s house when I got a call from my agents. I think the Sally role is one of the best, most expansive roles written for a woman and it was so before its time. It’s so fun to play a person who’s like 10 different people. She doesn’t even know who she is. She just knows that there’s a lot in her that needs to get out. She just knows that there’s a lot in her that needs to get out.
How did you come to originate the role of Veronica Sawyer in “Heathers: The Musical?”
I was living with my friend Jared Loftin, who’s still one of my best friends. He asked me if I’d ever watched “Heathers.” I hadn’t, so we just sat down and watched the movie. And I thought: “This is the best, weirdest thing I’ve seen in a long time.” And Jared said: “I think they’re making this into a musical.” And I was like: “What? I’m doing that.” So, he told my reps about it. And I said: “I don’t care if this is happening in a garage. I want to be part of that.” Then the breakdowns came out and I got my appointment. I had to make like 1,000 self-tapes because they were casting out of LA and the only in-person audition I ever had for that show was with [composer/lyricist/librettist] Larry O’Keefe for maybe two minutes. They were running really behind. It was this show that nobody really wanted to do. We weren’t really paid for anything and you had to relocate yourself. But I was like: “I get that everybody wants to be paid. But I’m 24 and I don’t have any credits, so I’m just gonna do this and make something out of it.”
It feels like “Heathers” and “Mean Girls” are cut from the same cloth in terms of being satirical and set around young adults in high school trying to topple the “apex predators,” if you will. You’ve often inhabited the world of high school characters not just in these two shows, but also in “Bare” and then college-age in “Lysistrata Jones.” What about portraying the young adult experience resonates with you?
I think when you’re an actor, it kind of enables you to fully inhabit all of the youngest parts of yourself. Because no one’s really expecting you to grow up in that traditional way. So, I think it’s an easily accessible time in my life. I also think I went through so much–I’m hesitant to use the word “trauma” because there are people out there who have gone through, you know, real trauma. But my experience growing up really stuck with me and continues to stick with me just because it was an incredibly tumultuous time. And then it turned into an incredibly awesome time once I finally found my arts high school. Then, it felt like: “Okay, here are all the people that I’ve been looking for for a long time. And here are all the teachers I’ve been looking for. And here’s this sense of independence because we were all living at school.”
It was a boarding school?
Yeah, it was Walnut Hills School for the Arts. It’s a boarding school where you have a major and it’s very, very structured and very serious. It’s a lot like Hogwarts. That’s really the only thing I’ve ever found to compare it to. The level of intensity and drama and passion that exists at that school is truly unparalleled. My father passed away when I was pretty young. I was 7-years-old, and I think when that happens, there are a variety of ways that a young person can react to that loss. I think for me, it kind of put me in a perpetual state of feeling like something is wrong with me and like I didn’t belong or everybody else had things that I didn’t have. I think that’s a very easy feeling for me to access as an actor. That’s not how I feel in my adult life. I’ve taken care of my brain and my heart and I have a very dedicated therapist who is wonderful. I don’t mind talking about it because I think we should all be in therapy. We all deserve that kind of support. But I do think it’s really important to have an adult perspective when you’re playing high school characters.
That adult perspective is particularly helpful for a song like “I’d Rather Be Me.”
I think my life would have been so much easier if I’d had a friend like Janis or had been able to be a little more Janis-esque. Because it’s really hard to put your own emotional well-being and your own heart above friendships. I still feel that. As an adult, you want to connect with people and you want to feel accepted. And you have to check yourself and be like: “Okay, but is this person actually giving me anything back or are they for whatever reason and whatever they’re going through just not investing in me as a person?” That’s a really valuable thing, especially for girls to just even be introduced to the concept that it’s so much more important to find happiness and peace in yourself than to try to find it from the validation you may or may not receive from the world around you. Being your own best friend was a new thought process for me as little as five years ago. That’s a really important message to give to people, and I’m so glad that I get to deliver that message. It’s really cool when I get letters because I get letters from a lot of kids.
After you performed on “Jimmy Fallon,” did you get even more letters since it was such a wide audience of people that got to hear you sing the song?
I didn’t realize that every single person that I ever met in my entire life watches that show. Four of my friends got to come to the taping, which was the best thing ever. There’s really not time to enjoy it until right at the end as you’re like: “Okay, I didn’t fall down on national television. I did okay.” But when your friends are there you get to enjoy it and experience it through them. But I didn’t understand how big of a deal that was going to be. I’m super grateful. That’s why I get to wear some cool clothes now–because I have Instagram followers.
Especially your wardrobe as Janis.
It’s insane. The first fitting I ever had for that show, I was like: “Are you guys serious? These are the best costumes I’ve ever had.” And I was also very prepared to have a really gross wig. When Lizzy Caplan [who played Janis in the movie] came to see the show, we were talking about it. She was like: “How did you get such good hair? I’m way jealous.” I was like: “I was prepared. I was ready to have an exact replica of your hair in the movie.” And I did not. It’s really nice that they allowed Janis to be incredibly stylish definitely in an off-kilter kind of way. I’m so glad that she looks good and clearly likes how she looks. Because being “pretty” or “attractive” or whatever, it doesn’t guarantee happiness at all.
As you said, you want to look at more adult roles and you performed on TV for the first time on “Fallon.” Would you want to do something outside of theater like film, TV, or maybe even a movie musical in the future?
Yeah, if the people who are in charge of the “Wicked” movie–looking at you, Marc Platt–would want to cast me as Elphaba, I would obviously give all of my internal organs to do that.
To fly in the air and sing “Defying Gravity.”
Oh, my God, yeah. Elphaba is really a role, whether in theater or in the movie, that I’m dying to do. It’s such an awesome part. I think anywhere where there’s a role for a female hero to play, that’s what I’m interested in. Because I’ve often been asked: “What do all these roles have in common? What are the roles that you’re interested in playing?” And I want to play heroes. I think that’s what we need to see from women. I would enjoy playing villains, too, but I don’t think we need to see more female villains right now. I think we need to see more female heroes because they exist all the time every day in my life, and I think it would be fun to keep seeing more and more of them. I also think playing a straight-up Marvel superhero would be so awesome.
Someone like Jessica Jones, perhaps?
Oh yeah, I would die to be on that show. It’s so awesome. That show and “The Handmaid’s Tale” and anything that Amy Sherman-Palladino writes. Any of that material that’s all led by women and is great to watch.
What are your plans for the Tonys on Sunday?
We have a dress rehearsal for the Tonys in the morning at Radio City. Then, we go home for two hours, come back to the theater, and do a matinee. After the matinee, we’ll find out what time we’re performing at the Tonys. And then we’re having a party across the street at our new favorite bar that just opened after we all get back from performing on the Tonys. I think we’ll watch for a little while and see if we win anything. Then, we’ll just eat, dance, and drink.
“Mean Girls” earned 12 Tony nominations this year and plays eight shows a week on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre.