“Does every generation feel like they’re coming of age at the end of the world?” asks Rhianne Barreto, after settling into a corner booth in a café near New York’s Central Park. We’re talking about some of the more xenophobic policies coming out of the Trump White House, and the 21-year-old British actress’s firsthand experience with them. During the Muslim ban, Barreto (whose father is Iraqi) was heading to New York to film her debut movie, Share (available now on HBO). “The embassy officials were like, ‘Where are you from? You don’t look British. Do you speak Arabic?’ ” she remembers. “It was so bad, so racist.”
Barreto had a slew of powerhouse advocates on her side, like Share’s director, Pippa Bianco, and its production company, A24. Even Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand wrote in to show support. Still, her visa was denied five times. With no workaround, Bianco had to let go of her New York crew and move the entire production to Toronto.
In the film, Barreto plays Mandy, an American teenager who wakes up after a night of blackout drinking to learn that a video of herself in a compromising position has been circulating among her classmates. She doesn’t know what happened, and the video’s bystanders— her male friends—provide few answers. It’s a sobering, emotional gut punch, with a remarkable amount of screen time devoted to Barreto’s subtle facial expressions. “It fucks with my mind to watch that video,” she says. “My brain doesn’t know I’m acting, and I’m in a very vulnerable state.” After the film’s premiere at Sundance, Barreto was awarded one of the festival’s top two acting prizes.
She credits her theatrical inclinations to her West London upbringing in a family of nine siblings, where speaking up was the only way to be heard. “It was a madhouse, honestly insane.” She landed the part of Mandy after graduating from the BRIT School, a highly selective performing arts academy whose alumni include Amy Winehouse and Tom Holland, and prepared for the role by listening to American murder podcasts (to learn the accent) and playing basketball (her character is a jock).
One day, while doing both simultaneously in an empty park, “this weird man was walking around in a circle,” she says. In her ear, the podcast narrator said, “And then, he cut off her nipples….” She laughs. “I was like, I need to get out of this park!”
Top look: Blazer, Trousers, both Gabriela Hearst. Hoop Earrings, Lana Jewelry. Photographed by Kathryn Wirsing. Styled by Tiffany Reid. Hair by Peter Butler at Tracey Mattingly. Makeup by Kathy Jeung at Forward Artists.
This article appears in the August 2019 issue of ELLE on newsstands now.
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Bri Kovan Brianna Kovan is an Associate Editor at ELLE, where she covers books, politics, and feminist movers and shakers.